Wednesday, November 5, 2014

mLearning and the Mona Lisa

Leave it to John Traxler to get me thinking! In his keynote address at mLearn 2014, Traxler used the Mona Lisa as an analogy for the disconnect between mLearning research and practice, and policy makers' expectations. He described policy makers' expectations as getting the full, big picture. A completed Mona Lisa. In contrast, researchers and practitioners are busy working on small clusters of a pixelated version of the famous masterpiece. What I think Traxler meant was that researchers and practitioners are still trying to figure out all of those little pieces, and how they need to fit together. But I think that this Mona Lisa analogy can be taken much deeper.First, we can comment on size. Literally and figuratively. Many people have the misconception that the Mona Lisa is a physically large painting. In reality, it is actually rather small. It is small, but it is flawless and beautiful, and it has had a huge cultural impact. Just like mobile devices, and mLearning apps and applications.

We can also talk about the details. The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece of painting skill. It was created using countless paint strokes that were brought together to create a whole picture. And DaVinci may have made, and corrected mistakes along the way. It is believed that there are details in the background of that painting that were changed, or painted over, to remove from the final product. That really does reflect the process of bringing all of the little technical, instructional design, and content pieces together to create even a single example of an mLearning application. What's more, there is no formula for getting a perfect mLearning big picture every time. The Mona Lisa is a work of art. Yes, there is science behind painting portraites. There is science behind mixing colorful and durable paints, behind creating (and preserving) canvases, behind picking a suitable topic and model, and behind the brushstrokes themselves. But there is a difference between mastering the specific techniques, and having the vision and talent to produce a masterpiece. Not every painter can do it. And even those who can don't produce a masterpiece every time. It takes as much art as it does science. And art involves experimentation and risk.

Art is also a cultural phenomenon, and a matter of personal taste. Yes, the Mona Lisa, with all of its minute details and techniques, is easily recognizable as a portraite of a woman. If you can see. What about individuals with vision impairment? While the Mona Lisa is globally appreciated as a masterpiece, there are some people who will never be able to enjoy it. And there are some people who just don't like looking at portraits. Not to mention, some cultures where the production of portraits on canvas is not a common practice... or even a desirable one. So when policy makers expect a complete, big mLearning picture to be delivered and deployed, they're missing some key points that the Mona Lisa reveals to us:

1. It takes a lot of little elements to create a while picture, and those little elements are difficult to master.

2. There is no formula for putting all of those little pieces together. It's as much art as it is science.

3. It's even more difficult to produce a masterpiece. And even if you can, it still won't suit every possible audience.

4. The tecniques used to create a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa were developed over millenia... and just because they came together perfectly once, doesn't mean that we're now universally able to reproduce the phenomena.

What does this analogy mean for researchers, practitioners, and policy makers? Don't expect perfection. Don't demand it. It's not possible to predict. But, just like paintings, it is worth experimenting with the little pieces of both the science and the art. Let the researchers and practitioners have the room to create firm, function, beauty, and cultural and contextual relevance.

These are just some thoughts after attending John Traxler's keynote presentation at mLearn 2014.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Path to Paris… Thoughts on UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2014

The following are my thoughts on attending UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2014, which I was asked to compile for an upcoming edition of the International Association for Mobile Learning (IAmLearn)'s Newsletter...

I’ve been interested in and actively integrating educational technologies into my teaching practice for over a decade now, but I have really only narrowed in on mobile learning in particular since beginning my doctoral studies at Athabasca University (Canada). It’s fortunate that, given my passion for mobile learning, my dissertation supervisor at AU is IAmLearn founding director Dr. Mohamed Ally! But what has helped me to focus in on my real area of mLearning specialization has been my experiences at various conferences over the past number of years.
At mLearn 2012 in Helsinki, Finland, I first met Prof John Traxler. Through him, I have gained a better appreciation for the cultural nuances that can affect both technological deployment and pedagogical considerations for mLearning. I have also gained an appreciation for the importance of understanding what doesn’t work, and why! My encounters with John, Agnes, and Jocelyn at mLearn 2012 also led directly to my involvement with bringing mLearn 2013 to Doha, Qatar. I don’t think that I could accurately quantify the impact of my work on mLearn 2013 on my conceptualization of mobile learning, my academic studies, or my professional career. That is, except to note that the range of papers and presentations I saw, and the people I have established collegial relationships with, have solidified my own passion for figuring out how to make mobile learning more accessible to everyday teachers.
I presented a workshop at the Technology in Higher Education Conference in Doha in April 2013 with a focus on simple tips and tricks to build mobile reusable learning objects using free online tools. I (and I think the conference organizers) were amazed by the popularity of the session, and I continue to be amazed by the number of colleagues from Doha who still comment on it, and tell me that the workshop sparked their interest and made them feel more comfortable about using mLearning strategies. That workshop led to a peer-reviewed paper on the Collaborative Situated Active Mobile (CSAM) learning strategies framework. However, it wasn’t until mLearn 2013 that I decided to focus in on CSAM for my doctoral dissertation. The feedback I received during the Doctoral Consortium, and informally throughout the conference, has led to both research partnerships and a practical focus for my dissertation (examining how to bridge the gap between new technologies and solid pedagogy to increase teachers’ sense of self-efficacy with mobile learning).
That brings me to UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2014. Initially, I was not planning on attending! I was a bit burnt out from organizing mLearn 2013, I had already flown back to Canada for a week for professional development in late November (leaving my family in Doha), and I had just started a new job in the Advanced Learning Technologies Center at College of the North Atlantic-Qatar. But then I saw the theme for this year’s Mobile Learning Week. With my interest in, and dissertation focus on teachers and mobile learning pedagogy, I could not pass on the opportunity to go to such a prominent conference focused specifically on empowering teachers through mobile learning. Plus, it was in Paris! Who could pass on a trip to Paris?
Personally, I think that I got the most out of the pre-Symposium Workshops day on February 17. Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway gave a keynote address at mLearn 2013… but that one-hour session was all too brief (and my mind was focused on conference organizational issues). So I attended their three-hour workshop in Paris. I’m glad that I did, because I got the chance to dive into hands-on use with their open-access collaborative learning suite of tools. That session opened my eyes to new possibilities for collaborative interaction in blended learning scenarios, and reinforced my focus on collaboration in the CSAM framework. (It also led to another potential institutional partnership for my dissertation research!). For the afternoon session, I chose to attend a presentation on the use of geolocation applications for the creation of interactive “walking tour” lessons and student projects. I got to meet up with IAmLearn members David Parsons and Laurent Antonczak, a number of colleagues from other recent conferences, and a large group of new friends who joined us for a walk around the UNESCO World Headquarters. The session organizers demonstrated an application that they described as continuously evolving. However, I think that the greatest takeaway was the lively discussion it generated both during and after the session about the potential uses of mapping, geolocation, and augmented reality applications. Plus, we got to walk around Paris, staring at our mobile phones, and call it work!
February 18-19 were the open symposium days for MLW14. There were a number of keynote presentations and panel discussions focused on work being done in various regions to help prepare teachers to integrate mobile learning resources, and to reach new audiences of learners. There were also a couple dozen exhibitions by educational institutions, non-governmental organizations, and companies involved with developing educational technology and applications. I got the chance to see the latest array of gadgets about to hit the market, and to see novel applications that have left my imagination still working in overdrive thinking of their possible integrations into my own teaching practice. One of my favorites was a split-screen, Facetime-like application that allows two people in remote locations to read a book together (called Caribou). While the app is being marketed to allow “parents or grandparents” to read bedtime stories to children, I’m still imagining the possibilities for second language learning and pairing learners with expert tutors!
Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the Policy (Feb 20) or Research Track (Feb 21) days for MLW14. It would have been a great chance to continue to network with colleagues old and new. However, I did continue to watch the ongoing Twitter feed under the hashtag #MLW2014. Live-Tweeting from a conference is one of my favorite ways of engaging with colleagues via an online backchannel, and seeing what’s happening in the different parallel sessions. I tried to keep up to date on Tweeting my thoughts, and on re-Tweeting others’comments… so if you want a more in-depth picture of what MLW14 looked like, just look for me on Twitter (@xPat_Letters) and check out my #MLW2014 feed. If the ongoing discussions about mobile learning peak your interest, then I highly recommend attending the forthcoming mLearn 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey. Hopefully I’ll see you there!