I listened to a presentations by John Traxler this morning at the Learning in Context workshop conference in Brussels (LIC'12). While talking about the implementation of mobile learning in teaching and learning, his real message was about the more general challenges and barriers to innovation in the HE structures.
John started with describing how research on technology enhanced learning (TEL) had previously been limited in size, scope, time, reach, and sustainable funding, and how difficult it was to free innovation and research from these constraints to embed them in the (formal) education settings. As I understood it, he tried to view it as a challenging but liberating factor that now mobile and ubiquitous technologies are much more widespread then in the days when the learning infrastructure was entirely in the hands of the institution handing out uniform devices to a handful of students for an experiment. Institutions now expect students to be equipped with the right smartphones and started to introduce a BYOD (bring your own device) policy. But who does such a move liberate? The students who can now bring whatever their family budget allows them to have, or the university budget which no longer needs to maintain short-lived expensive uniform devices and their operating systems?
He then spent some time on talking about the self-perpetuating structures and policies that drive educational innovation (such as mobile learning). We all know the type of hype conferences where a group of enthusiastic and externally funded researchers get together to talk about how great technology for learning is. It vividly reminded me of the days when e-portfolios where the talk of the day, and everyone in the conference unanimously agreed that "everything is e-portfolio", while at the same time no-one outside the conference even knew the word. This kind of technology-driven innovation often follows the analogistic research pattern: hey, this technology works great for selling holidays - surely it's also great for learning. Very rarely did RTD start from an academic need. John made reference to the self-spawning project and research funding industry which, let's face it, keeps a lot of us people (myself included) in a job. He also mentioned the typical funding-body policy of not being allowed to fail as leading to denial of a substantial part of research findings.
Personally, I appreciate this type of reflective conference presentation, as opposed to the self-celebration type conferences, but some people in the audience found it unsettling to just constate that innovation and mobile ubiquitous learning are challenging and difficult, hence the question was rightly raised: what should we do? Although there was no futher discussion or proper answer at the event, to me it nevertheless indicated the dilemma we're in. Yes, mobile technology has lots of benefits and brings a lot of innovation to teaching and learning. We see this in the adoption in everyday life, by all sectors of society, and the successful exploitation by industry and commerce. All the more, the questions that really bug us in this context: Would this mainstreaming of mobile technologies in learning have happened without the research on mobile learning that had been carried out? Is innovation still happening in the education system or are we merely adopters of wider societal and commercially-driven changes? Can we still claim the role of leaders in innovation?