Yesterday at the International Conference on ICT in Teaching and Learning here in Hong Kong, Song Yanjie presented a paper looking at the affordances of mobile learning. I was intrigued by the concept; I’ve been a fan of the concept of affordances since I was introduced to it by Bill Gaver as part of his PhD work, and promulgated by Don Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things, and using it as a framework to think about the performance benefits of mobile devices seemed inspired.
And inspired I was. Song’s a PhD student with Professor Bob Fox from the University of Hong Kong, and presented a wide variety of applications. It took a while, but I finally got my mind around what I thought were some fundamental principles. Feedback welcome.
It occured to me that one of the main capabilities of mobile devices is a tradeoff of convenience for bandwidth. That is, we put up with lower voice quality, small screens, and other limitations, in exchange for the ability to connect more often. There may be two types of bandwidth tradeoffs: bandwidth from device to network, and bandwidth between device and our senses.
This isn’t, however, the ‘killer app’ possibility of mobile. That comes, I think, from something else. I’ve previously characterized mobile devices as mobile processors with input and output. That’s not fundamentally different than the characterization above. Adding networking still doesn’t change that, with one exception. That exception is context-awareness. A mobile device that is contextually aware, *either* location or time, and can use that information to provide interactive capabilities, is, to me, the real opportunity.
So, if a device knows where we are, or knows what time it is and what we’re scheduled to be doing, it can use that information to support us. We can also capture local information (audio/video) and deliver that information in an interactive loop to contextualize our communication. THAT, is where our devices switch from being reference or communication to being proactive partners.
Let me elaborate that with one more point: there might be a dedicated contextual relationship, such as Fed Ex’s barcode readers, but I think the benefit really lies in devices that can be customized with different software to meet one’s needs. That is, using a Palm OS or Linux or even Windows to link your various capabilities (voice, camera, web browsing) into a personally enabled workspace that can capitalize on context awareness as you like.
Which has led me to posit linking calendars with learning systems to wrap content and/or people around events in your life to create a new learning relationship. But that’s a different story…
Oh, yeah, one other affordance, already noted by folks like Elliot Soloway and Jeremy Roschelle: the form factor of mobile devices like PDA’s is far more appropriate for kids than the affordances of full laptops.