Mlearning: More than just a passing craze

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PDAIn response to our recent feature which asked whether mobile learning was just a passing fad, Jill Attewell of The Mobile Learning Network says mlearning is evolving and making a valuable contribution to further education.

Recently TrainingZone.co.uk ran an article headlined 'Whatever happened to the mlearning craze?' which suggested that mobile learning "will probably fade into obscurity".

My immediate response to this is that firstly, mobile learning is anything but a passing craze. And secondly, in answer to the question 'whatever happened to?', it is very much happening.

Admittedly, behind the headline was a fair and balanced article by TrainingZone.co.uk technology editor John Stokdyk, geared very much to the commercial training world.

But it is worth pointing out that in the further education and training sector, mlearning – using hand-held devices such as mobile phones, ipods and other portable multimedia players to support teaching and learning - is steadily evolving.

The development of mobile learning

You only have to look at the way mobile learning is developing in England's further education colleges and in work-based learning.

Photo of Jill Attewell"In the further education and training sector, mlearning – using hand-held devices such as mobile phones, ipods and other portable multimedia players to support teaching and learning - is steadily evolving."

The Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET) is the biggest and most diverse implementation of mobile learning in the UK, and probably the world.

Over £12m is being invested in MoLeNET by the Learning and Skills Council and partnerships led by further education colleges.

In 2007/8 this programme has involved 32 projects run by colleges, and a support and evaluation programme led by the Learning and Skills Network (LSN), an independent not-for-profit organisation which conducts research and delivers staff development to schools, colleges and private training providers. Further projects will be supported in 2008/9.

On 18 September MoLeNET will be holding a dissemination conference in London called Mobile Learning in Practice.

The conference aims to provide a fantastic opportunity to find out how teachers and learners have made mlearning work. It is also an opportunity for institutions to learn more about the MoLeNET programme and how they could be part of it in 2008/9.

Earlier projects including the EU funded mlearning research and development project led by LSN - in which mobile learning was piloted in the classroom, on field trips and in the community - had positive responses from tutors.

Benefits cited include adding another dimension or resource to teaching. And they found that the interactivity of mobile learning can encourage student involvement and engagement, as well as being fun to use.

Mobile technologies were found to be a good 'hook' with which to re-engage disaffected youth. Teachers and researchers concluded that mobile learning could be utilised as part of a blended learning approach providing different types of activities and supporting the learning process.

Positive findings

Fast forwarding to the present, a recent survey of teachers involved in MoLeNET projects finds them equally upbeat.

When asked: 'has using mobile technology helped your students to learn?', 73% said yes, 25% said sometimes, and only 2% said no.

Similar proportions felt that using mobile technology made learning more interesting, while 89% of teachers said they would like to use mobile technology in the future. I would stress that this survey, taken last July, is just a snapshot, with 112 teachers and 902 learners involved in MoleNET responding, and we need to do more in-depth research. But to me, this doesn't sound like mobile learning fading into obscurity.

MoLeNET's mlearning projects are making progress in helping us to understand how mobile learning can be used effectively – and in very diverse ways.

Some of these projects have focused on its use for learning in the workplace. Boston College's MoLeNET project, for example, has included research to assess the impact of mlearning with apprentices in rural Lincolnshire.

"When asked: 'has using mobile technology helped your students to learn?', 73% said yes, 25% said sometimes, and only 2% said no. Similar proportions felt that using mobile technology made learning more interesting... this doesn't sound like mobile learning fading into obscurity."

The college has been innovative in its use of technology to overcome rural isolation and reach learners.

Its catchment area also has high levels of social and economic deprivation. Accessibility to learning opportunities, information, advice and guidance, coupled with low aspirations have been identified as local barriers to learning.

Under this MoLeNET project, mobile learning was used to enable young people to undertake apprenticeships in a range of vocational subjects across Lincolnshire, while also helping to address the lack of assessors to cover such a wide geographical area.

Motor vehicle and electrical engineering apprentices have been using Smart phones to gather evidence of their learning in the workplace for storage as an e-portfolio, which is easily accessible to themselves and assessors.

Anecdotally, learners said not only do they find using mobile devices more enjoyable, but also they find the quality of evidence gathered in this way towards their qualifications is much more substantial.

Apprentices also have induction content installed on their PDAs, as well as information and guidance relating to assessment criteria.

"There has been some anecdotal evidence to date that learners' levels of motivation and engagement are increased when using mobile devices," says the college's evaluation report.

Further examples

In another MoLeNET work-based learning project - Mobile Learning 4 Those Who Care – Bourneville College in Birmingham has been working with people employed in the health and social care sector, many of whom have difficulty accessing online support due to lack of ICT in the workplace and at home.

Chichester College and Sussex Downs College have been jointly investigating the use of mobile technologies in trying to address poor completion rates among apprentices.

Hair and beauty trainees have used mini-laptops to access online learning materials, those in health and social care have accessed learning using hand-held gaming consoles, while apprentices and tutors in motor vehicle and construction used head cameras to collect evidence and film and replay workshop techniques.

There are many more examples, too numerous to detail here, which will be celebrated and shared at our conference.

We are still analysing all the data from year one projects and year two is just beginning so the MoLeNET programme is still very much a work in progress.

However, we believe its research findings and the experiences of the learners and teachers involved in MoLeNET projects will contribute to the development of mobile learning in all sorts of innovative ways, and all sorts of learning environments.

Mlearning is not a passing craze. It's very much part of the future of teaching and learning.

Jill Attewell is the programme manager for MoLeNET and leads LSN's Technology Enhanced Learning Research Centre. For further information see www.molenet.org.uk and http://www.lsneducation.org.uk/research/TEL.

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