New hardware, new software, and new questions about learning

mLearn
Sydney, Australia
24-26 October, 2016

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Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

After an absence of three years, it was great to be back at mLearn, which took place this year at the University of Technology Sydney. As always, this conference brought together an international spread of expertise and contemporary research in mobile learning, focused in 2016 on the theme of Mobile Learning Futures: Sustaining Quality Research and Practice in Mobile Learning. Presentations covered new hardware (such as wearables), new software (such as AR and VR interfaces), new strategies (such as gaming), new questions about mobile teaching and learning, and the intersection points between all of these. Many of these presentations are written up in the conference proceedings.

New hardware – in connection with  new software – was showcased in the presentation, The use of wearable technologies in Australian universities: Examples from environmental science, cognitive and brain sciences and teacher training, where Victor Alvarez, Matt Bower, Sara de Freitas, Sue Gregory and Bianca de Wit began by showcasing the Vandrico Wearables Database, which lists the main wearables available for different parts of the body (see Figure 1).

Vandrico Wearables Database. Source: http://vandrico.com/wearables/

Figure 1. Vandrico Wearables Database. Source: http://vandrico.com/wearables/

They went on to give some examples of the use of wearables at Australian universities.  The first example was Murdoch University’s Conserv-AR mixed reality mobile game to promote awareness of wildlife conservation in Western Australia; there is an augmented reality field trip followed by a visit to a conservation island in virtual reality. The second was Macquarie University’s Portable Teaching Laboratory, involving a gaming headset to monitor brain activity in the cognitive and brain sciences. The third was the University of New England’s Virtual Teacher project involving student teachers engaging in classroom roleplays in the virtual world Second Life as part of their preparation for their first professional experience placements. As the authors pointed out, wearable technologies can thus be used in a wide variety of different ways in a wide variety of different areas; in some ways, wearables involve more research complexities than handheld mobiles because there are so many possible variations in the hardware, software, and pedagogical approaches.

In the presentation, Perceived utility and feasibility of wearable technologies in higher education, Matt Bower, Daniel Sturman and Victor Alvarez mentioned key areas where wearables are being used, from medical diagnosis through aged care to the social implications of facial recognition augmented with personal information. They gave an overview of the educational affordances of wearable technologies, as showcased in Bower and Sturman’s 2015 article ‘What are the educational affordances of wearable technologies?‘ They then went on to discuss eight use cases of wearables that were rated for utility and feasibility in an international survey, noting that there were significant differences in many cases between perceived utility and perceived feasibility. Key issues surrounding wearable use mentioned by respondents were cost; technological issues; lack of pedagogical benefits; distraction or disruption; resistance to change; and privacy and legal issues. This is an area where there is really a considerable gap between potential utility and current feasibility in education, notably in terms of cost.

Contemporary software was showcased in the presentation, WhatsApp in mLearning: The (learning) medium is the message(r), where Christopher Pang spoke of the phenomenal rise in popularity of the OTT (over the top) platform, WhatsApp. He asked how habitual use of a mobile platform like WhatsApp shapes a learner’s practices. M-learning offers an additional platform for e-learning, he suggested, and can be a motivational aid to e-learning. Beyond this, it can support collaborative learning and informal learning, and supports the blurring of boundaries and role distances.

In this study, he created weekly replacement, supplementary and complementary tasks for business students, given to trial and control groups, followed up by self-reported questionnaires, revisiting of conversation threads, and selected interviews. However, even in the control group which was not specifically asked to use WhatsApp, students were already using it extensively.

Overall, he found that the use of the mobile app drove online completion and led to higher completion rates. Students demonstrated self-directedness and elements of lifelong learning. They were very willing to receive formative feedback through WhatsApp, including students who normally would not ask questions in class. Students also used WhatsApp groups for group sourcing of answers; the dilemma for a tutor in a WhatsApp group is whether to intervene or allow students to work out the answers for themselves. In conclusion, he noted that active WhatsApp students were likely to show greater learner negotiation, greater agency, and greater learning effectiveness; and were more likely to show a drive towards self-directed learning, to seek personalised learning and co-creation of learning opportunities, and to connect data to generate new learning.

In my own paper, On the path to situated learning: Embedding academic integrity via mobile augmented reality learning trails, co-authored with Eva Wong and Theresa Kwong, my colleagues from Hong Kong Baptist University, I spoke about the outcomes experienced to date, at approximately the midway point of a 3-year Hong Kong-government-funded project where AR TIEs (Trails of Integrity and Ethics)  have been developed to help students connect formal learning about integrity and ethics with the everyday situations they face on campus. The trails immerse students in collaborative problem-solving tasks centred on ethical dilemmas, addressed in real-world locations where such dilemmas might arise, with contextually appropriate digital advice and information available on hand. By allowing students to play out the consequences of their decisions, this approach is designed to complement classroom engagement and, in particular, to reinforce the links between theoretical learning and the practical application of such learning in everyday contexts. Results to date indicate the value of situated learning in helping students to integrate ethical understandings into their everyday study practices. At the same time, numerous challenges have arisen, leading to an ongoing reshaping of the trail designs as we seek to capitalise on the potential of mobile learning to turn academic integrity and ethics from a formal requirement into a set of considerations that inform students’ daily lives.

In another paper, Factors in designing an augmented reality m-learning trail with place-based pedagogy in residential education, my colleagues Kevin Yue, Lisa Law, Hiu Ling Chan, Jade Chan, Elaine Wong, Theresa Kwong and Eva Wong spoke about the Hall Tutors TIE (Trail of Integrity and Ethics), which is one of the subject-specific trails forming part of the same Hong Kong project outlined above. It was explained that ethical reasoning and judgement skills can be more effectively developed when linked with personal experiences. Therefore a learning trail was created in which student hall tutors explore a scenario-based story to help them develop a more personal understanding of their roles. The presenters used a visualiser to demonstrate the underpinning mobile app, giving the audience a sense of the digital screens, information and choices through which students move when taking the trail. Visualisations of keywords used by students in pre- and post-trail online discussions have revealed a shift from a focus on ‘rules’ to a focus on being a ‘role model’, suggesting a change of mindset among the student hall tutors, who seem to have developed a new sense of their roles.

In their presentation, Understanding the relationship  between augmented reality games and educational pedagogies, Christine Redman and Joanne Blannin discussed the educational potential of the AR game Ingress (an older but more complex game from the same company, Niantic, that created Pokémon Go; see Figure 2) in terms of motivation, learning theories, pedagogical strategies, 21st century skills, and a STEM focus. They are using Positioning Theory to understand people’s motivation to play and continue playing. The game requires players to move between the real and the virtual and to connect with other people. In the game, players receive constant and instant feedback, and there is a complex, multifaceted reward system. There are 16 levels, with each level taking longer than the last, and more badges are needed to move on. There are two teams, Green and Blue, which need to remain in communication, with team members collaboratively planning major goals.

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Figure 2. A comparison of Ingress and Pokémon Go player views. Source: https://goo.gl/7kTDgm

From an educational perspective, we can say that learners know where they are up to and can predict strategies to move on in the game; have clear intentions; have explicit success criteria; and have constant feedback on progress. Playing a game like this, the authors suggested, can lead to the development of enterprise skills, 21st century skills, and the 7C skills. In particular, the game rewards strategic thinking, problem solving, memory, spatial awareness, teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. Elements of geography and environmental awareness, history and architecture, mathematics and spatial skills, are also prominent in the game. It is played by people of all ages and there are numerous women in leading roles. Active participation in the game often involves learning, and sometimes also teaching others.

In the presentation, Location-based mobile learning games: Motivation for and engagement with the learning process, Roger Edmonds and Simon Smith suggested that GPS and maps can power up experiences with authentic location interaction, while storytelling and rich media deliver learning, personalisation and an emotional connection, and gameplay helps with retention and recollection of knowledge.  They described location-based mobile learning games created using the Mobile Learning Academy platform, which does not require programming knowledge; some have been created by lecturers, but students are now also generating their own games. Typically, the design stage of a game involves identifying and scoping out the game and creating context with a story. The development stage involves using gaming software to link rich media to places, and adding location-interaction tasks and gameplay, before testing and publishing. The play stage involves walking to places, triggering the activation of content and tasks, performing challenges, answering quizzes, uploading photos and notes, and finally sharing experiences via Facebook and Twitter.

In a study of students’ responses to the four lecturer-created games, engagement did not vary much between the four different disciplines, but whether the students thought they understood more about the topic did vary – key considerations were design factors (e.g., content, duration, level of difficulty, location, tasks, and competencies) and implementation strategies (how the game is integrated with tutorials or excursions, and whether it is mandatory or voluntary). In conclusion, location-based mobile games do provide active, authentic, engaging educational experiences in higher education, but the pedagogical benefits are influenced by game design factors and implementation strategies. Further information is available on the project’s companion website, Pedagogy Go.

In their presentation, Using mobile serious games technology to enhance student engagement and learning in a postgraduate ethics classroom, Gillian McGregor and Emma Bartle explored the opportunity for technology to contribute to the teaching and learning of applied psychology skills in the form of a serious game called How Do You Feel (which can be downloaded for Android devices here or played in the Firefox or Internet Explorer web browsers here). Intended to supplement rather than replace teaching in a professional psychology programme, the game involves a series of scenarios where clients present a variety of issues, allowing students to safely build up their skills in dealing with clients. In preliminary findings, it has been established that student engagement is greater when using the serious game than when reading a static case study. Students liked the connection to real life, being able to see the theory in practice, seeing examples of what psychologists could say when encountering different scenarios, and discussing the scenarios with peers.

In their presentation, A mobile learning framework for developing educational games and its pilot study for secondary mathematics education, Yanguo Jing and Alastair Craig described how they structured a game around GCSE maths skills, with each level of the game focusing on different skills. Students enjoyed the game and thought it helped them learn key concepts and skills. Learning theory and game design principles are fundamentally important in creating successful educational games. The future plan is to employ more social and multiplayer elements to increase the level of student engagement.

In their presentation, Survive with the VUVU on the Vaal: Eyetracking findings of a user interface evaluation of a mobile serious game for statistics education, Seugnet Blignaut, Gordon Matthew and Lizanne Fitchat suggested that balancing fun and teaching in serious games can be challenging. They described a game for students at a rural South African university which teaches everyday life skills alongside basic statistics. Eyetracking software provided quantitative data revealing where students were and were not focusing on the screen. Qualitative data revealed students’ concerns over the user interface (including for some students who were familiar with mobile technologies but not with a mouse when the game was played on a PC), game instructions (including the need to have these available throughout the game), 3D graphics (which were limited compared to commercial games), and the game challenges (with a need to individualise the levels and adjust them to players’ competencies). Two key lessons learned were that eyetracking devices and usability interviews are not unobtrusive and reduce players into subjects; and that students should be continuously involved in the conceptualisation and production of the game.

Key teaching and learning themes were flagged up in the paper, Does the mobility of mobile learners across locations affect memory?, where Chrysanthi Tseloudi and Immaculada Arnedillo-Sánchez opened by stating that mobile learning research focuses on the flow of learning as learners move through physical, technological, conceptual, social and temporal dimensions. This paper focused on the physical contexts, and asked whether learners’ memory is challenged when they try to recall learning from one context in a different context. Environmental elements can become encoded in memory along with the learning that is taking place; it may be a struggle to remember what we have learned in a different context where the same environmental cues are not present. This is a major challenge for mobile learning. Possible strategies include mentally reinstating the original learning context, i.e., essentially remembering the place you were in when learning (though learners vary in their ability to do this), or suppressing the surrounding context when learning (which may be difficult to do in an environment rich with stimuli, some of which might be relevant to the learning). Decontextualisation of learning may be a preferable approach; in other words, it may be more promising to learn in multiple contexts, and make the learning available in many different places.

In sum, should we really be trying to learn “anywhere” – and should we be learning in the exact place in which we need the information, or in many different places? This is currently unanswered. We need to research how much mobility is needed to facilitate decontextualisation, how artificial and real contexts interact, and what elements learners can manipulate to reinstate or vary their own contexts. In mobile learning research, they suggested, we should be investigating contextualisation in parallel with decontextualisation.

In an interesting follow-up discussion, Jocelyn Wishart raised the idea that a key advantage of mobile devices is allowing users to recreate contextualisation of learning through the multimodal records we make at the time when learning occurs. It was suggested by others that the context may sometimes but not always be relevant to learning, and that different strategies might be needed depending on the case. Kevin Burden commented that another advantage of mobile devices in learning is reducing the cognitive load because information can be partly offloaded to the device and carried with the learner.

In the presentation, Choosing between a student-generated animation or written assignment: Students know what they want, Hardy Ernst and Laurel Dyson talked about introducing a video-based assignment instead of a written assignment in a course, but although the quality of learning was similar, the videos were disruptive, time-consuming and not appreciated by all students. The following year students were given the choice between a video or written assignment, and it was found that students employed very individual learning strategies. It depended on students’ visual and digital literacy skills, time management, group work preferences, and engagement, with having a choice being more engaging for students. When asked in 2016 about the main reason for their choice of a video or written assignment, it was found that those who didn’t like group work chose the written assignment; other factors influencing the choice either way were students’ perceptions of their ability to manage time, interest, better learning opportunities, and leniency of marking (with many students thinking the videos would be more leniently marked). In a thematic analysis of students’ responses about why they chose the video option, key factors mentioned by students were interest and fun, as well as a belief that the visual mode is a good way to present knowledge, a wish to share ideas, and novelty; these are generally positive factors. Among the students who chose the written assignment, the key factors were working at their own pace and independent learning, as well as the time-consuming nature of making a video and past negative experiences with group work; here there are more negative factors mentioned. In sum, students demonstrated a solid understanding of their own abilities, allowing them to adopt deliberate individual learning strategies.

In his plenary which opened the final day, The role of education in identity transformation and acculturation, John Traxler raised some concerns around mobile learning. He spoke of two ‘elephants in the room’: the notion that mobile technologies are value-free conduits which are morally neutral and serve no-one’s particular interests; and the linked notion of the completion of the European project of modernity.

He spoke of the only partially successful inclusion agenda in Western higher education, which led to a massification process as non-traditional students were brought into education, accompanied by the introduction of computer laboratories as industralised workshops; in this context, mobile devices might represent a more flexible, user-friendly kind of industrialisation. He asked whether the process of acculturation into education adds to or replaces one’s sense of identity, in a process of ‘them’ becoming ‘us’. However, he speculated that with mobile technologies, there is more pressure from the outside world where mobile technologies are widely used, which is beginning to transform education from without – with ‘them’ perhaps starting to transform ‘us’.

Technology, he suggested, distorts the relationship between people and language because of the encoding of characters and the available input mechanisms. Moreover, computing is arguably underpinned by a programming paradigm which does not map well to many natural languages. Technology also has the effect of changing pedagogy, notably as international aid agencies have sought to make their educational missions scalable and sustainable through mobile devices, pushing them towards transmissive pedagogies rather than more constructivist pedagogies, and without taking into account locally relevant pedagogies. Furthermore, much of the education takes place in English. In a sense, technology is a Trojan horse for education, but education itself is a Trojan horse.

The hegemony of US technology, the English language, and European models of pedagogy may be especially challenging for cultures and languages which differ substantially from these; but is the hegemony of middle class values equally challenging for working class, non-traditional students? He spoke of the work of Richard Heeks on ICT4D 2.0, and the need to distinguish between:

  • pro-poor innovation (outside of but on behalf of poor communities)
  • para-poor innovation (working alongside poor communities)
  • per-poor innovation (within and by poor communities).

He went on to discuss the concept of epistemicide, where whole ways of looking at the world are killed off, starting with examples from the European 16th century. This is linked to the hegemony of the European university system around the world, with the University of Cape Town resembling the University of Florence, he suggested. In a different way, it is linked to the growing hegemony of mobile technologies, though the latter may also be producing a kind of postmodernity where knowledge can be generated outside the academy and everyone can discuss and share ideas. As Traxler commented in response to an audience question, the fundamental question may be whether the technology is hegemonic or enabling; and this may depend at least in part on whose hands it is in.

In her workshop, Debating the future for mobile learning in schools, Jocelyn Wishart mentioned that the use of mobile devices in schools varies enormously across the world, ranging from outright bans to an expectation that students will bring and use mobile devices. Mobile phones are also being used in a wide range of different ways, from ways that support learning to ways that distract students from it. She showcased a series of mobile phone policies from schools around the globe to demonstrate just how different the approaches taken by schools are. This was followed by a group discussion about how to balance up the benefits and drawbacks of using mobile devices in education.

In their workshop, The Handbook of Mobile Teaching and Learning, Aimee Zhang and Dean Cristol described the 2015 publication of this book through Springer, as well as outlining plans for a second edition. Given the number of new possibilities emerging in the field, as showcased in the papers at this conference, there will be no shortage of material to include in the new version! Some key emerging focus areas are likely to include wearables and AR/VR.

Jacarandas in blossom, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

Jacarandas in blossom, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

As always, then, this year’s mLearn Conference highlighted currently emerging themes around mobile learning, providing a snapshot of where we’re at, where we’re heading, and what our most pressing questions are.

Tech discussions in the Middle East

14th Oman International ELT Conference
8th  9th May, 2014
Muscat, Oman

The Corniche, Muscat. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2014. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The 14th Oman International ELT Conference was held from 8-9 May at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman, under the theme: ‘Bridging Traditions and Innovations in ELT’. A variety of papers and workshops contributed their perspectives on this theme over the two days of the conference.

In my opening plenary, Principles and Practices of Mobile Learning, I surveyed recent trends in mobile technologies before outlining three main types of mobile learning, and three agendas for mobile learning, which are seen around the world. I argued that all mobile learning involves a trade-off between affordability and affordances. I concluded with several case studies of mobile English language learning projects from different parts of the globe, showing how the mobile learning types and agendas are realised in practice – and how it is important to balance up affordability and affordances in order to design the optimal kind of mobile learning for our own learners in our own contexts. The practicalities of mobile learning were explored further in my workshop, Introducing Mobile Learning, which suggested a number of entry points into mobile learning for teachers and students with different levels of technological and pedagogical/educational experience and confidence.

In her plenary, Cohort-Based Learning, Susan Barduhn mentioned that the average completion rate in MOOCs is only 7-9%. One reason may be the lack of relationships between students and teachers, and students and their peers; there is little chance to co-construct understanding together. Cohort-based learning is about a whole programme through which students move together, and which they complete together. When students enrol at different times – e.g., in PhD programmes – they are often working alone and don’t have the support of peers. In cohort-based learning there are special administrative and instructional provisions, intense group identification, and powerful interpersonal relationships. The faculty are also a cohort. Learning, Susan suggested, is in the relationships between people; she quoted Earl Stevick: “Success or failure in a language course depends less on linguistic analysis and pedagogical techniques than on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”.  In this kind of learning, there is a need for a common space where the members of the group can find each other – and that space may be online.

The conference was intensely discussion-based, more so than many other conferences I’ve attended: I was constantly invited to join conversations in the halls and corridors, covering a range of topics, but often in the form of extended discussions about the possibilities for the use of new technologies in a variety of contexts around Oman, the Gulf, and further afield. I also managed to catch some other interesting papers, reflecting on the use of new technologies in general ways or with reference to specific apps, platforms and websites; these included Peter Waters’ paper The Road Ahead: Reviewing the Past to Design the Future, which reminded the audience that a focus on the recent must not come at the expense of forgetting the past; Is’haq Al Naibi and Marwa Al Hadhrami’s paper,  Whatsapp: The Harbinger of Collaboration in Language Learning, where they outlined numerous ways of using WhatsApp groups for training both receptive skills (with students for example taking notes in the form of mind maps in and sending in photos of these) and productive skills (with students for example sending in voice recordings on set topics); Munira Al-Wahaibi and Asila Al-Maawali’s paper Facebook Fosters Autonomous Learning in ELT Classrooms, where they argued that a Facebook group can be a good platform to support English learning – through online discussion, a student question-and-answer section, and an audio/video corner – while simultaneously developing students’ IT skills as well as developing student autonomy (which they suggested is a relatively new concept in Omani educational culture); and Fatima Al Shihi’s workshop, Online Vocabulary Learning, where she illustrated the use of the ESL Lab website for teacher-led or self-directed access.

There’s clearly a lot of interest in new technologies, and mobile technologies especially, in Oman and the Gulf countries, and experimentation has begun with these tools in English language teaching. With the proliferation of smart devices in the region, the time is ripe for mobile learning to contribute in a major way to language education.

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