Thoughts on Mobility and Learning

13 Sep

What will mobility do for learning? I make some guesses.

First of all, when you learn, you do four key sorts of things by my count–you interact with some information (like the course readings or the lecture); you process that information, generally socially (in conversations in or outside of class, for instance); and you conduct some kind of performance of understanding (like write a paper or take a test or make a video). You also get feedback on any of these three things so you can know where you are and how you can improve. In my opinion we’ll see the core effect of mobility in breaking down the distinction of these five categories, and adding the affordances of each to all. Let me explain.

Access to resources. Clearly mobile computing will give us access to the information we need to work with in learning, to wit, the text book, wherever we need it. This part is pretty much already there–if perhaps limited for the moment while format wars resolve themselves. I’m a tad old school and even I am reading a Kindle book across 3 or 4 devices on the bus, on the train, at home, at my desk at work, etc. As long as it’s just an electronic version of a codex or a journal article it’s neat but it’s not that world-shaking: where it gets really fun is when the formats of the “resources” allow for interaction, say, become games, or start to read you (“David, you seem to have trouble recognizing the preterite; here’s a introduction to the tense”), or let you and other people read together, and so on. To that last point, you know a lot of people study in the library because they’re reinforced by the presence of other people studying. A nice little socially-wise mobile app could replicate that (“David, your classmates Danny and Denise are also reading this and are struggling with paragraph 11,” etc.) . . .

Processing the Information. I segued a touch into this already in the last paragraph–but the idea here is that mobile computing should change the way you process the information in the course. If right now I think a bit on my own and I talk through ideas my friends at lunch and in the classroom, maybe that thinking and that conversation go online and social. Maybe I’m connected with people processing the same information in other schools and countries, in courses and out of courses, here and there and everywhere. That would be neat: I can’t sleep at 3AM but I can be trying to figure out what Piaget’s thinking is on such-and-such aspect of child development by talking to a fellow learner on their lunchbreak in Abu Dhabi. I should probably have said Geneva. Just letting me talk with a broader pool of fellow learners in different contexts is great. Where it gets even neater is where mobile changes the way I talk. Maybe instead of talking, we’re drawing pictures together, or moving idea representations around with haptic gestures. Maybe we’re constructing something together, some kind of interesting visual record of our thought over time.

Performing Understanding. I got ahead of myself again. You have to do something when you learn, to show you learned something, which is helpful in figuring out your grade, and also helpful for you to get a sense of your progress (which ends up being important in motivation). But doing things is also of course the learning itself. Doesn’t it seem that your learning goes up when you have to articulate it, document it, explain it to someone else?Mobile platforms seem to me to hold the process of giving us all sorts of ways to do the learning, collaboratively, individually, you name it. For example, the lecture. What if, instead of the lecture as it has been–a structure of thought prepared by the teacher in advance and sort of deposited upon the course–the lecture were to become a collaborative creation of the course. Rather than a prefabricated idea-stream, it could be an idea stream students all worked together to fabricate, in real time, in the class. It could be a documentation of the thought development in the particular session, rendering that thought development visible, rather than a precursor to the thought development. A classroom of mobile devices holds this promise for me.

Feedback. It ends up feedback is key to learning. How can you get better if you don’t know how you’re doing? Key to feedback is timeliness and informativeness (if you will): that the feedback gets to you while you, for instance, still remember what it was you were trying to do, and that it gives you information that is helpful. Traditional feedback is rather limited; comments on papers are pretty notorious about coming in late, and all feedback, perhaps influenced by the fact that there are 20 – 100 students in the college course and only 1 – 5 or so instructor types, tends to be less informative than it could be. Everyone, I’m sure, has received papers with the well-known one-word comment method, like “vague” (a self-judging comment if ever there was one) or, worse, “Good!” Mobile platforms hold out the promise of helping give better and more timely feedback by more people, to the learner. And vice versa. The professor and the other students can be telling me during my presentation, for instance, what they’re thinking point by point, while they are thinking about it, and I can see that in real time or unpack that information later. Even neater perhaps is that mobile devices can give feedback to the teacher in real time about the course. Teachers need feedback, too; think about the traditional course evaluation, the main feedback unit the professor gets, which comes in after the course is over! Imagine if the teacher knew during a very session who was engaged and who not, what points people didn’t understand, whether people felt ready to move on, etc: now that would be a dynamic course! Mobile could do that.


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