Teaching in the Wireless Cloud
By Bryan Alexander, Mon Apr 07 16:26:00 EEST 2003

Students with mobile devices are slowly redefining some fundamental campus rules.

During the 1990s, American colleges gradually admitted instructional technology into campus life. Now these schools are catching the m-learning wave, building wireless infrastructures, and experimenting with pilot programs. New ways of learning are emerging as wireless education unfolds.

The most controversial instance of m-learning occurs in the traditional classroom, when students gain access to wireless connectivity. Some professors report frustration at students' wandering attention, as Minesweeper or instant messages become more attractive than a lecture. A Texas law professor went so far as to climb a ladder to disconnect a wireless access point. Others turn to technologies that beam students' desktops to a projector, using the threat of embarrassment as attention enforcement.

Different instructors feel constructively challenged by the wireless environment. They consider wandering attention as feedback on their classroom presence, a goad to energize their presentation. They welcome wirelessly enhancing the Internet's already established educational benefits: googling a topic for deeper information, posting to discussion fora, exploring on-line class materials, producing better notes and compositions.

Portable computing experiments have also struck the classroom. The University of Minnesota Duluth has taught several computer science classes using PocketPCs, where faculty and TAs wrote eighty applications for students' iPaqs, then added reference materials for CS-1511. Students learned with these tools, while collaborating via handheld email and beaming. East Carolina University medical students stored, annotated, and shared medical information on Visors. They appreciated improved note-taking (making up for proverbially bad handwriting) and ready-to-hand references. Virginia Tech deployed a simulation game to Cybiko handholds in 2002.

Students equipped with mobile and wireless devices are reshaping the classroom environment. Spaces structured by static rows of computer desks, with screens or bulky monitors blocking views, are increasingly obsolete. Instead students can sit where they like, depending on the instructor's flexibility. A class can change quickly from a lecture to a small group discussion or lab format, while retaining the full powers of computer-mediated communication. Instructors project notes on a wall, talking through a sequence of points, then break the class up to pursue team projects or discussions. In my experience, learners quickly arrange themselves in ways conducive to their comfortable conversation and writing, rather than following the dictates of pre-arranged furniture (which is often hostile to the best learning).

As educational spaces change, so does learning time. The traditional class works on a two-step information access schedule, alternating between an isolated classroom and an out-of-class connection to the full world of information via libraries and the internet. Always-on connectivity allows learners to blur those two modes, hitting the internet on demand or in mid-discussion, texting classmates (and instructors) at any time.

Outside the classroom, wireless connectivity's effects on a given campus' life depend on rollout strategies. Many schools have launched pilot programs in limited areas, such as a library, science building, or student center. Awareness of connectivity clouds attracts users to those spots for reasons personal (IM to friends) and academic (check class discussion). Leading the way in developing wireless practices are members of a community anchored in such locations, including reference librarians in a library, and students living in a dorm. At a broader level, other universities, such as Dartmouth and American, support extensive, even campus-wide coverage . Classroom- and library-identified work spills into the rest of college space. Research sessions take place on lawns, collaborative writing on the steps of buildings, group work distributed across an entire campus.

The notion of college as a separate space removed from the world, already weakened by the internet, is further sapped by mobile access to the world beyond the ivory tower. The campus becomes a different place when a student can connect with a content expert anywhere in the world from the steps of a gym, or compare notes with a student on another continent from a classroom doorway. The full potentials of this format are still being explored - how will faculty and student behaviors change when they can carry most of their work around in digital, connected formats, and communicate as effectively from a quad bench as from an office? How much more attractive and supported will inter-campus collaborative learning become?

Also attractive are colleges' open networks, allowing any user within range to grab connectivity, frosh and hackers alike. Some campuses, like Berkeley, insist on a login and password, offering one layer of defense. Such networks are also internally open, allowing independent networks to emerge, given the ease of setting up access/broadcast points and the prevalence of cable and other broadband connections in student housing. In some cases IT staff wardrive their own campuses, identifying rogue connectivity clouds.

m-learning shifts the educational center of gravity towards students, raising fundamental and practical questions about learning for every instructor and campus. Teacher training programs, which are still introducing basic pedagogical techniques for the wired internet, generally, while smartmobbing students arrive on campus bringing an increasing number of years spent using cell phones and texting to coordinate their lives. A new generation gap opens between teacher and student along an increasingly different set of expectations about space, time, and social mores.

What Next: The Mobile Infoscape and Swarm Learning?

Vernor Vinge's award-winning 2002 story "Fast Times at Fairmont High" explores what an always-on, ubiquitous learning high school could look like in 2020. We can extrapolate as well:

Learning applications for mobile computing. Quizzes and assessments are already available for handhelds. More complex e-learning tools, such as simulations and virtual environments, can be ported to these machines, activating the concentration shown by GameBoy and N-Gage players.

Digitally tagged real world objects. Geolocated data or "augmented reality" should allow students to explore real world environments linked to digital information . "34North, 118 West" has proven that stories can be told by storing information in physical locations, accessible via TabletPC and GPS. Imagine annotating urban sites by class coordinates, turning a city into syllabus material.

Swarm learning. One classic purpose of a university is the co-location of experts and students, together with physical information (libraries). M-learning can amplify this model, if interested persons can contact and hook up with experts and co-learners nearby and around the world, gaining access to digital and physical content. This suggests "swarm" behavior, where multiple members of a distributed group coalesce on a single point. Experts can put out a digital shingle, awaiting learners, who search for teachers' profiles. The ubiquitous environment enables educational swarming at a planetary level.

While these projected practices appeal, we need to remember that e-learning is an unfolding, emergent phenomenon, driven by the intersection of creative teachers, supportive staff, and the most important, technologically advanced group: students.

It's Education Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Bryan Alexander is an Associate Director at Center for Educational Technology, Middlebury College.