m-Learning in the Education of Multimedia Technologists and Designers at the University Level: A User Requirements Study
1. Ubiquitous and On Demand: Accessible regardless of time and location, capable of delivering the required content at any "point of need."
2. Bite-Sized: The educational content of m-learning applications must be relatively short in duration as it is typically used in environments with a considerable amount of potential distractions to the user's concentration. Examples of such environments are public parks and train stations.
3. Blended: m-Learning is very rarely used as the only or even as the primary platform to deliver educational content. Usually, it complements other more resourceful modes of the content delivery such as classical teaching and e-learning.
4. Can be Collaborative: m-Learning should take advantage of the mobile communication devices it uses as its basis (e.g., mobile phones and Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs) and promote collaborative learning as much as possible. The collaboration can be achieved through the use of SMS or e-mail.
2.1.1 Participants At the time of the study, the 58 undergraduate students who took part were all attending Level 2 of the MMTD course. Of these, 44 were male and 14 were female, with the age range between 19 and 24. Being both the potential users of m-learning (as students on the MMTD course) and— considering the nature of the course—possible future experts in the field, the students were very well suited to make an informed input regarding the study aim.
2.1.2 Procedure The three study sessions are described as follows:
Session 1: Formal Lecture. The 2-hour formal lecture on m-learning that initiated the study was given in a lecture theater at Brunel University (by the paper author) and all 58 students participating in the study were in attendance. The content of the lecture was presented in two parts, with a 10 minute break in between. The first part introduced the study aim (i.e., to improve the MMTD course via m-learning), explained the methodologies of participatory action research and user-centered design, and provided an in-depth account of the concept of m-learning—by showcasing several examples of m-learning applications, some of which were aimed at higher education and some at different educational stages (e.g., primary and secondary education). The second part of the lecture explained various m-learning-related technologies. The lecture was highly interactive throughout; the students asked a number of questions, which were immediately clarified. The purpose of the lecture was to enable the study participants to develop a reasonably detailed understanding of m-learning, and thus, facilitate proactive participation in the remainder of the study.
Session 2: Focus Groups. The 13 focus group discussions took place on two consecutive days, in the week after the formal lecture (seven discussions on Day 1 and six discussions on Day 2). The discussions were held in a multimedia lab at Brunel University and each lasted approximately 1 hour. With 15 minute breaks between the discussions, the total duration of the focus group exercise was about 15 hours and 45 minutes (8 hours and 30 minutes on Day 1 and 7 hours and 15 minutes on Day 2). The assignment of the 58 students to the 13 groups was random. As aforementioned, the groups involved between three and six students.
All the discussions were continuously moderated by the paper author and a graduate teaching assistant. At the beginning of the discussions, 5 minutes were allocated to remind the participants of the study aim and the content of the formal lecture from the week before (the concept of m-learning and the examples of m-learning applications and supporting technologies). The participants were then prompted to discuss and make notes of the following issues:
1. What and how they study for the course:
a. Which modules and subjects (e.g., Web applications, communication, imaging (photography, history of art and design, and programming languages).
b. Where (e.g., at home, in the university library, and when traveling to the university by the underground).
c. When (e.g., during the day, during the night, in the evening, and in the morning).
d. For how long (e.g., a number of short periods of time during a day and a few hours continuously).
2. Which problems they face when studying (e.g., not enough time, too much time spent on irrelevant tasks, and the study material being difficult to access or difficult to follow).
3. How could their study performance and experience be enhanced by m-learning—in relation to that discussed under 1 and 2 (e.g., making the study process more efficient or more engaging).
The questions under 1 and 2 were meant to help the students develop a methodical insight into the modalities of their engagement with the course—an action that is seen as crucial in the process of design of new m-learning solutions [ 23], [ 24].
Toward the end of the discussions, the participants were asked to organize the discussion notes and summarize the specified group requirements and preferences as to how m-learning could improve the MMTD course.
Session 3: Design Practicum. As already reported above, the design practicum involved the identical 13 groups of students as the second session. The practicum was held during a single day—one week after the focus work discussions, in the same multimedia lab. It consisted of four subsessions, each lasting 2 hours and accommodating three to four student groups (13 groups overall—in three subsessions with three groups and one subsession with four groups, 8 hours in total).
In the briefing part of the practicum, the groups were instructed (by the paper author) to—thinking as users and designers at the same time—revisit the requirements list they produced in the second session and "filter" it into the specification of functionality for the m-learning application that would, according to the group's joint opinion, make the greatest impact to the course. The groups were also asked to subsequently draft a brief visual presentation of the application concept that was to be developed. The presentation had to include up to 10 slides explaining the concept through its purpose, the ways of use, interface design sketches, and the technologies behind the application. In the end, the practicum delivered 13 m-learning application concepts— one per each participating group.
The author is with the School of Engineering and Design, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK.
Manuscript received 1 June 2009; revised 2 Aug. 2009; accepted 2 Sept. 2009; published online 11 Sept. 2009.
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Digital Object Identifier no. 10.1109/TLT.2009.38.
1. Action research can be defined as "researching by doing" [ 11], [ 12]. The methodology involves submitting research participants to certain tasks related to the research aim and drawing conclusions regarding the aim based on the analysis of the participants' actions and the actions outcome. The analysis is typically carried out using the data collected by the direct observation of the actions (behavioral analysis) and posttask interviews (to capture the underlying process of thinking) and/or by studying, for example, the artifacts that the participants created in the process (the actions outcome). The engagement of the participants with the tasks tends to deliver a more accurate "picture" of the nature of the research problem and possible solutions in comparison to when the traditional research methods like questionnaires and interviews are used in isolation. Translated into the context of this study, "researching by doing" meant addressing the study aim of finding ways to enhance the MMTD course via m-learning (researching) by engaging the study participants in the task of m-learning applications design (doing). The responsibility given to the participants to apply the user-centered design methodology and deliver a series of concepts for m-learning applications (outcome) to improve the course is believed to have generated a more focused specification of the m-learning requirements and preferences than if the research included only, for example, classical focus groups and interviews.
Vanja Garaj received the BSc degree in product design from the University of Zagreb, Croatia, and the PhD degree in systems design (human factors) from Brunel University, United Kingdom. Since 2006, he has worked as a lecturer in multimedia design in the School of Engineering and Design, Brunel University. Between 2003 and 2006, he was employed as a research fellow at the SURFACE Inclusive Design Research Center, The University of Salford, United Kingdom. Before joining academia, he worked as a graphic and multimedia designer in the advertising industry. His research interests span human factors within the contexts of systems, products, environments, and services design.