The First Decade: Palms and PocketPCs

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Mobile Learning: 1998, 2008, 2018

Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you … Happy Birthday Hi-CE and Mobile Learning …

On Jan. 22, 1998, ES had a dinner in Ann Arbor with an old friend and colleague, Roy Pea. At the table, Roy held up a Palm computing device and said here was the computer of the future. ES, mister macho computer scientist, started to scoff at the diminutive device — but he stopped mid-scoff. He asked/stated: "So, you can program those puppies?" And, before Roy could answer, ES bellowed, as he often does, so that virtually all the diners in the staid — and pretentious — Earle restaurant could hear, "YES WE CANNNNNNNN!"

Immediately after dinner ES called CN and explained (babbled is more accurate) about this Palm handheld computing device. Finally, here was a computer for all the kids — children, she corrected. Yes, Yes… children. Palms would be low cost — right now they were a tad expensive, but tech costs always come down — and, most importantly, it was kid-sized — it literally fit in the palm of a child’s hand! And, because it was "carryable," it was mobile — where ever a child went, it went. Finally, all-the-time, everywhere learning could be supported. Finally, here was a computing device that each and every child would be able to have!

  • ES: "Hmmm. Ahhhh. Hmmm. What application should we build for it first?"
  • CN (with no hesitation and ever polite): "Ask your team to build a concept mapping tool."
  • ES (continuing to shout — after all it was long distance): "YES, YES! Great idea! Great idea!"
  • CN (with a wry smile): "Why do you always say things twice."

(Background: ES was/is the techie; CN was/is the K-12 educator, having spent 14 years in Dallas classrooms. Our partnership works really well; CN is the brains while ES is the brawn.)

And that, sports fans, was the birth of Mobile Learning in our Center for Highly-Interactive Computing in Education (University of North Texas/Michigan).  Up to that moment, Hi-CE had been developing tools for desktop and laptop computers (e.g., Model-It, systems dynamics modelling tool and Artemis, an educational interface for students to the UMich Digital Library). But, literally, as of Jan 23, Hi-CE stopped building desktop applications and focused solely on building tools for handheld devices. (Thank you, Wayback Machine, for archiving our old, old, OLD webpages!)

Hi-CE soon released the "Cool Dozen" applications for the Palm, e.g., Sketchy (drawing/animating), PiCoMap (concept mapping), Fling-It (Internet content), Cooties, etc.

  • CN (with a knowing twinkle in her eye): "Umm, you do notice that there aren’t 12 tools in the Cool Dozen."
  • ES (with no hesitation):  "Picky, Picky, Picky."

Hi-CE posted the "Cool Dozen" (or so) on its website for free downloading.

Then, after talking with the brave, early-adopting K-12 teachers who used the Cool Dozen in their classrooms on PalmOS devices, we came to realize that the tools needed to be packaged together, with learning activities, that the teacher specifies, as the top-level organizer. We then built the LessonLauncher as that lesson-anchoring tool in the "Handheld Learning Environment." When the Internet became a first-class citizen on the handheld, HLE became MLE — the "Mobile Learning Environment."

Figure 1: The Plant Cycle Lesson Using Mobile Learning Environment

Figure 1: The Plant Cycle Lesson Using Mobile Learning Environment

As depicted in Figure 1, LessonLauncher held the learning activities for a lesson on the Plant Cycle, that a teacher specified. A student would tap, with a stylus, on a rectangle, which then caused an application to open up. The student then completed the learning activity using that application. Closing the application automatically returned the student to the LessonLauncher — and the lesson. LessonLauncher was easy for the teacher to use to create a lesson and easy for the student to use to enact a lesson. (Spoiler alert: our LessonLauncher in 2018 looks remarkably similar to the LessonLauncher in 2003 — "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!")

Yes, MLE is shown in Figure 1 on a Dell Axim 51 running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 6. Hi-CE quickly rebuilt MLE to support Microsoft and Pocket PCs when Palm, Inc. tanked as it tried to transition from manufacturing handheld computers to running a smartphone company. (That is another story!)

Now, in the Pocket PC, Microsoft — and their hardware manufacturing partners such as HP, Dell, etc.— had a smartphone years before the iPhone came out in 2007. A Pocket PC typically cost about $500 in 2002/08 — which was a lot of money. (And, the price of Pocket PCs remained stubbornly high.) However, the real challenge was this: imagine interacting with WindowsOS — albeit a somewhat stripped down version — using a pretzel-thin, awkward-to-hold, three inch stylus to peck, peck, peck on a 3.5 inch, text-laden screen. OMG! No wonder adults said no to Microsoft’s first attempt at a smartphone!  That too is another story!

Interestingly, we found that the K-12 students didn’t seem to mind the awkward stylus/screen interactions on Pocket PCs. The students would spend hours focused on creating animations in Sketchy or concept maps in PiCoMap. Heck — the stylus couldn’t be any worse than a No. 2 pencil! Thanks again to the Wayback Machine: Check out the "Sketchy’s" — the animations — which students submitted to our annual "Sketchy Contest." Patiently, click on a year (e.g., 2006); click on a subject area (e.g., Language Arts). And watch some cool, student-generated, animations!

Mobile Learning, 1998, the First Decade:  

Mobile learning was the hottest topic at ed tech conferences during the '00s. In fact, conferences devoted to mobile learning sprang up!

  • MLearn and IADIS International Conference Mobile Learning, two European-based conferences, and IEEE International Workshop on Wireless and Mobile Technologies in Education, an international conference, grew rapidly in terms of attendance and articles presented. ISTE, a U.S.-based conference, started including sessions devoted to "Mobile Learning" – and a SIG (Special Interest Group) in "Mobile Learning" started up — with ES as its first chair and Grand PooBah.

And various mobile applications made their presence felt:

  • mClass: Wireless Generation Inc. brought out a gate-busting application for the Palm, initially, to support teachers in elementary school as they assessed students’ reading using the "Running Record" reading assessment method.

Now comes the "but:" But the real story in mobile learning was lack of curriculum. Mobile devices were available — and there were some really provocative applications. However, except for Texas Instruments, with their graphing calculators, the mobile learning community didn’t produce easy-to-use, effective curriculum. So, as usual, except for the early-adopting teachers who can make up their own curriculum, mobile devices didn’t find their way into K-12 classrooms. Sigh; an opportunity lost.

Summing up: There was genuine excitement among educators and technologists during mobile learning’s first decade — absolutely! But, it wasn’t until mobile learning’s second decade — and Apple’s iPad — that mobile learning finally gained traction in K-12. Stay tuned for Mobile Learning: The Second Decade.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at www.imlc.io.

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at www.imlc.io.

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at thejournal.com/rc.

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