I came across an interesting article recently that suggested that the iPad, and electronic tablets in general, may be nearing their end. The argument goes, that tablets, which until relatively recently were the must have gadget, have lost their traction due to market saturation. Anyone that wanted a tablet probably has one by now. They are ubiquitous and, despite disparity regarding price points, they are fairly homogenous. Most tablets have similar proprietary and native apps, most can run YouTube, social media apps, access Google and even have comparable camera and video capabilities. Aesthetically, there is little to distinguish tablets from each other and functionally they never lived up to their promise of becoming the laptop usurper. There was a time when we dreamed of taking holidays and business trips without having to drag our laptops along. Alas, that dream never really came to pass. If we’re honest, all that has changed is that we now bring the tablet too, for the flight/train journey, because it’s easier to use in tight spaces.
This got me thinking about the educational aspirations that became entangled with the tablet phenomenon. There was a widely held belief that tablets, in the hands of every student, would equate to an engaged and invested learner. Whatever happened to this belief, and if the tablet is suffering a slow death, what, if anything, will replace it?
A piece on the JISC website, by John Traxler, professor of digital learning at the University of Wolverhampton’s Institute of Education, outlines his view that mobile learning environments (MLE) themselves are in decline. His reasons are numerous. He begins by discussing errors made in the early days of mobile learning, whereby the focus was on the proliferation of the technology at the expense of learning content development. He also points to the ubiquity of the tablet, which has resulted in a learning environment with a multitude of technological platforms with which the instructor must familiarise themselves, in order to deliver consistent training and educational programmes. In Traxler’s opinion the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) model puts pressure on local area networks to sustain connectivity, it also calls into question the notion of governance and management of services and connectivity that are privately owned by the students themselves. Traxler suggests that mobile learning environments (MLE’s) have become mere conduits to learning repositories rather than the medium by which the learning itself takes place.
Traxler’s views appear to correlate with those of an e-Learning specialist who came to speak with our MA in Technical Communication and e-Learning class this week. When asked about optimisation of learning frameworks for mobile technology, he told us that this was not an area that his company concerned itself with to any great degree. As smartphone screens are, in his opinion, too small to accommodate comfortable learning engagement, his company has concentrated on developing networked communities, attended by a Support Desk system, which can be accessed on any device, in any location. These communities complement and enrich the learning that has taken place via the training and educational programmes his company develops, and eliminates the need to develop learning content specifically for mobile environments.
What then for the MLE dream? There are still those who believe that the model can be saved. They believe that through a refocussing of resources and a renewed commitment to innovative learning frameworks, mobile learning can produce results. Creativity around the learning content and media, and an openness to a greater degree of social interaction, in their opinions, could yet help to keep the mobile learning environment model alive.
Perhaps the future of MLE lies in virtual reality (VR), Oculus Rift for example. Who knows, some day soon we may all be donning VR visors and stepping in front of buses in the name of mobile learning.