At the beginning of last week I attended the CILIP MmIT (Multimedia Information & Technology Group) Annual Conference for 2009 on the topic of "Mobile Learning: What Exactly is it?" (I can't give you a link to the event because as far as I can tell there isn't one :-( ).
It wasn't a bad event actually and there were some pretty good speakers. My live-blogged notes are now available, though you should note that the wireless network was pretty flakey (somewhat ironic for a mobile learning event huh?) which means that there are some big(ish) gaps in the coverage.
There were places where I wanted more depth from the speakers but given the introductory nature of the event I think it was probably pitched about right overall.
Two thoughts came to me as the day progressed...
Firstly, it was clear that most of the projects being shown on the day were based either on hardware handed out to people specifically for the particular project or on lowest common denominator standards (i.e. SMS) that work on everybody's existing personal mobile devices. The former is clearly problematic in terms of both sustainability and because of people having to deal with an additional device. The latter results (tyically) in less functionality being offered. At one point I asked if there was any evidence that projects were moving towards developing for specific devices, in particular for the iPhone, on the basis that doing so would allow for significantly more functionality to be delivered to the end-user.
I don't think I got a clear answer on this, though I suspect that the speaker made the assumption that I thought developing for the iPhone was a good thing (on the basis I was holding one at the time). In fact, I'm not sure I have a good feel for what is good and bad in this area - I can see advantages in keeping things simple and inclusive but I can also see that experimenting with the newest technologies allows us to try things that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
Coincidentally, a similar debate surfaced on the email@example.com mailing list a few days later, flowing from the announcement of the University of Central Lancashire freshers' iPhone application. In the discussion, I asked if we knew enough about the mobile devices that new freshers are bringing with them to university in order that we can make sensible decisions about which mobile device capabilities to target. In a world of limited development resources, there's not much point in developing an iPhone app if only a handful of your intended audience can afford to own one (unless you explicitly doing it to experiment with what is possible). Brian Kelly has since picked up this theme, We Need Evidence – But What If We Don’t Like The Findings?, though focusing more on operating systems generally rather than mobile devices specifically.
Quite a few sites came back to me with stats (Brian shows some of them). I particularly like the Student IT Services Survey 2009 (PDF) undertaken by Information Services at the University of Bristol which isn't limited to freshers but which asks a whole range of useful questions. Overall, and based on the limited evidence available to date, I suggest that the iPhone and iPod Touch have fairly low penetration in the student market thus far.
It strikes me that, given a generally rising interest in mobile technology, 'everyware', ubiquitous computing, and so on for learning and research, some sort of longitudinal study of what students are bringing with them to university might not be a bad thing?
Secondly, my other thought... was that Dave White's visitors vs. residents stuff is highly pertinent to this space. Actually, for what it's worth, I don't go to any conference these days without realising that Dave's thinking in this area is highly relevant! It seems to me that many of our uses of mobile technologies are aimed at visitors - they are aimed at people who have a job to get done. Yet the really interesting thing about mobile technology is not how 'we' (the university) can use it to reach 'them' (the learner or researcher) but how they are using it to reach each other (as part of their everyday use of technology). The interesting thing is how residents are using it to live their lives online.
We need to see ourselves primarily as enablers in this space - not as direct providers of services.