School of the Ether

Many years ago, Australia reached their farflung learners via the School of the Air.  While they’ve now moved to internet technologies,this post on the mobile talks at the eLearning Africa conference reactivated and extended some thoughts.

In the course of  interviews for the mobile book, Bob Sanregret of Hot Lava (now part of Outstart) mentioned some work they were involved in preloading safe sex information on mobile phones for sale.  This idea is intriguing, because it avoids download issues and data plans, but still ensures that the opportunity is there for elearning content.  And, the content does not have to be voluminous, but instead the smaller and more focused the better.

I’ve been sensitized to international mobile issues from a variety of channels. I had the pleasure to meet Inge de Waard, has been active in using mobile learning in developing countries, and served as a reviewer on a draft of the mobile book.  I have been contacted about using mobile learning to support health learning in Arab countries and India.  I was asked about the killer mobile application for a high-speed network in Taiwan as well.  I’ve also heard the stories of empowerment that come from eliminating the middleman in grain sales in India.  All told, there are considerable issues in distribution of devices, and the cost of and uptake of data services, in many locales.

The interesting issue in the post is how to use mobile devices to support learning. One of my points, and I’ll point to David Metcalf’s book mLearning as the progenitor of the idea that mLearning is really about augmentation: augmentation of formal learning and augmentation of performance.  While it might be feasible to deliver a small full course (a learnlet 🙂 on a smartphone, trying to do so on a regular cellphone would be problematic.  Delivering adequate learning resources could be difficult. Instead, the question would more likely be about how to blend mobile devices and any other resources, and what those resources could be.

Looking at the device side, internet access is dicey. I think it was Bob who told me that there hasn’t been a cellphone sold in the US in the past 2 years that doesn’t have a browser built into it (and I remember an earlier stat that 75% had them, and 75% of owners didn’t know they  had them).  However, data services might not be practical for either availability or cost issues.  What is available, reliably, is voice and SMS (text messages). This, then, becomes the channel.

The reason I was reminded of the School of the Air is that they augmented correspondence materials with shortwave radio.  What could be done, then, is to augment print materials with voice. However, the quantity of learners in remote Australian areas was small, and I think the developing world has a larger scale of need.  This suggests programmatic solutions, whether voice or SMS.  Text might be simpler in a response format, though voice could work through the keypad as well.

The problem, of course, would be the distribution of materials. One of the interesting mentions in the post is how they’re using radio to deliver content, and then other technologies to support conversation. This is an intriguing intermediate, and of course television could be used if feasible, as could mail delivery of magazines or texts.  There’s another possibility, too.

Models for intelligent delivery

If learning is meaningful activity resourced with content and scaffolded with reflection, then maybe there’s a simplification.  Typically, we create artificial activities and supplement with rich resources since the learning activity isn’t contextually valid.  Perhaps if we could use the learner’s own environment as a source of activity we could use streamlined resource materials.  That’s the type of model I talked about in an article (PDF) a number of years ago, where I suggested we could identify the learner’s context, learning goals, and available content as a basis for intervention.

The idea is that rules governing the matching (by categorically, semantically, not hand-wired, ideally) of learner to content can create a custom learning experience.  While ideally there would be some social network as part of this (and using distance technologies like voice and SMS can accomplish this, as the article recounted at least in the case of SMS), we can create a successful learning experience for an individual.

I admit I’m not certain about having appropriate activities for individual standard K12 learning, but it’s a goal, and then we can approximate with content and designed activities.  It’s a step towards the goal I’m trying to find about taking an architecture like the diagram, and finding a flexible and powerful pedagogy that can distribute learning across our activity and life.

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