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Noeline Wright, University of Waikato

Noeline Wright, Senior Lecturer in Professional Studies of Education at the University of Waikato in New Zealand explains some mobile learning initiatives being developed in schools in her country.

What initiatives are you working on to develop strong teaching that is mobile-based or digital?

The secondary school I’ve been working with has developed a number of scenarios. Essentially, they use what students bring such as their digital cameras, mobile phones and MP3 players. They were also trialling some proprietary software and digital devices. This school is aiming to use devices in flexible ways, with a clear focus on learning.

In the tertiary sphere, I conducted a pilot project last year (about to be published in a special edition of Open Learning) in which student teachers used Twitter while on practicum to record their thoughts about questions such as: What are you learning? What is happening? What are your students learning/doing? They used their phones to tweet their responses, or their computers, three times a day over 7 weeks. We are likely to undertake this again this year, and students involved in Engineering internships are most likely to try this, too. We are aiming to investigate the value of this kind of affordance to encourage critical and reflective thinking.

And while students are on a teaching practicum in secondary schools, they must include some kind of technological tool in a lesson, and report on it, including what their students have to say about how well it helped them learn. Again, this is about getting feedback and feedforward, and developing reflective practices.

Can you explain how mobile learning works? How can it happen on a phone?

In the project with the school I mentioned earlier, mobile learning works more or less as follows. I will use Japanese language and geography content to demonstrate. The Japanese teachers created a slide presentation on the weather, using images, Japanese characters and narration. This was exported as a movie file, and Bluetoothed to students’ mobile devices. Since then, students themselves have been creating their own files, based on giving directions. In geography earlier this year, students went on a fieldtrip to Mt Tarawera – a volcano that erupted over a century ago, destroying what had been considered to be a natural wonder- the Pink and White Terraces – and creating social and economic havoc. During this fieldtrip, they took photographs and short video footage, and also took notes. Back at school, they pooled all of these images and videos, so that the entire class had access. Students then had to select images that best helped them answer specific questions that were turned into narrated slides, and later exported as movie files. During class, they had an opportunity to view a range of these, which gave students time to review and improve their files before being finalised. Again, these were Bluetoothed to students’ own mobile devices. In both geography and Japanese, students then had to use these files to learn from. And as you can see, the pedagogy was deliberate, student-centred, collaborative and focused on very real subject content learning outcomes.

mobile learning
An image of Mount Tarawera, New Zealand

Students in both classes really liked having their subject content on their phones, and while it was good having teacher-created content, their own was preferable. The Japanese students in particular learned from hearing their voices and learning how to improve their pronunciation while learning key content. The geography students liked having their content in their pockets, viewable at any time. Many even showed their parents- this is not usual practice with school work. Overall students were really keen to use something they carried with them constantly.

There are, of course, some issues – the size of both the files and the screens, for example. Some students didn’t like these files taking up a lot of memory, which they wanted to use for music. Some had trouble reading text size in their files on their phone, or their chosen slide backgrounds were difficult colours to read from. Some students did not have recent enough phones – or, indeed, phones at all. In these cases, students have been loaned phones in much the same way that they would be loaned library books.

Students go to university, in part, to receive a formal degree that only accredited schools can provide. How does that change in a mobile world? Do you think that learning will be away from the school and only on mobile, or will it be blended in some way?

Humans are social creatures. We crave company. While some will like being able to keep others at a distance and interact only their own terms using their technology to manage it, the face-to-face connection with others is a strong driver for others. I think it’s possible to use the strengths of both so that everyone is advantaged. Also, it’s really important to develop cohesive practices for the sake of well-functioning society; face-to-face interaction is really useful in that regard, while international social interaction can be achieved really well through using technological means.

What has been the biggest development, in business or in technology, or both, that has led to a growth in this type of learning and teaching strategy?

Personally, I think the iPhone and iPod Touch have been a catalyst. This is because they’re so easy to use and are intuitively organised devices. Others purporting to be smart phones tend to be very clunky and unsmart to use. Ease of use will, as far as I’m concerned, always win; if you need a manual all the time to figure out how to use something, it’s not helpful for learners- it’s just frustrating. So, as mobile devices, I think, the iPhone and iPod Touch have been huge in moving our thinking about the potential for learning. The number of Apps developed for these devices demonstrate something of this potential. And why not use one thing that includes a scientific calculator, access to the Internet and contains a range of very useful tools in the one device, rather than a whole lot of separate devices?

I’m not sure pedagogical practice has caught up, yet. Web 2.0 tools and mobile devices infer just-in-time, anytime and social learning/networking practices (such as access to Facebook, Twitter etc). Many teachers and university lecturers are still, as far as I can see, still hung up on delivering content to people who can access it whenever they want. It would seem to me that focusing on developing critical thinking skills, problem-posing and problem-solving skills more crucial. That requires a shift from teacher-centric content delivery methods, to student-centered, integrated and social modes of learning. That will be hard for many to achieve. I have heard teachers, for example, say that ICT tools are ok in other subjects, but not theirs. That suggests a lack of vision and protectiveness of the status quo. It might even mean that some teachers view their subject disciplines as more special than others and that only certain ways of learning are possible.

My view is that you use what works for students. That means using as many tools as are appropriate for the context and the learning goals. One day that might mean big pieces of paper and felt-tipped pens; on another day, it might mean using mobiles to record voices or images, access email or the Internet or swap resources and files in order to achieve the necessary learning.
Secondary school learners that I’ve interviewed say that mostly, they prefer to be able to work with others to develop knowledge, understanding and skills. Of course there is a need for individual work, but it should not be the default position in learning contexts; learning, after all, does not have to always be mediated by teachers to be successful.

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