Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University

Shailey Minocha reflects on the one-day symposium organised by Eduserv in May 2010. The aim of the event was to discuss whether and how mobile technology will play a significant role in the delivery of UK Higher Education in the future.

The Eduserv Symposium 2010 on the mobile university brought together colleagues from academia and practice to discuss the impact of the growth in mobile technologies on Higher Education: for example, on the student experience, learning and teaching initiatives, research, libraries, role of the educators, and the computer services support. Stephen Butcher and Andy Powell of Eduserv gave the welcome addresses. Stephen mentioned how this symposium was the largest that Eduserv had hosted and gave a background of Eduserv’s activities. Andy (Chair) set the context for the day: significance of the themes of mobile learning and mobile university and its implications on learning, teaching, research and support services such as the library and technical or systems support services, and, of course, on Eduserv’s activities.

The details of the event [1] and the presentations (including videos) of the event [2] are available. The individual presentations during the event have been discussed in a number of blog posts. In this report, I discuss the themes that emerged during the day and the challenges for educational institutions.

Themes from the Presentations

In this section, I will discuss the various technological, organisational, pedagogical and social aspects that emerged from the presentations during the day.

Technological Aspects

Paul Golding, in his keynote, described himself as a ‘mobilist’ and not an ‘educationalist’, and as the ‘setting the scene guy’ for the event. He started his presentation by outlining the transition from Mobile 1.0 to Mobile 2.0, where the internet-centric phones (3G and 3.5G) have replaced the internet-capable (2G) phones of the late 1990s. In Mobile 2.0, the focus of the users is on data-centric services by using the Internet rather than the traditional functions of calling and texting. In the next three years, Paul envisages that there will be a 40% penetration of smart phones in the UK (currently, it is 15%). Further, there is now a Mobile 2.0+ stage where iPad-like devices can help do ‘things’ faster and to be more productive. Other recent innovations in the usability of mobile devices that are helping to enhance student/user experience are: larger screens and QWERTY keyboard support, either on the touch screen or a tactile keyboard.

Paul discussed how user behaviour has changed over the years and we are no longer limited to the traditional functions of calling and texting. There is a mobile application for almost everything that one wants to do on the move: hail a taxi, share video clips, find routes or directions, check the weather, and so on. So effectively, Paul said, ‘[you can] run your life on your mobile.’

Paul provided some interesting statistics: for example, 1.2 billion phones are sold annually worldwide and in 59 countries there are more active mobile subscriptions than people, that is, not just in mobile handsets since ‘SIM’ cards are to be found in cars and other devices. The changing landscape in mobile IT amongst students and the students’ usage of mobile devices was highlighted by other speakers during the day, and emphasised by Nick Skelton of University of Bristol in his case study talk in the afternoon.

Paul discussed augmented reality services such as Google Goggles [3] where, just by pointing a smartphone’s camera at a location (say, a landmark, or on a book, or an artwork), the application recognises the object and automatically returns relevant information. Other examples are Junaio [4], a next-generation mobile augmented-reality browser for camera-equipped devices, and Wikitude [5]. Gartner Research has identified augmented reality as one of the top ten most disruptive new technologies for 2008-2012 and augmented reality is expected to be used by more than 30% of the mobile workforce by 2014. (Marieke Guy of UKOLN discusses augmented reality in a blog post [6].)

Paul discussed various key drivers that are influencing user behaviour with mobile devices: smartphone adoption, faster networks (3G+), data-friendly tariffs, increased device usability of smartphones, Web 2.0 centricity (eg growth of social software such as blogs, wikis, and creation and consumption of user-generated content), social networking (eg being able to access Facebook or Twitter via the mobile device) on the move, sensors proliferation (eg accelerometers), mobile application stores, and the apps ‘gold rush effect,’ where people are building apps and selling them. Paul pointed out that the extension of Web 2.0 to mobile devices has opened up the platforms to developers to design and implement mobile applications. Paul also highlighted that the Internet trends of social computing, cloud computing, and real-time ‘right-time’ Web (driven by Twitter, getting status updates from people and machines) will make the mobile phone into a ‘personalised’ computer, that is, a concatenation of a ‘person’ and a ‘right-time’ computer, which, in fact, results in a ‘new person’ or the advent of ‘augmented cognition’. This, he said, will affect how we think since we will have access to ‘right information’ in real-time and at the ‘right time’ and at the ‘right place’.

Paul concluded his talk by highlighting an innovation challenge: ‘How can UK institutions lead in creating the ‘right-ware’ in mobile education?’

Tom Hume in his talk in the afternoon discussed how the market relating to mobile operating systems remains very fragmented. For example, to reach 70% of UK mobile owners you need to support 375 different handsets with diverse capabilities. This degree of diversity can be particularly challenging for educational institutions.

Organisational Aspects

The presenters from academia discussed how students, when they first start at university, are now more concerned about access to the Internet than enquiring about the university support services or expecting to be provided with email accounts or hardware and software, as raised by Christine Sexton of University of Sheffield. This changing expectation of students, to be ‘Internet-enabled’ as soon as possible and their increased use of smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices (eg iPod Touch) present new challenges for universities. For example, Andy Ramsden, University of Bath, raised the question in his talk whether mobile adoption should involve enabling access to existing desktop applications in an institution on mobile devices, or should we be exploiting the capabilities that mobile devices can provide (eg application software or apps, location-based and real-time services)?

Other issues that were discussed during the day were: providing a robust wireless infrastructure, and developing application software (or apps) to provide services to students (eg directions to lecture rooms, or routes for wheelchair access on campus, or study timetables).

Tim Fernando, OUCS, discussed the Mobile Oxford (MOX) Project at the University of Oxford [7]. MOX provides information and access to services to guide students, staff, and the general public both in the university and in the city. It includes a map with bus schedules, library search, podcast library (from iTunes U), news, examination results, weather, and so on. Tim also mentioned another project called Molly [8] with which he and his colleagues are involved. Molly is an open source framework for the rapid development of information and service portals for mobile Internet devices.

In his keynote Paul Golding mentioned the Blackboard Mobile Project [9]. Blackboard Mobile is an example of a platform that allows institutions to provide key services on students’ mobile devices. The Blackboard Mobile Central module enables students to access a campus directory, campus maps, news, events, the library and the course catalogue. The Blackboard Mobile Learn module allows students and educators to access teaching and learning on their mobile devices wherever and whenever they want. Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is the first European institution to launch Blackboard Mobile Central [10].

Other initiatives that I came across while writing this article are the MIT Mobile Web [11] and the Ohio State University’s mobile site. Ohio State University has designed a site m.osu.edu [12] for iPhone and other smartphones. It provides access to campus news, locations of traffic hot spots on the campus, library catalogue and campus events, as well as location-based services such as the nearest dining hall, Wi-Fi hotspot, and bus stop, among others. The arrival time of the buses at a specific stop is an example of a real-time service that this mobile site provides.

Pedagogical Aspects

John Traxler, University of Wolverhampton, in his closing keynote mentioned how the mobile network and mobile education applications have helped to educate communities (particularly, in Africa) where other educational interventions may not have been possible. He gave examples of mobile devices (eg personal digital assistants (PDAs)) being used to capture in situ observations, or data collection in field trips, or capturing artefacts on the move such as photographs, or for informal learning or training, or using mobile devices while moving around in a context-aware environment such as a museum. John also discussed the role of mobile learning in filling the ‘dead time’, for example, when waiting in queues, or for a train.

Other applications discussed during the day were: mobile services that can help support users with special needs, for example, enabling deaf or hard of hearing users to send text messages, and using sensors for data collection which could be useful for researchers who are working in the field or in labs.

The Open University (OU) has been involved in an EU-funded project: Mobile Technologies in Lifelong Learning [13]. The OU is also working on a number of iPhone applications as well as optimising some of its Web sites for mobile delivery. One example of an iPhone App that OU has developed is Devolve me [14]. The Mobile Innovations Group at the OU has a showcase of its educational applications [15].

Social Aspects

Paul Golding gave some examples of how mobile Internet devices are being used for social networking: the social networking site, facebook.com is the second amongst the top 10 sites that are accessed on the mobile Internet and Twitter.com (for real-time interactions) featured tenth in this list.

Tom Hume, one of the afternoon’s speakers, emphasised the human-computer interaction (HCI) and usability principles of developing mobile services which emphasise the need to involve users throughout the development life cycle so as to understand their requirements and to conduct iterative evaluations with users. Tom discussed his experiences of applying one of the HCI techniques, personas, for collecting and discussing user requirements. The glossary on the Usability First site explains the concept of ‘persona’ [16]. Persona is a description of a specific person who is a target user of a system being designed, providing demographic information, needs, preferences, biographical information, and a photo or illustration. Typically, multiple personas are developed in the early stages of design that represent the spectrum of the target audience. Personas are one aspect of a scenario, the other aspect being a description of how this person would typically interact with the system being designed. The point of developing personas is to avoid the trap of designing for the ‘average user’ who does not really exist; instead the aim is to make sure that the system will work for somebody specific, rather than no one in particular.

Challenges on the Way Ahead

A wide range of difficulties and issues were highlighted during the conference in terms of what lies on the way ahead. Here is a selection:


There were four lightening talks after lunch. Each talk was six minutes long and presented one case study of practitioners’ experiences in employing mobile technology in their institutions. I am unsure of the brief that was given to the presenters but there was an implicit presentation format in each of the talks: motivation of the case study; funding body, if any; when it was conducted; the experiences so far; and the way ahead. This format of short talks was very interesting and allowed one to get a glimpse of the initiatives being carried out in mobile education. The panel discussion at the end of the four presentations gave the audience an opportunity to ask questions and helped to bring together some of the common themes in the four presentations.

All the delegates to the event were given QR (Quick Response) tag badges. This implies that using a QR code reader, you can scan the badge of the person you spoke to at the event and then you would be emailed with their contact details, like a virtual business card. Mike Ellis of Eduserv discusses the QR tag in his blog post [24] while another useful resource to look up on QR tags is by Marieke Guy [25].

On the whole, the event was very well-organised and well attended. The preparations for the event are discussed by Andy Powell in his blog post [26]. The event was streamed live and, therefore, many colleagues all over the world had the opportunity to attend the event virtually and even ask questions of the speakers during the event. Andy Powell also offers his reflections on chairing an event with a local and a virtual audience [27].

I hope that the challenges outlined in this article will help to stimulate discussion among academics and practitioners, and enable creation of a research agenda for a mobile university.


The URLs in these references were last accessed by the author on 7 July 2010.

  1. Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, Event details
  2. Eduserv Symposium 2010: the Mobile University, Presentations (Slides and Videos)
  3. Google Goggles for Android http://tinyurl.com/yj2s7jm
  4. Junaio http://www.junaio.com/
  5. Wikitude http://www.wikitude.org/
  6. What’s the big fuss about Augmented Reality, a blog post by Marieke Guy, 2 November 2009
  7. Mobile Oxford (MOX) Project http://m.ox.ac.uk/desktop/
  8. Molly http://mollyproject.sourceforge.net/
  9. Blackboard Mobile Project http://blackboard.com/Mobile
  10. Blackboard’s Mobile Campus Life App Debuts in Europe: Delft University of Technology Engages Students with Custom Mobile App, Amsterdam, 15 April 2010
  11. The MIT Mobile Web http://m.mit.edu/about/
  12. “m.osu.edu is smartphone-ready”, Ohio state University, 1 March 2010
  13. Mobile Technologies in Lifelong Learning, Best Practices http://www.motill.eu/
  14. Devolve Me for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
  15. Open University: Mobile Innovations Group (MIG) http://projects.kmi.open.ac.uk/mobiles/projects/
  16. Usability First - Usability Glossary - persona http://www.usabilityfirst.com/glossary/persona/
  17. IS Survey Results, Mobile Services 2010, The University of Edinburgh
  18. Canterbury Christ Church University’s (CCCU) iBorrow Project
  19. Educational apps or mobile-optimised websites, a blog post by Niall Sclater http://sclater.com/blog/
  20. Mobile operating systems and browsers are headed in opposite directions, a blog post by Jason Grisby
  21. Txt in Line, a blog post by Steve Wheeler, University of Plymouth
  22. C. Markett, I. A. Sanchez, S. Weber and B. Tangney. 2006. Using short message service to encourage interactivity in the classroom, Computers & Education, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 280-293.
  23. N. Cavus and D. Ibrahim. 2008. m-Learning: An experiment in using SMS to support learning new English language words, British Journal of Educational Technology, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 78-91.
  24. QR tag demo at the Eduserv Symposium 2010, a blog post by Mike Ellis
  25. Quick Response Time, a blog post by Marieke Guy
  26. Preparing for the mobile university, a blog post by Andy Powell of Eduserv
  27. Audience and chairing events in a social media world, a blog post by Andy Powell (Eduserv)

Further Reading: Full List of Associated Blog Posts

  1. A look over the Mobile Horizon, a blog post about the event by Paul Sweeney http://eduworlds.org/web-20/a-look-over-the-mobile-horizon/
  2. Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, a blog post by Mike Nolan on behalf of the Web Services at Edge Hill University
  3. The Mobile University, a blog post by Christine Sexton (one of the speakers on the day) http://tinyurl.com/2ue3xxn
  4. Eduserv Symposium: The Mobile University, a blog post by Marieke Guy
  5. Eduserve’s 2010 Symposium: The Mobile University, a blog post by Chris Thomson http://www.electricchalk.com/2010/05/20/esym10/
  6. The Mobile University, a blog post by Mike Jones http://fairlypositive.com/?p=52
  7. Eduserv Mobile University, a blog post on the event http://mobilegeo.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/edusrv-mobile-university/
  8. The implications of mobile… or ‘carry on up the smart phone’, a blog post by Andy Powell

Author Details

Dr. Shailey Minocha
Reader in Computing
The Open University, UK

Email: s.minocha@open.ac.uk
Web site: http://mcs.open.ac.uk/sm577

Return to top