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Mobile technology has arrived and its presence is undeniable A US mobile survey indicated that at the end of 2009, mobile subscribers grew to 91% of the population. Wireless data services showed an increase of 26%. There are currently 257 million "data-capable" devices, with 50 million of those being comprised of smartphones that are able to perform more advanced wireless functions than SMS (short messaging service), MMS (multimedia messaging service), and WAP (wireless application protocol). The 12 million data capable devices are laptops equipped with 3G (Foresman, 2010). One would be hard pressed to find someone without some type of mobile device whether it's a smartphone, laptop, iPod, mp3 player or bookreader. Mobile technology has allowed us to stay connected without being connected. What are the ramifications for education? Context-aware learning incorporates wireless, mobile, and context-awareness technologies to detect the situation of learners in the real world and to provide support or guidance accordingly (Hwang, 2009). This paper attempts to provide a definition of contextual-awareness learning, to summarize its scope, and to discuss its advantages and disadvantages, particularly, in an academic setting.
Make That Learning to Go: Context Awareness Learning in Educational Settings
Contextual awareness learning combines the theories of social constructivist, constructivist, and contextual. These theories emphasize social interaction, integration of new knowledge with old knowledge and the incorporation of past experiences with new experiences. The guiding principles of this type of learning are situated, social and distributed cognition (Imel, 2000). Contextual learning promotes learning in a way that encourages problem solving, incorporates the experiences of the students, allows collaboration, combines the teaching and learning experience through different arenas and provides an assessment of the learning process (Imel, 2000).
E- learning from an electronic device (usually a computer) is the predecessor of mobile learning (m-learning), where users could employ their cellular devices (such as PDAs, smart phones, and portable computers) to download educational programs, or to participate in learning sessions from the convenience of their environment. Context-aware ubiquitous learning (u-learning; Hwang, 2007; Yang, 2006) augmented mobile learning in that it contextualized the learner to his environment, vivified the educational experience (hence making it more effective), and eliminated distractions by using devices such as sensors and actuators, radio frequency identification (RFID), tags and readers. Hwang, Tsai, and Yang (2008) describe ubiquitous learning as a "new technology which enables people to seamlessly utilize huge amounts and various kinds of 'functional objects" anytime and anywhere through network connections" (p.81) whilst the context-awareness devices, themselves, augment the educational experience by attributing the learning system with the ability to better understand the learner's behavior and environmental conditions in the real world, as well as his geographic location and specific climatic conditions.
In summary, a context-learning environment involves the following components:
Sensors that detect personal and environmental contexts (such as location and body temperature of the learners or temperature of the learning environment).
A server that records context and provides support to the learners.
A mobile learning device for each learner with which the learner can gain access to the Internet whilst receiving guidance from the server.
Wireless networks that enable communication among the mobile learning devices, the sensors, and the server (Hwang, Tsai, & Yang, 2008).
Instances of mobile devices integrating ubiquitous learning technology would be the PDAs and the GSM phones, where the font size modifies to the users activity and environmental conditions and the profiles of the mobile phone adjust automatically according to proximity to user. Other equally well-known examples are tourist and museum guides which enable a visitor to procure information about an object in his vicinity, and the Electronic Guidebook which elaborates on this concept by, not only synthesizing textual, oral and visual images about and of museum exhibits, but also by allowing the visitor to select and record images of her visit.
Instances of "context-awareness" in educational settings are several: It has been employed in science (Hwang, 2009), in language (Chen & Kinshuk, 2005), in learning Japanese (Chang & Shu, 2002), and in teaching English as a second language (Chen, Li, & Chen, 2007). Moushir and colleagues (2007) created PERKAM, which matches user with educational materials and peer helpers in accordance to location and detected objects. Studies of its application continue.
Chen and Chao (2008) use scenarios which show how Mary, a student, could share key points and questions about her class matter with collaborators using SMS on a Smartphone. In one example, Jack receives an SMS message encouraging him to study harder, followed by an SMS notification informing him of current topics, while Alan receives guidance messages and direction from his teacher. These scenarios demonstrate how context-aware learning may not only facilitate teachers and students in imparting and acquiring knowledge but can also monitor particular learning progress, whilst engendering peer collaboration and transmitting guidance. Meanwhile, Liu, Tan, & Chu (2009) recommend that context-aware learning could be utilized, too, in outdoor teaching by automatically locating and describing sought-for information in a convincing and immediate manner.
Researchers, attempting to identify principles and methods for designing u-learning activities, have categorized the experience in several ways. Chang, Sung, Chang, & Lin (2005), for instance, classified the system in four steps:
Setting instructional requirements for the learner's learning actions
Detecting the learner's behavior
Comparing requirements with corresponding learning behavior
Providing learner with personal support.
Given the advantages of the system, context-aware ubiquitous technologies are growing, affecting the educational field in a variety of areas.
As Wang, Ci, Zhan and Xu (2007) conclude:
"Context aware ubiquitous learning defines a new stage of e-learning and mobile learning, moving from learning at any time anywhere to learning at the right time and in the right place with the most appropriate learning resources and peers," (p.795).
The Benefits of Ubiquitous Context-Aware Learning
A person who is an isolated learner, due for instance to being home-schooled, or to teaching herself independently, can better understand the material and gain an enhanced grasp of the subject matter. This is true, too, for those who feel inadequate in their learning, and may be too embarrassed or shy to seek expert help (Crowe & Zand, 1997). He or she can gain expert understanding without having to wait until she reaches her teacher, as in a typical e-learning situation, or without being unintentionally mislead by a colleague as could happen in any situation, conventional classroom or otherwise.
Research has found that people prefer to learn via " authentic activities" in which they can engage themselves in real life situations (Hwang, 2009) Indeed, behaviorism insists that it is via practical association that the individual learns about the world. By touching and feeling and seeing all senses are involved, thereby immersing the individual into the fullness of his learning experience. The u-learning system affords this opportunity.
Context awareness can be economically sound as Hwang (2009) proved. Learning about the single-crystal X-ray diffraction procedure, for instance, would normally take several hours (specifically if the researcher is unfamiliar with the equipment or with the experimental details), involve equipment maintenance cost (incorrect usage might damage some highly expensive tools), and the expense of teaching, aside from the uncertainty of predicting the lecturer's ability to convey the situation in an absorbing and relevant manner. Hwang (2009) demonstrated that in far less time, using no manpower, and in an entertaining manner, trainees taught themselves. Furthermore, all of the trainees involved in the experiment indicated that context-based u-learning was preferable in many ways to conventional classroom training in that it was "systematic", "authentic", and "economical". According to one trainee, both manpower and time would be considerably reduced (time by twice its amount) by using the system. The economic benefits of u-learning, furthermore, extend outside the conventional classroom setting. Even on an individual basis, independent learners may prefer to engage themselves in context awareness mobile learning devices, rather than employing a costly tutor (Crowe & Zand, 19997). Trainees in Hwong's (2009) experiment also preferred u-learning due to its innovative and convenient structure, aside from which they considered it to be more organized than traditional classroom instruction in that it reminded the trainee of each detail or point specifically and lucidly, thereby increasing learning efficiency and correctness.
Finally, according to Collins (1991), the process of acquiring critical thinking and cognitive skills should involve situated learning, coaching, scaffolding, reflection, and exploration. Its experience therefore should be conducted in a real-life context. Systematic teaching and guidance of the learners, and opportunities of practicing as well as reviewing the tasks should also be provided. All of this the ubiquitous context-awareness system provides.
In summary, context awareness learning, Li, Zheng, Ogata, and Yano, (2004) concluded offers the following benefits:
Permanency: The learning processes are recorded on a continuous process; users can never lose their work unless they intentionally delete it.
Accessibility: Learners have access to their documents, data, or videos from anywhere. The material is always accessible to them.
Immediacy: the learner need not wait till he obtains the answer (resulting in him potentially forgetting the original question or material). The information is immediately downloaded,whilst she has the option of recording the question and accessing the answer later.
Interactivity: Learners can interact with teachers, experts, or peers singly or collectively. Experts are more accessible than they would otherwise be in a conventional real-life situation.
Situating of instructional activities: The learning, since it is realistically embedded in a practical life, becomes more relevant, authentic, and comprehensible.
Adaptability: Learners can get the correct information at the proper place and the proper time.
The Disadvantage of Ubiquitous Context-Aware Learning
Minor problems include such issues as:
The u-computing system renders its judgments on feedback from the learners and on apparent errors on detected information, consequently if the learners' feedback is incorrect or incomplete, the system's response will be unsatisfactory. Secondly, the u-computing system can only be used in a learning environment with wireless communication since it depends on wireless networks for its functioning, whilst limitation of battery power could be another obstacle. The battery power of a mobile device loaded with an RFID reader can last only 2 hours, whereas, as Hwang (2009) describes, a complex scientific experiment may last several hours for it to be satisfactorily completed.
Far more worrisome is the fact that the ubiquitous learning is, ultimately, conducted in a superficial atmosphere. The device does use virtual strategies even though they are 'reality' and this, researchers (e.g., Brignall & Valey, 2005; Burgees & Suhail, 2006; Wang & Newlin, 2000) speculate, may have a detrimental effect on factors such as social skills and thinking abilities. Studies of obsessive Internet users (e-learners or otherwise) suggest that some people may experience psychological problems such as social isolation, depression, loneliness, and time mismanagement related to their Internet use, and also that changes in people's use of the Internet over one to two years can alter their patterns of social involvement and even psychological health. People who spend several hours a day doing schoolwork, communicating with friends, teachers and family, and seeking entertainment, all via the computer and the Internet, are automatically losing out on substantial experiences with face-to-face communications; virtual reality even though it may be more real in its 'reality', nevertheless, remains 'virtual'. Goffman (1967) suggested that individuals who lack the normative communication, cultural, and civility skills in a society would find it difficult to interact with others successfully. Online users are more likely to respond in a spontaneous and rapid way. "There is no shared physical space to disrupt, there is no implicit social contract, and there are few social interaction rituals to prevent individuals from being rude when delivering their responses." (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005). This would particularly be the case with people with already immature social skills and cyber students who have not properly developed their face-to-face interaction skills. Consequently, Internet would only worsen their problems when engaging in real-life social interaction. The difference between context-aware learning and conventional learning, argue various critics is that online behavior differs from offline behavior in several ways including the ability for individuals to misrepresent themselves, and a tendency to quickly abandon groups and conversations, refusing to deal with issues they find difficult to immediately resolve. They argue that online interactions lead to dysfunctional behavior, a lack of community, less privacy, and social isolation, none of which is the case with conventional classroom settings.
Bradley (2006) has also argued that extensive time on-line time serves as a behavioral modification of the classical conditioning model, reinforcing a desire for continued usage. Mobile devices, digital systems, Internet technology can be a 'technological addiction'. The Suhail and Burgees (2006) study found that excessive Internet use amongst undergraduate students, even when used for study, found that more than half of the respondents preferred 'nonhuman' interaction to real human relations, and considered the Internet a means of consolation during stress. More so, about one quarter of the sample reported restlessness, irritability, increased anxiety and low mood when they were unable to use the Internet. On the other hand, items about positive effects of the Internet indicated that a majority of the students (84%) found the Internet helpful for worldwide communication; 78% reported that Internet use actually improved their grades; 74% agreed that their reading, writing, and information processing skills had expanded by using the Internet. Another 48% reported that they had become better students by using the Internet. Internet use was reported to have affected one's education positively by enhancing communication with professors and classmates, and by having greater access to research and library materials. Internet use was also reported to improve hours of studying as well as studying habits.
Context awareness learning (or u-learning) has vividly shaped education. As an extension to e-learning, ubiquitous learning systems help the student in various ways, not least by vivifying the educational experience, by removing distractions, by modulating the environment, and by enabling the desired people and objects to become more accessible to the user in a timely manner. The solitary learner can have greater access to experts than he or she would otherwise obtain, whilst the shy individual can gain help that she would otherwise find difficult to receive. Students can collaborate with, and receive guidance from, others, and educators can more conveniently access and direct students. The system is also more economical aside from being more organized and convenient. On the other hand, there are grave concerns concerning the essence of the system. These concerns are not so much about its manifestations - the technology that is used or not used - but whether its replacement to conventional learning is psychologically healthy. Although Yang (2006) condones ubiquitous learning environments as augmenting collaboration between learning communities, nevertheless a growing body of research insists that computer-mediated communications 'displace' more traditional face-to-face forms of communication, and that online educational courses (even if they were context-aware) carry the same danger.
Perhaps our conclusions may be that e-learning in general and context-aware ubiquitous learning in particular can be used as a valuable tool for enhancing one's academic achievements as well as for expanding one's knowledge, provided the user does not misuse his time online. Context-aware ubiquitous learning has ushered in a new stage of e-learning and mobile learning and, if used wisely, can, invariably, enhance one's online academic productivity.