The Mobile University – Eduserv Symposium

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Last month I travelled down to London for the Eduserve symposium. This year the theme for the event focused on the potential impact of mobile technology on the research, learning and teaching landscape within Higher Education. Based at the very impressive Royal College of Physicians in London the day was bumper packed with presentations from a variety of different people including academics, IT developers, Librarians and application developers to name a few. It was also the first event that I had been to where badges included a QR code – unfortunately due to technical issues the QR reader on my phone was not willing to cooperate – but it was a great idea.  All slides from the event can be found on slideshare.

The main themes of the day focused on the potential benefits of mobile technology on the learner experience and the challenges that are currently being faced by developers.

The event began with a presentation from Paul Golding, CEO of Wireless Wonders. This session focused on the progress that had been made over recent years with mobile technology and how it compares to other technological developments such  as the rise of the laptop or iPod. With the onset of Twitter the presenter described a movement towards the “creeping web” something that mobile technology naturally supports.

The speaker went on to talk about augmented cognition whereby access to real-time information changes the ability we have to think and understand the world around us in real-time. Subsequently he argued that we need to invent new modes of learning in response to this. Potential examples included developments of educational applications, the use of students receiving text messages in lectures about key information and the potential use of mobile technology for data collection. There is a danger of information saturation and the speaker emphasised the importance of the “right time web”. Whilst there is a lot of potential with regards to the use of mobile technologies there is one stumbling block – the infrastructure that exists and a plea was made for improvements in this area so that mobile technology can move forward. Ultimately the growth of data is exceeding wireless network capabilities. Issues relating to tariffs were also discussed – the more user-friendly the tariff the more likely that people will acquire smartphones.

The second talk came from Christine Sexton from the University of Sheffield. This presentation emphasised the importance of a user centric approach and the fact that computing services can no longer afford to say things like “we don’t support that.”  Users expectations are changing they want access to information at any time. Christine emphasised the point that some people can access resources online and there is less of a concept of software, whilst others are still reliant on more old school resources subsequently creating a digital divide among some users. Sheffield has undertaken a project to develop mobile applications – including a campus map and lecture timetable application.

Another issue with mobile technology highlighted was the issue of data security and data synchronisation. Mobiles are seen as less secure than other technologies and data synchronisation costs money on tariffs and battery life.

The third presentation came from Andy Ramsden, Head of elearning at the University of Bath. A number of different technologies are being investigated at Bath including mobile technology and the use of Twitter as a personal learning network. Andy acknowledged that different services need different approaches to mobilise them. Once again the user centred approach to technological developments was mentioned through the use of focus groups and discussions surrounding how to get people to engage. The focus groups found that students enter into contracts and change contracts quickly but they will not engage with services without good reason if there is a charge. In addition the mobile agenda does not appear to be a priority for students. This theme also came out of our Now You’re Talking focus group sessions.

The series of “‘Lightening Talks” was a great opportunity to find out more about projects being undertaken involving mobile technology at a number of different universities.

First up was Nick Skelton from the University of Bristol who addressed the theme of a mobile IT manifesto and the development of a mobile campus application. Nick emphasised the importance of using the data you have and when building a new system consider the potential mobile application of that system.

The second talk came from Wayne Barry from Canterbury Christchurch University spoke about the “iborrow project”. This project enables students to borrow netbooks for use in the Library and using RFID the movement of that equipment is tracked to discover how students are using the Library space.

The University of Edinburgh have recently conducted a survey relating to the mobile campus and Simon Marsden reported on the results. The survey found that 50% of students had a smart phone with four models identified as the most popular (iPhone, HTC, Nokia, and Blackberry). From this result it was decided that development of applications should be focused on these models. The survey asked users what information they wanted through their mobiles – the results included access to course information, timetables, PC availability, Library records, GPS, and search the university directory. Whilst this information would be great there is still the issue that half the population here do not own a smart phone and that people may not be willing to pay for these applications.

The final Lightening Talk session came from Tim Fernando from the University of Oxford. He spoke about the Molly Project – the development of an open source product/ framework that focuses on the development of mobile applications such as maps, contacts and Library searches.

Following on from these Lightening sessions came a talk from Tom Hume Managing Director of Future Platforms. Tom spoke of some of the challenges that we need to consider when developing mobile tools including the number of people who have access to smart phones. The vast majority do not have an iPhone in this country and there is an array of phones available on the market – it is not possible to cater to all these demands.

The day closed with a talk from John Traxler with a clear message – there are many benefits to mobile technologies including the opportunity to reach users who may previously have been missed. Sustainable projects need to be undertaken and education needs to stay up to date to ensure that we remain relevant in this “new world” with “new economics” and “new jobs”.

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