Considering the Future of mLearning

At present, there are almost as many mobile phones in the world (around 7 billion) as there are people on the planet. In the U.K., around 85% of youths aged 16 – 24 (the so-called “Generation Z”) own smartphones, and with the global market in mobile devices continuing to grow, the impact of this technology on all aspects of life will likewise increase.

One area where mobile technology is fuelling radical changes is in education, with mobile learning (a.k.a. mLearning, or m-learning) now considered a field in its own right. In this article, we’ll look at how mLearning might evolve, in the coming years.

Weight of Numbers

It’s not just smartphones. In 2013, the U.S. market for tablets used in schools grew by a staggering 103%. And there’s continuing growth in the so-called “next gen” of mobile devices, which have virtual input and output capabilities.

The Proliferation of Things

Smart devices are getting smaller, cleverer, and more widespread. Responsive digital technologies are being embedded in wearable objects like smartwatches, headbands, and lapel badges, and distributed in everyday objects like keys, newspapers, and notepads.

With over 70% of youngsters aged 12 to 17 using apps and mobile-optimised websites to access resources online, this emerging “Internet of Things” or IoT is also placed to deliver educational materials and experiences to learners on the move, and in remote locations.

Advancing Technologies

The spectrum of techniques and technologies available is a wide one. At the simplest level, mLearning may proliferate through initiatives like the UNESCO scheme in Lahore, Pakistan, which currently transmits educational resources to students in very low-income areas via SMS texting.

At a more sophisticated level, apps for mobile learning are freely available via app stores (Google Play, etc.) on the Web, to download and use on devices ranging from desktop or laptop systems to the smallest handhelds.

Learner-Centric vs Device-Centric

Contrary to popular opinion, mLearning isn’t just about using mobile devices to learn. Much of the focus has been on condensing learning content down to fit the smaller screens and form factors of handheld or wearable devices. But this is just one aspect.

There’s a more holistic approach emerging as a driving force for mLearning’s future development, which views education as a process centred on the current and changing needs and circumstances of the learner. Here, content is adaptable, and available from multiple sources. So learners can gain access to learning resources wherever they are – be that a desktop, on a train, on a mountain trail, or in the comfort of their own homes.

The trend is toward packaging and publishing online learning resources from a single website URL, in single projects that can be distributed in a multitude of formats, to suit all kinds of devices.

A Lifelong Affair

And the learning never ends. As we progress through life, we gain new skills – often choosing to retain knowledge of those that most interest and engage us, or are most essential to our chosen careers. Yet, we’ll also want to refer back to material that we covered in previous courses, workshops, or on-the-job experiences. And we’ll certainly need access to fresh resources, as our lives and jobs require the acquisition of even more skills.

Learning and online file storage systems are adapting to accommodate this, with increasing options to bookmark and archive text, videos, and other resources for future reference, and “smart” links to materials related to subjects that interested us in the past, or are deemed to be relevant to current projects.

Augmenting Reality

The evolving class of virtual reality tools like Oculus Rift create the potential for mobile learning to occur within our own heads. Simulated environments promise to transport us to locations across the globe (archaeological excavation sites, tours of great cities, etc.), specialist environments (surgical theatres, nuclear test sites, and so on), or to worlds created for specific fantasy or gaming projects.

The possibilities are endless – and the technology is still very much in its infancy. Things can only get better, as it improves.

Capturing the Moment

Snapshots and annotation are becoming an integral part of mobile learning platforms. Many systems already provide facilities to archive, email, or otherwise share images and video captured by learners on their own devices. These may be stored for future reference, and serve as discussion points in ongoing forums and collaborative projects.

There’s a growing trend in “Real-time” learning systems that use augmented reality techniques to provide learners with on-the-spot feedback and information on tasks they’re currently performing, or floating captions giving details on elements or artefacts of the environment the learner is currently in.

Observations and archiving, coupled with the increasing use of Big Data in learning analytics, may combine to make instantaneous feedback the norm for mLearning and on-the-job performance support, in the coming years.

Changing Mindsets

There’ll have to be shift from the prevailing climate, which sees mLearning as “Condense it down, to smartphone size”, and nothing else.

The possibilities opened up by a new generation of Net-connected smart objects, accessories, and clothing with the convergence of augmented reality, data gathering and learning analytics could make the “Learner-Centric, Device-Flexible” ethic the predominant one, as mobile learning goes forward.

Too Much of A Good Thing?

As resistance to the use of mobile devices in schools breaks down (many establishments still restrict the use of smartphones and tablets by students, as a distraction), those in formal education will be able to enjoy access to increasingly available resources and technologies for mobile education. But there are some caveats.

The anticipated proliferation of intelligent objects and wearables for the Internet of Things – and the development of next-generation smart devices – has the potential to create an environmental hazard, as outdated models are traded in and discarded.

Institutions will also need to address the ownership issue, with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies and protocols extending beyond the workplace.

And of course, there’s the temptation to assume that slick apps presented with cutting-edge graphics and multimedia are actually providing the basis for sound education.

Mobile learning initiatives of the future will need to bear these issues in mind – and be founded on solid educational principles and practices.

 

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