OxPDA: Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 2
It's easy to think of 'cool features', but a system with a long list full of features is not necessarily supportive of pedagogy, the whole can become considerably less than the sum of its parts. PDAs today have the processing power and contain many applications comparable to desktop PCs of 5 years ago, yet the use of this in education has been limited and sporadic. Why is this the case? Although the reasons may be complex, it is worth puzzling over, I think.The developers of the operating systems and manufacturers of the devices seem to have consistently aimed at the business market, especially corporations. Hence the need to read office documents on the move, maintain a list of contacts, to dos etc, often oriented to client meetings. The needs of HE are very different, not just in terms of information - different kinds and different ways of working - but also essentially in terms of guidance and support, which appears to be a missing element. The latter is needed because these small devices lend themselves to working independently of the physical learning environments, where support is on hand.
So it is not surprising that 'out of the box' the resulting products remain incongruous for HE. However, they do have the potential to fit our needs and as the next step I would like to define some requirements, that are built on a few principles that I feel favour the educational context.
Requirements - desirable characteristics for education-oriented PDAs
- supports creation and authoring as much as reception of communication and information. I view creating content, making contributions as a very important aspect of successful adoption of PDAs. It is not sufficient to support institutional delivery as provided by VLE systems, if it means that content is channelled in only one direction - even if it is dressed up as 'interactive multimedia lectures' it may essentially be just broadcasting.
- (Following on) Good means for input, especially of text and audio as for more than token authoring of content, there will need to be support for a lot of text entry. Audio recordings will be need to be of high quality for taping lectures and may even be used in conjunction with speech recognition, though that won't be suitable in all environments - so will need to support a good quality microphone.
- configurable for educational needs - I'm thinking here particularly the means by which an institution can create a framework suitable to support a student's academic life.
- supports online and offline working anywhere and any time - it is important to maintain continuity of the learning process.
- very portable This is determined by several factors. Although we can set some upper bounds in weight and dimensions, it may be estimated as some function of design, fitness for purpose, functionality, physical dimensions, shape, size and general ergonomics.
- a responsive device - a lean set of applications on a device with a moderately fast processor and memory may well perform more sprightly than an overly complex app on a very fast processor with lots of RAM.
- sufficient in-built memory to store main suite of programs plus personal files - some key applications will need to be ever present.
- support for standard memory cards - ready for audio, video and other large files and available at modest cost
- a clear and good-sized screen that can display lots of info in many publication formats - the diversity of educational needs will require displays of variously layouts containing text, images and perhaps video. The Web is increasingly becoming the gateway to applications, so the display will need to be suitable for this.
- equitable - those with OxPDA should have same levels of access as each other
- cost-effective and sustainable over medium to longer term - we should expect other benefits such as reduced costs on PC hardware, printing, etc... if students require less the use of PC suites; there may even be significant power savings compared with laptops and desktops.
- easy to support technically - large numbers of devices will need to be rolled out and supported, tailored to the needs of the University.
- Many, including myself, prefer phones to be small and light, which constrains what you can pack into them, the input methods, screen size etc; if phones are bigger, with large, brighter screens, then they become more bulky, battery life diminishes, the weight goes up and so on.
- Phones are very varied in functionality and capability, so I'd expect only the more expensive smartphones to support the sophistication required for some of the more advanced applications...
- as students already have them, many will want to stick with their chosen model, whilst some will want to keep changing ... so to ensure that we are not left with 'haves' and 'havenots', would mean buying expensive phones for all.
- supporting phones is an unknown quantity ... expect there to be a lot of support issues ...
At the time, I hadn't realised how fundamental were the differences in the browsers for Handheld PC and Pocket PC and just assumed that a PDA ought to accomplish much of what can be done in the same way as on a desktop PC.In short, we cannot expect the ways of working on a desktop to be replicated on a device if it is physically limited in terms of size etc. It is possible that engineering feats will mean that mobile phones become so well miniaturised that they are multiply collapsible, e.g. there could be large foldout screens or even support for external projection. Or perhaps devices will become modular - so you can assemble only what you need for a day at the office, conference, visit to friends, night out etc.. But I don't expect this in the short to medium future. Hence, on the basis of the above requirements, mobile phones have many weaknesses as candidates for OxPDA. A more general purpose PDA (not sure what term I should use here) seems a more promising candidate to me. When considering such devices, such as iPaqs and PalmOne PDAs we find:
- These PDAs are larger (though still pocketable), affording bigger screens, better ergonomics for input, especially for written text, particularly through the use of external keyboards
- generally have more memory
- are somewhat more standard - figures from Gartner indicate that Windows CE and PalmOS accounted for a little under 80% of PDA sales in Q3 of 2004. Figures from the same period in previous year was higher. (Note also the rise of Blackberry devices)
- PDA ownerships among students is low, just a few percent compared with near saturation for phones. This should make it easier for the University to distribute en masse and configure the devices to enable especially the academic services.
- Paul Trafford