Friday, November 5

App-fatigue? There’s an app for that!

Feeling overwhelmed by the total onslaught of apps that sound a lot like … other apps?

Nielsen estimates that 24% of US Adults use apps on their phones. They see mobile apps as “an important new part of the technology world of many Americans”

But if you are one of the remaining 76%, and are starting to develop “App Fatigue”, never fear! Those fine fellows at Sesame Street have an app for that!

Friday, October 22

mobile phones: the e-readers of choice in South Africa

PRI's The World

Our m-Ubuntu project in South Africa hits the news in USA!

I have blogged about m-uBuntu before – a growing family of schools in South Africa who are using “cell phones” to transform how they teach.

We have been out there a few times, and were very excited to hear it being reported on by “The Word”, a US radio channel who spent a while in Cape Town visiting two great mobile literacy projects there:

  • M4Lit – Mobile Phones for Literacy. Young people writing mobile stories. Championed by the excellent Steve, Ana & Marion at the University of Cape Town
  • m-Ubuntu – Helping transform teaching in impoverished classrooms, and empower resource-poor teachers.

You can here the recording here: 

Well done the the m-uBuntu team! It is the perfect example of collaboration, empowerment, and shared learning.

- based in South Africa
- dreamt up and managed from Washington
- funding from Sweden, UK, USA
- feet firmly planted on South African soil
- championed by Learning Worldwide (Theo), Duke University (Lucy), Tribal (Geoff & Jess), diGameworks (Jeff) and many other friends

Even the learning itself follows the principle of “u-Buntu”, helping one another to help ourselves. This is not an initiative trying to push unwelcome solutions – rather they are helping the South African Education system rise to the challenge of supporting more students with less money.

Wednesday, October 6

iPad + apps = amazing archaeology


(by Andrew Merryweather - @merryux - our UX guru) 

The iPad, loaded up with a few off-the-shelf apps, is revolutionising the way archaeological digs are run.

As an ex-archaeologist I keep an eye on digital trends in the digging world, and came across a great post on about an old friend and colleague Dr Steven Ellis of the University of Cincinatti and his digitally-enhanced fieldwork at Pompeii. He is using iPads, with simple off-the-shelf apps to collect data in a simpler, and more shareable manner than ever before.

Computers and archaeology have a long history, but excavators have been waiting for mobile tech to hit the right balance of portability, usability and power to really have a big impact on the way they conduct fieldwork. The latest generation of mobile devices, and especially the iPad, has hit the sweetspot.

Ellis credits the introduction of six iPad devices at Pompeii with helping his team solve one of the most difficult problems of archaeological fieldwork: how to efficiently and accurately record the complex information they encounter in the trenches.

This kind of digital data collection could be a learning opportunity in the making. There's a chain ready to be created which takes live data from field projects (in any scientific discipline, not just archaeology), being captured by fieldworkers on iPads, iPhones, and other devices, and feeding it up to a web site, from where it could be pulled directly into a classroom.

It's not hard to imagine a collection of classrooms 'partnering' a dig, and getting data piped straight from the trench to a few iPads of their own. Activities could be built around looking at the latest photos and maps each day, discussing the latest finds, following the life of the project from start to finish.

M-learning with a twist?

If you like the sound of this, please also check out Nick Short’s work at the Royal Veterinary College. He is using Android devices, and off-the-shelf Google tools to support Vets in Africa collect and share some extremely valuable data  

Friday, September 24

Sending text messages during sex … really?

I get a constant flood of statistics reminding me how many mobile users there are in the world, but despite that, every now and again something pops up that makes me say … “what!”

Have a look at this infographic from pulling together a range of stats about SMS usage in the US.

Text Messaging


Any surprises?

1: that an average teen sends 3000 messages a month!


That one I get … and am making a mental note to update my teen’s phone contract


2: that between 6 – 10% of interviewees thought it was OK to text while making love!


Doh … sorry. That one I just don’t get at all. Maybe I really am still a digital immigrant after all!


Handy list of references at the bottom of the graphic

Thursday, September 9

Apple u-turn is excellent news for cross-platform app developers!

imageThe big news of the moment amongst App developers, is the surprise announcement by Apple that they are relaxing some key restrictions on how Apps can be made. In particular they say:
…we are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code. This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need.
As one of a small (but enthusiastic) set of app developers striving to make cross-platform apps, this is a HUGE deal.
Apple is not against cross-platform apps per se, but until recently they were very against Adobe & Flash, and their previous stance was to a large extent an attempt to block several different technologies that allowed Flash apps to be automatically disassembled, and automatically re-assembled into an App.
Ignoring the Adobe vs Apple squabbles for a moment, there was another group of developers who were being caught in the fallout. Those are the app developers using one of a few choice systems (many open source, collaborative frameworks) that allow you to code once, and deploy to iPhone, Android, WinMob, Blackberry …..
The smallprint of the Apple restrictions, also restricted this sort of App. And an increasing number of them started getting refused across all of the frameworks
The fundamental technical problem is that it is not possible to write one piece of native software that plays on iPhone, Android, WinMob, etc. They all use different languages. The only way to do this is to use a computer to generate multiple different versions for different platforms. And it is this interim computer intervention that caused the trouble.
But – today this has changed. And all the cross-platform app developers around the world are heaving a sigh of relief
So – good news for cross platform mobile apps!
(Another equally interesting development, is Apple going public with their developer guidelines – previously us developers had no way of knowing the criteria used to decide whether to accept, or reject an app!)
For a quick synopsis of the top tools for building cross platform apps  read on …

 Appcelerator Titanium -
Like most on my list, Titanium lets developers create an app in traditional web coding (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and then it renders the web code into a native apps for iPhone and Android (Blackberry in the pipeline)
The system builds apps. But you also get access to the converted (native) source code which allows for a second round of platform specific tweaks - if you know what you are doing
Initially Titanuim started as fully open source, but now a “free” and better supported “pay” version.
Nice review here:

PhoneGap -
Like Titanuim, developers code their app in web coding. Unlike Titanium, the final app that is built still contains the original web coding, but buried within the app. Fully Open Source, all the app code is available, and can be customised for your own needs
We use both of these two quite a bit, and they are both great. Lightweight native apps embedding web-apps that can be both online, or offline. 
Although not really “app building”, special mention needs to go to JQTouch ( and Sencha Touch (, 2 AJAX frameworks that you need to use if you want web-apps to look and feel like native apps 

Rhodes / RhoMobile -
Rhodes is a harder-core techie solution, which tries to do without the browser, giving you tools to build cross platform native apps. Free to use (MIT license) plus premium support options
it is good – but uses Ruby as a programming language. Ruby has a cult-like following, unless you are already a Ruby developer, you may be better to stick to one of the other options
One of the big advantages of Titanium over RhoMobile is that with RhoMobile you don’t get any source code – only the finished (and un-alterable app). But it does support more phones (iPhone, Windows Mobile, RIM, Symbian and Android)

These three are the main players. They have very technical arguments with one another about exactly how “native” each other’s apps are – but in all cases they use the same basic trick – embedding a web-browser into the app, and using that to deliver web-esque layout and features in an app

Others worth looking at include

Grapple Mobile -
Grapple are not Open Source. They recently hit the news with some (untrue) speculation that the 7 month old startup was bought for £15m! They use a similar approach as the previous systems, as well as a secondary system to support older phones. (On iPhone and Android, it uses Webkit. On Blackberry and Symbian it compiles to J2ME.)
Most commercial engagement with them seems to be from marketing and advertising companies

MotherApp -
Like rhomobile, motherapp tries to build native apps without needing to include a browser in your app. We have only recently found out about MotherApp, so don’t know much about it apart from the fact that you use a special subset of html to define your app, then upload to motherapp who will render it into native apps for different devices, passing any calls for data back to your website (supports iPhone, Android, WinMob)

Corona (by Ansca) – Corona is specifically for building games. You need a Mac to develop in it, but you can build apps for iPhone, iPad & Android. It uses the unusual Lua language, which is purpose built for describing 3-D type games (like World of Warcraft!)
Free 30day trial, then fairly inexpensive developer license (currently $99)
If you want to find out more, there is a very considered, and well presented comparison on AMLCode’s site

There are also A LOT of offerings that help you build apps automatically. These are not developer tools as such, but do allow non-technical people to auto-generate apps. Examples include AppBaker, App Inventor, AppMakr, AppBuilder, MyAppBuilder, Wapple and more appear every day.

If you would like me to post a bit more on these apps, either the developer ones or the others, leave me a comment

Thursday, August 19

why mobile changes things?

Living in the middle of “mobile learning”, it feels totally obvious that mobile is important, and that it fundamentally changes the way we look at information … but I can’t help noticing that not everybody else shares my view!

(shocking, I know!)

That’s why I really like Bryan’s presentation – with (quite a lot of) simple, non-technical images and statements he manages to capture the excitement, the challenges, and the diversity of the mobile landscape


I especially like the simplicity he uses to get the message across – if I wasn’t already enthused, I would be now! Thanks, Bryan

Monday, August 16

Introducing the $35 tablet!

I had the honour of meeting one of the Global VPs at TATA today, and getting a small insight into the extraordinary power of the Indian market for technology.

One part of our discussion was about the recent announcement of a $35 Android powered tablet targeting education

Yes – you heard that right. $35 !

(it is not quite that simple, of course. An Indian manufacturer has made a lovely prototype, and has offered to supply 1m of the devices for $35m, which the government is considering to buy for education)

But = still. $35 for an Android powered tablet (with all the extras you would expect) does sound awfully compelling!


What do you think?

Let us know your comments, or if you find further links to it

Tuesday, June 1

Can my m-learning course run the same on every phone?

There are a few m-learning conversations that pop up again and again when talking to clients about mobile courses. It often starts with a seemingly simple question:

“I want richly interactive content for any phone”

“Will it do Blackberry? And iPhone? And Nokia?”

“all my students need to have the same access to learning”

These are good questions, and the obvious response to any is “yes, of course”, because we would all like equality between mobile users. But there is a painful reality that (right now, in 2010) makes this an impossible dream:

The painful reality about making m-learning content is that there is no single solution to push richly interactive mobile content onto every possible phone. Rather, there is a spectrum of possible solutions: On one side, going for the richest possible interactivities (but narrowing down to single platforms) and on the other side going for the widest possible phone coverage (but limiting interactivities to the very lowest common denominator)

Examples on either side of this spectrum would be some of the delightfully interactive apps you can get for the iPhone (which exclude all other devices) vs several SMS / text messaging solutions (which work on just about any phone)

This spectrum is just the reality. There is no getting away from it. if somebody tells you otherwise they are not seeing the whole picture.

M-learning developers have been trying many creative approaches to cover as wide a range on this spectrum as possible, but it is technically impossible to cover it all. Examples are:

- making a different app for each device, playing whichever bits of the same central content that device supports

- delivering media-only courses (video or audio) that make up for lack of interactivity with wide device coverage

- using 3rd party players (like Flash, or eBook readers) to render a common course format to different devices

- putting content online, in the browser, and allowing the web-server to decide which versions suit your device

In all of these scenarios, there is a functionality sacrifice (because you are not exploiting device specific features, like GPS), but the benefit of create-once but used-by-many.

So, if you are thinking of making your own mobile content, my best advice is to be pragmatic about this spectrum of solutions. Instead of starting with the big dream (“for every single device”) rather start a little more pragmatically by narrowing the range of technologies you are looking at, and them work backwards to see which type of authoring tool or technical approach works best.

A popular example of a narrower range is "smartphones", though depending on who you are trying to reach out to it might also be "phones with decent browsers".

Another good subset (if data rates are not an issue) are phones with decent browsers, since the latest smartphones and high end featurephones all have a pretty good web browser, which is a lot more standardised than their operating systems.

Currently, my team in Cambridge cover the spectrum via a hybrid approach. We build for iPhone and Blackberry by hand. We have a java (j2me) engine we use for old-skool phones. We use a hand-made authoring tool for WindowsMobile / Android / UMPC / Linux / Windows / Mac (also sold commercially as MyLearning Author). We use another handmade tool for SMS activities (SMS Quiz / SMS Survey).

A lot of our current research work is looking at a hybrid between our MyLearning app (building installable learning apps) and browser-based content (wider cross-device support), so that we can get the best of both – with content that can be installed like an app, runs both on- and off-line, and uses the browser to play back courses wherever possible.

Tuesday, May 18

m-learning at the White House!

Our work with m-uBuntu has suddenly gone global - two weeks ago we were sitting in a rural school in South Africa, and this week we are in Washington, DC with four of the students presenting our work!

We were picked as one of 3 projects to showcase Mobile Learning to the White House officials who spearhead technology-assisted learning initiatives in the US. 

By “we”, I mean Tribal (Jess) and Duke University (Lucy), masterminded by the ever energetic Theo at LearningWorldwide who turned this dream into a reality.

At the event, a Global Digital Media and Learning competition was launched in collaboration with Presidents Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative, ‘challenging designers, inventors, entrepreneurs and researchers to create digital environments that promote building & tinkering in new innovative ways’.

Following Jess’s travelogue, it seems that the highlights were a double whammy of:

  • meeting the Aneesh Chopra, first Federal Chief Technology Officer of the United States of America, and
  • taking the students out for pizza!

See what the students themselves have to say.

This is deeply moving stuff. Children who had not even touched a mobile phone before using it to build literacy skills. And the project is working!

Go m-Ubuntu! it is a pleasure to work with you.

Thursday, April 29

m-learning in South Africa

We are back in South Africa again this week, this time working with Spectrum Primary school, and Lucy Haagen (of Duke University) to continue the very successful m-Ubuntu project
Spectrum have been part of the m-Ubuntu project, and working with mobiles for a year already, though this is Tribal’s first visit – what a great group of kids! For a blow-by-blow account of the visit, as well as some great ideas for how you can use mobile devices in your own classroom, please visit Jess’s blog.

Friday, March 12

Digital Giant – Martha Lane Fox on mobile web

Martha Lane Fox drawing the links between mobile + web + social networks + mobile-entrepreneurship



It is a 3:40 minute micro-interview from the current BBC series “Digital Giants”. She isn’t saying anything new, but makes the same point that keeps popping up everywhere at the moment …

- mobile is everywhere!

- it is about inclusion, as much as about trendy gadgets

- ignore it at your peril


These points apply to teachers, and teaching too!

I am surprised how often I still get into conversations that start “but do you think mobile learning might work?”.

Of course it works!

In Africa. In Europe. In America. In India. In Australia. For young. For old. For rich. For poor. It may take different shapes, but mobile learning is working well, and is coming whether you like it or not.

Surely it is far better to learn how to make it work well, now, than be a victim and be overtaken by it in 3 years time!

Wednesday, March 10

mLearning in the House of Lords

I am just back from a very enjoyable hour spent in the House of Lords with Lord Lucas, discussing new technologies for learning and looking at some of our mobile learning works.

A very interesting man. Like other IT-savvy Lords, he uses his blog and to be open and honest with his views – and has a special interest in home-access and support for parents.

He was very enthusiastic about many of our learning technology initiatives, especially any that encourage providers to have less dependence on short term funding initiatives, and more on successful learning.

In particular, he liked:

  • m-learning (of course), both in the UK and the 3rd World. We was particularly interested in some of the big UK successes, like Wolverhampton’s Learning2Go, which for some reason hadn’t yet crossed the House Of Lords radar. 
  • NCETM – the National Centre of Excellence in Teaching Maths that we run to support CPD in all maths teachers across the UK
  • The online learning portals we run for Sainsbury’s, McDonalds, Wetherspoons, KFC and other employers (using our AdvanceLearningZone platform and an army of amazing home-based tutors & mentors)
  • The learning Score – A lesson planning tool that is still in Beta, and just creeping out of our labs which we are lucky enough to have endorsed by many of the great and good in UK learning technology

Wow – heady stuff!

I learned a new term - “target chasing” – both providers, and suppliers focussing on current government targets and losing sight of the real goals of education that underpin that (and was secretly relieved that he felt our initiatives / tools / approaches didn’t fit that category!) 

I hope that he left the meeting as enthused as we did … I assumed so (but maybe that is just British politeness!)

Friday, March 5

Even the US Military wants mobile APPs!

There has been a flurry of news over the past few days including the words “US Military” and “mobile Apps”

part one:

DARPA, home of the pentagon’s technology research gurus, has announced it wants to buy an “AppStore” to use for distributing mobile apps to soldiers.

This is newsworthy on several fronts:

1: DoD (department of defence) are thinking of using normal, everyday-type connectivity (3G), on normal, every-day type devices! (Android)

2: They plan on taking their own 3G coverage with them, to save relying on the possibly unfriendly locals when in far away lands

3: they have dropped both WindowsMobile and iPhone in favour of Android

4: they plan on asking the open market to bid for funding to make apps


Read those again. Bog standard kit. Mainstream networks. Open standards. Open market for apps. Wow.


part two:

A couple of days later, DoD announces the A4A (Apps for the Army) initiative to encourage software-savvy soldiers to propose and make apps (mobile and other).

There is only enough funding for 100 lucky soldiers, but this is clearly just the beginning because …


part three:

DARPA are expected to announce that they are looking to buy apps. If you have a good idea for an app, and the technology skills to make it, they might well be in the market to buy it.


“Flurry of news” is definitely the phrase, here. Until a few weeks ago I had seen hardly any publicity from the US military around mobile learning. Here in the UK, there has been a bit more, with people like Major Roy Evans who has been doing some innovative trials in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can here him talking about it here (though you will need to ffw the first few minutes, which have no sound!)

Publicity. Nice projects. But quite small trials.


Now, all of a sudden the US has significantly upped the game and leapt for a very mainstream, and imminently achievable solution. Wow!


Bring on those Android Apps, and as Google says, “don’t be evil” :-)

Thursday, February 11

mobile learning in africa …

Much excitement in our Cambridge office as we pack our bags for … Grabouw (“where”, you ask?). Come on … Grabouw! Major fruit growing region a few hours out of Cape Town, South Africa!
For almost a year we have been sponsoring a few South African schools with online coaching, and access to all our software via the US based charity learningacademyworldwide, but thus far it was all virtual.

Together with Theophilus van Rensburg Lindzter and Lucy Haagen (Duke University) we are working on m-uBuntu ( – trying to use mobile learning to deliver more project-based, reflexive learning into hard to reach schools.
Well – as luck would have it, the US team were unable to do one of their trips, and have asked us to help out!
We are travelling out there tomorrow to De Rust Futura Academy, with a oversize bag stuffed with mobile devices, cables, cameras and assorted bits & pieces in what Theo enthusiastically calls a mobile classroom, and will be spending much of the next two weeks working with the students and getting a crash-course in the South African school curriculum.

All the usual flurry of device-rollout has been going on:
- badging them all up / cataloguing so we can tell them apart
- upgrading all the e-book readers / media players / browsers
- download of our top software picks for learning
- e-books and audio files versions of the poems and stories they are studying
- custom built content (using our MyLearning Author)
And they are now all safely tucked away, and ready to travel

Jess hopes to post snapshots of her visit on her very first blog - so please stop by and drop her a comment or two.
wish us luck!

Thursday, January 7

Mobile trends for 2020

As memories of Christmas feasting slowly fade, it is a good time to take stock of the year ahead … and Rudy de Waele (of has been doing exactly that. He asked all of his mobile gurus what they predicted would happen in the next 10 years, and published them yesterday.

It is kinda long, but full of some great, thought-provoking stuff.

My biggest complaint would be that he has missed out learning entirely. The next 10 years are filled with mobility in every shape and size … except for learning!

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