Handheld Learning 2009, Day 2:Where Is the Handheld Learning? Part II


 Day 2 of Handheld Learning 2009 and the first day of the conference part featured a variety of speakers. Funny (or ironic) part, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about mobile or handheld learning, as the session titles indicate (Reflections on Learning, Creativity and Innovation, Games for Learning, Social Media for Learning). Maybe a sign of things to come??

In the afternoon I saw parts of the Games for Learning and Creativity and Innovation sessions, while trying to follow what I was missing in the other rooms online. Talk about an information overload!!

Games for Learning

I attended this session before the break, which consisted of three presentations on mobile learning games. Best one of the three was the presentation by the Waag Society on their Games Atelier project, a logical progression of their Frequency 1550 project. In Games Atelier, the concept of Frequency 1550 is still present, but Games Atelier consists of a set of tools that can be used to create your own games that can then be played. As James Gee said in his speech earlier today, you learn even more from creating/modding games than playing them.  The presenters demoed the tools, which look good but unfortunately aren’t free. They also discussed a game played with students played in New York and Amsterdam in to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the relationship between New York and Amsterdam, called the Island.

The work that’s being done by the Waag Society is some of the very best I’ve seen in mobile learning, as it takes advantage of the affordance of mobile technologies, while still being able to tie what students do on the go to classroom learning. In contrast, some handheld/mobile learning projects in which learners are stuck in the classroom with mobiles sometimes seems to be an oxymoron, as the devices aren’t even used to bring the outside world into the classroom.  

Creativity and Innovation

Phyllis Hillwig discussed Mobile Opportunities in the US. Having followed mobile learning in the US since 2001, I feel that I have a reasonably good grip on the field, and I was somewhat surprised by some of Phyllis’ statements. Most of what she said sounded very familiar to me, including the question of “how” we can be successful in the US, which is complicated because of where today’s content is created and resides, and how we pull together content, pedagogy, user experience, cognitive science (unloading working knowledge into long term), etc. I think this is a universal problem, not one that is unique to the US. In addition, she noted current trends in US education, including budget and achievement gaps, and mentioned the Koontz report, Pockets of Potential. The most surprising statement Hillwig made was that “mobile learning is not focused on much yet” in the US, despite the fact that there have been a substantial number of mobile learning projects in the US, going back to the Palm Education Pioneer Project in 2001. I do agree with her that the US can learn a lot from other countries in Europe (UK, EU countries) and Asia (e.g. Korea and Taiwan) with regards to a “mobile learning culture”. I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that term, but in the large scheme of things it seems to make sense.

Linda Hahner‘s focus was on the importance of application design that is educationally appropriate. She flew through a bunch of apps and discussed what was wrong with each of them. I wish she would have shown some examples of how things should be designed, other than pointing to her own site that, according to her, shows how things should be done. Now I’m no expert on visual design, but I do think her session could have been a little more balanced and not a “rip-the-ipod-app” diatribe.  

Naomi Norman: presented on two projects she is working on at Epic for the British Army that run on the Nintendo DS platform: one that addresses Entry Level 3 Numeracy basic skills for new recruits; the other, vehicle maintenance training for Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. While the first one, Numerika, seemed pretty basic drill and kill, Epic did a good job of researching their clientele and its needs ahead of time, providing math instruction within context, using a minimum of text (but just enough) and on a platform that makes sense for a variety of reasons (robust, portable, anywhere/anytime and opportunistic learning, motivation for repeat learning), especially when comparing it to the way math is taught currently using workbooks. The vehicle maintenance training looks like much more of a guided problem-solving tool, which is interesting because it can be used as a stand-alone or on the job.

Tony Vincent: discussed the use of iPod Touch apps to create comics (ComicTouch and Strip Designer), using images from the web (including Google Maps and Street View) and iPod Touch screenshots. For all of the details on how to do this, see Tony’s blog post. This was one of very few presentations I attended today that focused on mobile learning, and a good way to end the day. 

So what does the relative lack of focus on mobile learning at Handheld Learning 2009 mean? Maybe it’s a shift of focus in the conference itself, which makes me wonder what next year will bring. Will there be a Handheld Learning 2010 or will Learning Without Frontiers do something different, e.g. combine its three conferences into one. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it’s a sign that even those who are purely working in mobile learning need to broaden their thinking and focus more on learning with digital technologies in general. This shouldn’t be too difficult to do as there already is a tendency for mobile learning to be less self-contained on devices and more dependent on the web for content, communication, and collaboration. It all comes down to providing learners with the appropriate tools to meet their learning needs, whether these tools are mobile, web-based, or something else.

And finally, the phrase coined for the day is John Davitt’s “struggleware”: apps that make students scratch their heads and think. I don’t think we have enough of those…


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