Mobile learning conference in the Asian Pacific: things I learnt in Singapore

View from the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Singapore

View from the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Singapore

A group of us from the Institute of Learning Innovation (Gráinne, visiting fellow Mark Childs, and I) have just attended MobiLearnAsia 2013 conference in Singapore. The conference was organised by Crimson Knowledge, a Singapore-based education company. This was the second year the conference has run; it was bigger this year, and covered new ground such as supplying iPads for every attendant at the pre- and post-conference workshops. Gráinne was a keynote speaker; Mark and I presented sessions, and together we delivered two days of pre-conference workshops.

The conference was attended by a mixture of corporations and educators from every level and sector, including military trainers and independent consultants, mostly from Singapore, Malaysia, India, Australia, and Thailand, but also including China, the US, and the UK. At the academic conferences I have been been attending in recent years, corporations have been present but their sessions aren’t necessarily very well attended, possibly being seen as less learning, more commercial. While at this conference, I realised that it is really necessary for academics and corporations to communicate more, to be aware of the way the other views trends in learning and technology, and to help shape priorities of each sector. One really valuable corporate connection I made was with Kevin Chan, founder of Coursepad. Kevin let us use his app called Micepad to support our pre-conference workshops on the 7Cs of Learning Design, M-Pedagogy, and Augmented Reality/Virtual Worlds.  The app was well designed to form a support around the workshop, giving a central place for photos and notes to be gathered, a simple way for discussions to happen on the iPad (Mark acted as eModerator to keep an eye on questions/comments coming in on the app), and even just to have a quick profile of each attendant. The app also had a feature whereby you can email to yourself all the gathered discussions, for your own further review.

There were many ways in which I felt we in the UK are far behind countries such as Singapore and South Korea, who are really putting money into education and who are not afraid to bank on the side of technological innovation. Yet I felt we from the UK and USA brought good things to the table, especially in the form of research into learning innovation and a consideration of digital literacy, among other good things.

There were some impressive and successful case studies of mobile learning being implemented large-scale. One Australian university in attendance (University of Western Sydney) has distributed 11,000 iPads to its incoming students. They spoke of deploying learning designers to help instructors adapt their material and pedagogical approaches to the iPad. Designing learning for mobile is often thought of after the iPads are bought and paid for. I guess that’s ok, as long as the learning design happens at some point!

One  case study was presented in the graveyard shift of the first day and hence attended by only a handful of us, but it made a big impression on me.  A UNESCO programme to teach literacy to women in Pakistan did not seem to have much impact with traditional teaching methods, i.e. gathering the women every day at the literacy centre for 2 hours of lectures and teaching. At least half of the women dropped out after 3 months, and of the remainder, not many passed the final exams. But when they decided to hand out simple inexpensive mobile phones to each student, things changed. The women had never had mobile phones before. They received SMS messages which they dutifully copied into notebooks and studied for spelling and grammar. The message content was about hygiene and food preparation, so there was that to learn as well. Then once a week, the women gathered at the literacy centre to discuss what they learnt over the week and take the lessons further. Now there is much lower dropout rate and much higher exam pass rate. It is a simple use of simple mobile technology, which hit the right nerve to engage and empower these women.

One thing I considered during the conference was: for how many more years can we have a mobile learning conference? Five years? Fewer? I have no doubt that mobile learning is not only here to stay but will become the predominant technology mode in learning. The reason for this is the ubiquitous quality of mobile devices. They are always in our hands, pockets, or pocketbooks. And this is the reason why I’m not sure for how much longer we will refer to ‘mobile learning.’  It will just be learning. But for now, it is still necessary to think about the affordances of mobile devices and how they can fill gaps in tech needs for learning. It is still necessary to consider how to help students strategically use mobile devices for the flexible learning best suited to our 24/7 society. It is still necessary to consider what pedagogical approaches are well served by mobile devices. Until it all just becomes ‘learning.’

And what we cover in our Technology-Enhanced Learning module in our MSc in Learning Innovation will now need to be altered & widened to include the view from Singapore.

Many heartfelt thanks to Crimson Knowledge — Patrick and Vivian particularly — for inviting us and looking after us, and for allowing us to join in the picture of mobile learning in the Asian Pacific.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist & SCORE Research Fellow, Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

Revisiting the iPad

In early June, I blogged about how I felt the iPad and similar touchscreen tablet devices would impact upon education. I thought it might be useful to revisit this post and assess its claims, four months on.

It’s also appropriate – as a user – to raise any problems I may have had with the device. And I do have one.

Since June, several new and forthcoming devices have joined the iPad ‘gadget-family’: the Samsung Galaxy, the Dell Streak  and the forthcoming Blackberry Playbook , to name the big hitters. In addition, increasing numbers of other Android-based tablets are available or in development.

Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages, and of course unique selling points. Not being a hardware geek, I’m not going to enter into a debate on the differing technical specifications. Besides, I haven’t even seen the other devices let alone carried out a usability study, so don’t feel in a position to comment.

But one things seems clear. In launching the iPad, Apple seems to have tapped into huge demand from the consumer for this form of always-on, Internet-and-app-enabled, tablet-based personal computing. (I’m assuming this demand is huge because practically all Apple’s competitors seem to be rushing to enter the tablet market.) As an iPad user, I completely understand why this demand exists.

But what about my claim that the iPad is ‘a game changer for education’? Certainly, there is increasing anecdotal evidence on the web of how the iPad is being used in educational settings such as universities and schools. (Read the excellent blog by Frasier Spears about his experiences of the latter). But this isn’t hard evidence.

Related to this, one comment on my previous blog raised the very reasonable  possibility that students will waste time in class/seminars/lectures if they have iPads (presumably watching YouTube videos or chatting to friends on Facebook).

But this is exactly the point I was trying to make in June. If wireless tablets are left at the door in a pile when students enter the classroom, then clearly something is wrong. ‘Crowbarring’ such a device into existing or traditional pedagogies is a waste of time.

However, when the tablet is successfully integrated into learning; when it becomes the only device required  for accessing websites, videos, VLEs and libraries; when it becomes the preferred medium for reading articles and books, and for annotating these; when it can be used for writing essays or preparing reports; when thousands of educational apps that benefit the learner, such as Mendeley  become available; when it enables social networking platforms such as Twitter to be part of the learning experience – then it becomes the educational game changer I was talking about.

At Beyond Distance, we firmly believe that higher education – for many, many reasons – needs to move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ model and offer more to learners. Central to this is utilising the online environment; a tablet device such as the iPad can help with this change far more effectively than any hardware we’ve seen before. Leaving the tablets at the classroom door is not an option.

I did promise one whinge about the iPad. The lack of ‘Flash’ capability – and I don’t really understand why it isn’t included – is detrimental to the overall usability of the device. Yes, it will be great when HTML 5 becomes prevalent, but until then, I – as a consumer – feel shortchanged by this issue.

And one final point about usability. Despite voluble online chatter to the contrary, the lack of a USB port on the iPad makes absolutely no difference at all.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

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