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The End of the mLearning Revolution PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chris Nash on Friday, 03 July 2009

Chris NashTeacher and learning consultant, Chris Nash, takes a long cold look at how the mLearning revolution failed to deliver on its promise of personalised anytime, anywhere learning. Instead, he suggests, it has become subsumed into delivering the same drill and kill techniques of other technology based learning or ironically, "mobile learning in a classroom".

Can it be saved?

‘Today I learnt – you want me to do it your way’

If you haven’t come across the YouTube video ‘No Future Left Behind’, then I suggest you watch now. The video is a student voice piece by pupils of the New York teacher, Peggy Sheehy expressing their opinions on where the future of their education should lie. What has driven such a passionate response in me is the way it addresses so many of the key themes that have been central to my most recent technology lectures. They are effectively commenting on the gulf between what they value as learning experiences and what is being currently delivered to them. This is quite obviously a response to the recent No Child Left Behind Act which set out raise national standards based on rigourous assessment of basic skills but as is often the case has led to the criticism that it merely encourages teachers to ‘teach to the test’.

The pupils in the video respond by expressing their learning values: ‘Let me build it; Let me photograph it; Let me sing it; Let me record it; Let me dance it; Let me program it; Let me explain it; Let me paint it; Let me play it; LET ME SHOW YOU WHAT I CAN REALLY DO!’

Corporate teaching with corporate devices?

If PDA’s were seen as the answer of how to address the personalisation agenda, then how have we ended up replicating the same traditional, Victorian teaching methods?

Watching a lesson where 30 kids are doing identical tasks on their PDA’s does not deliver choice even if they have options for choice of input method (text, image, sound). Learning styles is not merely about which tool you use to capture you thoughts but also about the environment in which people find it conducive to learn and the ways in which we are more successful in processing stimuli or information.

The excitement about how portable and ubiquitous technologies might change traditional teaching methods should have centred around the widening opportunities to inspire and capture learning as it occurs rather than looking at it as an opportunity to deliver a vague notion of ‘personalised learning’ through 1:1 access whilst maintaining the traditional ‘front of class’ Blue Peter approach to teaching.

I am constantly reminded of that awful phrase that I heard time and time again when I was learning French at secondary school in the Language Lab (remember those?); ‘Écoute et répète’ – listen and repeat.

Worse still we ended up with this notion of ‘the classroom in a box’ as one education technology company described their mobile learning offering whilst purporting to promote ‘Anytime Learning’.

Choice of access

My own son has recently been revising for his KS2  tests – on YouTube!

When I asked him why he chose this platform he said it was because it was so easy to search and access relevant information and he was able to do this in the sitting room on our media centre, in bed on his PSP or in the car on the way to school on my mobile. All of these platforms allowed him to also take notes and clippings using web docs and share these with friends or access them from any of his preferred platforms.

So how is the UK establishment responding to the issues of improving learning with technology?

We have witnessed recently a huge rollout of vast amounts of expensive technology imposed on schools with little notion of choice or appropriateness combined with a poor understanding of likely impact.
As in the US with their handheld technology we have resorted to try to teach each child to learn using mind mapping software on a 2.8” screen.

We also have the fallacy of Home Access. When most kids already own multiple devices and broadband connectivity is at 70% we are throwing money at homes to accept technology with no thought to training or sustainability, or even if it’s really desired.

What is more concerning is the number of classrooms without adequate connectivity or technology and the schools that are still reluctant to embed it. It’s no longer about choice – it is a requirement for providing an appropriate landscape for learning now and into the future.

Moving towards a common set of digital tools for learning

What is clear is that in order to allow for true, ubiquitous access to learning opportunities, institutions should not be dictating the choice of technology and that learners should be given more flexibility to decide which tool is appropriate for them to maximise their learning.

This will have a massive impact on how successfully this can be embedded into the classroom and current teaching practice unless we focus on a common set of tools.

And guess what? 

The technology is already there. Nearly every new piece of technology that comes onto the market now is blending these common set of tools. The new Nintendo DSi now has a browser and camera (just missing voice capture), portable navigation devices are now incorporating media players, the Nintendo Wii can be turned into an interactive whiteboard and cameras and camcorders are embedding GPS and WiFi technology.

All is rosy in the garden

Kew gardens are looking to understand how to develop more appropriate and ubiquitous technology access to their rich learning environment by bringing it down to technologies lowest common requirements/toolset and working up from there. As a result they are looking at developing a program of access based on the ability to capture voice, image and text on any device (be it a camera, Dictaphone, mp3 player or Nintendo DSi ) and share it on a common web platform. They have recognised the importance of memory in the learning cycle and that presenting back captured ideas after the event is critical in embedding the students learning.

They are also looking at students can design their own technology interaction prior to the visit so that the whole learning experience is set in context and the study visit is not merely learning in isolation with little relevance and impact.

‘Prepare me for my future’

So what does the future hold in store for us?

It depends on how closely we decide to listen to the learners and provide the appropriate ways to meet their needs. They are just as passionate about learning as we are about teaching – the difference is that they are the ones doing the learning and should have a better understanding of what stimulates them to learn.

For me, no one can sum this up better than those students from Peggy Sheehy’s Tech Club at Suffern Middle School:
‘I know how to memorise – teach me how to think’
‘I know how to recite – teach me how to create’
‘We are not cheating – we’re collaborating’
‘We’re not lazy – we’re bored!’
‘Outside of school we’re there already’

Chris NashChris Nash has been involved in education for over 20 years as a classroom practitioner, local authority advisor, senior education consultant for Steljes Ltd and currently works as a freelance consultant and lectures in ICT and Teaching and Learning at Roehampton University.

Chris has been involved in pioneering teaching and learning through handheld devices since 2002 and has a passion for innovating with new technologies along with a deep pedagogical understanding of how these technologies can have a profound impact on the way we teach and learn.

About the Author

Comments from the forum:
The End of the mLearning Revolution
SUMS_Online    July 3rd, 2009 - 1:40 PM
Hi Chris,

Don't confuse the device and the learning. Learning Platforms will provide the functionality and scope to allow students and teachers together to create rich learning experiences. Mobile devices are just one of the many ways that students will access the LPs. Sometimes they will also work locally to the device where connectivity is not available, or where that is the right thing to do.

I love Dudley, for example, where Primary pupils hang their eeePCs in bags on the backs of their chairs and get them out when they feel the need, no different to a pencil.

Whole local authories are completing training staff in hundreds of schools using Moodle, StudyWiz, Fronter, Kaleidos etc. It has taken a long time but the payoff is coming.

This is happening very fast and can be demonstrated with many real school examples with a wide range of devices.

I get fed up with forums where the richness of this is immediately put down by oh so clever remarks about particular hated devices and technologies? The point is that for those who actually bother to travel the country and talk to teachers, Learning Platforms and mobile devices are all part of the same picture - and it is a good one so we can be positive.

I will also bet that someone introduces an iPhone killer at £120 or less before long and the volumes that go into schools will be enormous.

Best wishes,

The End of the mLearning Revolution
jont    July 6th, 2009 - 9:06 AM
I dont believe mlearning has failed to deliver on its promise(yet) however its quite possible that a lot of people  have failed to make the most of the affordances of available technologies and sometimes forget the technologies that facilitate mobile learning are not always themselves mobile.

I think one of problems with mLearning is the ubiquity of use is less obvious as it can occur on so many devices.

Whats happening with mobile has parallels with many early uses of VLEs, where a technology was initially used as a repository for existing (boring) materials until people got used to the mechanics of the process and the potential of the platform then  new, exciting and rich uses emerged.

Re: The End of the mLearning Revolution
Stu    July 8th, 2009 - 8:47 PM
Thought provoking article. It's brought out the evangelist in me and I've posted some musings on my blog... or should that be preachings.

It also means I have to rework some of my presentation for tomorrow at the Telling Tales event... oh well!  Smiley
Re: The End of the mLearning Revolution
maximise    July 6th, 2009 - 12:38 PM
The 'failure' of mLearning is down to a number of things.  In the UK the Home Access Programme, for instance, has only just completed its pilot stage.  We know that there will be many valuable lessons learnt from that.
Another serious problem is that the expectation, by Becta, that all schools should have a VLE up and running by Spring 2008 patently did not happen.  In fact I was appalled to discover that in one school that had a VLE, the children did not know anything about it!

But perhaps the most important lesson that some understand but politicians fail to accept is that mLearning embraces a whole new mind-set for many teachers and particularly the older staff and those in positions of influence.  The truth is that we need a massive amount of INSET in order to make whole-school policy decisions about how we manage teaching and learning.   And inevitably the whole influence of the examination boards is critical.

Obviously where schools have a good VLE and 100% home/mobile access we can begin to establish the sort of practice that mLearning involves.  However, even where only one or two pupils do not have mobile access, teachers cannot really be expected to prepare two different lesson plans for every single class they teach.

Inevitably what has happened in many schools is that teachers are still delivering  within their comfort zone.  To ask all teachers to start with a completely different classroom management style, to admit that the pupils could go off in directions in which the teachers are not familiar, to ensure that all resources are equally available to all platforms is a very big ask for teachers.  Perhaps this is an example of the old adage of the farmer and the tourist, “If you want to go there, I wouldn’t start from here.”

As much as the American YouTube videos might clearly exemplify one scenario, we know that almost anything can be found in America or even Russia.  We could provide examples of outstanding practice from some of our UK schools – but, helpful as they might be, there are too many teachers in too many schools who feel that they are being asked to build pyramids without straw and without any vision of the finished product.

So, in my book mLearning has not ‘failed’ but is currently making slow progress.  We need more evangelists who can communicate and demonstrate the mLearning vision - and those schools seriously lagging behind need extra support.
The End of the mLearning Revolution
chrisnash    July 6th, 2009 - 8:09 PM
I hate to use such a tired and hackneyed phrase as 'Only a bad workman blames his tools...' but that really was my thrust.

There are many exciting and engaging technologies out there that stimulate students learning and offer different ways to interact with the world, and actually there are many teachers out there brave enough to have a go at offering a more student-centric curriculum based on a more personal access to learning, it's just that there are equally as many people, be it politicians, commercial organisations, or senior education advisers who make it so damned difficult to thrive and make it so easy to slip into Victorian teaching practices because ultimately the results are more 'measurable'.

What is clear is that as the range of communication technologies available continues to diversify and mutate, so must the ways in which we facilitate learning if we are to keep our students engaged and motivated and with a chance of surviving in our rapidly changing world.

As educators I really do feel as though we are running out of time. Most recently I have been stunned by the capability of the youngest learners when working with technology, handheld or otherwise. The speed of adoption is so rapid and the numbers in any given cohort able to come quickly up to speed with this way of working is increasing each year. As these technologies become even more familiar to the younger generations we are endanger of the education astablishment losing sight of them as they romp off over the digital horizon!

They will use the technology anyway - we need to ensure that it is used to its best effect to enhance learning opportunities through greater access and develop collaboration and critical thinking through effective communication tools.

And yes training is critical - just not another round of NOF -
The End of the mLearning Revolution
Marshal    July 17th, 2009 - 4:31 PM
Often I find it difficult to work out how we communicate with the great mass of teachers and other educational decision makers out there. I think sometimes we use language that pleases us but doesn't help our cause; in this case 'revolution'. I'm not at all clear that a there's been any sort of revolution but I do know that it's a word with some very negative baggage. What might an m-learning revolution look like? I imagine it would sweep out the old and bring in the new - that's what revolutions do and it's why they are so hard to sell to teachers. The 'old' is what they have been doing for anything up to 30 years and they have seen 'revolutions' come and go - some hardly touch them, they may never even know they exist or they are dealt with by ignoring them until they go away, while others leave blood on the floor. Neither is a good experience.

I guess I don’t think that there's any technology either here or on the horizon that will revolutionise teaching and learning - short perhaps of being able to implant knowledge and skills directly into the brain. We have had a stream of revolutionary technology applied to education since the start of the 20th century and none of it has had a measurable effect on outcome.

To get the full potential out of mLearning, or extended schools, or learning in the workplace or any new (or recycled) pedagogy we need both government and the profession behind it. To get /any/ potential we at least need to freedom to try these ideas out and we still exist in a quite prescriptive system which makes it difficult to do that - and any educational 'experimentation' is fraught will ethical considerations too.

I don’t think we've missed the mLearning revolution at all, I think there's lots of little revolutions going on in individual schools and we hear about them right here. If those early adopters can demonstrate to both government and profession that there's good stuff here and that it's practically transferable  then we might hope it will be more widely used. But we need to accept that it might take a long time and that some other shiny new tool might come along in the meantime and overtake it.

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