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Posted by on Apr 19, 2011

Mobile Learning, Context, and Pong


Week 3 of the MobiMOOC course is exploring mobile learning in developing nations and the need for a deep understanding of the local practices, modes, and manners of learning. It is being led by Dr. Niall Winters of the London Knowledge Lab/Instititute of Education, University of London.

This exploration of locality (as context) is primarily intended, I believe, to develop authentic and appropriate context when designing (mobile) learning activities. In short, they need to be localized and developed with learners who will actually use the stuff (participatory development). Taken a step further, they are developed locally to fit local needs (as all products should be-they should have a target audience in mind). I certainly enjoy the success of some of these localized developments like Ushahidi, locally developed applications that have broader appeal.

For learning to be effective (especially mobile learning), a consideration of context needs to be in the mix. As brought forth by Dr. Winters, I agree (generally) that “mobile learning has failed to adequately exploit “the social practices by which the new affordances of mobile devices become powerful educational interventions” (Roschelle, 2003). So the failure is the lack of contextualization through appropriate activity. The failure becomes a focus on the technology and even the existing learning practices mapped from classroom activities. The failure is not maximizing the potential through social collaboration.

Context is a big concept. Imagine your own world and where you are situated in it. Is your context the same sitting at your workstation in your office as it is walking down the streets of Manhattan (insert your own city here)? Are you influenced by the same environmental factors when listening to a concert as you are listening to your voicemail? Or when speaking to coworkers and speaking to family? Context is real, but it is liquid, constantly reassembling nodes of potential learning through relentless activity and the manipulation of the environment and tools.

Taking a beat from Frohberg et al (2009), context can be one of these four

  • Independent Context (SMS quizzes-devoid of context-activity isn’t inherently linked to the environment)
  • Formalizing Context (classroom talk-exchanges are formalized according to being in the classroom-the class organizes activity)
  • Physical Context (museums-environment influences context. The individual is free to roam and make sense from the exhibits, but the number of possible paths through the space are finite)
  • Socializing Context (focus on student practice-socializing with other learners and the environment and tools-an example is language learning in everyday situations and using mobile to capture emotional resonance, reflections, etc-all elements of establishing context)

So, mobile learning actually doesn’t do the first two all the poorly.It sometimes provides inappropriate (to the local context) activities, but that is just design laziness (lack of participatory design). I think despite these limitations, mobile learning can capture independent and formalizing contexts well, or at least add to them a bit.

We have seen some work in the physical context as well, especially as museums experiment with mobile, allowing patrons to cut their own swath through the collections, to make sense of them as they see fit, to capture emotional resonance and intellectual understanding a bit through mobile, etc. Some good work there, but more to be done.

The last one is the trickiest, this social context. This involves not only a degree of socialization (in fact, lots of it), but also incorporates the environment itself and the manipulation of tools for sense-making. It is fluid, dynamic, and predictable only in small spurts.

“The basis for understanding context is “as an outcome of embodied practice”. It is not “a stable description of the world” (Dourish, 2004). A description based on need, on discovery, on socialization. It is a liquid juggernaut mixing any number of factors towards sense-making, a sense-making and knowledge structure that is evolves constantly. I know the network metaphors are probably the most appropriate, but I liken context to games.

  • First there is Pong: 

Pong has limited socialization and develops a limited context unto to itself. We accept the limitations, but it offers some degree of freedom for sense-making, akin to a museum with finite combinations.

  • Then there is Auditorium: 

The advantage here is that, while the learner is limited by the environment, they are allowed to manipulate it to a point by rearranging the sonic and physical landscape. A very limited recasting of a world. I imagine socialization a bit like this on a network scale. A tinkering with the landscape to produce optimal (whatever optimal means to you-social, emotion, intellectual resonance) results.

  • Then there is Osmos: 

This is where we see context exhibited as an interactive agent. We can imagine socialization in much the same way, this constant interaction with the environment and this interaction utterly changes both parties involved (indeed, the entire learning ecosystem). Some exchanges drain, some augment, some merely meander through the environment.

For development purposes, the need to understand practice locally is paramount as it is this ecsystem as laid out in Osmos. We can introduce foreign elements into this environment, but like a foreign presence in the body, it will be treated (not necessarily maliciously-just a natural reaction to something way outside the norm) as hostile and removed.

In short, design from the bottom up. It takes longer, but it is the only way that context can be captured and the real affordance of mobile learning can begin to shine. And play more games. That is the other takeaway here.

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