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Networks: Mobile Learning - What's Moving?

The idea of mobile learning, or m-Learning, frequently leads us into thinking about how the emerging forms of mobile technology will impact communication patterns in education. We might just as easily attach the idea of mobility to another are such as marketing (m-Marketing). New forms of technology frequently invite us to inquire into our exisiting situations and circumstances in the light of new and different ways of communicating. The results of these creative inquiries have ranged from minor variations on exisiting practices through to new visions and prophecies of transformation. One line of thinking partly inspired by the idea of m-Learning is the decline of traditional physical locations for learning, an idea that is misleading and potentially unhelpful...

By chance, I came across an article called Toward a Philosophy of m-Learning(2002) which travels across an interesting line of connections across John Dewey, Marshall McLuhan, Seymour Papert, Neil Postman and others.

It's pretty safe to say that if a new technology offers different patterns of communication, then an individual or institution adopting these technologies will experience various degrees of change in their former patterns of communication depending upon their reaction to them. Give every student a cell phone, allow them to use it whenever they want, and new patterns of communication will occur that leverage voice, text and images. Many institutions have already followed this path with laptop technology.

McLuhan, to my thinking, was right when he said, "Today[1960] most learning occurs outside the classroom. The sheer quantity of information conveyed by press-magazines-film-TV-radio far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school instruction and texts. This challenge has destroyed the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid and cracked the very walls of the classroom so suddenly that we're confused, baffled." It's still surprising to see this idea reappearing in different guises today as if it were new, and undoubedtly someone said something similar well before McLuhan. While we may now be talking about a new kind of idea (i.e. - m-Learning), what we are pointing it at is not new.

This confusion that McLuhan refers to is not a negative thing, nor does it mean to imply, I believe, that the traditional institutions that comprise education are somehow endangered, or that the schools will "disappear." Confusion in learning is a healthy and normal part of the process. Nor is it an indication that most learning has to occur outside of the classroom, unless we limit our understanding of a classroom to a physical place within a school.

Ideas about mobility may change our orientation and strategies for using schools, but to say there is no need or remaining relevance for them is misguided. This line of thinking leads us down an "either-or" style of thought in which the traditional is deemed irrelevant and the new is deemed visionary. Simply valuing mobility in learning as an end unto itself misses the point. While it seems obvious that we need to change (eliminate outdated practices, modify exisiting ones, and integrate new ones), it is not as obvious nor as convincing to say as Papert did that "school will disappear."

What mobility should do is invite us to reconsider how we re-orient ourselves with our existing institutions. Perhaps the physical location we call a school becomes a place for knowledge innovation hub(s) or cultural development hub(s), rather than a distribution hub for information. Mobility may also recalibrate our orientation to time and lead to ideas about flexible scheduling, rather than rigid automation. It's as much about transportation as it is communication.

Unfortunately, Neil Postman is often a fashionable target for contradiction. Of course, we don't need to agree with everything a person says, but it would be nice to see this trendy line of thought fade away. For example, "In a recent book Mitchell Stephens, taking issue with Postman, plausibly shows that the moving image in fact ushers in a new age of enlightenment, and answers in the affirmative the question: "Can we entrust video with the education of our young?"

Mobility, in the end, should be focused on the practical life values that can be encouraged through it in an attempt to make notions about new communication patterns in m-Learning and m-"?" less abstract. Toward a Philosophy of m-Learning captures this ideas in the conclusion:

Questions arising in the course of mobile communication seek location-specific and situation-specific answers: the questions create a context, and thus the answers can give rise to knowledge. Now in order to build databases furnishing answers to m-learning questions content providers will have to observe two basic requirements. First, the contents have to be designed not according to pre-existing disciplinary matrices but rather in relation to practical problems. To start from "gravitation" is wrong, to single out "high tide" is right. Second, contents will have to fit the conditions of person-to-person communication. The model to keep in mind is the downloading-something-in-order-to-forward-it-to-someone pattern - as opposed to the I-want-to-know-something-so-let-me-check-the-database pattern.

The idea of starting with personally relevant, practical problems as a basis for learning is far from new. The notion of a school as a place to download a database into the minds of students is well known. But if a "philosophy" of m-Learning has any critical value, perhaps it can provide an exploratory context for integrating meaningful institutional change that makes life values and social issues an important source of design. As with many of its predecessors, m-Learning will face the same bureaucracy and power structures that many past ideas have failed to impact in any significant way.

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Hi Brian,

(Hope you don't mind me writing here. I'm quite new to blogging.)

I'm very grateful for your answers in response to your questions about network learning environments. It is sad to hear that those projects are not flourishing as one would hope. And heartbreaking to realize that there are people in positions of power to oppose such initiatives. Yet I'm sure the ideas embodied by your projects will find - in due time - nourishing soil and climate in which to bloom.

I think John Papworth has a good point; that morally 'ill' power structures, centrally controlled and isolated from those it has power over, cannot be defeated by another centralized power, but rather only be dissolved by nodes of small closely knit communities.

It's truly exciting to find out about people who are actually encouraging and partaking in this development of these new 'micro centers' of real development.

Take care.

Warm wishes,


P.S. Ah, you were in Queenstown recently! This is quite funny - I was in Queenstown about a month ago too - had a holiday job there. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Many people say it is too touristy for their liking. I think it's beautiful too; there was a dusting of snow on the mountains and I was living in a caravan by the shotover river.

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