Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Late Adopter of Mobile Learning

I have to admit that many of my clients are ahead of me in the tablet department.  Mobile learning never seemed like something that was applicable to online GED practice, my forte.  At conferences, I just walked right by the sessions about "mlearning," smartphones for studying and 'bring your own device' in the classroom.  iPads in adult ed programs? Sounds like science fiction.

Back when I ran the statewide distance learning program for Virginia, one of the publishers we purchased from said their program was now accessible via XYandZ mobile devices. Yeah, right, I thought.  Then I pulled it up on my phone and my prejudices were completely confirmed. The little screen only showed a small quartile of the display you'd see on a computer screen. I had to zoom in, back out, pan over, down, zoom in again, and then try to click the right button without much confidence. That's how I clicked on the lesson I wanted to open, or the answer to a question, anything that needed doing required that long string of manipulations. Mobile learning felt more like paralyzed learning. 

As seen on my iPHone through the Puffin app
Today, I get the question about whether GED Academy works on iPads and the answer is YES. Our flash-based program works on all manner of tablets, and the apps like Puffin allow it to run on iPads and iPhone (even though the iOS operating system doesn't allow Flash).  So now that we've got that out of the way, it's time I started giving mobile learning for adult ed some serious consideration.  But, it's not just the technology making mobile learning possible, it's the tenacity of the learners.

Let's get some issues out there and then rebut them with anecdotes from the field (that's you). 

Mobile Misgivings

What Where, is mobile learning? By definition, it's not in the classroom and it's not at home. Mobile learning happens during the time spent in between.  On the bus. Waiting in line somewhere. At a family member's house. Can you really absorb knowledge in those environments and abbreviated time-frames?  Yes. For those who know their future depends on it, they will take in knowledge and sharpen their skills in the unlikeliest of places.  But how can we increase the odds?  How about taking that tablet to sit under a tree?  Let a couple buses go by before boarding.  If the kids are playing a video game, time to play one of your own on your own device.  I can't count how many articles I've read while walking the dog or pushing a stroller.  I'm not a great multi-tasker, but where there's a will, there's a way. 

Does size matter?
Allegedly, it doesn't. But is it really feasible to navigate the web's content on a handheld device? On a tablet, yes. But a smartphone? Another yes.  This is another one to chalk up to sheer will with an assist from advances in engineering. Expanding and scrolling with the ease and quickness of a couple swipes has become second nature to most mobile device users, especially those who use it as their primary computer.  These days, programmers are able to make a window or a media player conform to the size of the screen of a device depending on the operating system and browser.  In other words, size isn't really an issue if the material is recently updated and optimized for that particular device.

I'll go a step further and say that mobile devices often function better as media players than they do for registering student performance on practice questions. There are some flash-card type apps out there, but they're pretty sparsely designed, light on instruction or any real depth.  Tooting GED Academy's horn again here... it's probably our Flash animated video lessons that are really digestible in the mobile context, ideally with a pair of headphones.  When the audio is the focus, size does not matter.  In fact, it enables multitasking and squeezing in more time with instructional content during learners' otherwise overcrowded schedules.    

When the People Lead...
A nifty thing happens with distance learning in adult education when programs actually put the tools in their learners' hands: the learners sometimes build a different program model than what program managers and instructors would have prescribed.  Whatever informs our past experiences and set opinions about the capabilities of adult learners to benefit from technology, there is always an unpredictable variable, sometimes several.  No matter how clumsy the navigation may be with one program or another on a tablet or a smartphone, it may still serve as a vital opportunity for someone needing access to education.  Learners who claim their phone or their tablet as their home computer will often bend over backwards to make their tools and software suit their situation.  I'm talking about the indomitable human spirit that sometimes erupts like a volcano or lashes out like a cornered jaguar.

Not to be too dramatic, mind you.  But, this basically fits into one of Malcolm Knowles assumptions of adult learner motivation that make Androgogy such a different approach to education than pedagogy:
Adults need to be responsible for their decisions on education; involvement in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (Self-concept).
Control! Mobile learners want to determine where and when they learn.  Taking that away from them is about as wise as reaching into your dog's bowl during meal-time.  And why shouldn't adult learners determine the terms of their education?  There are over 40 million of them in the US. We're serving a tiny sliver of them in our classrooms.  If we want to expand, we need to meet learners where they're at (which isn't necessarily visiting our offices for assessments, counseling and classroom learning).     

Now You Go
So, I've done a 180 on mobile learning. The technology and the learners are steadily convincing me. Heck, a few years ago I wouldn't have guessed that I'd get so much utility out of my phone as I do now. What kind of mobile learning is producing results for you? What unexpected findings have you come across in your facilitation or management of mobile learning. Are you still on the fence? That's fine. So am I.  But, I'm happily watching learners bypassing that boundary of their own accord. 

PS:  I asked Twitter about iPads in adult ed, and the first recommendation that came back was this link to how NOT to use iPads as a learning tool. 



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