How To Design A Learning Space

I helped Dan Gilbert to create this process chart as a tool for his Designing Learning Spaces class at Stanford University:

(Click To Enlarge)

This is a map that students would follow as they design their own learning spaces - the main project of the class. Now, this process was designed for the context of this class, but I believe it presents a nice general process for designing any learning space.

The basic process is that one begins by understanding the learner - who they are, what they believe, how they act, etc. One then moves toward figuring out what the learning goals are - what they will be learning and doing. The next step is to generate many many ideas and possible solutions for how the space can support this learning. These ideas should be shaped by the understanding of who the learner is. Then, through a process of prototyping and refinement, these steps are repeated until solutions can be proposed. Along the way, there are particular skills, questions, and tools to be used to accomplish each step. In Dan Gilbert's class, this process was applied to projects with outside partner institutions such as museums and schools.

But - how does this relate to the design of "mobile learning spaces"?

For my own research-design project, I'm seeking to understand children's mobile phone use in order to design learning interactions in public spaces. I view this project as fitting nicely within the learning space design process - the distinction being that I'm looking specifically at mobile technologies. The questions I'll be asking are: How can I design public learning space such as a museum so that it supports the use of mobile phones and mobile technology? And, how can I design mobile technologies and interactions that enhance learning in such a place. I don't have a good answer for these questions yet, of course, but my first step will be to understand who these children/ learners are, and how they use mobile phones.



IDEA - Museum Positioning System

Recent talk about the capabilities of the new iphone gps system have me thinking about new mobile learning spaces. Of course, gps enabled phones existed for a little while now, but the iphone has certainly grabbed the attention on this technology. The specifics of the recent debate are whether or not the iphone gps system is capable of “turn by turn” navigation – giving directions, say, in a car. The consensus seems to be that this will be possible through the new third-party applications ( see quotes from apple product head, Greg Joswiak).

So anyway, I’m thinking… what about a turn by turn MPS – Museum Positioning System? I could imagine an experience something resembling the guided audio tours only far more interactive and reactive to users’ actions. If I decide to veer off course, or take an alternate route through the museum floor (say to avoid a crowded exhibit), then the guidance would adjust accordingly. Just as GPS car systems let you choose highway or side-street preferences, one could select different routes linking exhibits together.

I doubt that gps would be accurate enough, by itself, for this type of use, but the opportunity to develop such an application for an iphone certainly is intriguing.



“Sounds Like You’re At A Party” - Knowing Where We’re Talking To

I’ve gotten in the habit of making phone calls while walking. Talking to someone helps pass the time on a twenty-minute trek across the Stanford campus. I’ve also found this to be a great time to catch up with my family – a “kill two birds with one stone” kind of thing. During these mobile conversations with my dad, I’ve stumbled onto a tiny annoyance. Whenever I pass other people conversing on the sidewalk or on the street, my dad, without fail, will say, “Well I’ll let you go, it sounds like you’re at a party there.” It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, or what time of day it is. Now this is a pretty mild offense, but it does disrupt the conversation. This little ritual has actually modified my walking behavior. If I see people headed towards me talking, then I look to cross the street or somehow avoid the interaction. If conversation impact is unavoidable, then I brace myself. “Sounds like you’re at a party.”

As a self-described ‘mobile learning researcher,’ I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about the above interaction. I have a few conclusions. As members of different generations, my father and I resolve this conflict between mobile interactions and public space interactions differently (see my post on Rich Ling’s "New Tech New Ties").

To me, in this scenario, the phone takes priority. It doesn’t matter where I am. I know that I’m on my cell phone. I’m in this “mobile space” where the details of my physical space really aren’t that relevant. (This of course assumes that I’m not multitasking – which I think would make things much more complicated). People walking by in conversation are just background noise.

To my father, context and place are key. He may associate phones with a specific place. One goes to a room, or phone booth to make a call. When outside of these locations, those in the shared space take precedence. So while I’m talking with him on my cell phone and he says, “Sounds like you’re at a party”, he might believe that he is now keeping me from other social obligations or perhaps he is afraid I can’t not giving him my full attention. Without more context clues, he defers to those around me.
For me, it may be ok to walk past someone and ignore them, because the phone alters my participation in the physical space. “Sounds like you’re at a party” seems to represent a shifting balance from social obligations to those in the physical space, to those in the mobile space.

So how about you? Has anyone had similar interactions or an alternate explanation?



NYTimes - Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old (JK)

This nytimes article is from back in March, but it really captures the ideas of this site. Children are using cell-phones to both maintain privacy from and stay connected to their parents. For some, texting has become a form of "digital whispering" -
After that, the back-seat chattering stopped. When Mr. Hampton looked into his rearview mirror he saw his daughter sending a text message on her cellphone. “Katie, you shouldn’t be texting all the time,” Mr. Hampton recalled telling her. “Your friends are there. It’s rude.” Katie rolled her eyes again.
“But, Dad, we’re texting each other,” she replied with a harrumph. “I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying.”

The article also cites some statistics showing that children are the ones teaching the parents how to use these devices -
In a survey released 18 months ago, AT&T found that among 1,175 parents the company interviewed, nearly half learned how to text-message from their children. More than 60 percent of parents agreed that it helped them communicate, but that sometimes children didn’t want to hear their voice at all. When asked if their children wanted a call or a text message requesting that they be home by curfew, for instance, 58 percent of parents said their children preferred a text.

The implications of these statistics are that in order to design mobile learning interactions for children, we need to adapt to the ways in which they are already using their phones.
The other quotes that I found especially compelling from Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT, described a trip with her daughter to Paris.
“Part of the idea of Paris is being in Paris,” Ms. Turkle said. But during an afternoon stroll, her daughter received several calls and text messages on her cellphone from friends back in Boston. Her daughter, she said, felt compelled to return every one.
When Ms. Turkle asked why she didn’t turn off her cellphone and enjoy the city, she said her daughter replied, “I feel more comfortable talking with my friends.”

If children feel isolated when in public spaces away from their friends, then I think that we need to design learning spaces that take into account the entire social networks that a child may bring.


Mobile Space vs Public Space - A Doonesbury Comic

Someone passed along to me the Doonesbury strip below. First of all, I think it's pretty funny. However, it also ties in very nicely with this idea of mobile phones creating a conflict between the 'phone relationships' and the relationships of those in a shared public space. This conflict was a major point in Rich Ling's book "New Tech New Ties" that I wrote about here.



"New Tech New Ties" - Thoughts and Response

In preparation for this project, I am finishing reading the book, New Tech New Ties by Rich Ling. Ling is a sociologist and researcher at Telenor (the Norwegian phone company) and, along with Per Helmersen, will advise me and hopefully share some knowledge and experiences on mobile interactions. Here is a brief description of the book, and the impact it might have on my research:

The main proposal of the book is that mobile phones enhance the social relationships between family members and close friends perhaps at the expense of those that are co-present (sharing the same public space). He approaches this explanation through the perspective that mobile interactions are composed of rituals. My simplified understanding of his thesis is that friends and close family members are always in contact. My brother can reach me if I am in my house, in California, or Norway. If he wants to call me to ask about a movie or share a piece of news, he doesn’t even really need to know where I am – other than that I am on the phone with him.
Similarly, Ling describes scenarios where face to face interactions are extended through mobile interactions. If I’m meeting someone for dinner, I can be speaking with them on the phone right up until the point when I bump into them outside the restaurant. We can then discuss the meal on the phone later that evening. Examples such as these show that social relationships can be strengthened through mobile interaction.
On the other hand, Ling describes scenarios where social ties between those sharing the same public space may be disrupted. How do I follow through with a ritual greeting with a restaurant host if I’m on the phone with my friend talking until she arrives?

In any case, there are some potentially strong implications for my own research on mobile learning interactions. If mobile phones do in fact enhance close relationships, then perhaps I would design a museum scenario that encourages children to use their phone to interact with family or friends outside the museum. They could send pictures, questions or engage in other forms of learning conversations. Maybe children would be doing this anyway. On the other hand, perhaps these disrupted face-to-face relationships in the public museum space should be addressed directly. If I know that mobile phones dissuade museum visitors from asking questions to each other, then I might need to design an exhibit or mobile technology that encourages these visitors to engage with each other.


Mobile Phones and Facebook - Implications for Learning

I went to the dentist’s office Friday morning. In between rinsing and spitting, the dental hygienist was making conversation by asking my about my plans and my Fulbright project. After giving my now rehearsed explanation that I’m studying children’s mobile phone use to see how they might be used for learning, She responded by telling me, “You know what you should do – see how Facebook can be used for learning. My daughter is ALWAYS on Facebook.” She was totally right, of course. The role of social media, like Facebook, has been on my mind through work this past year with the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There were also multiple classes taught through the lab this past year on the subject. Now, my focus is still centered on mobile phone use, but there are three reasons why I believe that both technologies are important and have very similar implications for learning spaces.

1) Both Facebook and mobile phones afford social interactions that are not possible in traditional educational environments (schools, museums, etc).

With Facebook, children can maintain contact across their entire social network very easily. If a user has a question, or wants to share a recent event with their friends, they can do so instantly with everyone they know. Similarly, this user can access and respond to this information from all of their other friends simultaneously. Having participated in a class heavily based in the Facebook environment, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine the technology allowing for increased collaborative interactions in educational settings.

Mobile phones remove space (and arguably time) as a barrier to social interaction. I can call a friend across the city, or across the country and reach him or her. I don’t even have to know where they are to begin a conversation with them. Similar to the Facebook example above, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where a child visits a museum with a school group, sees something interesting, and decides to send a picture through their phone to some friend in a completely different location. This technology could start a learning conversation that would otherwise not be possible.

We see that both mobile phones and social media have the potential to expand and create new learning interactions.

2) Facebook and mobile phones are popular with children.

Secondly, and I think a point that might be easy to overlook, is that both mobile phones and Facebook ARE BEING USED BY CHILDREN. The dental hygienist from above mentioned that her daughter was “always on facebook” (as are millions of other children). Statistics from Norway (where I’ll be basing my Fulbright project) show that the vast majority of children have their own mobile phones. If we wish to design new learning interactions (and that’s exactly what I hope to do), then we must be aware of, and adapt to these significant trends.

3) Facebook and mobile phones will be interchangeable.

The third reason for both technologies having similar implications for learning spaces is – very soon, even already in some cases, the two will be interchangeable. With increased computing power in cell phones, children can and will increasingly begin accessing Facebook from their smartphones and iphones etc. At this point, the new social interactions described in point 1 will merge. A child in a room or leaving soccer practice can know what all of their friends are doing, thinking, or learning at the particular moment.

So as I explore children’s mobile phone use, I’ll have to keep other social media in mind as well. I don’t think that I’ve done justice to the potential learning interactions above, but I do hope I’ve shown that mobile phones and Facebook can both be leveraged to create new learning opportunities – and should be studied together. Do you agree? Disagree? Have another idea? Please feel free to comment below.