Thursday, March 08, 2007

From Portability to Ubiquity - What do we mean by 'Mobile'?

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

I've been following an interesting exchange between Stephen Downes and Leonard Low concerning the mobile sphere (see particularly Leonard's posts on Does Mobile Technology equate with Mobile Learning? , Stephen's response  and then and Leonard's follow-up, Making M-Learning Mobile, Open, and Ubiquitous ).

It is timely for me as I've volunteered to present on the topic, 'Handheld Musings - From Portability to Ubiquity - Observations on the Evolution of Mobile Computing.'  (The title itself should keep me going for a few minutes :-) As the audience is a Computing Services department, the focus is naturally on technology, hence mobile computing.   I hope to convey that general notions of mobility and the associated terms have been gradually changing and diversifying and that this really needs more attention support beyond enabling wireless access for laptops!   Indeed, the LSE on behalf of a technical working group within UCISA, recently launched a Mobile Computing Survey which recognised the growing support issue in this area.   Although it mentions in its preamble, "The support of "mobile" devices (in all their guises - Laptops, handheld PCs, PDAs, 3G mobile phones, Blackberries etc.)..." this survey is not aimed at laptops as the section on 'Mobile devices' asks: "What operating system(s) do you provide support for and lists as the named options: Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian."

A little over 20 years ago, I was given an Osborne I, marketed as a portable computer.  I remember a happy but strenuous walk of a few hundred yards from the home of the very generous donor.  It's a very rugged machine - the previous owner, a marine engineer, had taken it with him across the oceans.  It had a good selection of software, etc, but the general consensus was that a better term was luggable.

In terms of portability, there are some conspicuous differences from what I tend to think of as mobile now...

I regard the Osborne as an evolution of the desktop computer along the path to present day laptops, notebooks etc.  Although much smaller and more compact, they are just further evolved forms from this, of the same species, as it were.  Laptops are just the means to carry around with you what has been designed for the desktop, which is in many ways very useful, but often a very cumbersome approach to undertaking many activities on the move. 

The prefix mobile has been changing in connotation as exemplified by the term mobile blog, which few people would think of as blogging on laptops, yet blogging is a technology-dependent activity, comes generally under mobile computing activities.   With this view, the picture above shows a contrast, a change in meaning, because the iPAQ on the right is not evolved from the Osborne on the left.  With this observation in mind I have deliberately included in my title the bit about "from portability to ubiquity."  

As a reflection of the evolution there is growing emphasis and literature on mobile learning that is becoming more operative.  I think Leonard has described very well these developments - through the utility, usability and ubiquity, which comes from his thorough immersion in this area - he speaks from experience.   Having handheld devices offers more than just enabling the same activities and thought processes to happen all over the place.  In the RAMBLE project we were surprised how the use of mobile devices affected the quality of the blogs.  The blogs were unusual in that they went far beyond providing rather dry staccato statements that you might reap in standard feedback questionnaires.  They provided in many cases a free-flowing and highly articulate narrative that not only gave the basic feedback that was sought, but went on to draw out deeper connections, to step back and consider the wider picture, to offer critique that was based on a substantial body of evidence, accumulated over weeks of lectures, practicals and tutorials.

I showed a few extracts to a visitor from another University who had some experience running blogs with students and she remarked that the content of her students blogs were nothing like the ones that emerged in our project - she wondered what we had done to yield such richness.  I don't think we would have achieved such quality by merely asking the students to blog on their laptops or desktops.  In fact, a few students made it explicit that the mobile setup enabled them to reflect in more interesting ways.

It's difficult to know exactly what were the magic ingredients, but it was mainly a coming together of a number of supporting factors or conditions:
  • PDAs were given not lent to the students
  • keyboards were provided
  • students were briefed, instructions were light - a few basic requirements, not very explicit
  • blogs were private within the small student groups
  • some basic training was given with demonstrations and sufficient time so that everyone was able to practice posting,
  • e-mail support was provided for the duration of the blogging
You might argue that the first point means that this is difficult to repeat, but I think the most important point from this first bit is that students could make the PDA their own.  As the number of students with smartphones increases, I expect this experiment and its outcomes becomes easier to reproduce.  (More details in an article in Ariadne.)

My experiences from using handheld devices for quite a few years and the outcome of the RAMBLE project makes me feel that the PDA design are adding other dimensions.  All this offers many interesting avenues for research, not least for linguists, but back in the office it also will mean a considerable support issue!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Using a flexible learning space to teach about a flexible learning space

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

[Sorry it is so long since I posted - the Western New Year and Chinese New Year have both passed!]

My job title of 'VLE Administrator' covers a wide range of duties, many of which are quite technical and system-oriented, but it also involves advising staff on developing their areas in the VLE (LMS), the service front line, as it were.  This term I've spent quite a lot of time preparing and delivering courses on how to use WebLearn;  the face to face contact makes quite a pleasant break from coding or answering emails stuck in front of a computer screen.

We are now coming to the end of this term's series of lunchtime courses.  They have usually consisted of a presentation with slides and demonstrations followed by hands-on where people work individually through a number of exercises, familiarising themselves with some aspects of the VLE.  The peak of interaction usually would not go beyond viewing each each other's test area.
However, I've recently found myself in one of the so-called flexible learning spaces within the department - a wide room with islands of workstations and a lot of gadgetry.  After a couple of weeks delivering the standard format in this space, I've only just realised that I ought to make more use of such communal spaces.  So this week's course will mark a departure as I shall get people to work in groups, to plan and implement together some structures for online learning.  According to the booking system, registrants are mainly staff, but a couple of postgrads among the number; some work in departments, some in colleges and I guess some belong to both; they cover humanities, social sciences, medical sciences, maths and physical sciences.  And the number of resources they appear to have created in WebLearn range from 0 to dozens. 

This is therefore, I think, an ideal selection :-)  How?  It reflects a typical cross-section of WebLearn's users and I'm hoping that those with more experience will become aware that they are able to help those who are relative novices.  This situation is very natural within WebLearn (Bodington), because it is designed as a flexible space itself that allows as little or as much participation as people need.  You can take any group of people, give one of them the right to create a container and from that point on they can adopt any number of roles to create a mock department or whatever with spaces for teaching, administration, research etc.  Expertise grows tree-like - as the resources expand, all being well so does the amount of delegation and thus the number of people growing the tree.

I've made a list of requirements, suggested some tasks, and wonder how they will manage?  Actually, I'm mainly hoping that participants turn up on the day - the competing demands (and intellectual distractions) on Oxford academics can be quite considerable! 

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Magha Puja, World PEC and other lights of peace

Yesterday I joined supporters at Wat Phra Dhammakaya UK in several auspicious occasions together with other centres around the world, especially the main temple in Pathum Thani, from which our centre gets its name.

The day started with 'Puja Kaew Phra,' an offering of sustenance to the Buddhas, past, present and future, a path of purification that was discovered in deep meditation at Wat Paknam during the time of the late Chao Khun Phra Mongkol Thepmnu, the late Abbot, the founder of the Dhammakaya tradition in Thailand. It usually takes place on the first Sunday of the month, starting around 9.30am (Thai time). There is a live broadcast through DMC which can be received via satellite or through the internet ( At this time of the year in the UK, that translates to 2.30am! As this weekend there was Magha Puja on the Saturday evening, it was decided to combine and move the Puja to the Saturday.

Buddhists around the world celebrate Magha Puja on the 3rd lunar month. It commemorates the time when 1,250 arahants gathered spontaneously to pay respects to the Lord Buddha, and hear a discourse entitled Ovadha Patimokha, which lay foundations for the propagation of Buddhism. Today, in the absence of the Buddha's physical presence, it's appropriate to use as a focus a chedi (pagoda), so our temple joined the ceremony around the Maha Dhammakaya Cetiya in Thailand.

The ceremony itself consisted of more meditation, with particular focus on light, inner light that may bring and spread peace. It is marked by lighting candles and lanterns. The Abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Ven. Dhammajayo (royal title: Phra Rajabhavanavisudh) lit the main candle and then passed on the light to the Vice-Abbot Ven Dattajeevo (Phra Bhavanaviriyakhun), who in turn passed it on to a representative of the lay congregation and it spread quickly onwards. At our temple, we had the same kinds of lanterns and simultaneously lit our lights. Once our lanterns were lit (quite a few prepared at the last minute owing to lots of participants), we circumambulated (walk around) the main Buddha image whilst Sangha and lay people circumabulated the chedi at Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

Inbetween, there were various proceedings concerning broader efforts for world peace. Ven. Dhammajayo was recently conferred by the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth the Universal Peace Award. A high level delegation came to Thailand to present the award and a senior Venerable explained in his speech that this was in recognition of his efforts to spread Buddhist teachings, especially the path to inner peace through meditation. Ven. Dhammajayo was applauded particularly for the use of modern technologies, notably multimedia to help the efforts. There was another peace award presented on behalf of the House of Representatives of California.

In fact the Abbot was very busy receiving different groups as also there were presentations for the World Peace Ethics Contest awards. I mentioned this previously and mentioned "millions have participed" in Thailand, thinking that was over the 20 or so years. Actually, this is the annual participation rate and I was told that this year there were 5 million participants.! It's an amazing feat of organisation and I'm sure of great benefit to the Thai nation.

The winner of the English version was Andrew Keavney, Student President of the Stanford University Buddhist society. Congratulations to him! At our temple, we had entered contestants in Thai and English. The highest award (English version) was for Miss Watjana Suriyatham, who got one of the runner-up trophies, quite an achievement as she is Thai! A full list of the top performers is on For myself, I was pleased to be one of a group receiving a "certificate of excellence." :-)

Shortly after we had cleared up, I was just about to leave when some visitors arrived - some Sri Lankan students studying at Surrey University (based in Guildford, so only a few miles away). It was nice to have them as Thailand and Sri Lanka share a long-standing association through Buddhism and as I gave them a tour and showed photos from an album they could clearly relate to what I described. It was just a pity they didn't turn up a little earlier to share in Magha Puja, or at least have some food. All being well, they'll come again.