Handy education - not mobile learning

When I first got involved with mobile phones and education - my first impressions of the usefulness of having support on your mobile phone were completely wrong.

The first tool I wrote was a tool to help me learn German vocabulary - I had a list of 1000 words that I wanted to be able to remember and I already had made a pile of flashcards for the first 100 words that I carried in my pocket. I wanted to stop having to remember to take carry the flashcards with me - so putting them on my mobile phone made a lot of sense. I purchased a Windows mobile and in a couple of days wrote a program to help me track and manage these virtual flashcards.

My vision was that I would use these flashcards in the same places I was using the real flashcards - whilst waiting for people, on a train etc. The idea for me was simple - the phone program would make life easier by tracking which vocabulary I knew already and which I didn’t and if I my memory for it was getting progressively better. The program would also mean I would not have to remember to take the flashcards with me.

What really happened though was that I started flicking through the cards in many places, taking 2 minutes here whilst waiting for the kettle to boil at work - another 2 minutes whilst on hold on a phone call etc. I would flick though the cards whilst sitting in front of the telly, lying in bed and in many other unexpected situations.

What became clear to me was that having the program on the mobile phone - did not only help me study outside of the house and office - where it was more difficult before, but it removed barriers to studying in those normal places also. Before I had to go and get the flashcards - organise them in piles, and then work through them - once finished I would have to make sure they were put away carefully and then return them to their place of origin. Now I had ot reach into my pocket and press 2 buttons - state was restored from my previous session and off I went, when finished - press one button  - lock the phone and back in my pocket.

The realisation that my mobile program had reduced a barrier to me building my vocabulary, rather than just allow me a more convenient way to package a learning resource was key for me.

Indeed with uHavePassed we receive information back from our users about when they use the software (each time they synchronise with the server) - we can see what time they take tests and it turns out that very late in the evening is a very popular time. It is our assumption that our users are in bed at this time and taking practice tests. The motivation and effectiveness of studying before sleeping should be the subject of a separate debate, but I found this to be further evidence that programs on mobile phones do as much to encourage and support students in the house, school or place of work as they do outside of these places.

Whenever I talk to others about the tools we write for mobile phones - the picture they first create is of people on a bus or train etc. It takes some time to realise that mobile learning tools can be used anywhere (even infront of a computer) because they are designed for short interaction periods, focused only on specific tasks and give good continuity through start / resume functions.

For us the phrase mobile learning is a great way to first introduce the tools we create, but is highly inaccurate in detail - our tools can be used anywhere, but location is not key.

In German the word for mobile phone is Handy (just to prove that first program worked) and reflecting on the English meaning of this word, convenient, says to me it would be better if we thought of what we did as Handy Education - not mobile learning.