Mobile Learning I: Sent from someone else’s iPad

I have a new iPad – well, it is not mine, it’s from my department, part of a deal whereby three of us get to play with them in return for trying to find ways of sharing with colleagues what we have learnt about how these devices transform the conditions of student learning. ‘Mobile learning’ is a strong emphasis in distance education at the moment, certainly at the OU.

I already have an iPhone – an important stimulus to starting this blog was getting it, back in August 2010, and wondering what new worlds it opened up – I signed up for twitter, friended people on Facebook, and then decided to start a blog, after conversations with bright young techie things like Scott Rodgers and Kellie Payne. A way of getting inside the medium, that’s my excuse.

And we also have an iPad already in the house – shortly before the birth of Baby 2 in early 2011, the expectant mum decided to buy one, brooking no argument against the idea (I bought a car; like the iPad, justified on the grounds that this was all for the good of the family). So now we have two in the house (iPads).

I have a worry that these new arrivals are leading us to neglect the paper based media that still litters the house – the daily paper, weekly or monthly magazines, the fiction and non-fiction books. But it is not a controlled environment, I keep reminding myself – the reason these might all be unread these days might have something to do with the disruption caused by the other mobile device that did finally arrive at the end of January last year, the one which turns out to be much more interactive and increasingly mobile than an iPad.

Anyway, I’ve had this one, ‘mine’, about 10 days, and I’m trying to take seriously the task of using it to learn about mobile learning (I have also been reminded of just how wonderful the B52s’ Private Idaho is, accidentally, on YouTube). Using it seriously, mainly, immediately makes clear how far this sort of device is primarily a reading medium – you can of course write on them, emails, even blog entries, but there is something for me at least rather constraining about them in that respect (and I know you can get widgets to annotate online documents, but it’s still not the same as writing in your own books, or as naughty).

We lucky three are meant to report to the department on our i-Experiences, sometime, so I thought I might try to record first impression ideas about just what I am learning, on the move, sitting down, with a device you have to plug into the wall every night, and sync occasionally with your PC, and that’s so expensive you can’t leave it on its own ever, about the wonders of not-so-mobile learning. So, this stream might be become a regular feature.

Like much of the hype about blogging being a terribly important new medium of academic communication (hasn’t anyone noticed that blogging is a bit old, a bit 2000s?), I actually find the concept of mobile learning terribly muddled, not least in terms of the amount of thinking that might still be required about what the implications are (and aren’t) of new technologies for designing quality distance education curricula that enhance student learning and don’t just assume that good teaching is now all about sending students off to, well, YouTube to surf for 35-year-old footage of the B52s.

My hunch is that we are living through a moment when what ‘new technologies’ are doing is making much more clearly visible, and making practically possible, the distinction between quite abstract or ‘dispersed’ practices of literacy – reading, writing, watching, listening, chatting, presenting, taking notes, reflecting – and the specific material mediums with which, until very recently these practices have been most closely associated with. Thinking of this iPad as a learning device immediately brings into view the questions of how we learn from reading text (and from reading different genres), how and what we learn from watching TV, film, video in general, or what we learn from listening to other people talking, or, singing. Which are not, of course, new questions, or shouldn’t be, they just might now have been made much more explicit as pedagogical problems rather than assumptions.

And my second first thought about all of this: the ‘mobile’ bit in mobile learning might be misleading to the point of distracting from the more relevant aspect of ‘mobile learning’, which is so obvious but seems to get covered over by the mobility theme: the really dramatic thing about mobile communication is all about the temporalities of communication they open up, and close down,, in terms obviously of allowing real-time collaborative learning, storage and retrieval on the go, that sort of thing, but also more generally, and mundanely, it is to do with how ‘mobile’ devices actually function as mediums for allowing us to fill in all sorts of previously quiet times, off-line times, with very active communicative engagement with our favourite authors, journalists, or friends. Another obvious thought, bought into focus by the new arrival in our home.

Teaching at a distance

A few months ago, Dan Weinbren, who is heading up the History of the OU project, posted a wonderful archive film clip of a real, live course team meeting – from 1976. The course team is one of the central organisational forms of OU-style distance education, although they have changed a bit – as Dan noted, there was a lot of smoking going on back then.

Things change, things stay the same…

Course teams are now technically ‘module teams’, and we don’t smoke anymore, not the in the meetings. The OU Social Science Faculty Facebook page has just posted a set of photos providing a ‘sneak peek’ at the course team I’m currently part of, which is producing a new social science module due for its first outing in 2012. If you do this course, you might find out why smoking no longer goes on inside the meetings, but outside in designated boxed-off spaces.

You can play spot the difference if you like. Obvious things, apart from the smoking, is a lot less denim in 2011, less facial hair too. There seems to be plenty of coffee in both meetings (or maybe tea in the 1970s), but larger cups in 2011. The great mystery, of course, is just whether the 1970s really were that brown compared to the light, airy shininess of 35 years later. Or is that something to do with advances in technology?