The other week I was lucky enough to secure a place at the Eduserv Mobile Symposium 2010 (note: all presentations from the day are now available online on their Presentations page). At least a couple of hundred of us gathered at the Royal College of Physicians in London, most of us from Universities across the UK, to hear speakers from both our sector and the wider industry talk about the place of mobile devices within Higher Education.
First up on the day was Paul Golding (Wireless Wanders), who struck me as someone really close to the truth of where things are and where they’re going when it comes to mobile. Relying heavily on raw data to draw conclusions, he explored where we’ve come from in terms of mobile and possible futures. He raised interesting analogies with the printing press and current ideas with augmented reality, and concluded with ideas for the future of augmented cognition/augmented learning. Whilst I got the impression some on the day thought he might have been pushing the possible benefits of mobile too far, his thinking was certainly in line with my own as to the benefits of ICTs more generally, and has clear links with some of the theory on situated learning/situated cognition. Whilst there may not be particularly clear paths as to how mobiles may be used in teaching & learning yet, it does seem clear that they will play an increasing role over time.
Next up was Christine Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services at the University of Sheffield. Chris had chosen an interesting strap line for her talk on The Mobile University, “we don’t support that”, an ironic comment on the way many IT departments were – and in many cases still are – run. Thinking of mobile devices in general, and therefore laptops etc. and not just mobile phones, she made a very strong argument in favour of ditching this old adage, as it simply doesn’t work in todays world. When IT departments were the sole providers of IT equipment they had some justification in deciding what to support and what not to support, but in todays times where students (and for that matter some staff) are very often using their own technology we can no longer dictate to them how they should be working. If we do, we run the very real risk of them voting with the feet, and their wallets, and choosing to study at institutions with more flexible and forward thinking outlooks.
On mobiles specifically, Sheffield have already invested in CampusM software, something which came up repeatedly during the day. From my chats with other attendees through the day it was very clear that CampusM has been running a huge marketing campaign in the UK, targeting just about every institution they could, as everyone seemed to know about them. Personally I wasn’t so convinced about their ability to deliver technically, and they seem to be very iPhone centric at the moment at a time when Android is rising fast. Development times they quoted for new device provision to one person I spoke to were measured in months, when most of the commentators at the event were recommending timescales of weeks.
Interestingly Chris Sexton also spoke of how they needed to replace their wireless provision in under 3 years due to their increased focus on mobiles – it just couldn’t cope with the extra bandwidth being demanded of it. I know at Exeter we’ve only recently been extending our wireless provision, but their experience at Sheffield suggests it might be wise to start considering our own wireless future now (if we’ve not already), and how we’re going to cope with what may well be an exponential demand for mobile access.
Andy Ramsden from the University of Bath then talked about what they’ve been doing, and in particular the use of QR Codes, something close to our heart here on the Innovation Project. I’ve blogged about QR Codes before (QR Codes: Bridging the Gap between the Real and the Virtual), and currently have a bid in for funds which we’re hoping to use to promote them across the University. I managed to catch up with Andy later in the day, and share some ideas and experiences. Hope to be able to chat some more with him and his team in the future.
On QR Codes more generally, we all had QR code badges, courtesy of Mike Ellis, which we could use to scan and therefore transfer contact details between each other whilst at the event. They also doubled up as a way to see who was using what mobile device on the day. As ever with QR Codes, it wasn’t clear just how useful they were in this context, to my mind they were most valuable in simply raising awareness of them more generally, but I think it’s fair to say nobody yet has a clear overview of exactly how they should be used in an HE. Personally I’m looking forward to being able to get some in place here at Exeter, and hopefully help in delivering timely and useful location specific information to both staff and students during our current building works.
One other point Andy mentioned was that staff development tends to lag behind the technology in this regard, something which I think we’ve also picked up on in Exeter through our discovery session interviews. Innovative uses of technology were often localised and centered around individuals who championed their use, and support for their wider implementation takes a while to get as far as the staff development team. We’re planning to address this at Exeter by creating more dedicated training sessions to talk about ‘soft skills’ in technology, e.g. web writing, RSS, etc. and it may well be that there is still a wide breadth of other web services that we need to think about providing development courses for. People are often expected to learn these new skills themselves without assistance, but in reality much of this is so new and different to the average member of staff that formal training courses might be more appropriate.
After lunch “Lightning Talks” by four Universities were aimed at waking us out of post-food lethargy, and I think did the job nicely. They were all very interesting overviews of different implementations at different institutions. Personally I think I got most from Nick Skelton’s & Time Fernano’s talks, as they fitted closer to our own needs and plans at Exeter.
Nick was very clear that gathering the data to create a mobile app is the key to success, and not the development of the app itself – so there are no quick wins here, i.e. we can’t simply buy something off the shelf and expect it to do everything for us. Getting the right data to the mobile app means understanding your own data, where it’s coming from, and how it can be knitted back together as a mobile service. The front end delivery is actually the smallest task.
Tim talked about Mobile Oxford (http://m.ox.ac.uk), something I’ve personally had my eye on for a while. Basically it’s an open source project to create a mobile app for HE, but built around a back end data aggregation service and a web page that’s formatted for mobile use rather than a native app, making it a very flexible infrastructure. I caught up with Tim at the end of the day and had a good natter about what they’ve been doing, and am hoping to explore the actual Oxford code (available at http://mollyproject.org) very soon.
After the lighting talks we had a talk from the head of a professional mobile development company, Tom Hume, Managing Director of Future Platforms. Although Tom’s company is more concerned with business, he nonetheless had an awful lot to offer us in HE, and perhaps nothing more important than the message that the mobile market is incredibly diverse. People often get very tied up in ideas of the iPhone, or maybe even the iPad now, but the reality is that there is a hugely diverse market of mobile devices, both smartphones and others, and we really need to be thinking in those terms. One of his slides laid this out numerically, which I think makes this pretty clear:
To reach 70% of UK mobile owners, you need to be available on 375 different devices, 70 different families from 8 different manufacturers. The best family delivers 4.15%, the worst 0.33%. All iPhones together deliver 3.63%. Just the 10 most popular devices deliver 28.11%.
Of course at the University we have a specific audience in mind, therefore we can probably be a bit more flexible, but there’s an important message in here that we need to be aware of. Tom was also talking about all mobiles, and not just smartphones, but that’s obviously a massive section of our local population, so not something we can just ignore.
Tom also talked about the issues with ‘bill shock’, i.e. people who try a bit of data out on their phone only to receive a huge bill and then never do it again. It’s clear that data usage charges are still a bit of an issue for the majority of mobile users, and to a large extent this cost drives their mobile browsing habits. I think this explains the large iPhone/iPod usage of our websites here at Exeter, numbers which seem inconsistent with what we know about the ownership in the UK more widely, again perhaps suggesting that we should not be too iPhone centric in our plans.
Tom summed up with the message that the market is fragmenting, not converging, something which I’ve suspected myself and have blogged about previously.
From a development perspective it was interesting to hear Tom talk about the rapid prototyping and release schedule that they use in business, which seemed to me quite different to our own way of doing things in HE. I got a definite sense that they were much less risk averse than we are, tending to use the philosophy of “release early, release often” to drive the business model rather than trying to ensure that every release was perfect, building in and relying on user feedback to steer product development. In comparison our own models in HE seem still too top down and controlled, with little ability for direct user feedback on developments.
The final speaker of the day was Professor John Traxler, who brought pedagogy back into the equation, and talked about his work researching mobile learning. All credit to the organisers for bringing in an academic to round off the day, and Professor Traxler gave a thoughtful and enlightening talk on the current status of mobile learning. His message seemed to be that there simply wasn’t yet enough research in this area to make any conclusive judgements, and although I’m sure we would have all preferred a definite recommendation for practice, its interesting to note just how new this all remains, and hence how little concrete guidance there is. It seems there are many more questions remaining about what mobile technology means to learning as there are answers available.
P.S. I should just say a big thank you to the organisers for the day. It was very well run, in a great location, with a fascinating line up of very complementary speakers. Hat’s off to Eduserv and all those who presented.