Reflections: Concepts of Location, Mobility and Mobile Learning – Second Keynote (Durham Blackboard Users Conference 2011)

By Matt Cornock

In this second keynote lecture of the Durham Blackboard Users Conference 2011, Professor John Traxler began by challenging the notion that elearning allows learning ‘anywhere, anytime’, and that it is infact not wholly true. There remains unresolved considerations, including sociological issues, to implementing mobile learning. I present here some of his key messages interwoven with my own interpretations.

Session: ‘(dis)Location, (dis)Location, (dis)Location’ by Professor John Traxler, Learning Lab, University of Wolverhampton

Traxler started by presenting a cautionary tale of connecting ‘fragile cultures’ to what is referred to as a ‘Global Knowledge Economy’ – essentially that we are now not limited by the restrictions of physical space to enable us to share what we, on a global scale, have learned and can learn. Mobile phones are now common-place around the world, even in economically deprived countries. The infrastructure to provide a mobile phone service is comparatively easier to implement than rolling out broadband to households, therefore the mobile has had more of an impact. Traxler illustrates this by referring to statistics collected in 1993 in South Africa, where children were named after mobile phone taxonomy as a mark of the cultural impact: End of Cyberspace Blog Post on this Topic.

Mobile technology has the flexibility to blur the boundaries between work and rest time. It can be used in noisy locations, utilising dead time, for example at bus stations and in coffee breaks. Like a pair of spectacles, or your keys, a mobile phone is likely to go with you everywhere. As such, it is the most common device to exploit this ‘dead time.’ Traxler expands on this theme later in the keynote, referring to ‘spacio-temporal capital’, which essentially translates into making the most of the time you have in the locations that can be practically used. Extrapolating this, the more ‘spacio-temporal capital’ you have, the more potential for getting things done, but I’d assume at risk of never stopping.

One of Traxler’s points which I found particularly interesting was that of multiple ‘proximities’ that could be used to control the information presented on a mobile device, or the path the learner takes to achieve a learning objective. Aside from physical, location proximity to determine what resources are provided to the student Traxler suggested three other proximities, which I’ve interpreted here:

  • temporal and statistical proximity – time-relevance of resources, amount of time you spend at a location, frequency of visiting that location, time spent using resources, historical data on use of resources?
  • social proximity – what have peers used, how has a community of knowledge made sense of the situation?
  • pedagogic proximity – how do the learning resources relate to one another, how does the individual’s learning relate to a current/previous/forthcoming learning situation?

A combination of the four ‘proximities’ could be used to enrich the learning experience of the student more than dependence on a single one, or a dependence on a single path through a location, set of learning resources, or curriculum.

Traxler also challenged the current direction of elearning research. Particular criticisms were aimed at the case-study culture and problems of scalability inherent with technology-centric approaches. I share the view that scalability in technology-enhanced learning often falls down to the fixation of technology, not necessarily focussing on transferable pedagogy. This is why I’d rationalise how most pilots remain pilots, e.g. rolling out iPads for a small group of students to trial in some sort of educational context is unlikely to progress to every student in the institution owning and effectively using an iPad in their studies. Questions over technical support, finance, longevity and ownership regularly crop up. Traxler was critical of the case study approach as it doesn’t lead to transferable generalisations. In addition, he asserts ‘research or development projects are doomed to success’ mainly because a case study is unlikely to be published or promoted if it results in failure, particularly to its funders.

Key concept

‘Funders have funded projects in order for them to become sustainable, but what should have been done is to fund sustainable projects in order for them to become good.’ Traxler

Another issue that Traxler raised was that of personal space and the impact that technology has on that as a concept. Using a piece of technology creates a psychological barrier which anyone who wishes to interact with you must breach. However, this is now so common in our society that it has become accepted behaviour. Traxler gives the example of a mobile phone conversation: you could be divorcing your wife and anyone in close proximity would be instinctively diverting their attention elsewhere.

Key concept

‘When you start up a laptop in a crowded room, you switch off from the physical world – as if a barrier appears’ Traxler

A further concept Traxler introduces as ‘socially-negotiated time’ which contrasts with Newtonian time of clocks, precision and deadlines. The ‘slipperiness’ and ‘micro-coordination’ of time through text, email and mobile phone conversations, has superseded the need to plan a time to meet someone by the restrictions of minutes on a clock. As such, mobility now dominates our lives.

Key concept

‘Mobile space is intruding social space’ Traxler

Aside from the clear similarities with asynchronous discussion boards which allow students all around the world to learn together over a longer period of time, it also permits what Traxler previously identified as the exploitation of dead-time and working ‘more efficiently’. My personal concern is that we become so efficient that we never stop working, and healthy, necessary, ‘dead time’ dies out.

The final interesting argument in the debate around mobile learning is more political. Traxler points out that currently, as institutions, we restrict how our students use our infrastructure, computer hardware and online systems with a myriad of terms and conditions and monitoring. However, when we begin to ask students to use their devices (and hence require them to provide a certain level of hardware, pay for connectivity and data storage) could they be entitled to put restrictions on us as to how we ask them to use their devices? If so, how can this be governed and managed?

Traxler finishes his keynote by saying that ‘you can’t get mobility for nothing’. Drawing on the previous epitome of mobility, the car (automobile), the constraints tend to be financial (petrol), to which I would add skill-based (driving licence) and infrastructure-based (roads). Mobile technology, he correctly asserts, also has its constraints: coverage, data loss, power, lighting. I would only conclude by saying that it is how we recognise and manage these constraints that determine how effective our mobility can be.

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