Thoughts on Mobile Learning Systems

Since I’ve recently been asked to update our current benchmarking against other learning systems from a mobile perspective, a few points have come home to me, even with a number of approaches having been underway for some time now.

In reviewing the current offerings available from Blackboard and the Moodle community there seems to be a distinct drive to support selected individual tools or activity modules. This is not completely compatible with an online distance learning environment that we need to support here, where increasing proportions of learning design, scaffolding and signposting are placed online as the suggested student pathway through curriculum material. Where previously there was a larger emphasis on guidance through course texts and in face-to-face sessions, both our desktop and mobile access need to provide some sort of consistency in packaging all this together – ideally in regular manageable chunks.

Hence, we surveyed students not only to explore which features should be prioritised but also how to assist them in organising and keep on top of their studies. The core design for the new VLE2 [OU Moodle 2.x] is not radically different from the previous emphasis on the Study Planner, but this time both desktop and mobile views have been designed alongside rather than as a bolt-on.

Internally, there has been quite a bit of debate around whether to provide apps or mobile web implementations to support the learning activity, and given our range of users the mobile web came out as the more supportable and updatable option across a range of platforms. That’s not to say that there is no place for an app – as students told us: an easier sign in process, better media and resource handling (including contributions) are attractive, and some sort of ‘shell’ app might be a useful alignment with proposed work coming out of Moodle HQ.

The app or mobile web debate is also particularly pertinent for student-oriented services – which are more easily identified on campus-based institutions. Irrespective of the route taken, the major task still revolves around making the underlying data more available, feedable and consumable by different technologies. Distance learning institutions have some comparable sources of information even if there isn’t a relevant campus map or list of student activities onsite (see data.open). In some work undertaken by colleagues last year it did look as if at one point US institutions in particular were keen on mobile apps to deliver services, while those HEIs that had worked on this in the UK delivered via the mobile web, but this picture is changing.

Aside from the immediacy of cached information and better geolocation methods, the main benefits of apps in this case seem to be in the smaller amount of data that needs to be transferred to fill a predefined template, rather than load a whole environment. Of course any changes then to the data structure would have to be pushed as a notification to upgrade (for each platform) rather than immediately updated across the board.

In the OU, our Library Services have been ahead of the curve on this one for some time, making use of website traffic information and an earlier mobile service to enhance the next stage of development. What we need to do now is have a much better mobile entry point for enquirers as well as enhance that for current students. This again will be done via the mobile web, though there is some prototyping of consuming the same web services through apps already.

The main point to take forward in mainstreaming mobile learner support will be to inform novices about the potential data costs so that they can sort out a better mobile package if needed (or use WiFi only). Generic support is also the intention, with an aim to provide spaces for peer support and self-help for device specifics. Once we have released the basic provision as a ‘student entitlement’ across the board, then work can resume on finding more curriculum-specific approaches to tailor and optimise further.

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