What is Ubiquitous Learning?

There is a lot of talk at the moment about Ubiquitous Learning. But what exactly is it, should we care, and how should it be implemented? This article by Edutech Associates member Nick Fekos explores these questions.

Ubiquitous computing is a model of human computer interaction in which computer processing has been integrated fully into daily activities, and also integrated into objects with which we routinely interact.  A Ubiquitous Learning Environment enables learning at any time, at any place.

Imagine you are a high school physics teacher and you are teaching concepts like gravity, friction, velocity and inertia. In a classic learning environment, you would be in your classroom with your students at a preset school period. But what if you could teach these concepts by taking your students to a soccer game or baseball game –

Origins of UL  

Mark Weiser from the Xerox PARC Lab ‘fathered’ UL more the twenty years ago. He envisioned three computer waves: mainframes which were prevalent at the time, personal desktop computers which were just appearing, and ‘Ubiquitous’ computing (also known as ‘ubicomp’), as the future. This third step is often referred to as reaching a point where the user is not aware of the computer, whatever form it has taken, but focuses only learning and the related materials.

Weiser identified three types of computer devices:

  • Wearable
  • Handheld
  • Interactive Boards

And their main characteristics would be:

  • Helpers/Servants
  • Quite and Invisible
  • User not necessarily aware of their presence, just the interaction
  • Should not demand attention

Key characteristics of Ubiquitous Learning

The main characteristics of ubiquitous learning are: (Chen et al., 2002; Curtis et al., 2002)

  • Permanency: Learning materials are always available unless purposely deleted.
  • Accessibility:  Access from everywhere as personally required
  • Immediacy:  Wherever a student is, he/she can immediately access learning materials.
  • Interactivity: Online collaboration with teachers and/or peers (chat/blogs/forums)
  • Situated instructional Activities: Learning in context (on-site).
  • Adaptability: Getting the right information at the right place for the right student.

Pedagogical Basis of UL

The main pedagogical premise of Ubiquitous Learning is related to ‘situated learning’ (see J. Lave and E. Wenger, 1991) which is a general theory of knowledge acquisition that is based on the notion that ‘true’ learning occurs in the context of real life activities. In contrast, formal classroom learning implies knowledge abstraction and decontextualization. This abstraction may not be such a problem, but learning in context (as illustrated at the beginning of the article) can certainly improve learning (as does engaging learners in authentic tasks).

Another pedagogical premise of UL would be collaborative learning (involving social interaction), again undoubtedly improving the learning process.

UL in the Context of Today’s and Tomorrow’s Technology 

Today’s technology seems to be trending towards the actualization of the original UL concepts as described by Mark Weiser.  Two out of the four essential components have already been established, and two are just now appearing as described below.

1. Mobile Devices: powerful, personal mobile communication, processing and storage devices

The proliferation of personal mobile devices, starting from smart mobile phones and currently progressing to tablets, has created an important shift in the direction of innovation as an intrinsic aspect of technology.  Perhaps not yet widely apparent in terms of the potential, but the shift has happened and is irreversible.

We now have a hardware device (a tablet) that is highly ‘personal’, similarly to how personal a mobile phone is, but much more personal than a desktop pc or a laptop.

This computing device, although in exchange for a certain degree of ‘personalization’ compared to mobile phones, is able to powerfully communicate, store, process and access information. It has the mobility and autonomy of a mobile phone, but the processing power and screen of a computer, and so it is much more suitable for broader and more fundamental use. Importantly, it provides the opportunity to move away from an ‘Angry Birds’ takeover of mobile technology

2. Cloud Computing

Cloud platforms can now provide the server side ‘omnipresent’ aspects of UL.  Any system with UL characteristics would have to be fully cloud based so as to ensure reliability and seamless scalability.  If design and development is originally geared towards maximizing efficiency by keeping required cloud power low, ‘lean’ cloud applications can be developed that can then be scaled much more powerfully, thus enabling efficient and robust UL.

Intelligent Personal Agents/Knowledge Objects

Given that we now have widespread truly mobile hardware devices, the next step is intelligent personalized software.

In order to truly implement UL and make ‘real’ use of available hardware and software platforms, the implementation of a personal knowledge object/agent that is ‘intelligent’ is essential.  Using Artificial Intelligence Techniques, this object/agent would take part in a ‘learning network’ (i.e. learn automatically) and would contain a rule base from which to make decisions.

This knowledge object/agent would model the ‘learner’ and would be dynamic.  It would have attached processes that would implement functionality like the ability to interface with other objects like itself, or to other non-intelligent objects (e.g. Word document) or to other systems (e.g. SharePoint) or devices (e.g. a telescope).

This interface functionality would be implemented using standardized file formats and access languages, like HTML5, SQL, RDF and OWL which are available today. The latter two introduce the idea of semantic processing, moving beyond the ‘text’ level into concepts and conceptual organization schemes (Ontologies).  Once we move into the conceptual processing realm (Artificial Intelligence), then very important and exciting functionality, like knowledge inference (reasoning) can be provided, which will mark a true technological turning point.

In summary, this platform independent knowledge object/agent would be the main vehicle for implementing Ubiquitous Learning (as described above) as it would know:

  • Who you are
  • Where you are
  • What device you are using
  • Dynamic skills and ability profile
  • Whether it is night or day
  • What time its
  • Who is near you
  • What devices are near you

Although seemingly too ‘futuristic’, the proliferation of wearable online devices will further the implementation of UL. A good example is Google Glasses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Glass), with many more on the way.

A specific example

A student carrying a tablet approaches a telescope at school. The telescope ‘broadcasts’ its availability to the tablet which then informs the student of this. If the student agrees, the tablet connects to the telescope and sends information through its intelligent personal learning agent about the student, for example age, class, learning profile, interests, past projects and so on.

The telescope then transfers information that is appropriate for that particular student about itself, what it can do, and perhaps showing on the tablet screen what it is seeing right now. Also, the telescope connects to a cloud astronomy app, or to the Microsoft World Wide telescope for added experience and information.

Finally the telescope proposes a small interactive game from which it can assess the student to see what has been learned or not, and then perhaps contacting a fellow student to join the game online.

One thing is certain: the students would enjoy this, and so learning and assessment will have been achieved. This of course would be part of a broader educational strategy that would include other forms of learning, including classic learning paradigms.

Many of the pieces of the UL puzzle are now starting to fall into place, as summarised in the diagram below:

Please contact nikos@edutechassociates.net for more information.

7 thoughts on “What is Ubiquitous Learning?

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