Inclusion, social relations and theory: issues in mobile learning

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 June 2010.

I had a great day on Tuesday at Mark Power’s Jisc CETIS mobile learning symposium. Mark has uploaded the presentations from the day to the wiki via a slideshare link, including Tim Linsey and mine on our Mobilising Remote Student Engagement project. There is also an overview of issues posted by Paul Richardson from RSC Wales.

Thinking about our presentation I raised 4 matters arising.

  1. The importance of transitional engagements and activities, in managing students’ migration into remote working, either in fieldwork or placements, from the academic environment. These remote spaces might be group-based or individual, and as such transitional moments need to address socialisation, engagement with technology, and the nature of doing, being and becoming at a distance. The role of students as more experienced others or mentors, in leading and framing transitional activities is critical, as is the role of employers and supervisors. Crucial here is the way in which mobile technology, coupled to social media can enhance respectful partnerships.
  2. The importance of recognising that not everyone is working at the leading-edge of the technology curve, and that many students do not have cutting-edge technology. Clearly where they have such kit, learners need support in making academic/practice-based sense of it. However, there is substantial research on the digital divide between rich and poor, and a serious concern that moves to give free computers and broadband access to low income families under, for example, the Home Access scheme will be cut by the current Government. Those of us who work with leading-edge technology need to consider the impact of poverty and inequality, and how we plan for those who do not have such access, so that they are not left behind. In this way an obsession with the new, as a commodity to fetishise, risks leaving the economically and pedagogically vulnerable behind. I wonder whether a focus on a core set of technologies alongside specific approaches to content and communication delivery, rather than an obsession with chasing specific kit, is more beneficial. So the mobile becomes a strand in curriculum delivery, to which staff/student engagement/development is geared, but not its centre.
  3. The importance of mentors. There is lots of work on mentoring and the engagement of more experienced others in doing/shaping the curriculum. The MoRSE project encourages a process of engaging the values and understandings of those who have already been on placement and fieldtrips, in the process of socialisation, in utilising technology, in planning task-work, in capturing and analysing detail, and in reflecting on practice.
  4. The value of doing and acting. One of the key elements of fieldwork and placements is work or activity – in a very clear way, taking action in the world. As part of a critical pedagogy this helps us move towards the learner as an active partner in shaping the world, in producing and critiquing the real-world. If individuals are to overcome disruption this is vital, and mobile learning has a powerful place in this approach, through framing opportunities for doing. How can this then be applied to non-vocational and non-practice based learners and programmes? What projects might historians or English learners be engaged in, in order to take action and make decisions? How might mobiles affect these strategies?

However, I was left with two issues from the day, wholly de-coupled from the specific mobile technology.

  • We need to theorise our positions around educational technology and within that mobile learning. The key question is not, “what is the business case for mobile learning”. If you are a programme/project manager the vision and the blueprint prime the business case, which is only ever a test of viability after, it has been decided that a project is the right thing to do [the why of an intervention]. The vision for the transformation of the organisation is key, NOT the business case. In this way the latter needs to be part of a broader programme mandate for technology-enhanced learning within the curriculum. However, if you are a critical pedagogue, where the power of pedagogy to change the world through social relationships and action is central, then a business case reduces education to commodity and should be resisted. The beauty of a engaging a theoretical position is that it enables the critique of evidence and positions taken around technology, and helps to counter overt techno-determinism, or the belief that technology is inherently and unquestioningly a good thing. Again techno-determinism, often based on weak evidence, leads us back to fetishisation. That isn’t say that that examples of how mobiles affect our lives are redundant, just that when we argue that they are “game-changing” we need to ask for whom, and at what expense. In terms of the latter I’m thinking about the velocity of our existence, and our commodification/exploitation, and the damage to our personal, social relations, exemplified in a post about “why I Returned My iPad“.
  • Linked to this more theoretical position is a need to evaluate technology meaningfully, without being drawn into a desperate need to demonstrate impact. Too often this is tied to business cases, and economic determinism. Research in the social sciences is notoriously problematic, and meaningful positions need to be taken up and contexts for research and development carefully articulated. The role of champions in this is key, as is the role of students as evaluators, and placing any study of mobile technology firmly within a critique of technology-enhanced learning and the curriculum as a whole. Scoping and shaping the curriculum as a process should be our aim, as should a move towards good-enough TEL provision. Where we are driven by impact, we are outcomes and growth-focused, and tend to make statements based on poor data/evaluation. A great example of the possible in educational technology research is the special edition [25(1)] of JCAL on social software from February 2009. The methodologies deployed highlight how complex our engagements with technology are, and how we need to avoid a focus on impact to speak about a process of engagement and development.

I guess for me a key element is seeing mobile tech as part of a broader approach to TEL, tied to professional development and student engagement, and that is what we are hoping to achieve at DMU through our programme of work. That said I encourage you to critique the presentations at Mark’s excellent event on Tuesday, and to check out the #jisccetis tweets.

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