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!

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