Bad Practices in Mobile Learning
This updated summary of “Bad Practices in Mobile Learning” from EduTech blog of The World Bank (by Michael Trucano) is more schools than enterprise, but these are common mistakes observed in multiple initiatives and in multiple places, and seem to repeat over time with only slight variations.
In no particular order, and with specific reference to common realities in middle and low income countries, it’s a good check list for decision makers and implementation designers.
1. Simply port over content or applications already developed for PCs
The impulse behind this common course of action is quite understandable. “We have already paid a lot to develop this stuff, and we think what we already have is pretty good.” Just because something is understandable doesn’t mean it is advisable, however. One still hears similar sentiments from certain educational publishers who consider the fact that they have made their materials available as PDFs means that their content has now been (magically?) transformed into ‘digital textbooks’, but the results of such ‘porting’ are usually quite underwhelming. This is not to recommend that all previous content simply be discarded or ignored. However, a mobile first approach to developing mobile learning products and services which approaches design and development afresh and aims to capitalize on the particular affordances offered by mobile devices may yield better results.
2. Introduce a totally new device to facilitate ‘mobile learning’
The allure of a new educational technology device is hard to ignore. That said, history has shown that purpose-built educational technology devices designed for specific educational purposes often fail to gain traction and find users — and they can be very difficult to build! (There are exceptions to this, of course, with handheld graphing calculators being one prominent example. For the purpose of this discussion, ‘ruggedizing’ an existing tablet for use in schools does not make it ‘new’, it just means that a potentially useful feature or attribute has been added to an existing device.) It is worth asking: Is it more likely that a totally brand new device aimed at the education market will succeed, or might a more prudent course of action be to take advantage of the fact that there is already a base level of technology available to your users upon which you can build? In other words: Is there really a need to develop a new, ideal educational technology device in order for mobile learning to take place, or can you build off what is already available in the market and in widespread use? A better principle to follow, especially when seeking to impact learners and teachers in low income communities, might be to develop for devices that your potential users already have, know how to use, and can afford.
3. Don’t spend time with your target user groups – assume you already understand their needs
What may well be considered a ‘good practice’ or an ‘appropriate solution’ for learners in schools in Silicon Valley or Helsinki, Cambridge or Seoul may not be so good or appropriate when transferred to educational contexts in (e.g.) rural Africa. Thinking you understand the needs of user groups unlike those with which you currently work can have some rather unfortunate consequences once your mobile learning product or service is actually available ‘on the ground’. It is just possible that many of the real usability challenges inhibiting the adoption of ‘mobile learning’ at scale in developing countries won’t be overcome by people or groups from other places — no matter how brilliant or well-intentioned or successful they may have already been proven to be — but rather by people living and working in such environments themselves, or at least who come from such places (and whose families may still live there), and/or who are themselves users of the mobile devices they help design or the learning applications that run on them. Adopting user-centered design techniques or approaches can be quite helpful here.
related to this, two additional ‘bad’ practices come to mind …
4. Consider that all ‘mobile learners’ are ‘digital natives’
As the ‘digital native’ hypothesis (that all young people are somehow different than their elders because they instinctively ‘get’ technology) enters its second decade, this widely used term continues to exert a strong influence over many educational policymakers, educators and vendors alike. Quickly learning and demonstrating a mastery of the mechanics of a particular process or application on a mobile device (posting to Facebook, for example, or playing a video game one has never seen before) shouldn’t be confused with a mastery of how to successfully use such a device for learning. Design exclusively for the ‘digital native’ and you may well ignore the needs of many of learners, potentially needlessly confusing and complicating their efforts as they engage in ‘mobile learning’.