A digital ‘Arab Spring’ for higher education?

The phrase “Digital Life and Mobile Learning” is intended to summarise the tensions and paradox between two powerful and significant ideas.

These ideas are, on the one hand, the attempts in schools, colleges and universities around the world to use personal mobile devices to finally deliver learning ‘anywhere, anytime’, as promised 20 years ago by the e-learning missionaries and visionaries, and, on the other hand, the reality of people outside these institutions, using the same mobile technologies to create, transform, discuss, discard, share, store and transmit ideas, opinions, images and information.

These attempts at exploiting mobile devices within schools, colleges and universities have succeeded in demonstrating:
  • • that the reach of education can extend (to rural areas or marginal groups, for example),
  • • that education can be enriched and enhanced (by being more personalised, customised and localised, for example), and
  • • that education can be more engaging (for disaffected and disillusioned groups and individuals, for example).
But these attempts have been resource intensive and have not always produced convincing evidence. In the words of one journalist, the evidence has been “fluffy” and not addressed the business case for mobile learning. Many of the more successful projects have been the least exciting or innovative.

A different way of learning

Meanwhile, outside these universities, schools and colleges people are using podcasts, websites, blogs, YouTube and Wikipedia to education each other, to learn from each other. It’s certainly learning, but not as we know it and no longer under the control of the existing educational institutions or the existing educational professions.

So, let’s unpack this paradox in slightly more detail and look at how we got here. We are now at a point where mobile devices are cheap, robust, easy, cute and nearly universal, ubiquitous and pervasive.

They are chosen, owned, used and loved by people with no experience or recollection of using computers and certainly not any recollection of using computers for learning. And they are used for everything – recreation, socialising, shopping… everything.

Earlier, researchers and practitioners in universities working on the possibilities of using computers in education had realised that computers were static, impersonal and inaccessible for most people and that mobile technology represented an attractive trajectory away from working with computers.

They used mobile learning experiences that were increasingly more sensitive to the learner and their environment and increasingly exploited the location-aware, media-rich and image-capture capabilities of the technologies to take learning away from the classroom and into the workplace, the work placement and the field trip. This was great.

It was fun and it was worthwhile, but still essentially conservative and backward-looking, trying to make an education system work for a society that had literally moved on.

Education without the educators

Meanwhile in the outside world the game was getting away from the research community as people discovered that they themselves could make podcasts, share video, join groups, create websites, write blogs about any topic or subject that took their fancy.

This all looks like education, but without the educators; the educators are still stuck with institutional systems, like Turnitin and Moodle, behind an institutional paywall protecting their business, their assets and their IP. Time for some movement!

This is, however, not a challenge that is internal or local to the technological or pedagogic specialists within the institutions since it does in effect challenge their institutional authority, credibility and legitimacy. How are they relevant, why should we listen to them, what have they to offer?

Taxpayers and businesses could be asking why they subsidise a system which is increasingly out of touch with the outside world, while students are asking why, at the end of a three-year course, they must sit still, silent and alone and use a pen to answer exam questions.

The recent past might suggest the possibility of an educational ‘Arab Spring’, an upheaval where the masses, connected by mobiles and social media, overthrow the established order with its institutions, officials and values.

The current aftermath of the Arab Spring tells us this might not be such an attractive prospect and perhaps we should hope for a more gradual, consensual change.

Institutions will blunder and stumble, individuals will resist, react, reform and eventually fit into some new order, having done the right things for the wrong reasons, conducting their pilots and their projects ostensibly for outputs and outcomes, but in fact gradually coming to terms with a mobile and connected world needing new skills, new attitudes and new formats.

John Traxler is professor of mobile learning at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. This article is based on a presentation he will give at the Digital Life Environments conference in Turkey to be held from 4-6 May.