One of the pieces of the puzzle I wanted to sort out coming to this MLearn conference was the issues of tech toys; are we trying to integrate Treos and Blackberrys an ipods because they’re cool, or because there’s actually some pedagogical value to using them? I’m personally of the opinion that there are lots of cool things in the world, and lots of things that students enjoy, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all cool things can or should be used for our purposes. There are some things I think maybe we should leave alone.
But if there’s a good reason to use something, I’m all ears. I’m here to be convinced. And I’m not even a hard sell, I just want to see the extra pedagogical value that we can’t get any other way. I want to see that extra piece that takes a technology beyond “that’s cool”.
One of the tech toys I was expecting to see here, and expecting to not be impressed about, is cell phones. Like many other educational “toys”, it often seems to me that we adopt these other media when the standard one is still the best. For instance, while it’s great that it’s possible to download a PDF file to your cell phone, it would be easier, faster, and cheaper to download it on a computer. Does anyone actually want to read a PDF on a cell phone?
But I did hear some interesting things about cell phones so far. First, there was talk about sending broadcast messages from instructors to students via text message. There are a few things that make this interesting; first, email is on the decline. Frankly I’m delighted to hear that, because email should be used for the thing it does best (exchanging lengthy messages in text over the internet that aren’t necessarily instantaneous) and not for everything (rapidfire email chat, file transfer, important alerts). There was one example, that came from student feedback, about helpful messages sent to students over the Easter holiday while they were working on reports; I like the idea of instructors being able to give last-minute help (“That book we talked about in class, the one that’s so critical to this assignment, went missing from the library, but there’s another source that’s just as good, there’s a copy of it available on the course website.”). Of course there’s a training piece there for instructors; text messages cost the student money, so they really need to not send many of these things, and make sure the messages they send are really awesomely important. But I don’t think it’s a horrible idea.
Immediately someone in the room said, come on, how are we going to get faculty to take care of get ANOTHER piece of this tech pie? They have a hard enough time just getting student emails, now you want them to get student phone numbers? I think there’s a simple answer to that, though. Faculty shouldn’t be information collectors. The LMS should handle that, the SIS (student Information System) could be (and should be) the repository for all student information. The LMS should draw that information out of SIS for use in classrooms. That way students could just toggle the SMS option on or off, and faculty could just make use of it if they want to or not.
Second, they showed us a project they were working on in the UK where students could send pictures from their phones to a sort of discussion board. On its own, this idea isn’t that exciting, but in a course that has assignments based on things that require images, I think it’s great to have students go out on field trips and share a record of what they see with the class. Of course, you don’t need a cell phone to do this. You could use a camera and just upload the photo. But I do like the idea. I spoke with a woman from Athabasca University over lunch about using GPS software in a cell phone to trigger a series of sound/audio files on a handheld, so that students could walk around a site, and, based on their precise location, hear details about it. We talked about the idea of having a variety of students do projects about a specific site, from the perspective of different disicplines. So you could get a perspective of the place as a site of religious ritual, or from an architectural perspective, a religious perspective, an anthropological or sociological perspective, and so forth. Environmental, even biological projects. And what an amazing final product it would be! Students could create content for an interpretive centre that could offer up a multi-disciplinary tour of a site, complete with audio recordings, images, and text. Very cool.
In another session, one about the Mobile Library (how could I help but attend?) the idea of making your library’s catalogue browseable via Treo or Blackberry arose. On one hand, I sat there aghast. Browsing with a cell phone in Canada is just way too expensive for students. It’s way too expensive for me and I have a full time job. I know it’s cheaper in other countries, but I just can’t see it as being feasible here. But on the other hand…the idea of a mobile device in the stacks intrigues me. It would be great to be up in the stacks, hanging out among the books, and be able to punch in a title and get a call number without having to go back downstairs to a computer. It would be additionally awesome to hook it up with GPS and have it map the route out for you; how to get from where you are now to the book you want. Can we provide that? Can we provide handheld devices so that students can wander the stacks and find what they’re looking for? I can’t imagine how you’d do that. But it’s a neat idea.
So my personal jury is still sort of out on the use of the gadgets. But I’m starting to see some interesting applications for some creative assignments.