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Thursday, November 01, 2012

Overview of New Directions in Mobile Learning: Gamified “In the Wild” Interaction in Mobile Learning

The proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and the broad expansion of access have led to major changes in mobile learning. Two of the most significant are:
·         Relevant, multi-user, location-specific  interaction
·         Gamified learning environment (learning activities & assessments)

Mobile learning tends to be the moving target of distance education. It is not just the fact that technologies (smartphones, tablets, cloud computing, new software) is constantly changing. It’s also a matter of a rapidly evolving economy, along with significant changes in the way that people live and work.

It’s easy to feel both enthusiasm and frustration when thinking about the best way to use mobile learning for personal development, and to implement it within a higher education or professional development setting.

It does not help matters that the typical e-learning platform or learning management system tends to be extremely complex and cumbersome, not only for the organization using it, but also for the user.

A few recent (late 2012) developments have made it appear that a re-energized mobile learning approach could help simplify the entire e-learning landscape, and make learning online and at a distance manageable again.

That is not to say that one should trust all the hype; every new technology or process breakthrough is accompanied by promises. However, they are worth evaluating.

New Developments in Mobile Learning

Engagement / Gamifying Learning: “Lite” games or interactive modules that can test the learner’s understanding are ideal for focusing the learner’s attention and keeping them engaged. They are very effective with vocabulary and identification. Multiple choice, true-false, matching, and “click and select” activities translate nicely to a smartphone screen or a tablet.

Ubiquitous Access:  Using a combination of cell phone networks and wifi makes accessing content much easier than before. There are still issues with coverage, though, and most mobile content should have an option to download and store on the device.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device): Colleges and companies are accommodating the trend to “bring your own device” rather than issuing a device, or requiring uniformity. There are two very pragmatic factors at work: first, the rapid deployment of new models of smartphones and tablets make it hard to keep up; and second, the device that a learner is comfortable with is likely to increase comfort and a heightened sense of self-efficacy.

“Snack Learning”: Being able to use small chunks of available time is extremely appealing to learners who are busy and often cannot devote an entire morning or afternoon to a course. Modules that can be completed in 20 minutes or so are highly effective, not only in maintaining focus, but also contributing to course completion.   

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC):  Several universities that have a robust series of open courses have started offering “massive” courses which are open for free to anyone who signs up. What differentiates these courses from the MIT Open Courseware offerings is that they offer ongoing discussions, which allows for interaction between learners. They also include assessments, and the successful learners can print out certificates that are generated after the courses have been completed.

On the Go Assessment:  It is now possible to authenticate users who wish to take quizzes or exams with their mobile devices. This is a huge breakthrough; many online courses that required proctored exams met a great deal of user resistance because they either had to go to a proctored location or to purchase equipment that had to be installed on their laptop or desktop.  Now, authentication can take place wherever and whenever the learner wishes.

GPS-enabled Learning:  By using built-in GPS capabilities and different maps (Google earth / Google maps / Apple maps, / Mapquest, etc.), learning modules can be developed that take advantage of location and “in the wild” learning activities. For example, it’s possible to take photos of an outcrop and post it, with a label that specifies latitude and longitude. It’s also possible for students to collaborate on projects that require going to specific locations and taking readings. Using GPS is perfect for science as well as market research, market surveys, and more.

Motivating with Rewards:  Being able to check one’s answers immediately, and then receive a printout of a certificate can be extremely motivating.

Record-Keeping: Another sticking point in the past was that it was hard to record and track a learner’s progress.  Many mobile learning activities were not SCORM compliant, and it was unwieldy to track completion.  The move to simply has started to apply to SCORM compliance and recording training events. Tin Can API, a new application interface (API) promises to be able to accommodate different types of learning activities and to capture the results in the form of performance reports. It consolidates the activities into a Learning Records Store (LRS), which can be accessed at any time.

Costs and Concerns

Cost of course / module development for potentially short-lived product:  Colleges and other learning organizations have hesitated before dedicating funds to mobile learning, primarily because they fear investing in something that has a very brief shelf life. Even with a learning object approach (building courses and course content with LEGO-like reusable digital content (“objects”), it has been necessary to dedicate resources to build to fit new interfaces and to accommodate new platforms and devices.

Low completion rates:  Does it really matter if people do not complete?  In the case of open courseware, the completion rates for elearning (including mobile learning) have been as low as 3 – 5 percent. At the same time, the numbers of people who do complete have been high, since 5 percent of 100,000 users is still 5,000 individuals.  In this case, the question emerges – does it even matter if someone does not complete the course? It is not really a reflection on the quality of the product or the learning experience. Instead, low completion could be due to the fact that many people sign up who are merely curious, or who perhaps do not possess the requisite knowledge to succeed. If there are no entrance exams or any forms of gatekeeping, it’s more or less a free-for-all. For professional societies that offer mobile learning courses, or instructional apps, does it matter? One can argue that the consumer is under no obligation to actually consume their purchase, nor does a lack of consumption indicate dissatisfaction. Perhaps they prefer to warehouse their purchases. Obviously, for institutions of higher education which have to demonstrate levels of completion in order to continue to qualify for student federal financial aid, course completion rates and graduation rates are institutional survival issues.

MOOC impact:  Many colleges and universities are understandably nervous about potential ramifications of the large open courses. Will they make their own colleges and universities obsolete or irrelevant? The prevailing view is that knowledge is good, but for degree-seekers who need the credentials in order to obtain a job, the role of the accredited institution of higher learning is still important.

Big Data: Cloud computing is allowing institutions to track and record student performance and behaviors, using many of the same algorithms and approaches used in customer relations management algorithms, neural networking, and pattern mapping. The potential for determining what approaches are most effective has transformative potential.

Lack of instructor contact:   Conventional wisdom has held that students learn through interaction with each other, and guided interaction by an instructor. The instructor may not be the sage on the stage, but they are still in a position of authority as they “guide on the side.” However, the MOOCs are demonstrating what people have known all along—that people learn from each other, and that the authority or source of knowledge does not necessarily have to be present. Designed correctly, a course can allow enable students to learn and master the subject by working with each other, and reconciling their attempts with instructional materials.

Poor instructional design:  Distractions? Frittering away time on amusing, yet pointless play? Peer interaction may be of limited value if instructional design is poor. While it is true that learn from each other, the question is, what are they learning?  In a mobile learning environment, where entertainment, engagement, and interaction are privileged, along with the ability to complete tasks quickly and painlessly, it’s possible that the entertaining distraction becomes the focal point, and no one knows until the core learning objectives and course outcomes are not achieved. 

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