The Wild West and Mobile Learning

I’m immersing myself in Bernie Dodge’s EDTEC700 seminar  in Mobile Learning, and going through materials from EDUCAUSE’s Mobile Computing 5-Day Sprint from April, but my thoughts are out on the range with the cowboys.

I am always wary of EDUCAUSE because of its central IT/administrative focus and corporate sponsors, but the people in the discussions supported the opportunities and concerns that are forming in my own mind about the taming of the wilderness.

Not so long ago, the internet was the Wild West. Those of us teaching on it when it was new, long before technology plans and wireless hotspots, may not have had a lot of spiffy technologies but we had pretty much total freedom. Over the years, the wild horses have been corralled and tamed by Learning Management Systems, the swift emergence of central IT, and the even swifter development of graduate degrees in educational technology and distance learning.

In the first part of the EDUCAUSE Now podcast #38, Bryan Alexander, Terri-Lynn Thayer, George Claffey Jr, Joanna Young, and Gardner Campbell discuss how movile devices are affecting higher ed:


I am hearing here an echo of the early web-based teaching concerns: how can we keep the freedom? Mobile devices permit all the affordances of the internet (massive amounts of information, social contact, and fun distractions) to be carried around. This provides opportunities to teach in new ways.

Just as some profs didn’t want (and still don’t want) the internet impacting their teaching and their classrooms, some don’t want mobile devices in the classroom (the Turn Off All Mobile Devices in Class syndrome). But, as Gardner Campbell says in the podcast:

“Rather than raise a generation of students who will be waiting until the bell rings so they can go outside and consult their mobile devices, we can and must incorporate the riches these mobile devices present to us into teaching and learning.”

At the same time, out of conferences like this come directives, often along the lines of :

“From a planning perspective, CIOs should assume that the entire user community wil require support for one or more mobile devices.”

“…those institutions with with a well-defined strategy for exploiting mobile technologies will discover significant advantages.”

(These are also from EDUCAUSE, the recent Review).

Last time, the internet cowboys were on the open range. This time, the mobile learning cowboys are already outnumbered by the bank managers, sheriffs, back room accountants in green visors, and federal marshals. There are concerns about central IT and others taking control. I sense these “stable” forces working hard to figure out how to promote the advantages of mobile learning while “organizing” it into “plans” and “strategies”. To me, that means an inevitable restriction of the range by fences.

True, the very mobility of mobile learning should mean it will be more like fencing in birds than cows, but technological and commercial limitations take care of the rest. Apple’s success has already shown that people care more about style and snaz than independence and creativity. (I am currently being “encouraged” to buy a new iPod since Apple refuses to create software so I can update my “old” one, even though nothing is really different inside except a camera the software could ignore.) “Apps” now dominate, and many are proprietary, even when they operate on systems that are open source (like Android). Even QR codes are patented by Denso Wave, though they choose not to exercise rights .

Arcade Saloon, Eldora, Colorado 1898, Denver Public Library

So the railroad investors and moguls will make sure whatever range isn’t limited by managers will be limited by their products.

My hope is that the mobile cowboys will do as much as they can now, making models of independence and creativity, before we enter the next age (which should be, what, a year from now, at the outside?).  Those who exercised insane creativity on the last frontier seem to be the only forces holding the web itself as an open space, against the enclosures of property-owners like Facebook.

So let’s do some jailbreaks and fight in the saloons before things get really civilized (and dull) around here.