R685 – Mobile Experiment Series – Post 2 (The Software)

Recently in R685 we did a week on mobile learning, or m-learning. As a companion activity to that week, I decided I would limit myself to participating in class only via my smartphone. This is the second of a series of blog posts I’ll be doing on my experiences that week; this post will focus on the software (both on the web and on my phone) that I used for this experiment. You can view the entirety of the series here.

Smartphone Applications

I have a Samsung Captivate running Android 2.2 (colloquially known as FroYo), as I mentioned in the last post in this series. Didn’t read that yet? Take a look at the link in the first paragraph of this post, then come back. I’ll wait. It’s fine.

Okay, we’re back.

There were two applications that I used extensively on my phone for this experiment. The first was the built-in email application provided by the Captivate, with which I accessed my IU email account. I used the software for a number of different reasons, including (but not limited to): reading forum replies, accessing lists of readings to choose from, and sending questions via e-mail a couple of times. I had already previously set up my e-mail on my phone, so this required no additional setup for me to accomplish. Those users who do not already have their primary e-mail account set up may have to invest some time in this initially, but it was a nonissue for me.

The first thing I learned in this experiment was that it is INCREDIBLY difficult to keep track of forum discussions when you’re tracking them via e-mail. Since Oncourse does not include the text of the message to which a user is replying in the e-mail notifications it sends, you basically just have to log into the forums if any context at all is required. I found that frustrating, but it was manageable.

Which leads me up to the other piece of software I used for this experiment: Firefox Mobile. Firefox has been my preferred browser, hands down, regardless of platform, for quite a long time now. Newer versions of Firefox, including the Mobile version I used on my phone, have a plug-in called Firefox Sync which allows you to automatically sync your saved passwords, bookmarks, and other such information across devices. I have made use of this to great effect previously, but never did I realize just how much easier Sync makes things until I set it up on my phone at the beginning of this experiment. The primary benefit of Sync was that it allowed me to not have to re-enter my passphrase every time I wanted to log in to Oncourse. Had I had to do that, I probably would not have succeeded at my experiment; my passphrase takes way more work to type in correctly on a tiny touch-screen keyboard.

Another great feature of Firefox Mobile is the ability to open pages in tabs, just like you might on your desktop or laptop computer. In general, over the course of the week, I had at least one reading open at all times, as well as the class forums in another. This allowed me to very quickly and easily switch over to the Forums when I had a concept from the reading I wished to share – useful, considering I still have not managed to figure out how to select and copy text from a web page. This also led me to rephrase concepts at the get-go instead of copying and pasting and then elaborating on them, which some people might say is a benefit.

The final piece of software I used was the built-in Quickoffice application. I used it to open PDFs, and it did an amazing job. One of the readings I had was over a hundred pages and it opened much more quickly than I was expecting, and had no trouble moving between pages at a quick pace.

Web Applications

I only have one web application to report on: the Oncourse forums. In general, I got much the same experience from my smartphone as I did from a desktop computer. However, Firefox had a little trouble with long-form text input; my posts were riddled with typographical errors from a combination of several spelling errors that I hadn’t realized I’d saved to the Swype configuration, and the only way I could remove them was to backspace the entirety of the text I’d typed out between the typo and the end of the text. There was no easy way to move the cursor within the text. This was my biggest frustration.

Another issue: there are a number of wysiwyg editing elements that display when you’re posting to the forums on a full-featured version of the browser. Firefox mobile did not render those elements, for some reason, which left me without any formatting ability – and stripped all the line breaks out of my comments, making them more difficult to read if I was verbose. This led to a number of shorter posts, rather than just a couple of longer ones.

Working with the Oncourse Forums was my biggest source of frustration over the course of the week. As I mentioned earlier, my phone can open and read a hundred-plus page PDF with no trouble at all. Why can’t it handle something simple like posting to a forum? I asked myself that question many, many times during the course of the experiment, and eventually changed the signature on my e-mail client to, “This message sent via semaphore. Please excuse my brevity.”

There was one requirement I did not fulfill, which would have added yet another web application to the list: WordPress. Since I didn’t blog over the course of that week, I owe you guys one! Look for that later in the Mobile Experiment series when I post about my experience. I’ll come back and update this once I’ve got that posted.

Edit/Update: Phew! I just spent a good half an hour writing a grand total of maybe 400 words, plus adding tags and then publishing a post using my smart phone. Given that I spent about the same amount of time to write this post, which was just about at 1000 words before the update, I think there’s a strong case that M-learning is slowing me down.

WordPress was probably the best-handled of any of the web applications I used on my phone. I was able to access full functionality, including adding tags from my “choose from the most used tags” function. I didn’t attempt to use the wysiwyg functions of the editor, but they did show up, which is more than I can say for the Oncourse forums. I managed to find a way to copy and paste the introduction text from the Mobile Experiment Series posts, but it required me editing this blog post, copying the entirety of it (all almost a thousand words), and then using backspace to get rid of the 920 or so I didn’t want. Less than efficient at best. But even with all that, using WordPress was actually pretty easy on my phone; I’m impressed even if it was the teensiest bit annoying at a few points throughout the process.

R685 – Final Project Reflection + link

Busy days for me! I’ve been working like crazy all week to get caught up – since life happened so many, many times over the course of the semester. I’ve been feeling like I’m behind basically the entire semester, but thankfully we didn’t have to turn in our blog reflections until the 25th.

This post is about the project I chose for the R685 final project. I decided to go with a student-suggested option: creating a resource for use with the class. In discussing this with Dr. Bonk, he suggested I create a web site with four to ten video resources per topic.

The link to the site I created is here – check it out!

Behind the cut is my full reflection, which I turned in with this project.

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R685 – Mobile Experiment Series – Post 1 (Motivations & Device)

Recently in R685 we did a week on mobile learning, or m-learning. As a companion activity to that week, I decided I would limit myself to participating in class only via my smartphone. This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll be doing on my experiences that week; this post will focus on my motivations for choosing to do so, and then the device I used. You can view the entirety of the series here. Additionally, since time in the semester is running out, I’ll be skipping the rest of my weekly topical reflections, with the exception of discussing my m-learning experiment and one final post reflecting on the blogging I did this semester. I also plan on sharing the reflection I wrote on my final project.

The Motivations

I understand from my class readings this week that in a lot of areas, mobile phones are people’s only access to the internet. Even though the digital divide is shrinking, the numbers of people worldwide who do not own a desktop or notebook computer is staggering. Given that I come from a relatively privileged background, and have had at least one computer at all times for the last decade, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be constrained by relatively inefficient technology.

Dr. Bonk’s class is set up very well for the online learning format. I have had no real difficulty accessing the readings for a given week, or participating in class synchronous sessions, or the discussions on the class forums in Oncourse either. I had already been participating in a less-constrained form of m-learning all semester; my job provides me with a laptop, a recent-model Macbook Pro, which I used to access the entirety of the class this semester up until I began using my smartphone. I believed that this pre-optimized setup would make my objective easier to accomplish (whereas it would not have been nearly as easy to do an entire week’s worth of homework for my Web Programming class using a smartphone). This meant that I had a set of conditions that were ideal to fostering the success of my experiment, rather than ones that would frustrate me on the first day of attempting it.

Additionally driving my decision to try this experiment was the knowledge that we would not be having a synchronous session in Adobe Connect that week. Though I have a lot of faith in my little smartphone, I shudder to even think about what a nightmare getting Connect to work would be – if it could, in fact, be gotten to work at all. This meant that my restrictions would not prevent me from participating in any major way in the class (something I found important because my grades are important to me; I didn’t want to harm myself with this experiment).

The Device

Also motivating my decision to give the experiment a shot was the fact that I have just recently upgraded my cell phone. Previously I was using the Apple iPhone 3G, which was sufficient as a smartphone, but I have serious doubts as to its ability to handle the sorts of use cases I would be exploring.

The phone to which I upgraded is a Samsung Galaxy S, known in the United States and Canada as the Captivate. You can get a full breakdown of the device’s specs here, but I’ll give you the run-down on some of the basics.

First, this thing is huge. You could just about fit the entire iPhone into the display area on the Captivate. Second, it’s running on the popular Android firmware by Google. Third, it’s about twice as powerful as the first computer I ever got, in 2001, which came with Windows XP. The Captivate boasts 512MB of RAM, an internal 16GB SD card, and an expansion slot that can handle up to an additional 32GB, in micro-SD format. Its processor is one of the more modern mobile processors, the ARM Cortex Hummingbird, at a speed of 1000 mHz. I was using the most recent version of Android, 2.2 (colloquially known as FroYo), though I’m pretty sure anyone using a Captivate with the previous version, 2.1, would be able to duplicate my results using this particular class.

Furthermore, this thing is even more usable than I ever found the iPhone to be. Where the iPhone still reminds me more of a PDA than it does a computer with a touch-screen interface, there’s no mistaking the Captivate for anything less than a full, mobile computer. Having had it for all of maybe two weeks before we got to m-learning, I had already found myself surprised over and over again by the Captivate’s capabilities; it was this fact that convinced me that success with my experiment was possible.

And so, I pushed on. Look for blog posts later talking about the software I used and the experience I had.

R685: Week Three Reflection

Keeping it short this time, as the readings were a bit sparse this week. E-book and e-reader technology has been something of an area of interest to me for awhile (I think I find myself saying that every week), and I’ve used digital books and papers in every facet of my life: personal, for pleasure reading; professional, for reference (I find it much more convenient to have a searchable database of searchable text than an entire library of manually-indexed paper books); and academic, for classes. I still haven’t made the switch entirely, for a number of reasons.

First, my professors have yet to unilaterally adopt a policy of entirely-online textbooks. I’m very fortunate, however, in that many of my faculty have. This is my fourth semester in graduate school and I have collected a grand total of seven books – or eight, if you count the one that I had previously purchased for an undergraduate class and then kept. Another of those eight textbooks is a book that I purchased a paper copy of for an undergraduate class, then sold back, and then ended up needing again as a graduate student (though there WAS an updated edition). I’ve noticed that even many of my faculty who prefer to grade hard-copies of assignments are switching to electronic materials, freely available via one of IU’s many systems (eReserves, the Oncourse Resources section, etc.). As an IT professional and student at IU I also have access to Books 24×7, a database of technical textbooks, and that has been immensely useful in preventing my cubicle shelves from being clogged down with reference books (I prefer to use that space for tchotchkes instead).

And I’m all for that. I don’t feel sanguine, by contrast, about the idea that I might at some point have to purchase access to an e-textbook. Amazon and other companies have repeatedly proven that they are not of the opinion that you “own” digital copies of their media. One example of this: Amazon recently deleted copies of 1984 and Animal House at the request of the copyright holder. The irony of copies of 1984 disappearing down the “memory hole” is a subject for another post entirely – but it illustrates an important reason, I believe, why academia hasn’t more widely adopted digital textbooks. In addition, the lack of a widely available, standard, open format for ebooks is another huge issue. I once purchased a digital copy of a book for a platform not supporting my iPhone, which is the device on which I do most of my e-book reading. I never ended up reading it in that format – instead, I purchased a redundant, analog copy, which I was able to read unfettered by required software and hardware.

Another thing that I don’t think digital reading will ever be able to reproduce is the sheer sensory experience one has when reading a physical, paper book. There’s a smell, a texture, a sound the pages make when you turn them. My favorite book is Pride and Prejudice – I have a beautiful, leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of it that I take out and read about once a year, and for me the aesthetics of the book add to the experience. It even has one of those little sewn-into-the-binding ribbon bookmarks. While I could, theoretically, get an iPad (or whatever device) case that replicates some of these qualities, it’s just not the same: the weight, the thickness, the sounds are all off.

So for now, I stick to only purchasing (which we will define as “paying a set of US dollars for”) physical copies of the books I want to keep. If I’m not paying for it, as I do with a number of e-books (pro-tip: search for amazon free kindle titles. Discover new authors you might not otherwise), I treat it as a library book – something I have borrowed, but do not own. If I might be upset over losing it, I purchase a physical copy. Amazon hasn’t yet perfected the art of invading people’s homes to steal their books back.

….Okay, now go back and read the first sentence of this post. I think it’s time to admit I have a problem! And that’s my reflection for this week: I start out intending to write these clean, concise blog posts topical to the class sessions, and then I get off on tangents upon tangents.