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We recently made a commitment internally to mobile learning at Praxis Language. I guess I'll be talking a lot about it in the future. Here are some thoughts for today.
One type of context
In the past, schools provided the physical context for most learning - the setting (or shell) that surrounded the learner (classrooms, teachers, textbooks.) Mobile learning, by contrast, lacks a unifying physical context. It can occur uninterrupted across times, locations, and settings: from office, to car, to meeting, to airport, for example.
An effective mobile learning system must, therefore, seek to create portable 'islands' of context for the learner. One way to do that is by embedding context in discrete, reusable, learning objects. You can see here some examples of situated, stand-alone lessons with an audio (circa 12 mins) text, and reinforcement. The content is embedded in the target language and augmented through sound effects, and other elements to give it a sense of concreteness.
The modularity of the learning objects means they can be selected at will, according to individual preference from a very sizable online database - over 1,000 lesson in the case of ChinesePod. I think it is notable that the user can group individual learning objects into sets (of whatever lengths she chooses) on the basis of vocabulary, topics, or other things. In this sense, the learner can create the broader context (travel, business, culture, grammar, etc) for herself, based on her true reasons for study.
A second type of context
There is a second type of context in mobile learning. This lies, not in the physical surroundings, but in the intangible ones: the relationships, and social ties that emerge through learner interaction. Unlike the learning objects, this type of context cannot be pre-planned. Instead, it follows from discussion within the community of practice. Again, the learner should be free to choose where and when to engage in discussion within the community.
Choice is the lifeblood of a mobile learning system. The learning needs to happen wherever and whenever the learner has the time and inclination. Those islands of context, the learning objects, need to be designed for choice, but also for the environment in which they are consumed. A broad selection of short lessons is, therefore, almost certainly more manageable and appealing than, say, a pre-programmed, linear course of 65 hours. (Why would anyone do a course by mobile means, when there are more convenient ways?) Because of the desultory nature of physical movement, the mobile learner needs choice and flexibility.
The most successful learning happens when the learner is on control of her own learning projects. Mobile learning success isn't just a matter of just choosing the lessons. It invovles the learner creating the broader context of her own learning and moulding the system around her own needs. This is the idea behind the PLS and this is what infroms our notions of mobile learning going forward.