It does not take a Nostradamus to predict the growing use of e-learning. For a number of years I have been using electronic portfolios to remotely track student learning on work placement; though it was initially viewed as newfangled, it has now become a widely adopted mainstream tool.
My latest foray into the world of e-learning has been podcasts, MP3 and MP4 audiovisual files that I use to support my lectures. There was, of course, a learning curve associated with how to produce and deploy these files. But once you figure it out, the process is very easy and greatly helped by the fact that all the software required is available on the web free of charge.
My students love this way of learning. Their only complaint is that they want more. Each audio or video file is at most three minutes long, about the length of a pop music track, and each file addresses a particular aspect of my specialist area, neuroscience. I also record my lectures because I see such files as augmenting my lectures rather than replacing them.
Students like the podcast approach to learning for several reasons - not least for the ability to switch me off. The principal attraction is that they find the spoken word more powerful than the written word when it comes to remembering the learning material. Furthermore, they can pause to take notes and replay parts of lectures that they do not understand the first time.
They also like being able to carry around learning material in a portable object that they always keep with them, such as their mobile phones or MP3 players, rather than in a folder stuffed with handouts. I have even managed to migrate my audiovisual files to mobile phones and the ubiquitous iPod.
Some students have said they listen to them while waiting for the bus - Joften nodding their heads rhythmically to make others think they are listening to music.
In my opinion, mobile learning - or m-learning - offers higher education tremendous benefits beyond just delivering education "on the go". Students with mobile phones carry them everywhere, thus providing a direct means for accessing them wherever they are. A few universities have given students a free laptop or offered laptops at a reduced price. A more useful "gift"
would be a mobile phone, which could be used to send information such as assessment marks and could be used to register attendance at lectures and tutorials in addition to m-learning.
Obviously, a number of safeguards would need to be in place in terms of security and making personal calls. But universities could work with mobile phone companies for the mutual benefit of both parties. Phone companies could gain users who stick with them after graduation; universities could gain a simple way to keep in touch with and track alumni as well as students.
As the technology becomes more powerful, greater possibilities open up. Not every student has a mobile phone, but as the price falls, they are coming within the reach of ever more people. Some newer generation phones have the computing power equivalent to a PC of just a few years ago and also contain cameras, MP3 players and internet connection - their potential use for educational purposes is growing all the time.
As with all forms of e-learning, there is a possibility of a digital divide. M-learning allows academics with the appropriate IT skills and know-how to access students more successfully. But in the short to medium term, students and academics who do not have or do not wish to learn the appropriate skills might miss out. Nevertheless, personal attitudes and IT skills sets will change over time, and as the production of e-learning materials for mobile technologies gets easier it will be ever more ubiquitous.
M-learning challenges the traditional idea that advanced learning can take place only in specific physical spaces such as university buildings. If Nostradamus were alive today, he would predict that dialling for an education would soon be as easy to do as dialling for a pizza.
Stephen Gomez is a principal lecturer in human physiology in the faculty of applied sciences atthe University of the West of England. He is a National Teaching Fellow and winner of the e-Tool of the Year (2006) competition for the Profile e-portfolio system.