Learning Goes Mobile
By David James, Tue Apr 08 07:30:00 GMT 2003

A pilot program in Alberta Canada explores the new mobile dimension in education.


Bob Brown does work assignments for his accounting course just about anywhere or anytime - on a bus, in the school cafeteria, between classes, or while waiting to be picked up for hockey practice. He uses his Compaq iPAQ PDA to complete a number of Flash interactive accounting exercises - making journal entries, creating financial statements, logging sales transactions - and to send questions and comments to his instructor and other students. No down time for Brown. He's a guy on the go.

Brown and some 300 other men and women students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, are part of the groundbreaking Mobile Learning Pilot Project now underway there. The project is bringing a new dimension to the growing popularity and importance of distance learning education. While distance learning programs now deliver interactive education to desktops over wired connections in remote locations around the world, NAIT's Mobile Learning Pilot Project is one of the first to explore the potential of wireless mobile learning.

Working Together for a Change

Education is one of the few human endeavors that brings together public and private interests - governments, universities and corporations - in a collaborative and synergistic manner. The Mobile Learning Pilot Project is an excellent example of this. The project is sponsored by a mix of public and private organizations, a consortium consisting of two educational institutions (NAIT in Edmonton and Seneca College in Toronto), a leading high tech company (Hewlett-Packard), an educational publisher (McGraw-Hill Ryerson), a wireless telecom (Bell Mobility), an educational software developer (Blackboard Inc.), an IT consulting services firm (Cap Gemini Ernst & Young Canada), and a network services company (Avaya Inc.). And the project will soon gain access to Alberta's SuperNet, a unique government initiative that is rolling out a high-speed fibre optic and wireless broadband network throughout the province.

"Enabling students to access relevant materials when working on a subject - anytime, anywhere - is a marvelous enrichment of the learning process," says Sam Shaw, President of NAIT, where the project team likes to describe mobile learning as "harvesting fragments of learning time." Terry Verity, Chief Information Officer of Seneca College, adds, "Instructors have raved about the fact that students can have access to quizzes, videos, journal entries and chapter reviews anytime and anywhere."

A beta test of the project was conducted in the summer of 2002. Students, connecting with the Bell Mobility wireless network in Edmonton, accessed selected content on iPAQ PDAs, utilized instant messaging, and shared digital video and audio content. The project was formally commenced in September 2002. Research results are expected in the late spring of 2003.

According to Shaw, the project will help educators develop strategies to enable better learning. The project is focusing on various pedagogical and administrative aspects of mobile learning. On the pedagogical side, the project will help educators understand what types of content and materials can be effectively delivered to mobile devices and effectively used by students. On the administrative side, Shaw believes that the project will bring to light numerous student services applications - from searching library catalogs to registering for courses.

One Size Does Not Fit All

A major objective of the project is to determine how course content can best be delivered to a mobile device - and what types of devices and applications are best suited for mobile learning. "We anticipate that a single device will not be appropriate for all courses," Shaw says. He explains that while a PDA might work well for online quizzes and exercises for an accounting course and for field surveys for a marketing course, it might not be appropriate for landscaping and architectural design courses that require drawing and manipulative 3D software. Design courses might require a more powerful device with a larger screen. "We expect to see a diversity of devices and applications used in mobile learning," Shaw says.

Michael Humke, Hewlett-Packard's Director of Higher Education, agrees. "There won't be just one device that will be right for all mobile learning courses. The best device might be a PDA - or a Tablet PC - or a laptop," he says. "But the Tablet PC, with wireless and full textbook capabilities and a large screen that a student can draw and write on, has tremendous promise for many mobile learning uses."

Some mobile learning specialists worry that expensive and complex devices will be a significant impediment to learning for many students. Humke thinks otherwise. He believes that mobile learning devices will be affordable and will provide exceptional educational value. As to complexity, he doesn't see a problem. "Students today are fearless when it comes to technology. Give them a few minutes, and they'll figure out how to use any new device or application."

Governments Lend a Hand

Governments are increasingly involved in supporting mobile learning - in promoting mobile learning educational programs and in developing networks for high-speed wireless access. Alberta's SuperNet will provide high-speed wireless access not only to government offices, schools, health-care facilities and libraries but also to the mobile devices of countless students.

In Finland, the Ministry of Education is implementing a virtual study system - wired and wireless - that will provide distance learning to students independent of their place of study or residence. A "virtual university" has been launched as a joint project of the National Board of Education, the Finnish National Broadcasting Company, the Finnish National Fund for Research and Development, and others.

In Ireland, the Department of Public Enterprise is rolling out high-speed fibre optic and wireless networks throughout the country for educational and commercial purposes in a program that will extend access to all towns with populations over 1,500. In Singapore, where broadband connectivity is already in place, the Ministry of Education is helping to finance programs to place educational content online and to provide high-speed access to students in school and at home.

The good news for Bob Brown and other mobile students is that they will be able to do course work anywhere and anytime. But there will be fewer excuses for failing to complete it.

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

David James (djames@bsicorp.net) is president of Business Strategies International, a San Francisco-based consulting and venture-development firm specializing in technology business opportunities.