International Mobile Learning Festival (IMLF) 2017 – Hong Kong University

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the 2017 International Mobile Learning Festival (IMLF) at Hong Kong University. The conference draws a small but very dedicated crowd of researchers, teachers and experts in M-Learning. This year’s conference included some awesome workshops on topics like design thinkingmedia literacy and small private online courses (SPOCs). It also included a number of excellent keynotes and smaller presentations on a wide range of research contexts and topics. I particularly like IMLF because it draws a number of excellent researchers from Asia, including places such as Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and even Mongolia!

Here are some of the ideas on M-Learning that I found particularly interesting.

Eliot Soloway (University of Michigan) and Cathleen Norris (University of North Texas) candidly discussed the problem of high device penetration in US schools leading to heavy use of “pods” and “labs” with little change in pedagogy. They suggested that teachers often get drawn to simple apps like Kahoot and often come to rely on these at the cost of learning deeply. They discussed the Callabrify group of apps – including tools for mind mapping, KWL charts and writing – as cross platform apps that are far more likely to promote deeper thinking. Having read Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet – where most apps are cast as a sure-fire way to promote shallow thinking and consumption over critical/creative forms of thinking – I think it’s good to really focus the discussion on whether our use of mobile devices is really at the shallow end of the thinking pool. If we’re honest about this, and if we find that the answer is “yes”, we need to think about what we need from future apps to really promote the deep thinking we want from our learners.

I found Reynald Cacho’s presentation of a pilot study of low-cost Android tablets in Filipino schools especially interesting, since the study documents the introduction of mobile devices in schools where no technology infrastructure had previously existed. In the west, we’re living in a world with very high technology saturation, and it’s easy to assume that this is the case for the rest of the world. Cacho’s study found that students were quite adept in learning the ropes of using the tablets for learning. While the study mainly focused on technical uses by the students (for example, organising notes, accessing resources, sharing their work with the teacher, etc) and didn’t really address pedagogical uses of the tools for cognitive engagement, it suggests that the technical barriers are easily surmounted and teachers and students can start to explore the pedagogical uses much sooner than we might expect.

On the topic of moving beyond the “technical”, the presentation entitled Moving Beyond LMS – Getting Recalcitrant Faculty to Engage with M-learning by Spencer Benson and Emily Oon from the University of Macau was a fascinating discussion about the challenges of taking the next steps after on-boarding faculty staff and students in their use of Moodle as the LMS, asking where we go from here. In their context, Benson and Oon found that without LMS use, there was very little-if-any technology use by teachers in the university. They also pointed out it’s fairly easy for teaching staff to set up static pages with content, but much harder to get them to think about ways to make the content and activities interactive, engaging and learner-led. They also made a pertinent point that “adoption of technology is no different from changing other aspects of faculty” – so we should absolutely be learning from change efforts in one context and seeing how we might apply what we’ve learned from this context in other contexts.

Western Sydney University’s Ming-ming Diao is an excellent researcher-practitioner working to coordinate and support high-level technology integration at the university’s new, Sydney City Campus. His presentation, Using Mobile and Emerging Learning Technologies in the Face-to-Face Classroom shared some of the insights from a recent study of several hundred international students and university teaching staff. Diao is a big believer in building app fluency across multiple devices and platforms, giving the example of how his staff and students often switch between multiple messaging apps (Wechat, Viber, Facebook Messenger, etc.) to communicate. His study found very high levels of satisfaction with technology at the campus, mainly because students are supported in their use of any devices and software that benefit their learning in some way. However, Diao maintains that “students really need our help to guide them in the best ways of using technology”, an important reminder that teachers do need to play around with a wide range of devices, platforms and tools in order to understand the possibilities and investigate the best ways to use the technology.

From The University of Wolverhampton, John Traxler’s keynote was an interesting foray into the cultural milieu of mobile device use and what it says about our global society. Exploring similar themes to Soloway and Norris around our at-times superficial use of these devices, Traxler took on some of the dominant structures in face-to-face learning, especially the “lecture”. He made the point that lectures are neat and clean, and working with them is easy, while real life is “a mess” of learning opportunities, most of which are never fully explored:

Mobile learning is a social phenomena, of which education is not a very big part. In the first decade of M-learning, we were constantly constrained by the finances and by the rhetoric. Disruption is the last thing that rank and file lecturers and teachers really want. Are we reproducing the practices of previous decades and centuries?

I really gained a lot from Fajar Purnama’s presentation Hand Carrying Data Collecting Through Questionnaire and Quizes Using Minicomputer Raspberry Pi. An Indonesian academic based at the University of Kumamoto in Japan, his study explored the development of Mobile Phone Raspberry Pi servers (“Hand Carry Servers”) in school communities where there was no internet access. Using simple LAMP stacks, mobile phones and cheap tablet devices, teachers were easily able to build opportunities for collaboration, sharing and networking within a local area network (LAN). The example he used was LimeSurvey, an open source tool for forms, data gathering and data analysis. Teachers were able to use the makeshift servers to have their learners conduct authentic fieldwork and then share and analyse the results using information pooled on the Hand Carry Servers.

Finally, my presentation explored the results of literature review that I undertook on Mobile Learning in 2016 with support from John Hedberg (Macquarie University) and Kumaran Rajaram (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). We looked at approximately 150 studies on M-Learning and delved a bit deeper to explore how the reported findings in these studies had been shaped by the cultural context in which the studies were conducted. Our findings aren’t exactly encouraging. Most of the studies we examined didn’t focus on discipline contexts, included no mention of any theoretical framework and mentioned very little about the pedagogy that informed the use of the devices. We also found that many of the reported learning benefits are low-order and difficult to pin down. Benefits such as “improved engagement” or “easier communication between teachers and learners” suggest a perennial problem we still face: you can improve the learning experience with mobile devices, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to improved learning outcomes. The slides from our presentation are embedded below, including the data to which we referred. The publication will be a chapter in the forthcoming book: Crompton, H., & Traxler, J. (Ed.). (in press). Mobile Learning and Higher Education: Challenges in Context. New York: Routledge.

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