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Classrooms Are So 20th Century: Mobile Learning Is Here

Oct 20, 2011

It's amazing the things our mobile devices can do for us. They can grant us on-the-spot access to almost any tidbit of information we want. They can deliver nearly every song, movie or television show that's been created directly to us in minutes. They could also revolutionize the way we learn. How can mobile technology alter what we think of as a classroom - and has it happened already?

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By Eric Garneau

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Mobile Learning Defined

Mobile learning offers unprecedented opportunities for individuals to replicate the classroom experience in the world at large. Devices like smartphones and laptops allow instant access to a trove of knowledge that might have struck previous generations breathless. By its nature, mobile learning is somewhat of an amorphous concept - all that's required is that the mobile student can continue his or her education anywhere in the world, regardless of a classroom setting. In fact, using the tools of this digital age, the classroom can fit in the palm of the student's hand.

Benefits

Many in our culture have already discovered the myriad advantages of living in an untethered society. A lot of those advantages can transfer over to the educational world. At the top of that list: mobile learning is imminently customizable. The what, the where, the how and even the why of classroom instruction is completely in the hands of the user. That kind of self-guided education makes the learning experience all the more immediate and relevant, and in the minds of some commenters it turns an essentially consumptive process into a more creative one.

But perhaps the most compelling argument for mobile learning is the most obvious: you can take your classroom anywhere. Many students already own the technology necessary to learn on-the-go - laptops, tablet PCs, even smartphones - so all they need is the right learning material. A big part of that material might come from OER (Open Educational Resources), a burgeoning movement in the world of higher education that aims to provide free, open learning content to any who are interested. At present, OER doesn't really offer credentialing for its users, but the self-directed DIY student can still garner a wealth of knowledge from the many OER resources available on the Web.

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Drawbacks

Of course, while smartphones and other wireless devices are becoming more common, they certainly haven't saturated our culture yet. That provides a bit of an economic barrier for some who may want to become engaged with mobile learning. It's likely that prices on such devices will come down significantly over the next few years, but for now, some will still be locked out by economic concerns.

It's also possible that even without economic barriers potential mobile learners may not be able to adapt to the technology that's required of them - there's certainly a learning curve present. Many companies, like Apple, strive to make their devices extremely user-friendly and intuitive, but we can't expect that everyone will be able to figure out an iPad or Android phone that's dropped in their lap. It does seem, however, like many young learners are growing up with classroom lessons in digital literacy, which should help significantly when it comes to self-directing one's own learning in a mobile environment.

What the Future May Hold

A popular trend in the digital world right now is augmented reality, which uses smartphone technology to impose layers of information onto the things we see around us. In other words, you can use your phone to take in your surroundings and it will help you access information about those surroundings - links to Wikipedia pages for important landmarks, for instance, or product data on potential purchases, or even Facebook pages of that random person across the room. Such technology, which provides easy and fun access to a wealth of knowledge, could revolutionize the way we view the world around us - every day could become a field trip.

A popular word among proponents of mobile learning is 'ubiquitous' - meaning that learning is everywhere, for everyone. As proliferation of digital mobile technology increases, we move closer to a society where everyone could be learning almost all the time. Though certainly it's easy to imagine drawbacks of everyone being constantly connected to reality only through their wireless devices, there also seems to be a great deal of benefits to be had from this unprecedented accessibility of knowledge. What the next ten years spells for the world of self-directed education is uncertain, but think of how far we've come in the last ten. Undoubtedly the revolution shall continue.

Check out this interview with MIT's Curt Newton, a major proponent of open, accessible education.

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