M-Learning 4 Generation Txt?
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Nov 04 09:15:00 GMT 2004

Forget wikis, blogs and other online learning tools -- one professor says the future of higher education is mobile.


"This generation entering our schools is immersed in cyberculture and is untethered, mobile and wirelessly connected. At colleges and universities around the world, the nomadic swarms are already arriving," says Bryan Alexander, codirector of the Center for Educational Technology at Middlebury College in Vermont. The always-on, one-handed texting, instant-messaging, multitasking generation Professor Alexander welcomes into his classes are drawn to the kind of mobile learning he has been developing, or "m-learning," as he calls it. Over the years, Alexander has used online communities, blogs and wikis to teach Gothic literature, history of the Vietnam war and Arab culture. Now he's going mobile.

The nomadic swarms are given specific instructions about other aspects of their conduct when they arrive on campus with their laptops and cell phones, but nobody instructs them on how to use the online backchannel to augment class discussion, conduct concurrent search or group note-taking during a lecture. In the absence of instruction in IT etiquette, students IM, chat, game and find their own way through the pedagogical cyberscape while lecturers try to cope. Other teachers are less enthusiastic than Alexander about the new waves of cyborg student -- like a professor in Texas Alexander cites, who climbed on a ladder and removed the Wi-Fi access point in the lecture hall before he started teaching. Rooted in the humanities and old enough to remember classrooms without Internet connections, Alexander seized upon new media as a new tool for getting students interested in older ideas.

I will never forget my first meeting with Bryan Alexander. I bet most people remember their first meeting with him. He's friendly and cheerful, sports a big, black, civil-war general (or Biblical prophet) beard, and the light of some kind of fervor burns in his eyes. Ideas excite him and he's not averse to passionate oratory. I had been invited to speak at DePauw University outside Indianapolis five or six years ago and went to dinner with a half-dozen students and professors. Alexander was one of them. The next day, I addressed a group of IT-enthused academics, including Alexander, about my experiences trying to think critically about technology while embracing its use. Since then, he and I have communicated almost daily online and even saw each other in person twice in those years. When we first met, Alexander was conducting "a multicampus, interdisciplinary, Internet-mediated intensive study of the Vietnam War and its cultural effect." More recently, he's been working with students and educating educators about the ways mobile devices can enhance, rather than distract from the learning process.

Alexander prefers "mobile" to "wireless" or "ubiquitous" because "none of these terms really grasp one key feature of the new milieu: the modeling of subjects as creative, communicative participants rather than as passive, reception-only consumers. We lack a term for describing the world as a writeable and readable service, encompassing mobile phones forming communities, P2P handheld gaming, moblogging, and uploading to RFID chips. For now, and to retain the educational focus, I’ll use m-learning."

Alexander asks us to start by understanding that mobile machines are by their nature intimate media -- they are not just untethered from the desktop, they are carried in the pocket, held in the hand, rested on the lap. Because of this intimacy, "emotional investments increase," Alexander claims, citing research to that effect: "Michele Forman, the 2001 National Teacher of the Year in the United States, notes that her high-school students became very attached to their wireless laptops. They significantly increased their personal writing and composition. Such machines become prosthetics for information, memory and creativity. Are we ready to respond to such attitudes from IT staff, instructors, and participants in the physical and information architectures of campus spaces?"

He cites as one early example a team from Umeå University in Sweden. Students who were studying the indigenous Sámi people of Northern Sweden moblogged their pictures and interviews with participants at Jokkmokk’s 399th Annual Sámi Winter Market. This blend of publishing, ethnography, and education enabled by mobile devices could introduce "yet another level of complexity" to town/gown relations, Alexander notes.

Blogs and wikis were yesterday. Moblogging is today. Tomorrow, Alexander anticipates the arrival of sensor networks, digitally tagged objects and places, augmented reality, location-based knowledge, and something Alexander calls "swarm learning."

"Perhaps we are beginning to see the emergence of learning swarms," Alexander ventures: "We already know the precursors, in the form of interested learners who appear at campus libraries and museums, driven by an experience that excited them, such as a film, a book, or a conversation. Now the socializing powers of mobility and wirelessness could expand this drive into collaboration. An interested learner could ping a network or site for learning engagement: digital objects, digitally tagged materials, learning objects, instructors, other learners and instigators. We’ve seen a part of this in the global, collaborative use of MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Are instructors ready to join in learning swarms on their specialties or to facilitate the ad hoc growth and flourishing of such learning swarms? … How should our institutions approach thinking about this possibility? Are we ready to sense which of our students arrive at our campuses with such experiences already under their belts? How do nomadic swarms work with our anthropologically sedentary campuses?"

Alexander alludes to "An Old Manuscript," Franz Kafka's story of a nomadic army's arrival in an imperial city: "The nomads arrive suddenly, surprising the urban population and appearing without warning in city streets, markets, libraries and homes. Kafka’s tale focuses on the incomprehension of the city-dwellers, as well as on their dogged willingness to attempt living life as if the nomads simply weren’t there. The story charts their progressive decay and their slipping grasp on reality while the nomads build a new civilization literally in their front yard. It’s a very funny story, in Kafka’s unique way, but of course it’s also a cautionary tale, especially for those of us in higher education. At colleges and universities around the world, the nomadic swarms are already arriving."