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Wednesday, September 22, 2004



EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 5 (September/October 2004): 28–35.
Going Nomadic: Mobile Learning in Higher Education

Perhaps we are beginning to see the emergence of learning swarms. We already know the precursors, in the form of interested learners who appear at campus libraries and museums, driven by an experience that excited them, such as a film, a book, or a conversation. Now the socializing powers of mobility and wirelessness could expand this drive into collaboration. An interested learner could ping a network or site for learning engagement: digital objects, digitally tagged materials, learning objects, instructors, other learners and instigators. We’ve seen a part of this in the global, collaborative use of MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Are instructors ready to join in learning swarms on their specialties or to facilitate the ad hoc growth and flourishing of such learning swarms? Can we integrate these into our “less swarmy” campus environment? Are we ready to advise students and staff about appropriate devices to use ad hoc, and are we prepared to learn from experience? Imagine being able to support and feed interests from members of our community: building a brief enthusiasm into a larger learning moment, linking students to each other in the spirit of intellectual curiosity, and knitting the campus community even more closely together. For example, suppose a first-year student sees the recent film Master and Commander and becomes interested in the world of eighteenth-century sailing. With no guidance, the student might hit for other novels by Patrick O’Brian, watch a History Channel program about sailing, or conduct a Google search and find a few related Web pages. Or instead, the college could set up an environment in which the student finds that one history professor regularly teaches “the great age of sail” in several classes, has Web pages on the 1790s naval wars, and might answer an e-mail or office-hours query; that the library has digital and print resources ready at hand; that several other students share this curiosity and chat about it with IM; and that a staff member sailed on a rebuilt eighteenth-century vessel last summer and would be delighted to discuss the experience.

Such moments might be brief—hardly a new thing in the world of education. Borrowing a leaf from the political concept of Hakim Bey’s book Temporary Autonomous Zone, we could think of temporary learning zones, swarms, or experiences.15 These can be very meaningful and positive in memory, or they can play a building-block role in subsequent learning, or they can do both. How should our institutions approach thinking about this possibility? Are we ready to sense which of our students arrive at our campuses with such experiences already under their belts? How do nomadic swarms work with our anthropologically sedentary campuses?

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