Mobile Learning Tools: A Teachable Moment in the Age of the App

David Carroll

Watching my two-year old figure out my iPhone demonstrates how young people can learn a well-developed sense of computer literacy well before mastering language skills. Consider how this moment’s generation of children has been born into an ordinary world of touch screen mobile computers that connect and inform us constantly, perhaps even compulsively. Only adults seem to marvel at mobile features like video-chat. For toddlers, our romantic future is their ordinary present.

This new digital mobility shifts us away from a synchronous and simultaneous sense of shared place and time (e.g., the classroom) towards an asynchronous, discontinuous and individualized consumption of software (e.g., “an app for that”). These new tools engage us all in various contemporary projects of shareable knowledge, hyper-connected communication and collective cognition. Our own constantly connected mobile device puts nearly infinite information at our fingertips in a dematerialized, timeless and placeless context. Strangely though, the fruits of this placeless and timeless mobility shift yield a seemingly tactile media (e.g., multi-touch) for chronological (e.g., blog) and geo-locative (e.g., check-in) tendencies.

Education tools and platforms designed specifically for mobile devices are nascent or altogether non-existent. However, educators from both formal and informal institutions, such as schools and museums, are demanding high-quality teaching and learning tools that exploit digital media rather than resist it. They recognize how urgently education needs to adapt to the conditions of mobile media as a disruptive change agent against time-tested methods and practices (e.g., the classroom, the after-school program). In particular, educators seek free and open-source platforms designed for mobile learning. The ecology of mobile devices, carriers, operating systems and applications (“apps”) favors commercial infrastructures and proprietary licensing models. Mobile platforms can be touted as open, but even a cursory read of legal agreements complicates that assumption. The platforms that are truly open-source serve a fringe population and fail to earn the market share needed to attract producers and consumers.

Despite all the attention that mobile media enjoys as a humanity-shifting, social force of technology, when we look beyond the threshold of the desktop (and laptop) model of computing, we find a hyper-fragmented realm of incompatible, expensive and competing “standards.” Yet our “always-on” pocket computer compulsively shifts our attention away from the desktop browser model of full-attention span, cursor-driven, general purpose interfaces in favor of partial-attention, embedded, nearly invisible, direct-manipulation interfaces for specialized and distributed functionalities. Briefly exploring the crises and opportunities of these mobility shifts, this article will assess the mobile learning tool 7scenes[1] and offer some advice and best practices for using mobile learning tools. The article will also depict the current condition of commerciality as a significant impediment to transposing assumptions about the “desktop” standards-based Social Web, instantiated on the wired Internet, to a mobile equivalent.

The wired Internet was born out of public-interest institutions including the US military and university system, conceived as an open protocol and model that did not require commercialization to proliferate. In the 90s, public resources were monetized to privatize the Web. The Aughts (2000s) brought us the Social Web, a shared awareness that everybody is online. All along, the browser itself has been an open-source participatory design project not directly driven by monetary profit. Non-commercial standards bodies continue to govern arcane specifications like HTML5, defining how web browsers publish media. As evidence of a mobility shift, this committee-designed platform is poised to make a de facto, commercial “standard” like Flash obsolete, as the free market favors alternatives. Mobile media now segments across an inconsistently supported mobile Web and a franchise model of device dependent mobile app chain stores. This split may characterize The Teens (2010s) when the browser untethers and yields to a strip-mall inspired mobile app economy.

The success of the wired Internet inspired this demand for equivalent wireless services as a mobility shift. Now we carry the affordances of the desktop Social Web with us while we live, work, and learn. As a result, do we still need the occasion of a class and the convenience of a room to establish a site of education? The rise of online universities suggests otherwise. Some claim that the desktop-based Social Web has served as a mere “dress rehearsal” (Fogg) for the transformative capabilities that surround hyper-connection and mass exchange of digital media across mobile devices and networks. In the developing world, at least, huge populations will skip the adoption of the conventional PC altogether. Industry trade group CTIA expects 5 billion global customers in 2011 and already services 80% of the US population (CTIA). Meanwhile, educators are left to surmount a daunting set of impediments to establish rigorous teaching and learning into the practice of a fully socialized ubiquitous mobility.

A brutal criticality regarding the nature of this industry and how it invades all dimensions of our daily life ought to frame our approach as educators, theorists and makers when we consider mobile media and learning. We cannot opt-out of the marketplace’s lucrative and growth-oriented business model to sell supply of wireless Internet access and monetize the exchange of virtual commodities. This pessimism deflates expectations and offers a reality-check for us as we remain astonished with our still new, constantly connected mobile computers that we stroke with alarming intimacy.

All the world’s knowledge appears at our fingertips. An itching question is figuratively scratched on a digital pocket pad. These scratch-an-itch movements instantly summon the “cognitive surplus” (Shirkey) sourcing the “wisdom of the crowd” (Surowiecki). Do these everyday, partial-attention-span knowledge queries in situ constitute substantial learning opportunities and teachable moments embedded among casual and synthetic references?

We used to sit in front of the computer or printed matter to conduct our work generally confined to stationary circumstances. When you’re on the desktop Social Web, you sit at a wired desk in a literal and performative sense. Even with portable media like books, papers or laptops, working occupies hours and minutes rather than mere seconds of concentrated attention. By contrast, mobile media is consumed and produced in motion. Now the computer sits in front of us, miniaturized to fit in our hand and pocket, sporting a direct-manipulation interface that channels our cognitive energies into instantaneous gestures that lead to a sense of belonging to something transformative.

For my students, a mobile pedagogy involves redirecting their perceived need to learn a particular platform to reach a determined audience as merely a skill set to include on an résumé towards more product independent approaches that instead question the impulse to make an app without a thoughtful examination of how creativity, utility and mobility intersect in the social, everyday and commercialized context of using a mobile device. What are the risks and rewards associated with going mobile into a realm that is always at the ready, but also, always on the grid? When we tap “the wealth of networks” (Benkler) with our mobile for learning, do we entangle our social relationships as a currency and feed the for-profit marketplace for a surveillance-security industrial complex?

One recent example of educators grappling with these mobility shifts is the MacArthur Foundation and its New Youth City Learning Network[2] project in New York City. NYCLN can serve as a visionary model of building institutional infrastructures around the mobile device and the Social Web to foster “free-range learning” and discovery of the city as an open laboratory. NYCLN’s partnerships between cultural and learning entities such as museums and libraries along with primary, secondary and higher education schools engage city youth with mobile learning tools towards fulfillment of their potential roles as citizen scientists, journalists, activists and designers. Under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council, but within my school of art and design between peer faculty and graduate students, some early demonstration projects were developed over the summer of 2010 for institutional members of the learning network, including the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Hall of Science, and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. This is a mere oversimplification, and I won’t go into detail on these intricate relationships and projects. Instead, I will describe the pedagogical implementation of using a commercial and proprietary mobile learning platform called 7scenes.

Even though this book tries to avoid closed systems on principle, two reasons justify breaking this rule here. Few open-source learning platforms exist for iPhone or Android, or at least among those I have rigorously evaluated. Kurt Squire’s ARIS[3] platform from University of Wisconsin-Madison is notable for being open-source and could have been the subject of this article. However, it was not a robust and finished product at the time when we were considering tools for our learning network projects during the first quarter of 2010. By the end of the year, ARIS had significantly matured and will be carefully considered by the New Youth City Learning Network moving forward. Another alternative to 7scenes, SCVNGR,[4] is well financed by venture capital but also is not open-source. In contrast, 7scenes is a spinoff commercial product that was incubated at the Waag Society of the Netherlands through its Locative Media Atelier. These early public-interest roots reveal a not-for-profit ancestry that ought to earn our attention given the limitations of the marketplace for mobile learning, in general.

7scenes is a location-based storytelling and urban game design system that combines a desktop web-authoring environment with a companion mobile app to play “scenes” by triggering and interacting with mobile media and activities at real place-markers. The web-authoring environment, built upon Google Maps, first prompts the scene’s “director” to choose among predefined game or location-aware interaction design patterns, called “genres” in platform jargon (e.g., Secret Trail, Mystery Tour, Field Research). Directors then build mobile media driven narratives or interactions by dropping place-markers on maps and associating multimedia elements within the constraints of the selected game or interaction mechanic.

Mobile apps are available for free download to Apple iPhone, Google Android and certain Nokia Symbian Series 60 devices. Once a scene is designed on the web interface, it is scheduled to invite mobile players, who usually gather as an organized event (e.g., festival, field trip, after-school program) equipped with GPS and mobile broadband-enabled phones to experience the narrative or game by moving through actual space. Conceptually, ARIS and SCVNGR are very similar offerings. These tools are being updated and developed faster than we can write and publish about them.

Even though 7scenes is probably one of the most usable platforms on the market, our experience revealed the challenge of designing a highly usable mobile platform for both the production and consumption of experiences. Despite being based on familiar interactions with web browser form elements and drag-and-drop geographic maps, we observed learners who struggled to grasp the jargon of the platform, the principles of game design, the manipulation of media, and the process of prototyping a location-based narrative or game while learning 7scenes as a tool. Teaching with this tool necessitates transdisciplinary design thinking towards labor intensive and well-planned content development.

The 7scenes model clearly attempts to establish a rigid framework to exploit constraints as a means of generating expected outcomes. This helps contend with the unfamiliarity of designing stories and behaviors for location. The alternative is a wildly open model, such as Foursquare, or Twitter geo-location, both of which impose different constraints including radical multi-purpose and an imprecise signal-to-noise ratio. Social Web companies design their software to scale their user base to massive quantities. Casting a wide net by offering general-purpose tools builds this market share. At least platforms like 7scenes, ARIS and SCVNGR are expressly designed for locative games and narratives at the service of teaching and learning. These narrow-purpose tools begin to mitigate the challenge of deploying “free-range” learning in designed learning situations across a fragmented ecology of commercial mobile device standards often filtered through radically open but privately owned social networks. Specialized locative education tools also present their own impediments, commercial dependencies and “features—not bugs.” General-purpose locative platforms involve less labor because they are generative and computational but bear the cost of forfeiting predictable, assessable and secure outcomes.

When designing social and mobile apps for young adults and children, significant legal requirements in the US (e.g., COPPA: Child Online Privacy Protection Act, 1998, 15 U.S.C.; FERPA: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 1974, 20 U.S.C.) prevent the use of publicly available services on open but private networks like Twitter or Foursquare. Protecting student and faculty privacy should be an ongoing concern for educators to find US and EU compliant tools. Systems like 7scenes, while laborious to learn and deploy, support the need to create safe havens for young people that limit access to credentialed participants with business models that don’t involve ulterior motives. Entering usernames and passwords on mobile phones is annoying. Needing to designate elements as public involves additional layers of software bureaucracy to finagle. However, the conspiracy of privacy concerns related to “open” services is probably a more insidious issue for teachers and learners. The learning tools created with location aware mobile devices inherently gather extremely sensitive private but shareable data.

While working with the institutional members of the New Youth City Learning Network[5] we grappled with the instinct of their education departments to invent new mobile media paradigms that aligned closely to their existing curricula. For example, a science museum expressed little interest in 7scenes as a platform because (at the time) it did not offer a “field research” modality. Museum educators sought mobile learning tools that adapted a field research notebook model for location-aware Smartphones. These science-oriented educators resisted proposals to use 7scenes given its historical storytelling and trading game models, unwilling to unwind their understanding of the observational (not reflexive) practice of science. By contrast, a cultural history museum was more open to 7scenes because its premise fit more naturally into its existing programs, services and constituencies. However, all struggled with multiple layers of usability and reliability across mobile and desktop operating systems, the learning tool kit, overhead of support staff and the quality of the mobile network itself.

When institutions collide, learning occurs. Opaque hierarchies need to cross-navigate to work in collaboration. The drive to make and use mobile learning tools and Social software forms an impetus to suddenly form multi-institution learning networks. But these public-interest institutions have wired Internet needs and expectations yet shall be at the mercy of the wireless Internet and mobile media establishment—entrenchment meets trade secrets. The challenges for teachers and learners to adopt mobile learning tools are immense because they intermingle public-interest establishments and privately owned concerns more porously than ever. In response, I offer some best practices toward a real pedagogy to learn from my mistakes.

When exploring possible tools to propose to partners, begin by introducing the offerings of the marketplace and categorize them based on how they compare on a spectrum of specific to general purpose according to their flexibilities and constraints. Conduct design charrettes and play-test workshops to cultivate stakeholder consensus around tools rather than outsourcing the decision to the experts. Unfortunately, most people will understandably relish an opportunity to design a new mobile software tool from scratch without any sense of what goes into that endeavor. The mobile media industrial complex suggests through its advertising that making apps is the easy part while glossing over the actual full-time occupations that labor on the processes of software and its infrastructures.

Regardless, tackle as many aspects of mobile learning tools as possible. Build teaching activities around both the attractive and repugnant qualities of mobile learning and Social media. Make paper prototypes and perform the proposed interactions with rough props that equip actors in a scene. Act out the gestures of mobile learning in actual situations. Pretend with a cardboard cell phone in public. Channel your former toddler self. This all helps inspire and fulfill that instinct to invent a great new app. Exploit that latent creativity in all of us, as inferred by the Smartphone ad campaign that markets a branded notion of designing apps as genuinely human to saturate a for-profit marketplace. Despite and because of this, paper prototyping also creates the context to demonstrate some of the complexities of software design and the mobile marketplace for creators and consumers alike (e.g., geoliteracies as map-making and sense-making, game design as systems thinking, storytelling as narrative strategies, solving technical and legal hurdles as geeking-out). To further your study, the MacArthur Foundation funded articulation of youth and digital media as “hanging out, messing around and geeking out” serves as a definitive voice in adapting our thinking to the impact of new kinds of literacy (Ito).

Finally, implementing mobile technology tools into curricula is more difficult than desktop web-based tools because the industry enforces individual ownership of devices, complicating the purchase of devices and service plans. Carriers are failing miserably at offering alternative contract agreements for the education market where a middle ground between pre-paid and contract post-paid is needed. Schools have equipped themselves to manage fixed labs and the near-obsolete notion of a desktop computer. No bureaucracies exist to manage loaning devices to faculty and students with active service plans. Because there are no free, interoperable, public mobile services, educators should never assume their learners would arrive equipped to access a mobile pedagogy. A tremendous amount of energy, time and financial resources are wasted attempting to mitigate this regrettable market failure on the part of service providers, device manufacturers and software purveyors.

These kinds of mobility shifts more fully resolve when a variety of open learning tools are accessible to vast constituencies. We ought to move beyond ad hoc funding and support. This will involve attempts at disentangling public and private interests more thoughtfully and enshrine mechanisms that espouse the values of the original wired Internet as we shift and commit to wireless-ubiquitous computing more completely. When we aren’t so preoccupied with reconstructing chronology on news streams, reinforcing a sense of place on geographic maps, and re-materializing interface with multi-touch, we’ll know the shift itself is history. In the meantime, educators need the community to donate labor to open-source tools. Governments could design public-interest profit incentives (e.g., tax breaks, community access funds, discount subsidies) so carriers and manufacturers donate plenty of bandwidth and devices to non-profit learning institutions.

Works Cited

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

CTIA. “The Wireless Industry Overview.” 12 May 2010. Web. 28 Decemebr 2010. <>.

Fogg, BJ, et al. Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior Change. Mobile Persuasion, 2007. Print.

Itō, Mizuko, Sonja Baumer, and Matteo Bittanti. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Boston: The MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin, 2010. Print.

Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor, 2005. Print.

CTIA. “The Wireless Industry Overview.” 12 May 2010. Web. 28 Decemebr 2010. <>.

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