Mobile Obligation

It seems apparent by now that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets will soon be people’s first choice for accessing the Internet and making use of an expanding array of communications services, interactive media, and software applications.  In response, an increasing number of higher education institutions have accepted a “mobile obligation” to augment a student’s curricular and co-curricular experience by literally meeting them where they are with the information and technology services most often used.  For example, according to results from the 2011 Campus Computing  Project 55.3% of public universities have activated mobile apps or will do so during the 2011-12 academic year (compared to 32.5% in 2010).  The question for the other 44.7% is… if not now when?

Some of the higher education institutions that have accepted their mobile obligation are developing and executing “mobile strategies”.  Some examples include:

Online Convenience

EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger’s foreword to the 2011 ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology surmised that “…convenience drives student technology use and perceptions”.  Allowing students to retrieve information, receive communications and securely complete transactions online from a smartphone or tablet all provide added convenience.  Examples of these things may include:

  • Communication:  e-mail and text messaging (including emergency notifications)
  • Public Information:  maps, news, events, athletics, transit, dining, directory, and course catalog
  • Personalized Information: account information, course schedules, advisor listings and grades
  • Secure Transactions: registering for courses and making online payments

Most mobile applications seem to be limited to repackaging what is already otherwise available from a laptop or desktop computer connected to the Internet.  However, there do not appear to be many mobile applications deployed by higher education institutions that provide personalized information or transaction processing that require authentication and secure transmission of protected information.  As more of these applications eventually get deployed maybe they end up providing what is currently available from web portal applications too.

Pedagogical Experimentation

Higher Education Institutions are exploring pedagogical applications of mobile computing as well by experimenting through pilot projects, as well as trial and error on a small scale, in order to test innovative ideas and gain insights that can be used to inform prospective adoption and support on a larger scale.  Some well publicized examples include:

  • The Seton Hill University Griffin Technology Advantage – “the creation of a teaching and learning environment that would go beyond the confines of the traditional classroom in time and space; widespread use of mobile technology for instantaneous access to information; deepening of critical and creative thinking through interactive teaching strategies; increased student engagement in learning; and decreased costs for students through the use of e-texts.”
  • The Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) – “a multi-year program of experimentation, development and implementation of new and emerging technologies to explore their use in support of the university’s mission.”
  • The Abilene Christian University ACU Connected Initiative – “studies how mobile technologies can be used to enhance learning”.

The 2011 Horizon Report also provides interesting examples of “relevance for teaching, research or creative inquiry” and “a sampling of applications of mobiles across disciplines”.

These pedagogical experiments and forays into the provision of more online conveniences (among others) illuminate the interwoven complexities introduced by using mobile computing to do things in new ways which in turn impact everything from technology and support infrastructure to faculty development programs.

So the multi-part question is what mobile computing platform(s) should the institution support use of, to what extent, for what purpose, and at what cost?  The answers to these questions will vary widely from one institution to another but the following considerations are common to all:

  1. What are the unique educational affordances and added conveniences that have specific application for potential use within the context of learning environments and provision of online services?
  2. What is the current level of interest among faculty to make use of the unique educational affordances that mobile technologies might offer within the context of courses they teach or the research they conduct?
  3. What are the prioritized preferences among students for co-curricular mobile applications they want the institution to provide?
  4. What is the current level of use of different mobile device types (equipped with internet access) among students, faculty, and staff along with the most prevalently used software and services accessed from these devices?
  5. What sort of methods will be employed for device management (where needed)?:
    • Determining what devices and software should be provisioned by the institution and how, who they will be provided to, and under what conditions
    • Procurement of hardware, software and 3G/4G network services
    • Tracking inventory and compliance with software licensing agreements
    • Managing machine images, patches, software upgrades and configuration settings
    • Ensuring information security and privacy management
  6. The impact on and required changes to the technological infrastructure (e.g. campus network, websites, course management systems, identity management, system interfaces etc.)
  7. The impact on and required changes to the support infrastructure (e.g. tech support, skills necessary to develop applications, integration with “back-end” information systems, etc.)
  8. The extent to which the institution is willing and able to license and/or develop new applications specifically for particular mobile platforms, versus expanding the institution’s mobile web presence
  9. All one-time and recurring costs for the above

In the end, an institution’s response to its mobile obligation should be in proportion to the demand for additional online conveniences, pedagogical experimentation and capacity to adapt technology infrastructure, support services and faculty development programs.

u-Learning

Technology enhanced learning environments aren’t ubiquitous yet.  Not in a literal sense anyway.  However, pervasive access to networked information within overlapping spheres of educational context from a diverse range of human-computer interaction is creating a habitat for more ubiquitous learning environments.  That’s at least one conclusion that could be drawn from the 2011 Horizon Report.

The annual Horizon Report is collaboration between the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) and the New Media Consortium.  Each year, the Horizon Report is published based on research used to identify and describe six emerging technologies with considerable potential to both enter mainstream use and have a significant impact on higher education within one to five years.  The full report can be downloaded from here.

The following key trends, critical challenges and technologies to watch are taken directly from the executive summary:

Key Trends

  • The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing.
  • People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want.
  •  The world of work is increasingly collaborative, giving rise to reflection about the way student projects are structured.
  •  The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based, and our notions of IT support are decentralized.

Critical Challenges

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  •  Appropriate metrics of evaluation lag behind the emergence of new scholarly forms of authoring, publishing, and researching.
  •  Economic pressures and new models of education are presenting unprecedented competition to traditional models of the university.
  • Keeping pace with the rapid proliferation of information, software tools, and devices is challenging for students and teachers alike.

Technologies to Watch

Electronic books continue to generate strong interest in the consumer sector and are increasingly available on campuses as well.  Modern electronic readers support note-taking and research activities, and are beginning to augment these basic functions with new capabilities — from immersive experiences to support for social interaction — that are changing our perception of what it means to read.

Mobiles enable ubiquitous access to information, social networks, tools for learning and productivity, and much more.  Mobile devices continue to evolve, but it is the increased access to affordable and reliable networks that is driving this technology now.  Mobiles are capable computing devices in their own right — and they are increasingly a user’s first choice for Internet access.

Augmented reality refers to the layering of information over a view or representation of the normal world, offering users the ability to access place-based information in ways that are compellingly intuitive.  Augmented reality brings a significant potential to supplement information delivered via computers, mobile devices, video, and even the printed book.  Much simpler to create and use now than in the past, augmented reality feels at once fresh and new, yet an easy extension of existing expectations and practices.

Game-based learning has grown in recent years as research continues to demonstrate its effectiveness for learning for students of all ages.  Games for education span the range from single-player or small-group card and board games all the way to massively multiplayer online games and alternate reality games.  Those at the first end of the spectrum are easy to integrate with coursework, and in many institutions they are already an option; but the greatest potential of games for learning lies in their ability to foster collaboration, problem-solving, and procedural thinking.  

Gesture-based computing moves the control of computers from a mouse and keyboard to the motions of the body via new input devices.  Depicted in science fiction movies for years, gesture-based computing is now more grounded in reality thanks to the recent arrival of interface technologies such as Kinect, SixthSense, and Tamper, which make interactions with computational devices far more intuitive and embodied.

Learning analytics loosely joins a variety of data-gathering tools and analytic techniques to study student engagement, performance, and progress in practice, with the goal of using what is learned to revise curricula, teaching, and assessment in real time.  Building on the kinds of information generated by Google Analytics and other similar tools, learning analytics aims to mobilize the power of data-mining tools in the service of learning, and embracing the complexity, diversity, and abundance of information that dynamic learning environments can generate.

I read the 2011 Horizon Report while on vacation at a Disney resort in Florida.  It provided an appropriate backdrop in many ways.  The Disney theme parks employ a variety of computational devices and information systems simultaneously in order to provide distinct entertainment venues.  Sometimes patrons may not necessarily even be aware that they are doing so.  At other times the interaction with the technology is the entertainment.  Some of the experiences offered by Disney are also meant to both educate and entertain (a.k.a. “edutainment”). 

There’s another interesting concept referred to as “u-Learning” or ubiquitous learning.  But what does a u-Learning environment consist of?  How does it differ from “edutainment”? 

The College of Education  Ubiquitous Learning Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one organization that is focused on exploring the concept of u-Learning.  Dr. Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University, gave a presentation titled “The Evolution of Ubiquitous Learning: Semi-Smart Objects, Intelligent Contexts, and Cyberinfrastructure” at the Ubiquitous Learning Institute launch on April 7, 2010 which provides some interesting insights and visionary possibilities.  A 48 minute video of Dr. Dede’s presentation can be viewed here.   

But we’re still left with the question posed by Dr. Dede, “What would an expert model of ubiquitous learning look like if we saw one?”