Offering flexible and adaptable mobile learning
Imagine entering a museum and having information about the artwork at your fingertips or being able to collaborate remotely with fellow students in a university. Those services, and others, are being provided by a new mobile learning environment.
Created by MOBIlearn under the European Commission’s IST programme by 24 partners from Europe, Israel, the United States and Australia, the system breaks new ground in the development of mobile learning, or m-learning, applications that can be used in multiple contexts and scenarios.
“The possible applications of the MOBIlearn system are vast, it can be used anywhere where wireless information and educational content is needed to support the learning process of students, workers or citizens in general,” explains project manager Giancarlo Bo at GIUNTI Interactive Labs in Italy.
Though several m-learning products are on the market, the vast majority of these are “monolithic systems” designed to offer specific educational information in a specific context. “They are only able to provide a select subset of the functionalities that we implemented into MOBIlearn,” Bo notes.
Designed to be flexible and adaptable
MOBIlearn was therefore designed to be used in a variety of contexts, with the partners basing it on a framework to which new functionalities can be added rather than a top-down monolithic system. The result is an architecture that is more flexible and adaptable, leading to a more comprehensive m-learning environment incorporating ambient intelligence that tailors content to the profiles and needs of specific users.
“We didn’t want to simply provide information to users, we wanted the system to support the whole learning process depending on the scenario and the users’ individual needs,” the project manager explains. “In that way they gain a richer and more dynamic educational experience.”
To achieve that goal, MOBIlearn incorporates a selection of different technologies, most of them developed by the project partners, ranging from context and location awareness to content delivery, communication and personalisation.
Applied and well received
Three applications have been developed by the project consortium based on the MOBIlearn architecture. They offer ‘blended learning’ through merging m-learning with traditional education techniques for students and worker training; location-dependent learning to obtain educational resources outside of a classroom; and information, instructions and advice in the context of healthcare and first aid. The applications were tested in Switzerland, Italy and the UK last year.
“For blended learning MBA students at the University of Zurich were given mobile devices and told to perform specific tasks that would require collaboration between them. From different locations, they used the system to cooperate by sharing files, text and video messages about the project they had been given,” Giancarlo Bo explains. “The trials were very successful, the response of students was positive and they particularly liked the collaborative functionality.”
In the UK, the system was employed during a first aid training course with employees of the Open University, who were given different learning tasks that required them to obtain information and follow instructions and advice provided over mobile devices. “Once a user is accustomed to the system they could use it for more than just pre-emptive first aid training such as obtaining instructions in real time in the event of a medical emergency,” the project manager says.
The trial that perhaps best demonstrates the potential of MOBIlearn was conducted in Florence, Italy, with three groups of trial users: Italian secondary school students, foreign students and art experts.
“The users were given mobile phones, PDAs and tablet PCs and visited the Botticelli and Leonardo rooms of the Uffizi Gallery. Their positions within the rooms were tracked through location awareness and the system automatically sent them information about the paintings they were viewing. This information was tailored to the user’s profile and a more detailed history of the artwork was sent to art experts than to secondary school students, for example. Users could also choose to listen to the information or read it, they could also interact with the content, improving the cultural learning experience compared to reading from a traditional paper guidebook,” Bo explains.
Though the three scenarios validated the potential uses of MOBIlearn, they represent just a few of its possible applications.
“It could also be used in industry for maintenance workers to obtain information for specific tasks as and when they need it, and we have also looked at the possibilities for it to be employed by civil defence in crisis management situations such as during a natural disaster,” the project manager says.
Dr Bo, who notes that several consortium members are conducting further trials of the system amid plans to commercialise different components, expects m-learning to take off over the coming years as content providers create more educational content for mobile devices and mobile operators seek to offer new services to clients.
Tara Morris | alfa