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2 nd National Workshop on Handheld Computers. Mobile Learning for the Computing Discipline 24 November 2005 Usability and the Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner Agnes Kukulska-Hulme Institute of Educational Technology The Open University. Overview. Perspectives on usability

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2nd National Workshop on Handheld Computers

Mobile Learning for the Computing Discipline24 November 2005Usability and the Loneliness of the Long Distance LearnerAgnes Kukulska-HulmeInstitute of Educational TechnologyThe Open University



  • Perspectives on usability
  • Usability and interaction design
  • How usability affects teaching and learning
    • Positive effects
    • Negative effects
  • Educational contexts of use
    • new environments for learning
    • patterns of use
    • demands on the user
  • Summary… and a better future?

What users say

  • I dropped my phone and it stopped working
  • I forgot to charge my phone and couldn’t make a call when I needed to
  • I needed to use my phone but I couldn’t get a signal
  • I spent 5 hours trying to synchronize my PDA with my PC
  • I didn’t have time to download all those great files to my mp3 player before my trip
  • I took my laptop with me but it was not charged - and I’d left the charger at home…

What the experts say

  • “general lack of usability on most handheld devices”
      • - Weiss, 2002, Handheld Usability
  • “the latest mobile devices are agonizingly close to being practical… but still lack key usability features”
    • - Nielsen, 2003, Mobile devices: one generation from useful
  • “We are in real danger of a consumer backlash against annoying technologies”
      • - Don Norman, 2005, The Annoyance, Irritation, and Frustration of The Mobile Phone

What the papers say

Good news

“Going on sale in Japanese electronics shops today is Fujitsu’s Raku-raku – a handset that includes all the usual features of a mobile phone, but with one crucial difference:

it slows the caller’s voice down to a manageable pace.

… the device will make straining to hear a grandchild’s telephone jabbering a merciful thing of the past”


What the papers say

Bad news

“’s impossible to maintain good posture when using these gadgets…

… People tend to sit slumped, with their neck stuck out and looking down at these small screens. That can cause compression of the nerves that run from the neck, down the arm and into the hand…”

–comment by a physiotherapist

Advice given in the column:

Keep use of handheld devices to a minimum – no more than three minutes of continued use without a break.


They may not be slumped but…

…do they look like they’re learning?



and reality


The loneliness of the long distance mobile learner

Without technical support

With suspicion of illegality


Usability… and interaction design

  • ‘usable’
  • = effective, efficient, satisfying (ISO 1998)
  • = easy to learn + easy to use (Preece et al. 1994)
  • ‘user experience’
  • Systems that are satisfying, enjoyable, fun, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, helpful, supportive of creativity, rewarding or emotionally fulfilling (Preece et al. 1994)
  • User experiences that enhance and extend the way people work, communicate and interact(Preece, Rogers & Sharp, 2002)

How usability affects teaching and learning

Recent projects – sources of information:

  • Ten UK case studies

Prepared for JISC-funded project on Wireless and Mobile Learning in the post-16 sector

  • Twelve international case studies

Prepared for the book: Kukulska-Hulme & Traxler (eds) Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers,Routledge

  • Literature and projects review

Prepared for Becta-funded project on Use of Tablet PCs in Schools


How usability affects teaching and learning:


  • ‘Always on’

The immediate readiness of PDAs makes them ideal to grab a few moments useful working time at times and in locations where even a laptop would not be useful.

  • Beaming

The ability to ‘beam’ items between PDAs encouraged collaboration and communication.


How usability affects teaching and learning:


  • Handwriting and navigation
  • Children may prefer a stylus to a keyboard… Users can more easily annotate work using the pen.. Stylus pens are more natural for web browsing - click directly on links with the pen instead of using a mouse.

How usability affects teaching and learning:


  • Personalisation

Students change graphics, make choices about how they receive messages, e.g. via website or mobile phone.

  • Voice recording

It may be easier to record thoughts as they occur,

and to have spoken words converted to electronic text, or to download audio files to a PC and send by email.


How usability affects teaching and learning:


  • Short battery life

When the batteries ran out the PDA lost all its stored data and 3rd party applications.

  • Inadequate memory

The iPAQ [PDA] memory was considered to be too small to hold the course resources, additional PDF and media files and any added software, whilst leaving any space for games and music files.

  • Costs of communications

A climate of nervousness was created… students were concerned about incurring debt.

  • Slow transmission of web pages

How usability affects teaching and learning:


  • small screens

Students reported problems with seeing the PDA display

(screen contrast was very poor – good lighting conditions needed or use of backlight which used more battery power).

  • sometimes weight and size

The sleeve and wireless PC card made the iPAQ too heavy and too large for comfortable use and the ability to store in a pocket.

  • limitations on service provision

Weak signal or no signal in some locations

  • synchronization with PC may not work

Educational Contexts of Use

New environments

  • “[Mobile devices}… can be used anywhere, anytime, including at home, on the train, in hotels
  • such places are conducive to learning because you cannot be disturbed by meetings”
  • from FERL (Post-compulsory education) website

Educational Contexts of Use

New environments

  • The PDA was small enough for carrying in the pocket of a [trainee] doctor’s white coat… but hospital regulations prohibited use of PDAs for Internet access or communication.
  • Writing and selecting information was not easy on a bus.

Educational Contexts of Use - Patterns of use

  • Broader range of where learning takes place
  • Increasing emphasis on filling small gaps of time
  • Timing and frequency of communications is important
  • It takes time for a pattern of use to evolve

Educational Contexts of Use – demands on the user

  • extension of study days and working days, and possible pressure to study all the time, everywhere
  • need to develop new habits, e.g. recharging
  • possible conflicts with other devices being used
  • physical impact, e.g. eyestrain

PC vs. handheld usability - Some enduring factors:

  • Purpose of learning activity should be clear
  • Handheld activity should be integrated with other learning activities, materials and resources
  • Technology should be as reliable as possible
  • Speed of response should be perceived as comfortable
  • Learners should be able to focus on the task

PC vs handheld usability - Some new issues:

  • Context-dependent factors such as lighting, regulations or social acceptability
  • Memory, battery power, text input and connectivity constraints
  • Possible increased need for technical support when more sophisticated uses are planned
  • Potentially fragmented nature of study using mobile technologies, requiring well defined focus


  • Mobile devices – accessories, chargers etc. may be needed; technical support may be out of reach
  • How usability affects teaching and learning

Positive effects – e.g. always on

Negative effects – e.g. short battery life

  • Educational contexts of use
    • new environments for learning – where will handheld devices be used?
    • patterns of use – how often and why?
    • demands on the user – are they prepared?

A better future?

  • Embedded, pervasive or virtual devices
  • Device interchange
    • access the same content on your iPod, laptop, desktop
  • Services for the mobile learner
    • - your device is loaded with relevant content for you

Thank you

  • Chapter on usability in our recent book:
    • Kukulska-Hulme, A. and Traxler, J. (eds) (2005)
    • Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers, Routledge, London.
  • .