Is Mobile Learning a Thing?

I find myself using the phrase “mobile learning” a lot lately. I use it in conversations about how tablets and smartphones can serve as platforms to get more digital content into the classroom and foster greater collaboration between students and teachers.

Here’s the problem: I’m not sure if “mobile learning” is really a thing all its own. I know what learning is. I know what mobile devices are. I’m not really sure that you get something discrete, specific and concrete when you put the two things together.

And that’s the trouble with language. When we try new things, we need to find language to describe what we are doing and define the goals we are working toward. And so we find ad hoc, pastiche terminology that evokes the sense of thing we want to help make happen.

And yet, when pushed, we must admit the poverty of this language. Mobile learning isn’t strictly about the mobility of the student, though mobile technology certainly facilities easier, more flexible opportunities for learning on-the-go. Mobile learning isn’t really about the devices, though the devices certainly enable opportunities for hands-on, context-based, personalized learning.

Personalized learning is a good term, but radical personalization isn’t really the goal. There is a core lesson to be learned and a constructed path designed to help groups of learners through.

Collaborative learning is another good term, but it fails to capture what’s novel about digital technologies in the classroom. Deep learning is almost always collaborative in some way. It requires that the student and the teacher meet in agreement in some shared mental space. The collaborative aspects of active learning-based projects are also not new, though the scope and scale of student ability to create, curate and share their own work seems unprecedented.

I like the term ubiquitous learning a lot. I would, of course, given my fondness for the word. I like ubiquitous learning because it gets to the idea that deep learning connects what happens during the few hours spent inside the classroom with everything that happens to students in the many more hours spent outside the classroom. Learning only happens when it is everywhere and connected to everything. But the term, I’m afraid, is a loser. Ubiquitous is a jawbreaker. Oh, and pretentious. Did I mention the word “ubiquitous” is also pretentious?

So, I’m on the search for a useful term for what happens when mobile technologies are brought with right intention to help foster deeper, more personal, creative, collaborative learning experiences.

Please send help. What do we call this thing?

Assessing iPad Ed

My college is buying iPads for faculty to use in the classroom. We aren’t the first college to do this. We won’t be the last. Our goal is to help faculty explore tools and techniques to connect students more powerfully with their own learning. We call this connection engagement.

iPads aren’t magic. They can’t make unprepared or disinterested students learn. They can, however, offer a toolkit for teachers to design learning experiences that are more personalized, tangible, contextual, and collaborative.

We now have tools to dispel the false belief that learning happens only in the classroom. Most learning happens outside the classroom. Nothing new. That’s how learning happens. Great teachers are able to connect what happens during a student’s few hours inside the classroom with what happens to that student in the many more hours spent outside the classroom. Mobile technologies, particularly tablets, appear to be good tools for making abstract concepts more tactile and, thus, more easily incorporated into a student’s experience of everyday life.

We are at the beginning of our Mobile Engage campaign. A lot of faculty are about to receive and use an iPad for the first time. There will be a lot excitement about the device and learning how it works. There will be a lot of interest in apps — finding apps, getting apps, and using apps. There will be a lot of fun conversations and sharing new discoveries.

I hope there is also a great conversation about assessment. Our faculty are going to try a lot of new ideas in their classrooms. Some of these ideas are going to work brilliantly. Some ideas are going to fail. How will we help each other figure out what works and recognize what doesn’t? How will we celebrate our successes while also making ourselves comfortable with sharing our failures? The ability to share failures quickly is going to make everyone stronger faster.

There will be lots of ideas on how to recognize and track the success of our Mobile Engage campaign. Like everything else, our ability to assess will improve with our experience.

I am excited about what’s happening at my college and am glad I can be a part of supporting faculty as they try new things. We are about to issue a lot of new iPads. For me, success won’t be measured by how many new iPads we deliver. For me, success will be counted in how many new conversations I have with faculty that begin “How can I..”or “What would happen if…”

Open Education is about Student Control

Lately, when people talk about “open education” they seem to be thinking mostly about the ease with which students enter an online course. MOOCs are generally free and easy to join. In this sense, they are certainly open and this kind of openness can be an important way to allow access to education opportunities to people who don’t have money or live in place without a strong educational infrastructure.

Open can also refer to the ease with which a student can interact with the course learning environment in order to carry resources in and out. The ability to access learning resources outside of the course management system is a pretty big deal.

I spend a lot of time researching and supporting the development of online learning at my college. Recently, I have been coming to this work as a student. One of the things I admire about Chuck Severance’s Internet History, Security and History MOOC is the ease with which I can download videos, export calendars to my mobile device and track conversations in Twitter.

Every video lecture resides within the course management system but is also published on YouTube and available for easy MP4 download for offline viewing. This is a strong consideration for users who may not be able to watch the lecture videos while online. The user has the option of where and how they want to engage with the lecture portion of the class. I must admit the download option worked great for my laptop but I haven’t taken the time to shift them to my iPad for viewing. The in-course streaming hasn’t been seemless due to inordinate buffering. YouTube viewing has been my favorite option. It works well.

I understand that the native Coursera-hosted video version has additional content like embedded, interactive quizzes. I haven’t seen those yet so I will reserve judgement as to whether the trade is worthwhile. The point is I have several options and can choose the one that best suits my need.

I also like being able to export the course calender into a Google calendar which I can then carry on my mobile device. There is also an iCal option for Mac users to synchronize with their device calendars. This isn’t a huge deal for this course since the calendar is pretty spare right now, but if I were a student managing several courses, I would definitely want to carry everything with me in one place.

A few days ago I wrote about my first experience with the MOOC discussion boards. The introduction board was the heaviest use since most students are posting to that board. The other boards have less traffic and, so far, are easier to monitor. That said, class conversation isn’t limited only to native discussion boards. The class chat also happens across Twitter, Facebook and GooglePlus. Given the scale, the class conversation can spread across three social platforms without much trouble. Twitter is the highest use channel and the only one I really watch at all. Again, I have choices.

This brings me to my main realization. The current course management system (CMS) at my college is designed as an environment where students visit to discover, access and use course materials, lectures and supplementary learning resources. Students who want to send a message login to the CMS. Students who want to check their class schedule login to the CMS. Students who want to watch lecture or do class readings or make notes login into the CMS. Everything is contained in the CMS and nothing really comes out. The student goes there for everything.

I know part of this is instructional design, but the default condition is to use the CMS as a destination and/or storehouse. Instructors who want their students to take resources outside of the classroom figure out hacks.

I know really good students who use this system. They sometimes carry resources, schedules and materials out in Google docs to ensure that they can access and organize those resources in the way they want, when they want without having to be online and at a computer screen. There has to be a better way.

Mobile-friendly learning design is no longer optional for online learning.

A Quick Lesson in Web-Scale Education: Email Notifications

Second full day of my participation in Dr. Chuck’s Internet History, Security, and Technology. Note to self: the M in MOOC really does stand for massive, as in super freaking huge enrollment.

As with most online courses, the first activity is a short discussion board post about yourself and your interests, experiences or expectations for learning the course material. As usual, I posted my response and set my account to receive updates via email for additional posts to that thread. Emails spilled into my inbox all night, all morning and all day long. My most recent inbox purge found 225 unread emails. There were many more before that count and many more to come, I’m sure. I quickly unsubscribed.

Discussion boards usually have a daily digest option. I can’t find a digest setting so I just unsubscribed. I’m not sure I would want to read that fifty screen digest anyway.

I will need to come back to this problem of discussion updates. I suspect there is a setting somewhere that I have missed.

For now, I feel very much like a student in a lecture hall with 10,000 other students. This time, instead of everyone quietly listening, everyone is talking and saying something interesting and everyone one of them is speaking directly to me.

I am sure there is a better way to navigate the conversation. There needs to be.

Stay tuned.

The Quixotic Search for Magic Bullets

I have been trying for days to distill my thoughts about changes in higher education into a single, coherent post. I haven’t gotten there yet. This is not that post.

What I want to say is this: when things get really confused, uncertain and fluxy, we often tend to protect ourselves with mental shortcuts in a effort to simplify. We call these shortcuts magic bullets. Resist this urge. Difficult problems are complex and deserve complex, nuanced solutions. Long-term, systemic problems are never solved overnight. Finding the quick fix cannot be the goal.

Lay off the search for magic bullets.

Magic bullets distract us.

Magic bullets drain resources.

Magic bullets confuse the very people who are busy trying to build the long overdue solutions.


The Crisis in Higher Ed

There is a crisis in American higher education. Surely you must  have heard about it. It is always in the news. It has something to do with tuition and textbook costs and tenured faculty and student learning assessments and competencies and marketable skills and jobs that don’t exist yet. Or it has to do with student engagement and persistence to completion. Except we aren’t exactly sure what completion means — is it a degree or a certificate or a credential of some kind? Perhaps a feeling of satisfaction or a job hire that suits a person’s skills and interests.

The fix is pretty easy. It involves just one thing. Our best people are working on deciding which one thing it is going to be. Perhaps mobile technology or accelerated courses or free textbooks or open courseware or MOOCs. Stay tuned.

I’m not usually snarky but my head is swimming lately with the sense of urgency that has seized the legislators and administrators standing outside my profession. We are moving at light speed to innovate but can’t easily define our goals. We are eager to demonstrate agility and a willingness to make tough choices but we can’t articulate the nature of those choices and why we have to choose so quickly.

I am not being retrograde. I know the world has changed and we all need to adapt. The internet has matured, and things are possible now that were not possible just a few years ago. We can build administrative processes at web scale. We can design learning systems that capture real-time data about how students learn and then return that data directly to students in real-time to improve their own understanding about their own learning. We can mitigate distance with cheap or free web conferencing tools. We have developed flipped pedagogies and hybrid course delivery modes to blend synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.

I want to adapt. I want to help improve things. I want to help figure out how to use these great new tools we have so that students can learn better, faster and more deeply than ever before. I want to help build an education system that recognizes the strengths of individual students and can offer personalized learning at the point of need so that we can prevent the waste of potential talent that, today, many accept as inevitable.

I want to help people discover what they are passionate about learning and then wrap skills and resources around that passion to create opportunities for genius.

Before I can do that, I need someone to tell me what we want the world to look like and what we need these students to be able to do. There are amazingly smart, compassionate, dedicated teachers and staff in our colleges and universities ready to do whatever it takes to get there. We just need someone to make it simple, make it clear. Give us a picture of the necessary future, give us the tools and permission to use those tools and then get out of the way.

Libraries are Relevance Machines

Note (11am on 23feb2013): I was frustrated with some of the ideas in this post and took another pass on this. See it here.


I had a fascinating conversation with my teacher friends today about what libraries are for. More specifically, we talked about what they need their library to do for them.

I have written about this before, but today’s conversation placed things in a new light for me. Not so long ago, libraries were places for information. Libraries collected the best information, kept it organized and ready for use when needed. This was the information warehouse model. Libraries collected the best books and housed them in buildings organized by myriad, fetishized principles that made information discovery a pretty efficient endeavor, once a person understood how the systems worked.

The Internet changed all that. We no longer expect to have go someplace to discover information. Information comes to us. Lots of information, in fact. Floods of information. So much information that our world is a noisy, busy, sometimes terrifying place. For the most part, we don’t have to dig too hard to find basic facts, get data or discover opinions.

We have a new problem. Since most information seems so easy to get, it is difficult to compare multiple pieces of information and assign meaning or value to it. Put another way, now that information is so easy to get, all information appears equal. It is far more challenging to discern which information is likely to be most useful or relevant to a particular need. It is more difficult to take that information and create useful knowledge.

Here’s the part where I tell you that I work and teach in a community college library and that this gives me permission to overgeneralize about “kids these days”. Here goes. College students are still smart, but they aren’t curious. Many don’t naturally invest themselves in their own learning. They expect learning to be something that is given to them by a teacher, probably through a series of lectures with accompanying Powerpoint lecture notes. They do not ask questions. They prepare themselves for the project, paper or exam without ever really wondering why they are doing this. Many of these students grew up believing that curiosity was bad because it interfered with the transfer of content required to get them ready for the next standardized assessment.

They don’t see connections, and they are not alone. Many of us are drowning in the information we encounter as random, unrelated factoids or tidbits. Watch a newscast sometime, and then ask yourself, “What am I supposed to understand from this about the world?”

We need to encourage students to be curious. We need to connect them to their own learning. It seems to me that the library is a place that can reward curiosity and foster connection. We can do this by showcasing connections between abstract concepts and everyday life. We can do this by curating collections of books, articles and video to tell a story. We can do this by focusing less on the mechanics of information discovery tools and focusing more on helping people identify and solve problems that matter to them.

Libraries should continue to collect resources, objects and artifacts that best address information needs. Libraries should continue to preserve the integrity of the scholarly and cultural conversations for the benefit of generations to come. We should do these things and do them well. But we should be always mindful that we do these things as a way to gather the tools to meet our true obligation. Our real work is rewarding curiosity and helping people create their own connections.

Why Mobile Matters: Take 2

The iPad is not a disruptive influence on our current system of education. The iPad is really only a symptom of the actual disruption, which happened several years ago while no one was paying attention. The Web matured, and that changed everything. The iPad and other touch screen tablets are more or less natural outcomes of a simple, powerful truth: information is no longer scarce.

I have been thinking a lot about mobile internet technologies, like tablets and smartphones, and imagining how they might best be used in our libraries, classrooms and personal lives to facilitate communication, idea sharing and learning.

I took a pass at a Mobile Learning manifesto several months ago (see Why Mobile Matters: Take 1). Here I go again.

I don’t necessarily believe or grasp everything I say here. I am testing ideas to see how they fit. Please improve these ideas with your comments.

Information is no longer scarce. Information is easy, sometimes almost effortless, to get. People don’t have to visit libraries to begin finding out things they are curious to learn. People don’t have to visit classrooms in order to hear lectures and be told things by content experts. People can Google, Wikipedia, and Bing. People can use Facebook and Twitter to crowd source answers to basic questions. You Tube and eHow offer a rich trove of “how to” videos on most any topic that are much more useful than any product manual.

More and more books (though certainly not all) are available either in part or in whole online through Google Books, Project Gutenberg and various eBook sellers. Many of the most useful of these books are not free and are not easy to get unless you buy them, but they are increasingly out there in some form or fashion.

People don’t read magazines and journals. They read collections of magazine and journal articles filtered, curated and reassembled into interest packets by RSS feeds, blog posts, Tweets and article aggregators.

We don’t go to information anymore. Information comes to us.

Information isn’t scarce but context and authority are. We are  buried alive by our personal media collections and information sources. We can instantly access terabytes of saved data, articles, opinions, document and other artifacts but often have difficulty seeing how these interrelate. We know everything yet understand nothing. Learning is the process of making sense out of nonsense (or not sense), like Rumpelstilskin spinning gold out of straw. Making sense from not sense is not an easy skill. It takes practice and patience. Making sense from not sense requires mindful attention and focus.

Information is common but context and authority are uncommon.  Just because information is easy to discover does not make it useful. Just because information is factual does not necessarily make it true. We need authorities to help establish facts we can trust and turn into knowledge. We need authorities who can help us see how ideas interrelate and how we can use information to create useful knowledge.

Okay, enough of that for now.

Here’s the short take:

We live in a world where information is easy to find. A person no longer needs to be an expert to find things out. The 19th century schoolhouse, or “factory”, model of teaching is over. We don’t always need to spend time sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture to find things out. We can now listen to the lecture on our own time, where we want and when we want through video, podcast or other Web-mediated information transfer. Sitting in a seat and receiving information is not always the best use of our time.

We do need the help of experts to teach us how to use this information, how to assimilate and make sense of the information we have found.

That’s why some teachers are experimenting with flipping their class — lecture at home and activity-based learning in the classroom.

People learn best by doing things. People learn by making things. People learn by synthesizing and connecting ideas. People learn by sharing ideas and having those ideas explored, critiqued and improved. People learn by exploring on their own and by exploring together.

Tablet computers can be useful in the classroom to help accelerate this process. iPads can let students search for relevant information and report. iPads can help students share their ideas easily and have those ideas critiqued and improved. iPads can help students offer feedback on how well they have understood key concepts and synthesized new ideas. iPads can help students gather textbooks, lectures, notes and other resources together in one place to be used and understood.

The iPad hasn’t changed the world. The world changed and made the iPad necessary.

Mobile learning is about student expectations

I love my wife. She makes me stop and think about why I am passionate about the things that matter to me. Tonight at dinner I was telling her about Friday’s mobile learning mini-conference at Roane State. She shrugged and asked, “Why should you want faculty to teach mobile-ly? Isn’t it hard enough to teach already?”

After talking to dozens of people about what mobile learning needs to be and reading hundreds of articles, this was a fascinating way to phrase the question.

Obviously, tablets and smartphones should make teaching more powerful, not more difficult. The technology we use should help solve teachers’ problems and make teaching easier. I get inspired by the potential for responsive touchscreen graphics and animations to help make abstract concepts real to students and offer teachers ways to connect classroom learning to out-of-the-class learning. If students are only thinking about the course material while sitting in a lecture hall chair, they are not really learning.

But there is an even more basic element: access to course materials. Mobile learning is about helping faculty appreciate the ways our students expect their course materials to be available. Students expect to be able to access their course materials wherever they are, whenever they want. Students expect to be able to work toward class assignment deadlines on their own schedule and to connect in some way to their professor in between classes. Students want to always know how they are doing in the class and want to create things that are both challenging and personally meaningful.

They want to connect with others. They want to share stories. They want to be engaged.

Mobile learning isn’t about iPads, Androids or Kindles. Mobile learning isn’t really about technology at all.

Mobile learning is understanding how students expect to access and use the learning resources available to them. Once we have done that, we can help students  expect much more of themselves. We can help them discover they are capable of being creative, interested and involved in their own learning.

Let’s stop talking about “mobilization” so we can start talking about mobile learning.

A minor epiphany while sitting in a meeting today. Educators are starting to throw the word “mobilization” around a lot. As in, we are going to “mobilize the college”, or “mobilize the classroom” or “mobilize higher ed”. The problem is nobody know what this means. It sounds very martial. Are we mobilizing now? Excellent. Shall I grab my boots? Will we be mobilizing long? Should I pack a lunch?

The trouble with the term “mobilization” is that it doesn’t convey anything. Mobilization is a process but does not say what is being mobilized and how and where and why. If mere mobilization is our goal, how will we recognize when we have done it? How will we know when to stop?

Much better, I think, for educators to talk about “mobile learning”. That’s learning on the go. That’s learning with mobile devices like smart phones, tablets and laptops. That’s ubiquitous, real life situation, student-centered learning. We can measure that. We can describe that. We can recognize when it has happened and, hopefully, we will know when to stop.