Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching

Hello, mobility


The original iPhone, introduced January 9, 2007.

Ten years ago today, I was unable to watch Steve Jobs’ keynote live, something I still view with a tinge of regret. I was serving as a faculty chaperone for ACU’s skiing class in Red River, New Mexico, and I spent the day out on the slopes with our students. But that night starting around 11pm, in the 20˚ F weather, my laptop perched on the edge of a large metal dumpster behind our lodgings — the only place where I could snag an open wifi signal — I watched the entire 2-hour presentation. To this day, it is still the most amazing, masterful, world-changing introduction of a technology I’ve ever seen.

The fall before, our technology team at Abilene Christian University had been working to imagine what our school might look like in the year 2011 — then, five years in our future. The reason was an interesting one: in 2011, the first generation of college students who had never known a world without the internet would be entering the academy. What, we were wondering, would this new cohort of students do in our schools, what would they expect, and what technologies would empower them? 

Early pilot studies on palm-top computers (a now archaic term) and an analysis of usage trends in our school had shown our team three important truths: 1) students needed access to the full web, rather than some stripped-down, hard-to-use, text-based WEP version (then the only option for mobile devices); 2) students increasingly depended on cellular phones to communicate, and the early budding of social networks and media had shown us that they were increasingly connected to and interdependent on one another not only for social purposes, but also for work and learning; and 3) students were increasingly using media — music, podcasts, movies, and photos — to illustrate, enhance, record, and transform their learning practices.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone with his now famous “three-new-devices-are-actually-one-device” sleight of hand, I knew, even as I stood in ankle-deep snow balancing my laptop on that dumpster, that everything was about to change. And that change set our school — at least for a while — and education in general on an amazing trajectory. Along with my colleagues Dr George Saltsman (now Director of Educational Innovation at Lamar University) and Dr Kyle Dickson (now Learning Studio Director at ACU), we began to envisage a new kind of teaching and learning, tailored to each particular student’s needs, abilities, and interests; available all the time, everywhere; and deeply facilitated by technology as well as by rich collaboration. You can see our initial visions for how all of this would look in a university setting here (part 1, part 2 — we had to split this 15-minute video because, at the time, YouTube wouldn’t accept videos that long). ACU became the first school in the world to deploy iOS devices to all of our students (before anyone even knew to call it “iOS”), providing an iPhone, iPod touch, and eventually an iPad at university expense to everyone on campus.

What made iPhone most important for us was the capability to break free of the four walls of the classroom. Why spend all of our time in the decontextualized space of a classroom when our learners — empowered by this amazing, mobile technology — could explore real-world situations, using their devices to look up necessary information, communicate with peers and experts, record their observations and experiences via diverse media (photo, text, and later video and drawing), and genuinely interact with the things they were studying?

In other words, what mobility did for the learning environment was to free it from a focus on delivery of content, which had previously been the easiest thing to do in most classrooms. And being freed from content delivery also freed us from the hierarchically charged classroom structures that placed teacher-as-content-expert at the center of everything. Through the mobility afforded by iPhone — and now by a whole cloud of devices that have followed it — we began to talk about learning rather than teaching, and that change in language was crucial. As I wrote a few weeks ago in my post on “formal” learning, mobility allowed us to begin thinking about a new, more dimensional experience that brought both the contextual and the communal dimensions into play along with content. The customization and possibilities for engagement available when every student carries the world’s biggest library around with them every day in their pockets as they explore the world around them opened up opportunities for engagement that we had previously dreamed of but hadn’t been able to manifest. In other words, for us, iPhone was the missing piece — quite literally, a dream come true.

In the years since its introduction, I’ve seen some truly amazing learning frameworks emerge:

  • a university sociology class learning about accessibility by navigating their town in wheelchairs, recording interactions and difficulties, and ultimately making a proposal to the city council that changed accessible parking at the public library to solve a potentially life-threatening situation where those in wheelchairs had to navigate on the streets through a stop-sign before they could get access to the sidewalk and ramp — fundamentally transforming how both the teacher and learners thought about assessment and what a “final project” should look like;
  • a secondary earth-science class where students went to the nearby beach, photographing plants and animals, taking soil and water readings, and recording chemical and physical pollution, producing not only a live, in-the-moment assessment of their environment, but also, year over year as succeeding classes did the same, producing real data that could be used to examine climate and environmental change — fundamentally shifting how learners thought about the nature of “homework” and how they understood their connection to the peers who came before and after them to participate in this work, as well as their connection to the broader community;
  • a primary school that reimagined its learning spaces as an “open plan,” literally tearing down the walls that had set off many classrooms and transforming them into multifunction spaces for presentation and collaboration, realizing (and making sure) that every member of the staff — including cafeteria and janitorial workers — were teachers and distributing resources that had formerly been walled off in the library throughout all of the hallways to encourage students to explore and “bump into” not only lots of different kinds of information as they moved through the school, but also to “bump into” and begin to collaborate with learners from other grades involved with completely different sorts of projects — fundamentally altering how teachers envisaged links between various disciplines and activities and how learners envisaged their roles in the broader school community.

All of that — and all of the trajectory of my life as I live it — began ten years ago today, standing in the cold, the clouds of my breath illuminated by a sodium-vapor light in a nearby parking lot, my laptop balanced precariously, as I watched a keynote that would literally, in almost every way possible, change my life and the world…

And I will be forever grateful.

Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist

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