Sunday, January 09, 2005

OxPDA: Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 2

So far, in part 1, I introduced OxPDA as an idea for a specially tailored PDA, at its core a replacement for a University diary. Is this feasible, can such a device really support the educational context, and if so what might be appropriate as technical solutions? What hardware and software platform should be used?

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.
What are the candidates? We can start with mobiles phones - they certainly allow balance of creation and reception. In the past year or two, mobile phones have been getting increasingly sophisticated - the smartphones run operating systems that are comparable in features to PDAs offered by Palm, HP et al. The vast majority of students own one and for many it has become an indispensible personal possession.Some argue that people only want to carry around one device with them and deduce that the mobile phone is going to be the device that does everything. However, there are other cherished devices, notably iPods, which students will happily carrry around in addition to their phones. [IPods have been identified for their learning potential - not just for playback of audio (which can include recorded lectures), but also for the ability to record. Duke University has been distributing iPods to students, and reports quite a number of educational uses. However, the iPod is essentially a device dedicated to the storage and delivery of audio. Although it can be put to a variety of uses, it would be quite a stretch to make it fulful more general purposes of OxPDA.] There are a number of drawbacks to mobiles:
  • 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 ...
I want to stress how important is the first point. I think we can see that this is the case by stepping back in time to consider PDAs that run the Windows CE operating system, putting aside for the moment the smartphones. Devices running version 1.0 were first available in 1996. I happened to buy one (an HP 320LX) in January '98 and like other devices at the time it was a 'clamshell' with built-in keyboard, termed palmtop PC, but now more usually called handheld PC. They weighed typically around half a kilogram, were meant to be used as very small subnotebooks, replicating much of the functionality of the Windows desktop operating system. With the arrival of later versions of CE, the more familiar Pocket PCs emerge, much smaller and lighter and hence more portable, but as explained by Doug Dedo, Lead Product Manager for Mobile Devices (in an interview for PocketPC Magazine, Mar 01) the smaller devices were designed with different purposes in mind, and so quite different (generally humbler) in functionality. There is a comparison chart on Microsoft's TechNet site which illustrates what this meant, for instance, with the Web browser, Pocket IE. Those articles are several years old, but are useful to explain how the form factor affects what might be expected from a device. It affects e.g. how one can work with an institutional VLE - in this case a Handheld PC2000 user can do a great deal more with a full VLE than a Pocket PC user - as intimated in an experiment on accessing a VLE with PDAs.

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.
But there are still support issues. There are a few institutions that have made available PDAs to their students in large numbers. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore operated a PDA loan system for several years, where handheld PCs, particularly 1000 HP Jornada 720 (clamshell device), were pre-installed with a raft of applications, especially tailored to access facilies on the local network. However, several years after HP's withdrawal of support for the Jornada 720, support was discontinued as from last month (Dec 04). Now NTU recommend ultra notebooks. So is that the way to go? I think that when considering the requirements and especially the specific niche requirements, then going into mini PC territory is not necessary and goes too far away from true portability - in terms of size, weight, and battery life. I'm not aware that NTU used the PDA as a replacement for something so intrinsic as a University diary. In any case, there is a separate place for laptops, fast becoming desktop replacements. It is difficult to really know what will work best, but for the moment I'm assuming it is most likely to be the likes of the iPaqs and Palm Zires/Tungsten series. We can then move onto features in the next part ... :-)

- Paul Trafford


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