Mobile Learning Environments – Educause Quarterly

A short opinion piece I wrote for EQ was published this week. In the article, I make a case for a fundamental change in culture that is highlighted by the adoption mobile media, then show some examples of designs that look promising for situated, contextual, just-in-time, participatory, and personalized learning environments.

See the full article here.

Characteristics FM Radio Mobile Phone
Network model Centralized Peer-to-peer
Content customization Uniform Personalized to context
Information distribution Just-in-case Just-in-time
Role of audience Consumer Equal participant
Reliability qualifier Authority Social capital
Governance Institutional Relational

If you have thoughts, feel free to share them!


Leadership Summit on Digital Media

Click to Play Video

This summer, I had the pleasure of traveling out to D.C. to present alongside Nancy Proctor (Smithsonian), Chris Lehmann (Science Leadership Academy) and Yasser Ansari (NOAH Project) about the work being done by our GLS mobile learning team here in Madison.

Click the image above to see a brief video describing the larger context for this gathering, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation, Nokia and the Smithsonian Institute through the New Learning Institute

Educational Transfer – Two lessons from Virtual Worlds

In the field of instructional/curriculum design, the notion of transfer is of obvious importance. One of the earliest inquiries into the subject defined transfer as the “influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions” (Thorndike and Woodworth 1901b). Practically speaking, it is the ability for a student to learn a skill, process or other knowledge in one setting, then apply that experience favorably to a novel situation.

The assumption that some form of transfer takes place is foundational to every design of formal learning. If a student was not able to apply classroom knowledge outside the classroom, what good is it? If knowledge and skills could only be utilized in the exact context in which they were acquired there would be no method for learning any subject outside of their most authentic practices. Even then, one situation within the practice may not transfer to another. Along these lines, Thorndike and Woodworth (1901a) conclude that:

For [the] functions [tested in this study being] so similar and for cases so favourable for getting better standards and better habits of judging the amount of improvement gotten by training in an allied function is small. Studies of the influence of the training of similar functions in school and in the ordinary course of life, so far as we have made such, show a similar failure to bring large increases of efficiency in allied functions.
Despite this bleak outlook, it seems safe to conclude that transfer does occur within the human mind simply on casual observation alone. The very notion of innovation requires previous knowledge to be applied in new circumstances and whole fields of study, such as engineering, mathematics and other sciences are founded on the application of generalized principles within new situations.  In many respects, the scientific method is a formalization of one particular process of transfer. For other domains and traditional school subjects, however, the process of transferring learning beyond the context of a classroom may be much more ill-defined.

Leander and Lovvorn (2006) approach two such school subjects, English and History, with a much more mature version of transfer and the practices around it by defining a set of “Dimensions of Displacement” through the lens of literacy studies. These dimensions include: identity translation, movements and positions of texts, rhythms of circulation and network continuity. Through observing class times of what many educators would assess as active and engaging teaching practices, this rubric seems to show that learning is happening in highly segmented and localized fashions. Translation is not happening past that of student identities. The representations are homogeneous save a few of the teacher’s personal stories. The texts are not moving past predefined curriculum, and the knowledge networks are disconnected. In sharp contrast, parallel observations are made of the same student playing a popular MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies (LucasArts and Sony Entertainment, 2003).

In SWG, the student is engaged in a multi-modal, active process that produces numerous embodied experiences. This embodiment, through a 3-d avatar in the game, leads to a “ongoing construction and hybridization of a textualized self” (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006). Surprisingly, the player was also able to identify directly with a much more abstract representation of self as well, an mouse cursor moving across the map of the virtual world of SWG while narrating a future plan for travel. Instead of relying on textual descriptions and statistics about the different spaces within the game, the player often preferred to physically (virtually) walk around and make first-person observations.

Along the last dimension of displacement, network continuity, the contrast between the game and classroom also yields fascinating differences. In the classroom, teacher and student produced texts, such as note cards, whiteboard markings and lecture notes created engagement and capital only in the sense that they had graded consequences. After the last-minute production of dozens of 3×5” cards for a research project assignment and handing them in, it took weeks before they were returned and then had very little value to the student who produced them as demonstrated by the fact that they remained untouched at the bottom of his locker. Since a tub of single sentence filled note cards have no translation path into more valuable forms, the artifact of work retained no value once a grade had been assigned.

In games such as SWG and virtual worlds such as Second Life (Linden Labs, 2003), players are also able to produce tangible creations, but the value of these productions may be sustained more effectively due to the design of the system itself. For the player of SWG, the work of hunting results in experience points and a harvest of raw materials. XP, by design is a currency for increasing the avatar’s skill set along a set of orthogonal axis which result in new and improved abilities that afford new and hopefully desired actions internal to game system. The materials, through the XP driven skills, are converted into crafted objects which can be exchanged with other players, sold or used directly, all of which are examples of a continuous circulation of value.

Malaby (2006) investigates currency as it relates to virtual worlds by demonstrating how goods and services are transferred across the barrier of the game world into tangible market value of different forms. By defining capitol simply as a “resource for action” (Malaby, 2006) he identifies not only social and material capital in virtual worlds but also introduces a third form, cultural capitol. Star Wars Galaxies, Second Life and other virtual worlds do not simply happen to have these distinct forms of capital motivating players on chance alone as the value of each are networked into the entirety of the design. Capital in these environments requires both player effort as well as the support of the system itself. From the tools and verbs that allow player skill (both virtual and otherwise) to convert in-game assets (which may have their own value) into more valuable forms to the systems that allow these creations to be exchanged and sold to the copyright laws that attribute the ownership of the creation to the player, the game design directly supports the production of capital.  For the continued discussion of transfer, however, it is not the specific form and value of capital created that is relevant as much as the fact that the capital produces and sustains engagement. This is verified by the fact that players continue to play out of choice alone.

Through these studies of currency and literacy it now may be safe to draw a few lessons about what Virtual Worlds have to teach educators and curriculum designers about producing transferable learning experiences:

First, possibilities for embodiment should be designed such that the student’s perspective is shifted outside of the role of only being a student but also an actor within different space times (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006) outside the classroom. Through games we even see continued co-production of identity is possible within certain designed activities.

Second, continued and sustained engagement may be created by designing systems of currency production and transferability that replace traditional homework cycles. If the result of student endeavour retains value as differing forms of liquid capital it is more likely to be utilized outside context it was produced.


Thorndike and Woodworth (1901a) The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (I) Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.

Thorndike and Woodworth (1901b) The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (II). The estimation of magnitudes. Psychological Review, 8, 384-395.

Malaby (2006) Parlaying Value Capital in and Beyond Virtual Worlds. Games and Culture,1(2)

Leander and Lovvorn (2006). Literacy Networks: Following the Circulation of Texts, Bodies, and Objects in the Schooling and Online Gaming of One Youth. Cognition and Instruction, 24(3), 291-340

Blizzard’s World of Warcraft as a Social Space

Steinkueler and Williams submit in Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places,” that virtual worlds and MMORPGs may provide spaces for social engagement that bear resemblance to the notion of “third places” described by Oldenberg in 1999. The requirements for such a distinction are that the following attributes are present:

  • Neutral Ground – Participants are able to freely come and go without having to take care others or seek permission.
  • Leveling – The role, status or stature of a participant in the existing structures of their lives such as the home or workplace are remediated to little or no importance.
  • Conversation as main activity – Communication between participants is enabled through the neutral ground and leveled social status.
  • Accessibility and Accommodation – Access must be easy and accommodating.
  • Regulars – Long term members should project a mood and attract new members.
  • Low Profile – The space should not be pretentious.
  • Playful Mood – Humor, frivolousness and playfulness should characterize participant interactions.
  • Home Away from Home – Participants should feel rooted, ownership, spiritually regenerated, at ease and warm when in the space

Using this subset of social space, is WoW a third space or simply a massively online single player gaming environment? Here I will make a case that it is indeed social, citing a few examples from the first 12 levels of play.

In-Game Ad-Hoc Collaboration

Tasks within WoW often follow the template: Go fetch/deliver from/to this place/person on your map where the place or person is surrounded by a dangerous circumstance. In early areas of the game, the dangerous circumstances are defined by numerous aggressive creatures physically spaced in such a way that they can be picked off one-by-one but would be fatal to confront if two or three were attacking at once. This means a cautious player is able to complete even combat-centric quests with no outside collaboration from other players.

As a level 8 character, I was completing a quest that involved killing a particular level 10 creature in the southern knook of Gnarlpine Hold in Teldrassil. The geography of the region included mountains on both sides of a path leading to the character in distress, with the majority of the path sprinkled with level 8 gnarpine furbolgs.

Alone, these creates are not all that dangerous. 3-4 blows from the night elf’s default rage spell will kill them, while they attack more slowly and need double that to kill the player character. Mathematically, this means that my character can easily take on one at a time and needs luck or healing moves during combat with two of these characters to survive. In combat with the level 10 creature, my level 8 character would be challenged quite well.

While picking the enemies off one-by-one, another player came up behind mine and also began fighting nearby furbologs. I had never met this player or solicited collaboration, but we were simply both working toward the same quest at the same time and happen to run into each other. The unified ad-hoc effort quickly allowed us not only to progress rapidly through the valley toward our final objective but also allowed our characters to gain experiences from the collaborative effort.

As I delt the final blow to the quest’s target, a spell from an unseen enemy took my last few HP and my character was dead. The quest was complete but I would have to re-spawn before continuing play. From the “release spirit” view of immobilized death, I was able to watch my unknown collaborator continue to fight until his/her own death. After resurrecting, I never saw the other player again nor do I remember their in-game name or even their race.

Was this a social interaction? Absolutely. I, as a player, was profoundly aware of the fact that another player was participating in a task in which I held investment and that the other player was simply a puppet of a human being playing a video game like myself. The mechanics of battle mediated our relationship as we both served our individual agendas with an unplanned symbiotic relationship, not much unlike the social relationships in many out-of-game situations.

Chatting: Banter, Guild Recruiting and Bartering in Ironforge

Another observation of social interaction from more populated areas such as Iron forge is that a substantial amount of conversation takes place over the chat tool. As a novice player, I found myself almost overwhelmed with the speed in which the chat began to move as I entered progressively populated areas.

For example, here are some lines from a chat log that represent recruiting efforts:

Chat Log from Game


6/29 15:48:37.042 [2. Trade] Shockalacka: LFM 25m ICC Fresh run, looking to do first 2 wings+ PST 5.6gs+ Req. None fail group, need commited and smart players. I (Shockalacka) am looking for an experianced team member of a 25 player group to go into the “Icecrown Citadel” part of the game. Contact me privately.
6/29 15:48:38.514 [2. Trade] Ddeathpally: <integrity> is recruting we need more raiders like heals and tanks and some good dps wee do all raids but everyone is welcome dont matter what lvl you are and we will help you if you need the help plz pst for invite or for info and we have vent The guild called “integrity” is looking for players of most types and is not exclusive regarding experience. Contact me privately.
6/29 15:49:07.273 [2. Trade] Moonshin√®: LFM 25 VOA need 1 DPS 1 healer, pst with class/spec for inv. full on some. (no response = full on your spec) I (Moonshin√®) am looking for one offensive and one defensive player for a raid on the “Vault of Archavon”. Contact me with your character information. If you don’t hear back from me, you are not needed.

Players also used the chat tool to negotiate the exchange of virtual items:

Chat Log from Game


6/29 15:49:47.137 [2. Trade] Dazlirune: WTB 2X Golden Draenite PST I (Dazlirune) want to buy 2 “Golden Draenites.” Contact me privately.
6/29 16:02:01.348  [2. Trade] Dankatron: wtb schematic: snowmaster 9000 I (Dankatron) want to buy a schematic for the Snowmaster 9000
6/29 16:17:12.375  [2. Trade] Xaivier: WTB All Frozen orbs! 15g Ea! PST! I (Xaivier) want to by your “Frozen Orbs” of any kind fro 15 gold each.

Other codes for communication

As demonstrated by these two sets of chat logs, a public channel of communication exists in the game that is utilized much like the classified ads on craigslist. Through the chat tool is indeed used for that kind of communication a large portion of the time, a quick reading through only 30 minutes of chat log in a sparsely populated area yielded many other communication types, many of which fulfill the requiements established for third spaces.

Chat Log from Game


6//29 16:03:19.213  [2. Trade] Larrow: Why do people use trade for LFG? Discussions about the norms of player use of in-game’s tools
6/29 16:04:19.690  [2. Trade] Glados: Looking to ask the help of a guildless person Requests for advice
6/29 16:05:32.562  [2. Trade] Clinhin: lol thats bull%^&*, the extended maintenance realms wont come up until tomorrow Commentary about the game’s infrastructure
6/29 16:06:10.676  [2. Trade] Nickademis: im looking to get in a guild my lvl65 Requests to join a team
6/29 16:06:36.615  [2. Trade] Bloodsabre: what’s the best raid build for DK and rogue Consultation on game strategy
6/29 15:46:37.840  [2. Trade] Kimaran: EVERYONE REPORT FROST FOR SPAM Group self-governing
6/29 15:46:15.732  [2. Trade] Bankizzle: CAPS ARE CRUISE CONTROL FOR COOOOL! Playful banter
6/29 15:47:51.704  [2. Trade] Larrow: If you hate Obama, type 1 Simple polls
6/29 15:48:18.028  [2. Trade] Chessie: If you like soccer and are in a capital city, type /camp References to physical space/time

Some conclusions

It is impossible to deny that social activities such as communication, collaboration and play are taking place within the virtual space of WoW. The perspective I was able to gain from only a few hours of solo play leads me to believe that a much richer set of third space activities may be happening in increasing degrees as players become more experienced in the game. I am looking forward to a continued investment into the world and deeper understanding of what happens there.

Steinkuehler, C., and Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place: Caf?s, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through The Day. New York: Marlowe & Company.

What might mobile media afford education?

I’ve been doing some talks on campus and thought that it might be nice to start posting parts of the presentations to encourage conversation and design.

Below are 8 categories of the kinds of things I can image doing in the next few months with mobile learning.

#1: A new wrapper for existing media forms

Mobile is undeniably a new media form. Some even argue it is the most ubiquitous communication technology on the planet as of 2010.

What’s interesting is that the new breed of mobile devices not only offer new affordances such as location services and multi-touch interfaces, but they also are capable of containing things we are used to such as web browsers, podcasts, text and animation.

I’m willing to bet that the first line of adoption is going to be (and already seems to be) a matter of creating mobile interfaces to our current learning assets.

  • Lecture Capture I often roll my eyes when I think about recording hour long videos of a talking head and distributing them as new media. But have you been out to iTunesU recently? It is freaking amazing. I’m learning about media from Jenkins at MIT and programming from Stanford. No matter how much of a media snob you may be, that is cool.
  • Electronic books bring the advantages of indexing and searching to traditional text. Its also very cool to have all your books in the palm of your hand, not 20lbs of weight on your back while walking around campus.
  • Traditional “E-Learning” modules, with simple drawings and bulleted lists have always sucked, and will continue to suck, but at least you can click the next button while on the bus.

#2: Physically Contextualized Knowledge

Some knowledge is abstarct, but some knowledge is deeply tied to space and place. For example, I’ve always wanted to make a mobile game about US history in Boston. If you have ever been to the site in which an event took place you will know how much richer the experience of the story can become. Its like we get “Schema for free,” the real world (in better than HD quality and bigger than an IMAX) lets us experience the context of our studies. Here are some other examples:

  • Chris Holden and Julie Sykes teaching a lesson in a Spanish 101 course at New Mexico State using iPod touches running aris in the physical context of a Spanish speaking neighborhood. Real people can be intermixed with virtual characters, practicing the language in a guided but authentic environment.
  • Teaching horticulture in the UW Arboretum. I’m hoping we can find someone to build this with, but I can image learning about a rare plant when it is physically encountered, or being sent on “missions” to locate a species in the environment where it should be found.

#3: Place Based Learning

We can also take the concept of content and place a bit further and engage learners actively in their local neighborhood with its unique history, literature and art. My favorite example of this was done by the Local Games Lab where middle-schoolers engaged in a place based narrative using pocket pcs that was based on the events that took place in a neighborhood here in Madison called “The Greenbush.”

This little part of the near-west side at one time had a rich irish community, but do to the construction of a hospital and other city planning, the tight community was replaced with parking lots and random storefronts. Through playing the game, the kids saw the now vs. the then and ended up making a case to the city council to never do anything like this again. 13 year olds involved in their city, learning to think about the responsibility of being a citizen –  it’s a cool story and I’d like to see more.

#4: Mobile Data Collection

Our team has been talking with Mark Berres, a professor here in the genome center about building a mobile app to compliment some algorithms he has created for determining bird species from an audio recording of its call. This is an exciting way to look at the mobile devices because it allows the senses and expertise of the user be magnified, giving them a very useful tool in the field.

After a bird has been identified by audio or by visual, the software can geo-tag the sighting with a time stamp and send this info into the server. Now we are doing distributed data collection and mobile delivery of the content.

On most of the modern devices we have accelerometers for measuring movement and orientation, GPS, full AV recording, a still camera, a touch screen and a light sensor. Any one of these can be used to capture anything from interviews to the physics or a roller-coaster ride.

In addition, I’d love to see a whole set of usb accessories made for it to measure things like pH, temperature, color, etc like we had back with the old TI-85. Looks like I might have to break out my soldering gun again.

#5: Physically Embedded Information

We’ve all seen barcodes. They are a visual way to represent a number or some other data that a computer can read easily.Last summer we created a prototype that used this info to link to a custom micro-blog software so that any object that you put a sticker on would have a communal discussion space attached. It’s like virtual graffiti but less pretty, amazons comments and rating in the physical world.

Now what if we skipped the bar code and just used some image matching software? Now any object that you can take a photo of can be linked to a whole digital universe. Every object simply a query into the database, curating data assets and collaborative spaces around physical objects and real spaces.

#6: Augmented Reality

If we take the above observation one step further we arrive at augmented reality. With AR the link between the physical and virtual is represented by visualizing the two superimposed in a sensory experience, most often visual. Effectively, the virtual has been superimposed onto the real, using the conventions of physicality.

We have already done a good bit with this idea with ARIS. In an ARIS experience a virtual item, character or just information (we call them plaques) can be placed in physical space. Users can then interact with these objects by talking with characters, picking up and examining items and so forth. In the most recent prototypes with iPhone’s that have a compass, we can even superimpose the image of the virtual object on top of the camera image so the user “sees” the virtual projected into the real.

#7: Apps

Apps are more than just little widgets, they allow us to add actual abilities to a user in a black box sort of fashion. For example, with a math app, the student doesn’t need to understand how to calculate a log function, only howto interface and read the output from software that does. Think Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development; we could see little apps allowing students to operate in areas where they don’t have expertise as long as they have the technology literacy, augmenting not only knowledge but ability.

#8: Mobile Educational Gaming

Really, this is just repackaging, but because there is still so much to be learned I thought it deserved a separate mention. Bottom line: play, formative feedback, identity, narrative, activity, etc are not only the same things that make for a good game but also a good learning environment.  Mobiles are not only another platform but also come with a whole cool set of new interfaces and approaches.

Mobile Learning

Today is a big day.

I sent an email to the main groups on campus, announcing a time to gather together to discuss the ramifications of this this new media on the process of learning.

The problem is that I’ve drunk the coolaid.

I really believe that as much as personal computing has changed our world, as much as the networking of digital devices have changed our lives, mobile, hyper-personal networked devices are going to to bring us around to a post Gutenberg scenario that no one can imagine. This time around we have the legal definitions of creative commons licenses combined with the culture and technology of a Wikipedia generation. But now all that is in your pocket.

As my mentor Kurt Squire has said, “What are you going to do when every student has a broadband connection of their own?” Its a valid question. Education is more than a process of curation. The postmodern theories and constructionist philosophies of the last 50 years are being proven through instantiation. Folks call it web 2.0, participatory media and many other things. The bottom line is that we are gaining the ability to communicate and interact with each other in ways beyond our imagination. All of a sudden we have the tools to enable democracy in an order of magnitude beyond what even Dewey ever dreamed.

At the same moment, 8th grade math failures are being elected the king of hundreds of human players in massively multilayer videogames played online. Socially awkward teenagers are writing the guts of the next 200 million dollar screenplays of angsty vampire and British magician tales.

The world has turned upside down and we are all humbled before one another in a wold of distributed expertise and relevance. Our qualifications are not evaluated in terms of qualification or diploma but practical value. Phds are purchased over paypal by $50 ads found on the back of wired magazine for $200, but an invitation to speak at TED about what you have actually done is priceless.

As these epistomologies mate with new medias and technologies, fascinating things emerge in many areas of our society. For the time being, I’m excited to be part of the next generation of dreamers that are looking forward to how we can enable kids to overcome the oppression they are living under and embrace the a passion to learn and grow in the areas that make them unique. I pray that not a single student will ever have to hear that they are stupid because they are smart enough to see that school is irreverent and aims to steal their individuality.

Informal, Situated, Embodied, Personal. These are the concepts that lie underneath the mobile learning revolution. I’m looking forward to see how through new medias we can re-address the old topics and dream again about what we would like our world to look like.

My vote is on an educational system where teachers and students alike are humbled before their domains, encountering each other in authentic experiences and practical inquiries into what makes our world so fantastic.

Its a bold wish I know, but hey, we have to start with a vision.