Reflections on the 17th World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning
This is the fourth in a series of six posts about LEaD’s investigations into introducing wireless collaboration technologies to City learning spaces. It covers arriving at mLearn 2018, an international conference on mobile learning set in Chicago, and reports on the main points from the keynote talks.
Back on unfamiliar ground
‘What are you doing in the United States?’ asked the border guard at O’Hare International, after I’d passed through some initial electronic checks. ‘I’m here for a conference…’ I offered, continuing with ‘…on mobile learning’ when prompted for more information. The border guard softened his tone and started telling me about his wife delivering English lessons to students in China, via her smartphone. Evidently a technological development that a man like him was somewhat taken aback by. And with that exchange, I was back into the United States for the first time in 25 years and all set for a mobile-phone-driven adventure, and the next stage of my wireless collaboration quest. The path for getting there had been laid courtesy of a very generous bursary from UCISA, a fund that allows members to travel to an event that they would not usually have the opportunity to travel to. These reviews of the conference are therefore for the benefit of the UCISA community as much as for the Learning at City readership and my own reflections.
I was heading to the 17th World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning (hereafter mLearn), where I’d managed to also get myself onto the event line-up with my first poster presentation. Aside from presenting, I was driven to find out more about how mobile devices are being used in teaching and learning, particularly in HE.
In the run-up to the event, it was a race against the clock to get everything completed on time, which also meant some rapid upskilling in both Adobe InDesign and Premiere Pro. The next challenge after that was figuring out how to take the printed poster with me in such a way that it wouldn’t get damaged. After multiple alternative considerations, it turns out you can shrink wrap these things to your suitcase. So that is just what I did.
The US felt very much like terra incognita at first, having been away from it for so long. The airport was clearly showing its age, but friendly faces welcomed me back onto American soil and I began to feel a little more settled. With a little help from Google’s Search app, I managed to get myself onto a Chicago Transport Authority train and out to Oak Park, the outer suburb where I was staying. As I’d been led to expect, it was bitterly cold on the streets of Chicago, made all the more evident by the faint flurries of snow that the sidewalks were dusted with. I checked into my motel, got my bearings, settled down for a big plate of food nearby, then slept for almost ten hours – much needed after the intensive preparations beforehand.
A conference on mobile learning
mLearn describes itself as the ‘leading international conference on mobile and contextual learning’, and is organised by the International Association for Mobile Learning (IAMLearn). Having previously been hosted as far apart as Australia, South Africa and Finland, in 2018 it was the turn of the United States to host an event.
mLearn is not the only event of its kind. Hamilton, Ontario, welcomed the 12th International Conference on Interactive Mobile Communication, Technologies and Learning in 2018. The 14th International Conference Mobile Learning also happened last year, in Lisbon, Portugal, an event seemingly organised by the International Association for the Development of the Information Society (IADIS). UNESCO runs Mobile Learning Week annually in Paris, as the UN’s flagship ICT in education conference, an event dedicated to using mobile devices to accelerate learning for all, and with a particular focus on development issues. mLearn appeared to have the longest pedigree as a specialist conference dedicated to mobile learning, however. It turned out that I’d cited items from their previous conference proceedings in the Compass piece linked to in the previous post. I was also drawn to visiting a conference in North America, plus the date of the conference coincided nicely with my own timings.
For a gathering dubbed as a world conference, mLearn was surprisingly smaller than I’d anticipated, with 13 people in the initial workshops and only about 25 overall for most of the event. Part of this was reflective of the fact that IAMLearn was trying to build up some capacity in North America and of course that Chicago in November is a very cold place to be. It was also perhaps indicative of the struggle a relatively niche academic event can face in keeping going, particularly having been doing so for this long.
It did actually mean though that I was able to have a really quality experience, see almost all of the sessions, get to know people well, and go deep into the themes. It also meant that the event was able to deliver a nice attention to detail. A 3D-printed robot phone holder was given free to delegates. Delegates were encouraged to go into Chicago and learn more about the city for small group workshop activities that ran as a strand throughout the event. Early on, a meet-and-greet was arranged at a restaurant on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center Building, affording spectacular night time views across the city whilst getting to know other delegates. I was also able contribute to the AGM, through voting on new positions within the organisation and contribute to the discussion on sustaining and growing the organisation.
Opening keynote: on innovation and disruption
The keynotes were given by Drs Tom Jandris, Helen Crompton and Rob Power (IAmLearn President). Jandris gave the opening address, on innovation, disruption and mobile technologies, inviting delegates to make his presentation more of a conversation than a monologue. Crompton spoke on integrating mobile devices into teaching and learning, packing her keynote with useful considerations and frameworks. Power closed proceedings with a call to action, pointing out that the technology was already sufficiently advanced to be transformative in education, and suggesting that now was the time to fully harness the affordances of mobile devices in teaching and learning.
Jandris had been in teaching for over 50 years and recalled having seen enormous changes in educational technologies during that time, suggesting that the technology had finally caught up with the theory. Citing Clayton Christenson, he deconstructed the term ‘disruptive innovation’, pointing out that the idea of disrupting something is to break it apart, and that innovation means to make something new where it previously didn’t exist. He spoke extensively about differentiation in teaching, and what mobile brought to this, suggesting that ‘mobile learning’s greatest gift is differentiated instruction’. Proposing that gifted learners tend to fall through the cracks right across the educational spectrum, he quoted Jesse Jackson, who supposedly once stated that ‘In this country, we educate like we slop the hogs’. Equating industrial era educational practices with feeding pigs was quite the rich metaphor!
He listed nine ways that he considered mobile as disrupting learning, as follows: 1) personalisation, 2) transformed environments, 3) adaptive environments, 4) accelerated, 5) relevant, 6) real-time assessment, 7) convenient, 8) engaging, and 9) connected. Jandris also talked about pioneers as those that follow in the tracks of the real innovators, suggesting that it was better get in second with new initiatives, in order to allow someone else to make the mistakes first. This certainly chimed with me – while there can be a degree of kudos with being first through the door with something new, it can also be highly risky and it’s rare to get the credit for doing so. It is also demonstrated by Apple’s lateness to smartphone development only to go on to dominate the technology category, as outlined in blog post 2. Learning from others’ mistakes can be a helpful path towards affecting meaningful and sustainable change.
His keynote ended with the suggestion that mobile learning accelerates ‘everything’, and imagined an example of a TED Talks audience watching a newly published video, with an AI-driven interface that reacted to the interactions that emerged around the video and then developed learning materials in response to those interactions. In an event likely packed with enthusiasts, he sounded a helpful word of caution too. Given that ‘mobile learning natives’ (as he called them) get most of their learning through connected devices, he suggested that it was important to consider the distance that personalised learning in a digital format can create between learners and their instructors. He also cited the impact that mobile learning has on the ‘tangibles’ of learning, from the touch of paper to the presence of instructors. This is something that, in my experience, can apply to many digital technologies when applied to teaching. The loss of tangibles following a move to more digital approaches to teaching is really quite hard to quantify, much less explain by those feeling the loss.
Crompton’s keynote was loaded with useful tools and frameworks for effective integration of mobile devices into education. She opened with her take on the unique affordances of mobile computing that differentiates them from tethered technologies, suggesting that they are contingent, situated, authentic, personalised, and context-aware. She reminded the audience present of the value of the TPACK and SAMR frameworks, as well as a few of her own too – her mlearning integration framework and mlearning integration ecological framework, and a set of co-developed ISTE Standards.
The TPACK (Technological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge) framework looks at the complex interplay between three primary forms of knowledge, and can be a way to think about effectively integrating technologies into learning environments. SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) is a model for determining the impact that introducing a technology can have on learning, looking at both enhancement and transformation. Both of these tools can be used for educator development and learning design purposes, and can be used as complements to each other or as standalone tools.
Crompton’s own mlearning integration framework comprises four main categories: beliefs (what beliefs does the educator hold toward technology?), resources (what physical and mental resources does the teacher have at their disposal?), methods (what teaching methods are chosen for class type or personal choice?) and purpose (what is the technology being used for and can other non-technologies be used instead?). Although these are listed separately, she suggests that they are highly interconnected. The mlearning integration ecological framework is based on Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Framework for Human Development, which shows how the development of a child is mediated by various systems. Her version puts the educator at the centre, with concentric circles to represent how different systems determine how that educator integrates technology into their teaching. Both of these frameworks can be useful for institutions looking to better integrate mobile learning into their educational offers, with useful insights into the educator perspective.
Finally, the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Standards are a framework for implementing digital strategies in education to positively impact learning, teaching and leading. They have been designed to work with models such as TPACK, and are often affiliated with educational approaches like blended learning or the flipped classroom. Each standard is accompanied by a series of indicators, and seem to be applicable across the educational spectrum. In signposting these particular models and educational approaches, Crompton gave enough rich source material for those looking to better support the integration of mobile devices into teaching and learning to last several years.
A closing call to action
‘The future is already here…’ Power claimed, stating that ‘we have everything in our pockets to do what we want already’ as he opened his closing keynote. His talk centred around where he saw mobile learning should be going next, and how to get there. Citing Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory that breaks technology consumers down into five distinct categories (Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards), he pointed out that critical mass for acceptance of a new technology is reached within the Early Majority category and that there are big challenges for getting to critical mass for mobile learning.
Key amongst these challenges, Power felt, were educators abilities, confidence and pedagogical knowledge in making more effective use of mobile devices in teaching and learning. ‘Early adopters must share more what they’re doing’, he went on, adding that ‘we need to share more stories of how it can work’. This included sharing failures as well as successes. Referencing Crompton’s address on the previous day, he suggested it was important to move beyond the substitution stage (of the SAMR framework) in order to fully use mobile technologies for transforming teaching. I felt that addressing the mobile learning paradox is another one of these challenges.
Power acknowledged other constraints and challenges that he saw as holding educators back from harnessing the affordances of mobile technologies in teaching. Highest amongst these is that teachers across the educational spectrum simply have far too much to do besides teaching, with ever-increasing administrative burdens. There was a need to both target the policy makers and to gather more large-scale qualitative evidence that mobile learning works. He also addressed practises like the banning of laptops in class (see my previous post for more on this), suggesting that it was far more effective for supporting learning to use tech in class and be ‘on task’ with it rather than either banning it outright or allowing a free-for-all. Power concluded that there was plenty of social rhetoric about digital citizenship, but this counts for little without more or better usage.
These three keynotes provided much food for thought. The next post wraps up the mLearn review, with reflections on some of the other sessions and a little more on the visit to Chicago.
Questions for comments
- What other events would you recommend that focus on mobile learning (UK or international)?
- What frameworks have you used for introducing, practising or evaluating mobile learning initiatives in your institution/teaching or learning space?
- What do you see as the main challenges in your context of getting to critical mass with mobile learning adoption? It is even desirable, or would it be better remaining as a niche educational approach?