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Posted by on Sep 5, 2012

Perpetual Reflection: ‘Home’ in people, mobility, and research assumptions for mlearning in higher education

Mosaic of ma femme


My ‘home’: my wife as a center, a stabilizing agent.

Mobility and Home: Centering on People

As I sit here in western Pennsylvania in the last few days of a visit to family ahead of a trip tomorrow to New York and New Jersey to visit friends and then to London to begin my PhD work at the Institute of Education, I am thinking a bit about the research questions in my research proposal. Before jumping headlong into those questions, I should mention that I am starting to realize the effects of a general self-imposed ‘rootlessness’ on all my thinking towards these questions of mobility.

I have lived in many places over the years and the only constant through these years of seemingly endless moving (and moving companies), apartment hunting, visa issues, and paperwork, has been my wife. I see her as ‘home’, as a stabilizing force in this perpetual motion device of a life I have constructed. I see love as an enabling agent. When I am with her, I am enabled to turn my gaze outwards (for work, research, etc.); when I am apart from her, my energies are expended in ‘returning’ to her. I actively seek her. Love as magnetic force.

So, unlike some perhaps, my idea of stability is rooted in a person, not a place or sedentary object or even a specific geography. And being a person, that ‘home’ is a fluid concept. As people we travel in orbits, however unpredictable, and those orbits collide occasionally. For my wife and I, our orbits are more often than not parallel, but for this first semester in London they won’t be. ‘Home’ becomes an intersection of time, orbit, and purpose. ‘Home’ becomes something which we actively seek. So that thinking about what constitutes ‘home’ or even a ‘center’ influences the way I am approaching the research.

Research Questions and Questioning

I view motion and mobility (not the same thing) as the norm, not the exception. And some of this thinking (actually lots of it) seeps into my research questions/premise. I see a general reconstruction of learning (and supporting structures like universities) being reiterated as mobile states and I think we see some evidence of that type of learning occurring. Universities become ‘rootless’ constructs (not in a bad way) encompassing a network of individuals working towards a generally common purpose. Universities as mobile communities providing access to a reflective education at all times. Networks as fluid, self-sustained enterprises, robust communities of practice. Greater than the sum of their parts, that sort of thing. I am influenced in this thinking by some amazing colleagues from the University of Edinburgh who pursue the role of space and geography online. We have written a paper that I won’t reveal too much of now (as it is my favorite among research I have co-authored), but it certainly has inspired some reflections on mobility and transformative learning.

Some sources I can point to are:

  • Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities Cambridge: Polity Press
  • Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2006) The new mobilities paradigm Environment and Planning A. 38: 207-226
  • Mol, Annemarie and Law, John (1994) Regions, networks and fluids: anaemia and social topology Social Studies of Science, 24:4, 641-671

My research area (not surprising to anyone who may have read this blog at any point in the last two years) will be Mobile Learning for the Practice of History in Higher Education in East Africa: Networking Historical Communities of Practice in Zanzibar and at the University of Dar es Salaam. It will involve mlearning, East Africa higher education (specifically Tanzania), ICT4D, and addressing the needs of non-STEM subjects, namely the Humanities. Basically, it relies/explores the following questions and assumptions. The blue text represents my revisions based on new information and developments in the field.

  • Does mobile learning for History in higher education in developing nations require a SMS-based solution? Such a design is indeed possible with the advent of tools like Frontline SMS allowing localized university disciplinary networks to cohesively interact via SMS managed from a simple server (even a laptop). My assumption here is that we cannot design for a multimodal environment until pricing points for multimedia mobile devices are low enough to saturate higher education in developing nations. This assumption is still true, but needs to be qualified a bit. We still will require a SMS based environment for mobile learning for higher education as that is the technology of greatest penetration, especially in Tanzania. However, this is changing rapidly. Smartphones (and the functionalities they have that might support and extend the impact of the Humanities in higher education in Tanzania) are coming with a vengeance. If this research were to be complete by 2015, my assumptions would be perfectly valid. If by 2020 these assumptions are still entirely valid, I would be surprised.  

From Africa Telecomes Online, please click image for original article.

  • If SMS-text based technologies are demanded, does this preclude that mobile learning environments are primarily dialogue based? According to Vygotsky (Nassaii & Swain, 2000), knowledge is social in nature and is constructed through a process of collaboration, interaction and communication among learners in social settings; SMS, in my opinion, can be appropriated to reflect this, but is dialogue based learning the optimal framework for mobile learning? Or are we simply importing a classroom/elearning hybrid pedagogy to the mobile sphere? This is a big question for my research as much of what is crafted in response to the research will depend on this assumption. Another assumption that hinges on the SMS vs. multimodal technology (smartphone) penetration issue. Are we using text for dialogue/discussion/knowledge construction in universities because it is appropriate, relevant, easy, and technologically feasible? Is it optimal? These discussions were once pipe dreams, but now it is realistic to begin questioning the model of education in higher education. If more is possible, and that more is mobile, then we should reconfigure our formal systems of education to reflect that. 
  • Some previous research I have done in the past has led me to believe that social learning networks, mobile or otherwise, do not optimally reside in solitary institutional settings (ie, at one university) but rather work best in disciplinary settings across universities due to (academic) tribal disciplinary affinities. Does this assumption, with research born primarily from US/UK universities, hold true for universities in developing nations? Do disciplinary communities represent strong-tied networks or is higher education more localized (ie, institutional) in developing settings? Ideally, these networks are self-organizing and self-sustaining with mobile providing a platform for discussion, collaboration, contextualization, and even reflection and research dissemination. Should these mobile platforms exist at an institutional, regional, or much broader disciplinary level (across country or even countries)? I would revise this assumption to include not only where a mobile environment should reside, but whether it is culturally appropriate at all (see next point). I am not sure I need to concern myself with optimal placement of mobile environments, but rather optimal possibilities for self-regulation by the participating community. Let them control what it is and what it will be (and even if they want it). These empowered communities will figure out what is right for them. I suspect a few of these empowered networks will reach to dizzying heights. 
  • Does participatory design for hybrid academic/technology projects have a cultural antecedent in developing nations? Namely, will a participatory design process capture the needs and uses of technology in higher education in developing nations if it runs counter to accepted notions of collaboration? An easier question would be, I suppose, what does collaboration look like in Tanzania as opposed to Ghana as opposed to the UK? This is the only question I wouldn’t revise at this stage and the farther I proceed through this doctoral work, the more relevant this question will become. What does collaboration look like in Tanzanian higher education and what is my role as an outsider in this scenario? Do I even have a ‘role’ or a ‘right’ to intervene? We need to ask these questions going forward. These small groups scattered throughout the world can achieve great things and are investments in diversity. Diversity is a biological necessity (intellectually, biologically, even culturally). Nobody can fully comprehend the future and so it becomes a matter of throwing solutions on the wall and seeing what sticks. Or more appropriately, letting networks decide their own fate with what works for them. 

So, you might be wondering how my idea of ‘home’ and mobility have to do with these research assumptions. They underpin them, for sure, as I see myself as both observer and builder. I want to (but maybe shouldn’t) build networks that enable neglected communities to thrive, to build momentum towards their own realizations, to allow those fortunate/unfortunate few like me, who have made mobility a whole lifestyle choice, to participate fully. That is really it. I want everyone to join in, irrespective of location and state of motion.

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2 Comments

  1. Hello there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m
    absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

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