Questioning Mobile Learning

A new semester has begun and I am taking EC&I 830: Seminar on Curriculum and Information Communication Technologies online (this time housed behind the walls of a learning management system).

Our first actual unit is M-Learning, or mobile learning. This is the only unit pre-created, the rest will all be student done modules so this is our example to follow.

We were asked to begin by watching a video on the iSchool Initiative. The video is from 2009 but the iSchool Initiative still exists. In watching this video, I saw a lot of inspiring ideas and a lot of concerns, all meshed together.

As I’ve said before, I am interested in being open. The thought of schools based entirely on apps for Apple devices bothers me, a whole lot. It means buying into a company that has quite clearly committed to disposable devices and locked content. The apps discussed only work on Apple. So what happens tomorrow if Apple disappears? All that content was locked in. Not to mention questions about who is using the data that comes out of this because you know that there will be data. Is Apple accessing it? Are other companies?

The cost analysis concerned me too. I am aware of the cost of university materials. I am also aware of ways that students can minimize or limit those costs. If your textbook, brand new, is worth $100, maybe you can find a used version. Alternately, maybe you can sell it after the semester is over if it is not one that you will use again. Maybe Amazon has it cheaper. Maybe you can share with a friend, or borrow one from a library. eTexts are something that I both really believe in and am incredibly leery of. I used one for a course I taught and the number of technical difficulties was an issue. And in that case it was at least a PDF (huge file, it crashed or got corrupted for a number of students). What about texts created by publishers and only available through their app? So there you may have a slightly reduced cost, but there are no options for re-use or resale, there are additional costs elsewhere if replacements are needed.

And what about all those apps? Who is paying for those to be developed? Who is paying for all the updates? Who is paying when it needs a new version, an upgrade, etc? There is a new operating system upgrade every year, and pretty much all apps need to be updated for that. Who is putting in that continual money? Apps are generally paid for per download, so who gets that cost? Some of the fancier apps are $15+ per download. If every student needs it, who pays that initial fee?

Not to mention devices. Anyone who tries to tell me that devices are cheap is fooling themselves. Those devices are not drastically coming down in price and there are laptops for a much lower price or the same as iPad and iPad mini. Tablets are, in a lot of ways, created as consumption devices. We are still working on adapting them and ourselves to creation. I still need a keyboard that gives me better tactile function to avoid swiping or to have a high typing speed. Maybe it’s just because I’m older, but I don’t think so. I’ve read the same from a lot of people.

So your devices are not super cheap. Then what happens when it breaks? If every student needs one, and you get broken devices, that’s a pretty hefty investment for replacements because if I, as a grown woman, can crack my iPhone screen, I guarantee that kids, teenagers, and young adults can all manage it too.

Then there is the idea that you can lock a device. Hah! Students have already proved is just not true. So this device you are putting in the hands of students is going to be used in whatever way they want. I don’t think that is a problem. I think it is an important opportunity. But pretending anything else is an issue. You need to educate students about healthy uses, about digital citizenship, about being smart digitally. And someone needs to keep an eye on things.

I think m-learning has a great future but I don’t think it’s quite as easy or as cheap as was suggested back in 2009 in that video, or in other sources. I think there are a lot of professional development issues for teachers, a lot of infrastructure issues for schools. And I think we should all be thinking very hard about who is developing the programs we use, who we are supporting when we buy apps, and who is driving our education system. The video suggests partnerships with big business. Are you good with big business determining what education your kids should have? For more thoughts on this, I turn you over to Audrey Watters and her post about EdTech Business in 2013.

So I think there are definitely ways to do m-learning but I also think it is more complicated – and should be more complicated – than this video suggests. I think podcasts are fantastic, I am all for better communication, accessing things on the go, but find ways to make it open. Ensure that you are not tied to one single company for class to happen at all. Ask if your information can be exported.

I love my mobile technology and I am happy to find ways to use it… but I think it’s important to understand the limitations, the concerns, the cost that actually goes into these things when you start talking about replacing everything with mobile devices. We aren’t there yet.

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