Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moodling on a mobile phone - properly

(Note - this was started in May, yes, May) but now finally gets finished and published, complete with a set of images on Flickr)
The reasons for this post:
Most kids have phones. The features of phones are improving and exceeding much of what's available in school in terms of accessible technology in a compact device. Using the PC as the main way of interacting won't disappear - but it will be joined by mobile access (subject to tariffs - more about that later) which will become the norm rather than the exception. So just how much of our current learning platform offering here in Bucks is accessible and (more importantly) useable on a device which is available to (and being used now by) kids in our schools.
N95 cameraFor about a week and a bit five months now I've been experimenting in all sorts of ways with my new contract phone. I'd had a Sony Ericsson W800i for 18 months (a sucker for a long contract, y'see) and finally decided to get a new phone recently. Prior to working in Bucks and Herts I worked in HE departments in GIS, Remote Sensing and some work with GPS so the Nokia N95 is pretty much as close to a "convergent device" as I could get. The tariff is a T-Mobile Web & Walk one, which gives "unlimited internet" (a 1GB monthly limit) and the usual Flext mixture of txts and minutes.
The speed of the HDSPA enhanced 3G connection is phenomenal - downloading a 15MB podcast takes a couple of minutes and that would seem to be the main advantage of this device over the makes-a-certain-type-of-person-dribble iPhone. The iPhone won't do 3G - and having downloaded a podcast over a non-3G connection I can tell you it takes forever.
Having an "unmetered" data tariff is essential with a device like this - here are the applications I'm currently using which eat into my allowance...

  • browsing and downloading Google Maps, Live Earth maps, Yahoo Maps, maps and all sorts of other information using the excellent (free, natch) Mobile GMaps application (important note, if you want to use Google Maps then get a version prior to GMaps 1.36, as this version doesn't contain Google Maps due to a toys-out-of-the-pram moment from Google);
    Google Maps hybrid on Mobile GMaps Mobile GMaps showing favourites across Cheltenham Racecourse Mobile GMaps' services
  • podcast subscriptions (currently these three podcasts so far) through the free Nokia podcast application - which will apparently allow you to create podcasts using the device soon.
    My subscribed podcasts Playing a podcast
  • uploading pictures taken on the very nice 5Mp camera (and geotagged using the GPS receiver) to Flickr through Shozu - but you can also set it up to send straight to YouTube, or even BBC News...
    Sending picture to flickr Send video / photos to these services automatically
  • downloading video podcasts from RocketBoom, YouTube and many other services
    ZuCasts through Shozu
  • synchronising my BucksGfL email account (where all my Bucks Moodle alerts go to) and my Gmail through the dedicated Gmail application
    IMAP mailbox Gmail messages
  • calling & messaging Skype and MSN contacts through Fring
    Skype contacts in Fring Calling options from Fring Calling the Fring test service
  • subscribing to RSS feeds for... well, all sorts of stuff. Updates to Google Docs, activity on my Flickr pics, etc. etc.

However, these are all "standard" things - what I'm interested in is how a user of the elements of our learning platform might use a device like this. So, first stop, Moodle...

BBC News home page Part of BBC News story

The browser in the N95 is very usable - it doesn't re-render the page but gives a zoomed view of it, with an easy way of navigating around larger pages. Logging in to a school's Moodle was easy and more simple than when using a PSP (see previous posting) mainly due to the ease of text input.

Winslow Moodle on N95 Logging in to WinsLE WinsLE radio course List of Moodle courses Viewing a Moodle course Completing an online text assignment Moodle forum view

Accessing all sorts of resources within the school's Moodle was very straightforward, however the limitations of interaction are mainly concerned with whether or not the browser can access the file system of the device it's running on (to upload files etc.). One critical difference between the N95 and a PSP is that the N95 allows access to its own file system, so that files stored on the internal memory card or memory can be uploaded from the browser - for example into an "upload a file" assignment, or a photograph taken on the internal camera could be attached to a forum or used as a profile image.

Listening to Radio WinsLEThe built in MP3 / video / media player also means that audio files can be downloaded and played - and as if to prove it, while in San Francisco after the Adobe AEL Summer Institute, I downloaded an episode of Radio WinsLE over the free wifi at the Java Beach Cafe. The MP3 was stored on the memory card and played in the media player with no problem.

Next stop: Macromedia Breeze/Adobe Connect...

Logging in to Breeze Logged in to our Breeze/Connect server on N95

Well, nearly but not quite - it's possible to log in to and access the resources on the Breeze site but the issue with watching a presentation or attending a meeting all comes down to the version of Flash on the device - which is Flash Lite. However, the mobile YouTube site works fine (though the files are 3GP files played in RealPlayer). It would be fantastic to get both on-board cameras accessible by a richer version of Flash, which would allow interaction with a live Breeze/Connect meeting.

Next element: email - see bullet points above.

Well that (to my mind) isn't bad. Apart from the Flash version issue with Breeze, everything is accessible so far.

Also, the N95 is a wifi device, which (in a school set up correctly) would give great benefit to schools sharing learning resources with a range of devices.

Standby screen when connected to home wifi network ('ush') Connectivity options Choose your wireless network Connectivity details Available wireless networks

The wifi connection is very reliable, it's possible to set up a default home network and connect to it automagically, or simply browse the available wifi networks and (if a key is needed) log in to them.

Nokia Sports Tracker Nokia Maps application 3D view Address = blue, me in the garden = yellow Truleigh Hill, Shoreham-by-Sea on Mobile GMaps Google Maps through Mobile GMaps

Finally, the built-in GPS opens up a wealth of mobile applications which could only be used on a device like this. Whether it's the obvious mapping tools, or something like Nokia's Sports Tracker application, the location-aware capabilities make this a fascinating tool to start to use.

Also, the camera's not bad.

The main down side to the device (apart from the interface, which could learn a lot from any recent Sony Ericsson mobile) is the battery life, which is very poor when 3G and the GPS are used. Allegedly one of the reasons the iPhone doesn't have 3G is the effect it would have had on the device's battery life. If the N95 is going to be used to exploit the greater part of its potential then it'll need charging every night and a car charger if you're driving anywhere with it. Tip 6 in 3lib's page of N95 tips is useful in this area...

So where does this leave the Year 9 student who's got a device like this? Well, unless she can afford a data plan which includes everything she might want to download and upload, she'll barely use the potential in the device. My T-Mobile web'n'walk service (nearly unlimited data - well, 1 or 2GB per month, apparently if you exceed this for 3 months "you might get a letter" - said a manager in a T-Mobile shop somewhere) costs £7.50 per month and, as previously mentioned, offers ridiculously fast data speeds on the N95. But for kids? Hmmm, maybe some lateral thinking...

OK, here's a plan. Say the mobile operators offered a data package for a couple of pounds per month - including some data transfer allowance but not much - but (due to the goodness of their hearts) didn't charge for data coming from "educational sites" - including sites and curriculum online-badged ones. Those sites would have to be formatted to be mobile-friendly (this would keep the volume of data down, hence lessening what the operators might have to carry in terms of volume of data). Would this work? Is this do-able? Are there other models which could support the potentially heaviest users (kids) accessing rich educational sites (schools, learning resources etc) in a way which (for the mobile phone companies) turns them into long-term consumers of £7.50 a month packages when they go on to university and work? Please don't tell me Microsoft doesn't see the Student version of Office as a loss-leader to ensure that when students move into jobs they expect to see MS Office on the desktop when they get there? Of course they do, it's definitely not from the goodness of their hearts...

All in all, there is so much potential in this device, and those that will follow it, to access resources in a way that most people in education management haven't thought of yet. But will it ever be affordable for kids?

Edit 1:
If you've ever read about the history of aerial photography, you'll know that early "aerial photographs" were taken from church towers, balloons, cameras mounted on kites, etc. Can you see where this is going? After all, the video camera on the N95 is VGA-quality...

Edit 2:
If you want a very interesting and relevant post on a comparison of the N95 and the geek's-wet-dream (the iPhone), then read this blog post - its central premise:

The iPhone is for consuming content, while the N95 is for creating it.

Sums things up about about right for me...


  1. I agee with a lot you say, I have been using the N95 and wasn't persuaded by the iphone but I might be by the w960i.
    Eitherway i always keep an I on

  2. N96 will be around soon, thats the phone to have