Why Michael Furdyk is using m-learning to connect with youth about Canadian identity

Recently I attended the Learning Solutions conference in Orlando, where along with 500 plus attendees, I learned more about mobile learning, or m-learning. What is mobile learning? It is learning based on short course modules that are available on mobile devices. These devices, whether an iPhone, iPad or tablet, can be used anywhere and anytime to learn a new concept or skill. For example, if you want to fix a pump, you can search for instructions on how to repair it and then follow the instructions as you carry out the pump repair. I was more interested in learning how to fix the binding on a quilt I made so it is straight and there was a short m-learning module on how to
do that.

M-learning has gained increased hype not only due to its convenience of being accessible anywhere and anytime but it also offers a highly interactive learning process which shares knowledge and provides feedback on how well the knowledge/skill was absorbed. According to the speakers at the conference, m-learning has been shown to improve exam scores and reduce student drop-out rate.

Well over a decade ago, when I was working on my Masters degree, there was a lot of hype about another similar tool which consisted of computer-assisted instructions that was supposed to replace the need for a teacher. Students would take courses on computers, based on material that had been designed by educational experts. In looking beyond the hype, as part of one of my Masters projects, I found that while these courses did assist teachers, they never replaced them. Instead the computer-assisted courses became one more useful tool in the teachers’ toolbox. As I was listening to the presentations surrounding m-learning, I wondered if ultimately it would end up as another
tool for educators can use, or if it would make as big a difference for educators as claimed by its proponents.

There were several sessions at the conference highlighting how m-learning will improve the learning process, its benefits, possible techniques to further enhance m-learning such as bite-sized, or modular learning. Many of the presenters talked about techniques and methods to use to make m-learning more effective, highlighting that the differentiator with m-learning is its interactive nature. They gave a number of tips that are not solely limited to m-learning such as keeping the language simple, talk like a human being, avoid using gimmicky fonts and use the mantra that clean and simple screens are the best.

Another presenter talked about how they use m-learning to do soft skills training. They use many video segments, such as showing how to handle complaints, illustrating how body language and tone have much more impact than words. He maintained that observing videos and answering relevant questions provide better results than just reading plain text.

Michael Furdyk, was one of the keynote speakers. He is the co-founder of TakingITGlobal (TIG), which provides innovative global education programs that empower youth to understand and act on the world’s greatest challenges. All this sounds high-minded, especially from a 32- year-old guy from Toronto. But then you have to consider that he sold his first online company, MyDesktop, when he was 18, has appeared on Oprah and presented at TED, he has done a lot in relatively short time. Furdyk talked about the new organization (TakingItGlobal) he cofounded that has been referred to as the world’s largest community for young people interested in change. It has over 500,000 members from over 145 countries discussing solutions for some of the world’s challenges.

Michael is also involved in Explore150, designed to encourage Canadian youth to go outside and learn about important places in Canada, having them earn points that could be used to access scholarships. After the session, I contacted Furdyk to learn more about this initiative and why he chose m-learning as a tool. Here’s what he told me:

“With the rise in access to smartphones amongst young people in Canada, one of the areas of growing interest for us is looking at how we can engage youth in innovative mobile learning opportunities – especially ones that drive interest and engagement in our communities,” he said.

He indicated that the program is free, you just have to go on the website, find one of the 1,000 sites that’s near to you, then share a photo, write a blog, and answer trivia. This earns the participants points and the she can compete with others across Canada to see which place inspires Canadian identity and why. Michael said that they have been very successful with this initiative.

“We’ve already reached 50,000 Canadians since launching the program and hope to reach many more leading up to 2017,” he said.

Many of the other speakers talked about the benefits of m-learning. From the various presentations, I would conclude that the most beneficial features of m-learning are that the learner controls the learning and that it can be accessed conveniently. Also, it is always available, even when traveling, waiting for a friend, or just having some free time. With the small screen interfaces, learning can take place in a manner that is not so overwhelming as a full course and also eliminates technology challenges as the learner uses her tablet and smartphone, which is a more familiar setting than having to take the same material in a classroom.

Yes, m-learning is convenient and flexible and can be accessed just in time when the learning is required. But there is a lot of hype associated with it and m-learning by itself is just part of equation. The courses have to be well designed, focussing on the student learning process. There can be badly designed m-courses or students who just want to pass the test rather than learn. As with all teaching aids and processes, it is important that m-learning follows basic proven teaching and learning principles to make this newest tool effective rather than believing the hype of instant learning with magical qualities just by having the course on a mobile device.

Originally published April 13, 2015 @ itbusiness.ca