I was sitting in a meeting recently listening to a presenter from a major media company talk about mobile device usage by kids. The crowd quickly reacted to the “dated” data on apps and devices, hankering for more up to date information. The data was only a year old, but in the rapidly moving space of mobile media, that data is already stale. While some may lament the rapid pace of change that seems to leave devices themselves to become quickly dated, I see the vast opportunities that this rapid change has created for both developers and users of mobile applications. We’ve come a long way in the last ten years, creating a norm that requires justification for developing applications for anything other than mobile platforms. That is a dramatic shift from the questions we faced a decade ago, which forced us to justify our pursuit of learning applications on what we now recognize as primitive mobile devices.
Just what is “mobile” in this context? I recently passed by a wheeled cart with half a dozen desktop computers complete with giant CRT monitors. The cart had a big sign labeling it as a “Mobile Computer Lab”. This is not mobile. Laptops aren’t mobile in this context either. Mobility requires the ability to casually use a device on the go — without sitting down. While this may seem arbitrary it is important in that it influences the way we use these devices. They aren’t only for long focused sessions, but can also be used for bite–sized interactions taking place for mere seconds in the context of some other related (or unrelated) activity. This is the first of several defining factors that Kurt Squire and I (Klopfer & Squire 2007) outlined as being unique affordances of mobile devices for learning. The relevance of these five affordances has only increased over time.
• portability — can take the computer to different sites and move around within a location
• social interactivity — can exchange data and collaborate with other people face to face
• context sensitivity — can gather data unique to the current location, environment, and time, including both real and simulated data
• connectivity — can connect handhelds to data collection devices, other handhelds, and to a common network that creates a true shared environment
• individuality — can provide unique scaffolding that is customized to the individual’s path of investigation.
The devices we had at hand at the time were stylus driven Palms and brand new color Pocket PCs that allowed us to use wireless connectivity or GPS (but not both simultaneously). We were convinced that these devices would some day be ubiquitous enough where the benefits of these devices could be realized inside the classroom and out. Teachers liked the simplicity and students liked the personalized experience. Surely the day would come when every kid would have a Palm or Pocket PC in their hand.
While we may not have bet on the exact right horse, that day of ubiquitous access to mobile devices is almost upon us — if only schools wouldn’t ban them. Yet, the scale of success of mobile platforms, as well as the kinds of applications and modes of interaction, are well beyond what I could have expected. This came from both developers and users embracing mobile for its affordances, rather than trying to scale down full sized apps to a smaller screen. I remember when satirical newspaper, The Onion, released their Palm app with the slogan “The Onion just got smaller and harder to read.” But that is indeed what happened, and still continued to happen to some degree.
Early developers of games on mobile platforms struggled to figure out how they would get their games to work on these devices without a D– Pad (four or eight way controller found on many mobile and fixed gaming consoles). Even many of the early iPhone games tried to figure out ways to make use of an onscreen D– Pad. But then games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, which were uniquely suited to the touch screen started to emerge. These were games that used the mobile interface to their advantage and helped developers and users realize that we should design for these devices, not around them. Now the tables have been turned and makers of gaming consoles are trying to figure out how to incorporate some of the mobile interaction style into their own platforms. It turns out that in many ways mobile devices are easier to use for many tasks that take into account personal information, location, and more natural interactions like touch and voice. This allows the user/learner to focus on what they are doing instead of how they are doing it.
The experiences and activities in this book are not ones that have been designed to work around the shortcomings of mobile devices, but rather are designed to take advantage of what is special and unique about them. They are also leading the field into new directions
that show what is powerful, interesting and unique about mobile learning. They also start to tackle what is perhaps the biggest challenge posed by mobile devices in the space of learning — turning consumers into producers.
Mobile devices have many affordances, they have come at a cost to date. Limited methods of input, storage and many so– called “walled gardens” (heavily restricted methods of software distribution) have made smartphones and tablets ideal media consumption devices, but often less suited to production. Empowering the next “creative class” necessitates breaking that barrier and insuring that young people have opportunities to consume great media, but also have the opportunity to produce it.
Again, the authors in this volume start to tackle that problem, both in the ways that extend the experience beyond the software on the screen and allowing students to create that software themselves.
The best days of mobile learning are still ahead. I fully expect this modality to move closer to the center in the coming years, and the authors in this volume will lead the way.
Ten years ago, Roy Pea and Jeremy Roschelle predicted that the story of mobile media (called handheld computers at the time) would ultimately come down to this: Will educators confront scenarios of radical decentralizing–
where learners might pursue passions and interests in an entirely uncoordinated way (and somehow coordinate them) or will the availability of these massive data exhausts that emanate from our lives– captured through portable devices– create Orwellian scenarios in which administrators know everything about students’ lives?
This story is still unfolding, but clearly these are themes that educators wrestle with. What excites me about the work in this volume is the innovative ways that educators are wrestling with these challenges. Place and story can hold together groups of learners and be the springboard for coordinated activity. Learners can take control of their own data, and become more empowered participants in their own learning. Although we still are working on these issues, as a field, we’ve come a long way since those early forays with handheld computers.
The story of how this book comes about reflects these same tensions. Over the past decade, groups at MIT, Wisconsin, and Harvard have been discovering new ideas, trying out radical innovations, and coming back to share our work. This decentralized, mucking around has been held together by a sense of common purpose, good will, and a lot of trust, and watching this group develop, evolve, and now begin making an impact on the world is a real pleasure to see. I might trace the history of this book to a conversation among Walter Holland, Eric Klopfer, Philip Tan and myself at MIT, where we were imagining the future of educational games (others would have their own ways of tracing the story). Could we build educational games that used the real world as a game board, using digital devices to layer a fictitious world around it? For me, this idea came to fruition when Jim Mathews designed Dow Day as a class project, suggesting to me the pedagogical potential of this technology.
I vividly recall watching Gunnar Harboe, an MIT Undergraduate trying to get a GPS fix on his hacked together PDA, and thinking, “No way that this is in schools within the decade.” Within that decade, we now can point to students making games for such devices, which are becoming nearly ubiquitous. There’s a lesson in Moore’s law here worth reflecting on.
This book contains a lot of stories of people doing amazing things. Most of them were accomplished by people doing unusual things. Microsoft investing in learning technologies on a long–term horizon. Eric Klopfer collaborating with Henry Jenkins at MIT, and then with Wisconsin and Harvard, and each having the trust and goodwill to maintain a solid collaboration over multiple years and projects.
Two small, unusual, but critical things that occurred at Wisconsin were: 1) Mark Wagler joining our team, bringing decades of experience as a master teacher experienced in place–based and critical learning, and 2) Collaborating with David Gagnon and DoIT to run ARIS through central University IT rather than a research lab. The thinking behind this was, “If we run ARIS through University IT, maybe the University will institutionalize ARIS, and maybe other Universities (with a similar IT infrastructure) will be able to adopt it as well.
As we watch the number of mobile games grow exponentially, I’m confident that this was the right decision. “Letting something go” meant losing any semblance of control over it, and the trade–off has clearly been worth it. I hope that readers sense the spirit of inclusion and collaboration that pervades all of this work (which I trace in no small part to Eric Klopfer), and feel welcomed to join by playing, or making mobile media learning (or art) experiences on their own.