Switch that phone on! Extending higher education opportunities for the iPod generation

Author/Producer Steve Rose
Published in newsletter No 10, Spring 2008
Date Published 28 February 2008
Pages 2


The ESCalate-funded research project I undertook in 2006–2007 explored the possibilities for learning using increasingly ubiquitous mobile computing devices, more commonly known as MP3 players, new generation mobile phones and mobile games platforms.


The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) suggested in 2005 that ‘tools for learning in the 21st century need to reflect our changing expectations of how, when and where we learn and that they should motivate learners to become more active and engaged in their learning’. Commentators, notably Marc Prensky (2005) have argued, sometimes controversially, that learners are likely to become disengaged from learning if they are asked to switch off devices which provide them with constant access to their increasingly connected lives.

Prensky considers that Educators have slid into the 21st century—and into the digital age— still doing a great many things the old way. It's time for education leaders to raise their heads above the daily grind and observe the new landscape that's emerging. Recognizing and analyzing its characteristics will help define the education leadership with which we should be providing our students, both now and in the coming decades.Times have changed. So, too, have the students, the tools, and the requisite skills and knowledge. (Prensky, 2005)

‘Mobile Learning’ is without doubt finding its place in the spotlight as the ‘educational revolution du jour’ (Wagner, 2005) and there is growing evidence to suggest that mobile computing and communications devices might effectively support 'blended' and remote learning, and offer opportunities to widen participation within a time-scarce, mobile lifestyle context (Kukulska-Hulme and Traxler, 2005).

A survey of HE learners at Somerset College revealed that a significant majority of students walk around the campus with state of the art devices in their pockets which are frequently used to access and download rich multimedia content from the Internet. It seemed reasonable to assume that the same devices might be used to support learners in their studies whilst on campus and potentially provide a means of extending the learning environment through anytime, anywhere access to information and resources.

The introduction of Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN) in colleges and increasingly in the workplace and wider community provides a means of connecting learners with their programmes of study beyond the traditional classroom and campus.

An extended learning environment could be created based on a so-called ‘push’ model of delivery whereby a dedicated server would connect with the learner as they arrived on campus with their mobile devices. Any device programmed for push learning activities would automatically receive the latest content created by tutors as e.g. a podcast on an automated basis so that a learner would find relevant learning materials for a particular day or lesson.

An alternative system involving a ‘pull’ model would require the learner to use a web browser, now a common feature of mobile phones and new generation iPods, to connect to a specific server and pull learning materials onto their mobile devices.

Both systems offer colleges the means of extending learning into the workplace and also within the campus-based working day outside of regular timetabled classes. It may yet be necessary to remind students to turn on their mobile phones and MP3 players when on campus and in learning centres!

In a bid to meet the needs of local employers and provide opportunities for study in the workplace Somerset College is currently involved in the development of a new Foundation Degree in Transport Planning and Engineering in association with Somerset County Council (SCC). The programme will be taught mainly in the workplace by SCC staff and will be supported by Somerset College through an innovative approach to delivering the curriculum using learning technologies.

In addition to using a virtual learning environment to support teaching and learning, the blended learning approach to delivering the curriculum will for the first time include the use of portable wireless devices (the iPod touch) to enhance the learning experience and extend the learning environment beyond the classroom and desktop PC.

Teachers at the County Council and at Somerset College will work together to develop materials and assessment strategies which will make use of podcasting and associated multimedia content.

It is anticipated that the new Foundation Degree and its use of ubiquitous mobile devices will become a model for developing further work-based programmes thereby widening participation, extending Higher Education opportunities and meeting the needs of a geographically dispersed local employment base.

From the perspective of enhancing the employment prospects of the College’s HE learners on Foundation Degree programmes in Computing, Multimedia and Internet technologies, it is expected that the burgeoning use of mobile phones and computing devices for educational purposes will also provide a useful context for their own professionally relevant skills development and entrepreneurship.

The original ESCalate research grant provided a valuable means of securing research and development time and opportunity to ensure that Somerset College is now well-placed to meet local employer needs through effective and relevant ways of delivering work-based HE programmes. Having established a productive Research and Development Unit within the College it is hoped that further projects involving new and innovative ways of delivering increasingly demand-led programmes will be developed to support both teaching colleagues and HE students. Good things are now coming out of what was formerly the College’s Room 101!


JISC (2005) Innovative Practice with e-Learning: A good practice guide to embedding mobile and wireless technologies into everyday practice, available from www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/innovativepe.pdf

Kukulska-Hulme, A. & Traxler, J. Eds. (2005) Mobile Learning: a handbook for educators and trainers, Abingdon, Routledge

Prensky, M (2005) Listen to the Natives, Educational Leadership: Learning in the Digital Age, Vol 63 No 4 pp 8-13

Wagner, Ellen D. (2005) Enabling Mobile Learning, EDUCAUSE Review, Vol 40 No 3 pp 41-42, 44, 46-52 May-Jun 2005