Scope and Concerns

Defining the Field

The Ubiquitous Learning Conference and Journal set out to define an emerging field. Ubiquitous learning is a new educational paradigm made possible in part by the affordances of digital media.

Ubiquitous Learning is a counterpart to the concept ‘ubiquitous computing’, but one which seeks to put the needs and dynamics of learning ahead of the technologies that may support learning. The arrival of new technologies does not mean that learning has to change. Learning should only change for learning’s sake. The key perspective of the conference and journal is that our changing learning needs can be served by ubiquitous computing.

At first glance, it is the machines that make ubiquitous learning different from heritage classroom and book-oriented approaches to learning. These appearances, however, can deceive. Old learning can be done on new machines. Using new machines is not necessarily a sign that ubiquitous learning has arrived. Some features of ubiquitous learning are not new—they have an at times proud and at times sorry place in the history of educational innovation, stretching back well before the current wave of machines.

However, there is an obvious link between ubiquitous learning and ubiquitous computing. The term ‘ubiquitous computing’ describes the pervasive presence of computers in our lives. Personal computers and laptops have become an integral part of our learning, work and community lives, to the point where, if you don’t have access to a computer networked with reasonable bandwidth you can be regarded as disadvantaged, located as a ‘have not’ on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’. Meanwhile, many other devices are becoming more computer-like (in fact, more and more of them they are computers or have computer power built in): mobile phones, televisions, global positioning systems, digital music players, personal digital assistants, video cameras, still cameras and game consoles, to name a few. These devices are everywhere. They are getting cheaper. They are becoming smaller and more portable. They are increasingly networked. This is why we find them in many places in our lives and at many times in our days. The pervasive presence of these machines is the most tangible and practical way in which computing has become ubiquitous.

Importantly for education, the machines of ubiquitous computing can do many of the things that pens and pencils, textbooks and teacher-talk did for learners in an earlier era. They can do these things the same, and they can do them differently.

Does ubiquitous computing lay the ground work for ubiquitous learning? Does it require us to make a shift in our educational paradigms? It may, however, the approach of the conference and journal to ubiquitous learning is more conditional than this. To reiterate, ‘ubiquitous learning is a new educational paradigm made possible in part by the affordances of digital media’. The qualifications in this statement are crucial. ‘Made possible’ means that there is no directly deterministic relationship between technology and social change. Digital technologies arrive and almost immediately, old pedagogical practices of didactic teaching, content delivery for student ingestion and testing for the right answers are mapped onto them and called a ‘learning management system’. Something changes when this happens, but disappointingly, it is not much.

And another qualifier: ‘affordance’ means you can do some things easily now, and you are more inclined to do these things than you were before simply because they are easier. You could do collaborative and inquiry learning in a traditional classroom and heritage institutional structures, but it wasn’t easy. Computers make it easier. So, the new things that ubiquitous computing makes easier may not in themselves be completely new—modes of communication, forms of social relationship or ways of learning. However, just because the new technology makes them easier to do, they become more obviously worth doing than they were in the past. Desirable social practices which were at times against the grain for their idealistic impracticality, become viable. The technology becomes an invitation to do things better, often in ways that some people have been saying for a long time they should be done.

Following are just a few of the characteristic moves of ubiquitous learning that this conference and journal address. Conference participants and journal authors may agree or disagree and choose to add more.

Move 1: To blur the traditional institutional, spatial and temporal boundaries of education.

In the heritage educational institutions of our recent past, learners needed to be in the same place at the same time, doing the same subject and staying on the same page. The classroom was an information architecture, transmitting content, one to many: one textbook writer to how every many thousands of learners; one teacher to thirty something children or one lecturer to one hundred and something university students. The spatial and temporal simultaneity of this information and knowledge system practically made sense. Today, in the era of cheap recording and transmission of any textual, visual and audio content anywhere, such classrooms are less needed. Education can happen anywhere, anytime. Long traditions of ‘distance education’ and ‘correspondence schools’ mean that these ideas are far from novel. The only difference now is that ubiquitous computing renders anachronistic and needlessly expensive for many educational purposes the old information architecture of the classroom, along with its characteristic forms of discourse and social relationships to knowledge. Even the problem of duty of care for children is surmountable with mobile phones and global positioning devices. Knowing the location of a child in a classroom was never better than the one meter margin of error of GPS devices. And another problem with the old classroom: the idea was that this was preparation for life, enough to assume whatever one’s lot would be, and the rest could be left to experience. Today, everything is changing so rapidly that today’s education easily becomes tomorrow’s irrelevance. So, there have been moves to make ongoing training and formally accredited education ‘lifelong and lifewide’. For people in work and with families, not able to commute to an institution or able to schedule their time easily, ubiquitous computing can be a conduit for education beyond the traditional spatial and institutional boundaries. Coming together in specific times and places will, of course, remain important, but what we will choose to do when we come together may be different from what happens in classrooms today—these may be special times to focus, on face-to-face planning, collaborative work and community building. Then there’s the new pervasiveness of pedagogy in spaces of informal and semi-formal learning—help menus, ‘intuitive interfaces’, game-like staged learning, and ‘over-the-shoulder-learning’ from friends and colleagues. This kind of learning only ever needs to be just in time and just enough. It is now integral to our lifeworlds, a survival skill in a world of constant change.

Move 2: To shift the balance of agency.

In the traditional classroom, the teacher and blackboard were at the front of the room. The learners sat in straight rows, listened, answered questions one at a time, or quietly read their textbooks and did their work in their exercise books. Lateral student-student communication was not practicable, or even desirable when it could be construed as cheating. Underlying this arrangement was a certain kind of discipline (listen to the teacher, read authority into the textbook), and a particular relationship to knowledge (here are the facts and theories you will need to know, the literature which will elevate and the history which will inspire). This kind of education made a certain kind of sense for a certain kind of world, a world where supervisors at work shouted orders or passed down memos in the apparent productive interests of the workers, where the news media told the one main story we were meant to hear, and where we all consumed identical mass-produced goods because engineers and entrepreneurs had decided what would be good for us. Authors wrote and the masses read; television companies produced and audiences watched; political leaders led and the masses followed; bosses bossed and the workers did as they were told. We lived in a world of command and compliance. Today, the balance of agency has shifted in many realms of our lives. Employers try to get workers to form self-managing teams, join the corporate ‘culture’ and buy into the organisation’s vision and mission. Now the customer is always right and products and services need to be customised to meet their particular practical needs and aesthetic proclivities. In the new media, ubiquitous computing has brought about enormous transformations. There’s no need to listen to the top forty when you can make your own playlist on your iPod. There’s no need to take on authority the encyclopedia entry in Wikipedia when you, the reader, can talk back, or at least watch other people’s arguments about the status of knowledge. There’s no need to take the sports TV producer’s camera angles when you can chose your own on interactive television. There’s no need to watch what the broadcast media has dished up to you, when you can choose your own interest on YouTube, comment on what you’re watching and, for that matter, make and upload your own TV. There’s no need to relate vicariously to narratives when you can be a player in a video game. This new order applies equally well to learning. There is no need to be a passive recipient of transmitted knowledge when learners and teachers can be collaborative co-designers of knowledge. There are many sources of knowledge, sometimes problematically at variance with each other, and we have to navigate our way around this. There are many sites and modalities of knowledge, and we need to get out there into these to be able to make sense of things for ourselves. There may be widely accepted and thus authoritative bodies of knowledge to which we have to relate, but these are always uniquely applied to specific and local circumstances—only we can do this, in our own place and at our own time. In this environment, teachers will be required to be more knowledgeable, not less. Their power will be in their expertise and not in their control or command routines.

Move 3: To recognise learner differences and use them as a productive resource.

Modern societies used to value uniformity: we all read the same handful of newspapers and watched the same television channels; we all consumed the same products; and if we were immigrant, or indigenous, or of an ethnic minority, we needed to assimilate so we could all comfortably march to the same national beat. And so it was in schools: everyone had to listen to the teacher at the same time, stay on same message on the same the page, and do the same test at the end to see whether they had learnt what the curriculum expected of them. Today there are hundreds of television channels, countless websites, infinite product variations to suit one’s own style, and if you are immigrant or indigenous or a minority, your difference is an aspect of our newfound cosmopolitanism. This is all part of a profound shift in the balance of agency. Give people a chance to be themselves and you will find they are different in a myriad of ways: material (class, locale), corporeal (age, race, sex and sexuality, and physical and mental characteristics) and symbolic (culture, language, gender, family, affinity and persona). In schools today, these differences are more visible and insistent than ever. And what do we do about them? Ubiquitous learning offers a number of possibilities. Not every learner has to be on the same page; they can be on different pages according to their needs. Every learner can connect the general and the authoritative with the specifics and particulars of their own life experiences and interests. Every learner can be a knowledge maker and a cultural creator, and in every moment of that making and creating they remake the world in the timbre of their own voice and in a way which connects with their experiences. Learners can also work in groups, as collaborative knowledge makers, where the strength of the group’s knowledge arises from their ability to turn to productive use the complementarities that arise from their differences. In this context, teacher will need to be engaged members of cosmopolitan learning communities and co-designers, with learners, of their learning pathways.

Move 4: To broaden the range and mix of representational modes.

Ubiquitous computing records and transmits meanings multimodally—the oral, the written, the visual and the audio. Unlike previous recording technologies, these representational modes are reduced to the same stuff in the manufacturing process, the stuff of zeros and ones. Also, like never before, there is next to no cost in production and transmission of this stuff. Now, anyone can be a film-maker, a writer who can reach any audience, an electronic music maker, a radio producer. Traditional educational institutions have not managed to keep up this proliferation of media. But, if educators have not yet made as much as they could of the easy affordances of the new media, the students have. When educators do catch up, the learning seems more relevant, and powerful, and poignant. Educators will need to understand the various grammars of the multiple modes of meaning making that the digital has made possible, in the same depth as traditional alphabetic and symbolic forms.

Move 5: To develop conceptualising capacities.

The world of ubiquitous computing is full of complex technical and social architectures that we need to be able to read in order to be a user or a player. There are the ersatz identifications in the form of file names and thumbnails, and the navigational architectures of menus and directories. There is the semantic tagging of home-made folksonomies, the formal taxonomies that define content domains, and the standards which are used to build websites, drive web feeds, define database fields and identify document content. These new media need a peculiar conceptualising sensibility, sophisticated forms of pattern recognition and schematisation. For these reasons (and for other, much older, good educational reasons as well), ubiquitous learning requires higher-order abstraction and metacognitive strategies. This is the only way to make one’s way through what would otherwise be the impossibilities of information quantity. Teachers then need to become masterful users of these new meaning making tools, applying the metalanguage they and their learners need alike in order to understand their affordances.

Move 6: To connect one’s own thinking into the social mind of distributed cognition and collective intelligence.

In the era of ubiquitous computing, you are not what you know but what you can know, the knowledge that is at hand because you have a device in hand. Even in the recent past, we had libraries on hand, or experts we could consult. Cognition has always been distributed and intelligence collective. The most remarkable technology of distributed cognition is language itself. However, today there is an immediacy, vastness and navigability of the knowledge that is on hand and accessible to the devices that have become more directly an extension of our minds. Those who used to remember telephone numbers will notice that something happens to their minds when the numbers they need are stored on the mobile phone—the phone remembers for you. It becomes an indispensable extension of your mind. This should spell doom for the closed book exam. Educators will need to create new measures to evaluate learners’ capacities to know how to know in this new environment.

Move 7: To build collaborative knowledge cultures.

Ubiquitous computing invites forms of social reflexivity which can create ‘communities of practice’ to support learning. In the ubiquitous learning context, teachers harness the enormous lateral energies of peer-to-peer knowledge making and the power of collective intelligence. This builds on the complementarity of learner differences—experience, knowledge, ways of thinking and ways of seeing. Learners also involve people who would formerly have been regarded as outsiders or even out-of-bounds in the learning process: parents and other family members, critical friends or experts. The digital workspaces of ‘social networking’ technologies are ideal places for this kind of work, at once simple and highly transparent when it comes to auditing differential contributions. Teachers need higher order skills to build learning communities that are genuinely inclusive, such that all learners reach their potential.

Each of these moves explores and exploits the potentials of ubiquitous computing. None, however, is a pedagogical thought or social agenda that is new to the era of ubiquitous computing. The only difference today is that there is now no practical reason not to make any of these moves. The affordances are there, and if we can, perhaps we should. When we do, we may discover that a new educational paradigm begins to emerge. And as this paradigm emerges, we might also find educators take a leading role on technological innovation.

The journey of ubiquitous learning is only just beginning. As we take that journey, we need to develop breakthrough practices and technologies that allow us to reconceive and rebuild the content, processes and human relationships of teaching and learning.

Reference: Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, (eds), editors’ introductory chapter to Ubiquitous Learning, University of Illinois Press, 2008.