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Posted by on Jul 24, 2012

Technology as Stabilizing Dynamic: Mobility, Motion, Music, and My Bike

Bike ride in Princeton on the D&R Canal Trail


Once again with the significant preamble, but this post needs a bit of context. I have mentioned before (ad nauseum) that I am working on a few different projects and a few different courses simultaneously at the moment, all with significantly divergent agendas. However, my participation in all these is starting to congeal some observations in me that I wanted to share. First, I should list the activities to let everyone get a sense of the academic scope.


  • Edinspace– exploring the nature of geography in online learning. What does it mean to be ‘at’ a university online? Conducted through the University of Edinburgh.
  • Elektroniches-Lernen-Muzik– a sound project (also nominally through the University of Edinburgh) exploring the role of music and audio in elearning. What music do you listen to while engaging with elearning? Wildly different, authentic takes on music used for learning. 
  • MobiMOOC– an open course on mobile learning. I am facilitating a week of this course on the use of mobile technology for development (M4D).


  • Urban Drift– an open course on mobile learning, flaneurie, and geography (GPS technology)
  • MLeMan-Mobile Learning Project Manager, certification course for Europe.

So there is a lot of mobile learning there, a lot of exploration of what I will call stabilizing dynamics there (audio, geography, even the project management bit, which forces me to take abstractions and develop applied activities), and lots and lots of motion there. So, I think from the start we should make sure the distinction is made between mobility and motion. So, I will ‘appropriate’ (ie, cram these square pegs into round holes) definitions from mobile learning  and see how they play out here.

Han River Walk: Seoul, Korea

I want my technology to stabilize my body so I can rely on my senses to navigate this terrain.


Mobility: an affordance. Learning that takes places when the learner is not in a fixed, predetermined location (Sharples).

Early definitions of [mobile learning], which focused predominantly on the attributes of mobile technology, have given way to more sophisticated conceptualisations suggesting that mobility is the central issue (Winters, 2006). This denotes not just physical mobility but the opportunity to overcome physical constraints by having access to people and digital learning resources, regardless of place and time. -Kukulska-Hulme (2010)

Motion: an action. Exercising the affordance of mobility. The state of transitioning between locations. (I think this is me, but I could have easily have taken this from somewhere).

So, the way I see it, mobility is an affordance and motion is one instance of implementing that affordance. Motion does not equal mobility but there is mobility, always, in motion. Yet, I think there sits with the word motion itself a sort of imbued disapproval (perhaps this is changing). That motion is not a state of knowing, or ‘proper’ being, but rather a means to an end, a transport to a more desired (learning) environment. This is what I disagree with.

Motion and Stabilizing Dynamics: The Role of Technology

A moving body whose motion was not retarded by any resisting force would continue to move to all eternity.-Hermann von Helmholtz

So with incessant motion, the type encapsulating the collective activity of the mind (thinking, learning, writing, speaking), the heart (I hate to make this distinction between mind/heart, but I see emotion and love as a purposeful orientation of the being towards right action and thought, rather than the thought itself), and the body (walking, running, traveling, biking), we have perpetual motion without not only  a fixed, predetermined location, but with a location that can only be described as perpetually in flux. The only fixed aspect of it is its perpetual reorganization. It doesn’t matter if it is going anywhere, it is always going. And within this storm of mind, heart, and body motion, we use tools to create a stabilizing dynamic, an environment of predictive calm. This is the role of technology. It not only augments or accelerates our impact (what we are able to do at any given moment), it also provides stabile environments in which to reflect, create, and destroy. Stable does not exclude motion, stabile just implies that the pattern of the motion has been found and relied on.

These projects that I mentioned above, especially the ones that deal with the role of music (Elektroniches-Lernen-Muzik), geography (Edinspace, MobiMOOC), and motion itself (Urban Drift) have created this awareness in me of a governing stabilizing dynamic. That is, even perpetual motion produces predictability (and alliteration, apparently).


I hear construction noises from outside my window. I hear my breathing. I hear footsteps in the hallway of my apartment building. I hear the thousand thoughts going through my head. I want to focus on my learning, but I cannot. I am in a state of motion through a sonic landscape. I reach for my iPhone or turn on iTunes. It doesn’t drown out these competing noises. It just harmonizes them a bit into one predictable wall of sound.

It is a stabilizing dynamic. Without this dynamic, there is no pattern to make the sound predictable. Without predictability, it remains distraction as it demands my attention (until I make it predictable). The different playlists created by participants on the MSc in Elearning at the University of Edinburgh and the way in which students cultivate their playlists for learning make me realize that everyone has a profound, highly idiosyncratic way of interacting with audio. What distracts one, provides calm for another. Very interesting to read the descriptions of these playlists and what they mean to the participants.

Image created by James Lamb for the Elektroniches-Lernen-Muzik project.


To think of a bicycle as technology is apt, but might seem a bit antiquated. In my estimation, however, it is the most harmonious of all technology as it fuses motion of mind and body and heart and creates a particular stabilizing dynamic within a highly layered state of motion. Legs pedal, eyes observe (for danger, inspiration, and everywhere in between), heart races, ears record, the mind wanders along with the body. The bicycle provides a stabilizing dynamic by fusing extensive motion (truly enacting the positive aspects of mobility) with predictive motion. The legs always pedal in the same manner. The hands are firmly on the handlebars. The body is oriented towards the front. The engagement with the fluid environment is not predictive, but the bicycle introduces the stability.

What the bicycle and the music does is provide a controlled landscape in which to scaffold understanding of a fluid environment. By making the environment somewhat more predictable (nominally limiting the range of a few chaotic factors like pedals on a bicycle), we introduce a controlled experiment, one that can be tested again and again with comparable results. We see audio manipulate noise into pattern, while a bike provides the same for motion and speed in the other senses.

This is not an earth-shattering conclusion of any sort, but one that I think is instructive thinking of mobile learning (and mobility) going forward. What we need from technology isn’t always augmentative capabilities, what we need is a stabilizing dynamic. Isolate and make predictable components of the motion (like a leg movement on a bike, or audio input when studying) and you have achieved something, something that augments motion by making it more predictable. Technology doesn’t need to augment the landscape, just our ability to reasonably function within it.

And yes, I listen to music while I bike and I shouldn’t. Off for a ride.

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