Review of Traxler’s ‘Students and Mobile Devices’

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

I heard that the best ALT (Association of Learning Technology, UK) paper this year was Students and Mobile Devices: Choosing Which Dream by John Traxler so I thought I’d review it.

Generally, it was very interesting and gives a good overview of the implications mobile devices have for education. There were times when the words “mobile devices” could have been replaced with “Web 2.0” and there were points with which I disagree.

Here some of the key passages with my comments:

“Students no longer need to engage with information and discussion at the expense of real life but can do so as part of real life as they move about the world, using their own devices to connect them to people and ideas…”

That’s a great description, isn’t it. Even if you don’t agree with it, it’s great. When you read it, you need to think in terms of multimedia rather than text. However, for the connect part I don’t think we are there yet. Certainly, my iphone doesn’t connect well enough in enough places to be used in this way.

“Interacting with mobile technolgies is different and is woven into all the times and places of students’ lives. Mobile phones have created “simultaneity of place”: a physical space and a virtual space of conversational interaction, and an extension of physical space, through the creation and juxtaposition of a mobile social space.”

Thinking about it, maybe mobile devices more than Web 2.0 in general will have more success in challenging the domination of the didactic lecture. With mobile technologies woven in, education will have to accomodate them and their social nature will slowly creep into the teaching and learning.

“When we say we can ignore desktop technologies but not mobile technologies we mean that desktop technologies operate in their own little world, mobile technologies operate in the world.”

Again, this is catchy, but I think this goes too far. It’s not as if every office space with a computer exists in another world or is outside reality. Anyway, the point is well made that there is a here-and-now aspect to mobile technologies that can surely be utilised by education.
iphone
“With the possibility of perpetual contact, the mobile phone ends in fact by shaping time as a container of potentially continuing connection.”

With the always on connection and a myriad of methods to do so, the only constraints to staying in contact is the consent of the people involved. There are now no restrictions. It’s worth saying that this isn’t all about mobile technologies because once people reach home most switch to laptops/PCs. What this means for education is that it’s one of the more obvious challenges to the ridiculous notion that we learn in neat sessions according to a timetable Monday-Friday. This is part of the formal vs informal learning debate.

“Mobile devices are also eroding physical place as a predominant attribute of space. The phrase absent presence (Gergen, 1996) describes situations where groups of people physically together, co-located, are all connected elsewhere.”

This is challenging the physical buildings of our education institutions. Some good points in this issue have been made in the CreateDebate: UK Higher Education needs more radical change than a debate about who funds it. It’s worth noting that it’s wrong to attribute all these notions to mobile technologies in isolation. I see them as part of the Web 2.0/socail media ethos — an ethos which has at its heart the natural human inclination to communicate, network, and, above all, socialise. I talk about this in my blog post Use Social Media — Fulfill Your Destiny!.

“Educational provision is built around time and place: the timetable, hand-in dates, the classroom, the year-group, the deadline and the laboratory… the education system, especially the formal university system, is getting out of step with how many students perceive the world they live in and… changes are needed to keep universitites aligned to a changed and mobile society.”

This is worth recording because it echoes a sentiment that I agree with: Higher education is behind the schools when it comes to use of learning technologies. Again with the above, you could substitute the word “mobile” with “Web 2.0.”

“These changes and trends will cause significant shifts in the idea of ownership, specifically the ownership of technology and of knowledge.”

This is an important point that relates to learners taking more control of their learning. However, it needs unpicking. From students’ point of view, they are owning when and where they access their learning so there is freedom and choice in that sense. This is important because of the impact that it should have on the way learning is delivered.

“In its earliest forms, knowledge and learning came from lectures, a linear format from an authoritative ‘sage-on-the-stage’ with no pause, fast forward or rewind, and from books, substantial and linear but segmented and randomly accessed. the delivery of knowledge and learning by networked comptuers meant . . . new heuristics of usablity that prescribed how knowledge and learning should be chunked and presented.”

There are two important issues here. First, a major motivation for change from me. The transmissive mode is flawed because if you miss something then you’ve missed it. And if you’ve missed something at the beginning then that’s it for the rest of the lesson. It’s as if part of the challenge of learning is being able to concentrate fully for the entire time. Any mind wandering (something I do) and, well, that’s tough! Any disruption (more on this later) like communication and you’re out!

The other issue is the attempts at chunking of textbooks that I remember from school. We would skip from chapter to chapter in an attempt to follow a contextualised route through the learning. You would think once a better mechanism for achieving this were invented education would jump all over it.

“Mobiles devices extend and enhance this voice because they allow users to capture content, for example images, sounds, data and voices themselves, form the real world, from events as they happen, specific to when and where they happen.”

It’s important to note that the other big area where mobile devices can really make a difference (apart from the “simultaneity of place” issue) is with multimedia. It really is so powerful to be able take videos and photos on the spot and network this immediately.

______________________________

It’s important to note that the other big area where mobile devices can really make a difference . . . is with multimedia. It really is so powerful to be able take videos and photos on the spot and network this immediately.

______________________________

Now some things I disagreed with:

“There are drawbacks. The first is that these developments reinforce a tendency to view knowledge and other forms of content merely as commodities or assets. The second is that this choice and control are exercised at a purely personal level, allowing individuals to each pursue their own curiosity, constructing their own private libraries and inhabiting their own worlds of knowledge. This erodes the idea of a commonly accepted canon, a common curriculum, of things we all need to know and are assumed to know and replaces it with what some poeple have referred to a neo-liberal nightmare — not dream but nightmare.”

With the first point, I don’t really see the problem. How people view the knowledge or engage with the learning is up to them. We don’t need to control how people think. The second point I disagree with. He views greater learner freedom and a loosening of control over educational institutions over any aspect of the learning process as a bad thing. The opposite is true for me. He’s actually describing a utopian PLE. Strange as this passage seems at odds with the spirit of the rest of the paper.

More on disruption: “There is a weak version of disruption that amounts to nuisance; phone calls in class, texting in exams, photographs that should not be taken, inappropriate ring-tones and so on. There is however also a strong version of disruption. These devices allow students to access and store images and infromation of their own choosing and perhaps create and distribute new images and information independently of the lecturers and of the university.”

I would add communication opportunities to this. What he’s challenging here is the notion of disruption as necessarily bad. — a notion that prevails at present. Certainly, mobile devices are seen purely as a nuisance in current educational structures. The weak version description is what they say, but really the strong version of disruption is what they are worried about — worried that they will have to change and accommodate.

On infrastructure: “Wholeheartedly adapting an approach centred on student devices is challenging and radical for institutional IT units. Their roles would change drastically, depending on the institution and its mission, and on its finances.”

Not much to say except yes. But I don’t think, wholeheartedly, adaptation will happen any time soon. Here and now, wifi has to be standard and of a high quality in education and elsewhere.

Some points about formal/informal learning: “We used to make a distinction between formal learning activities in our universities on our equipment and self-motivated learning activities outside our institutions not on our equipment… If we are to embrace student devices, this simple dichotomy breaks down and the boundary becomes blurred.”

This is informal or learning that needs to, first, be acknowledged and then engaged. The breaking down of the boundaries is only troublesome if you teach by habit rather than design. If you have deliberate and informed learning design then catering for this is manageable.

“Guaranteeing e-safety becomes more problematic when on the one hand we encourage the use of student devices for learning but on the other hand have no ability or authority to control how, when or where they are used, nor any control over the applications, data or networks they support. At the very least, policies of acceptable use must evolve rapidly to address the affordances of student devices.”

I think seeing everything through the prism of control isn’t correct here. It comes from a standpoint where the institutions are at the centre of education rather than the learner, which is wrong. E-safety is so overplayed in education. Yes, we need to take care, but we shouldn’t shut things down on this proviso. Also, I wouldn’t worry about “policies of acceptable use” as these seem to spring up almost before they know how to use something.

About training: “. . . faces staff developers with the enormous challenge of preparing teachers and lecturers to work with a range of devices.”

Yes, and this is a mantra of mine as I can often not get past this area in my context. However, I would say that the goalposts are shifting in this respect. Increasingly, new tools/environments are becoming easy to use and more intuitive. So it’s more a case of getting educator to experience using a tool/environment rather than learning how-to use it. Only by experiencing a tool/environment can they understand what it’s all about. This is particularly true of Web 2.0.

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