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Issue 16 May 2009   Monday, May 11, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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College strategies relating to learner-owned mobile devices
by Dave Pickersgill, Julie Byrne, Peter Harrison and Karen Sekula

Introduction
As reported by Steve Butler in his MoLeNET article, the Learning and Skills Council is investing more than £12 million in over sixty Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET) projects in 2007-2009.
 
In November 2008, the Sheffield College was successful in securing £300k in MoLeNET funding. The project is placing a wide range of mobile devices into the hands of teachers, technicians and learners across a wide range of curricula. This development is seen as part of a longer-term college-wide technology strategy which sees m-learning and e-learning converging.

Learners and Leanring


 Figure 1: Learners and learning

MoleNET, with its associated specific need for mobile, ‘always-on’ devices, has to become an integral part of the interlinked aspects of ‘Infrastructure,’ ‘Content and Services’ and ‘Organisational Structure and Development’ (see figure 1). This paper concentrates on the key issue of Infrastructure.
 
Dedicated technical assistance is currently in place for MoLeNET (a [temporary] Systems Engineer and a Technician). These posts have proved essential for the tagging, checking and deployment and maintenance of over 1000 resources which have been purchased by the project. It is felt to be essential that these posts (and others) continue after the conclusion of MoLeNET in order to ensure that future purchase and deployment can occur in a planned and coherent manner.
 
We aim to build communities of shared good m-learning practice across the college. This involves the use of a collaborative conferencing area available via the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment. It is envisaged that examples of good practice from throughout the college will be documented, thus providing a long-term resource which is available for all.
 
 
Technology
Reliable and fast connectivity is the key to successful m-learning. To ensure such access, connectivity will be available via both 3G and wi-fi, as appropriate. In addition, the College has a substantial hard-wire facility to which many devices will be able to connect. Hence, all mobile devices purchased must have connectivity built into the purchasing arrangements. Our initial contracts with O2 include a ‘two-year data’ payment, thus providing connectivity and sustainability until early 2011. All Internet enabled devices will be linked to the Sheffield College IT systems infrastructure, providing email access to our email system, Groupwise. Users will also be able to access the increasing amount of suitable infrastructure/software which is available on the publicly accessible websites, such as Google Applications and Gabcast.
 
Having been purchased using MoLeNET funding, hardware will be loaned to our learners. A wide variety of devices have been purchased, aiding the research aspects of the project (the appropriate device(s) required to achieve the aims of each mini-project). However, it is envisaged that learners will increasingly use personal devices for such learning, integrating them, as appropriate, into the college systems. The college will develop a strategic purpose of increasingly becoming a provider of onsite Internet connectivity, as well as a provider of ICT Systems.
 
Figure 2 illustrates the expected changes in ownership of web-enabled devices that are used by learners within the College over the next few years. In 2008/09, a learner using their own web-enabled device as part of their learning is the exception, the majority using facilities provided by the college. However, over the next few years, the number of learner-owned devices is expected to increase.
 
We anticipate that that:

  1. the number of (hard-wired) desktops will remain relatively constant;
  2. the numbers of other college owned Internet-enabled devices will increase in the near future (for example the MoLeNET project will bring in over 1000 new mobile devices);
  3. as more learners bring their own devices into college, the number of college owned mobile devices will level out and decrease;
  4. over a period of 5–10 years there will be an overall reduction in the numbers of college owned Internet-enabled devices;
  5. the college will move from a provider of systems to a provider of connectivity. The MoLeNET technical team is currently investigating the logistics and systems demands of such provision;
  6. despite an anticipated decrease in the number of college-owned devices, the demands on our IT Systems will increase as a greater variety of devices become utilised within the college.

Ownership of College Devices

Figure 2: Ownership of devices used in college for learning


The challenge is to develop and maintain a college IT infrastructure that interfaces well with learner-owned devices. Anticipated possible needs, might include:

  • ‘I want to print this assignment from my netbook via the college network
    (the need for providing secure interfaces between learner owned devices and the college's network);
  • ‘I want to use Moodle on my phone’
    (the need to have a very 'standards conformant regime' for the services the college runs, as the college does not control the users "desktop ")[1].

Within the college, ICT Systems continuously evolve and develop, with the aim of ensuring a high quality and reliable service. The infrastructure will develop a wider ecosystem of services and technologies: some proprietary and some Open Source. The best tool for the job is the prior procurement consideration.
 
Connectivity and control
 
These changes will result in a variety of modes of connectivity being used by learners and staff within the college. Such connectivity is likely to take three main modes:

  1. a college-owned fixed device – for example, a hard-wired desktop computer;
  2. a college-owned mobile device – for example, a smartphone or a wireless-enabled laptop;
  3. a learner-owned mobile device.


College intranet infrastructure


Figure 3: College Internet access infrastructure

Each mode of access to the Internet will provide the user with a different experience: ranging from no restrictions regarding access to a filtered Internet experience. If a variety of College owned and learner owned devices are in use in a single area, this could lead to issues.
 
The college needs to make a number of long-term key decisions regarding Internet access. For example:

  • Should we continue to use a web-filtering system?
  • How do we respond if a learner accesses ‘inappropriate’ sites on their own device from within the College environment?
These decisions have implications for protocols, values and education. Both our arrangements with JANET and our duty of care requirements for staff and students imply that we cannot provide unfiltered web access.
 
The college may need to reconsider its policies regarding IT systems. Currently there are separate ICT Facilities Access Regulations documents for staff and students. These need to develop, in tandem, with the expected changes in device ownership and increased expectation and use of the connectivity gateways provided by the college.
 
A version of this discussion document was presented to Sheffield College Directors in early March 2009. Directors endorsed the paper, welcoming the discussion and supporting the transition to the brave new world.
 
Dave Pickersgill, MoleNET Project Manager, the Sheffield College
Dave.Pickersgill@sheffcol.ac.uk 

Julie Byrne, Executive Director, Sheffield City College, the Sheffield College
Peter Harrison, Business Gateway, Sheffield City College, the Sheffield College
Karen Sekula, Curriculum Manager, Sheffield City College, the Sheffield College


[1] http://fm.schmoller.net/2007/06/test_the_mobile.html

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