The cruellest month

by Dr Alan Bruce

Dr Alan Bruce

In T. S. Eliot’s memorable phrase in The Wasteland, April was termed the cruellest month. The strange sense of dislocation, ennui and foreboding that characterised the interwar years as the world gathered momentum towards another military cataclysm is perhaps not unfamiliar to us in the early years of the twenty-first century. Apart from that, this has been a remarkable month for those of us engaged in disaster management, security training or emergency response measures. The ongoing difficulties in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, coupled with the catastrophe in Fukushima, have rightly grabbed attention. The intervention in Libya, continuing unrest in Syria and the unsettled events in Ivory Coast all underline the fragile nature of the international order in terms of security and stability.


My mid-April has been spent in Finland, speaking at an international conference on developing competences for the next generation of service management in Haaga-Helia University in Porvoo. It has been amazing to travel past the still frozen landscape and view the ice-hard rivers literally melting day by day as the early glories of a Finnish spring break into view. It has been a demanding and intense week of research presentations and meetings, set against a tranquil and peaceful backdrop in a prosperous country where examples of upheaval and insecurity seem alien and far away.


But the sense of unease, directionlessness and anomie that increasingly characterises much of European society is not absent from the superficially tranquil Finnish scene. An election on the 17th of April promises to be a significant one, not least because of the extraordinary levels of support being attracted by the idiosyncratic True Finns, united in their whimsical rejection of Europe, immigrants, foreigners and those alien values that threaten the autarky of provincial ignorance. The irony of a Europe founded to create free movement of labor, capital and ideas and the marketplace of a common set of shared values being increasingly dominated by jingoistic nationalisms is not lost on observers.

Finland remains a signal and successful example of innovation and creativity in a world too often driven by the derivative and bland. For two decades Finland has led the race in terms of design, technology, inventiveness and sheer excitement in the number and range of its technical adaptations. It has also consistently topped international league tables in terms of the quality and depth of its educational systems as well as levels of transparency and integrity in the execution of public duties.

©Ville Miettinen from Helsinki, Finland - Lake Grundvik in October, Porvoo

It is no accident therefore that much of the success of Finnish policy and inventiveness may be due to the strong and deep focus given in its public discourse and research analysis to the nature and scope of work in modern society. Analysis of work, sociological investigations of labour structures and intense reviews on the interrelationship  of work, skill acquisition, knowledge generation and effective pedagogical transmission systems lie, in my opinion, at the core of Finnish success in understanding the scope and nature of innovation. It is no accident that a Finn (Jukka Takala) heads the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in Bilbao nor that Finns like Matti Ahtisaari have a justifiable reputation for success in dealing with conflict resolution and mediation in many diverse environments. This is a culture that analyses, reflects and acts regarding problems in novel and relevant ways.

In a world where radical restructuring of priorities to meet tighter resources is required, mobile learning is an efficient and creative methodology with multiple potential applications.

These reflections came particularly to mind when listening to one of my fellow presenters, Yrjö Engeström, Professor of Adult Education in the University of Helsinki and an acknowledged expert on transformation and learning processes in work activities and organizations. Engeström investigated emerging dimensions of work in our new multi-polar and diverse world. This analysis of work and its inherent set of complex interrelationships offers those in the security learning sector ample food for thought in addressing needs around skill, expertise and creative ability that form the core of dynamic and responsive organisations.


Yrjö EngeströmIn particular, he described the need for a new kind of expansive learning. This he envisages as a new type of dynamic capability based on the conscious transformation of activity systems through a directed process of questions, reflection and integration of contradictions. Herein lies perhaps the key to understanding the social framing of processes of innovation and their outworking in systematic and systemic ways. This rigor may underpin the force and energy of creative innovation in Finnish learning systems and training policies.

The ability to question inherited and hierarchical systems as a matter of policy or as a pedagogical imperative is not the norm in most environments. Certainly, speaking from the perspective of Irish learning and educational initiatives over the same twenty years, one would be struck by the extraordinary levels of unchallenged assumptions, derivative unquestioned mantras and shared complicity in capitulating to an intellectually bankrupt set of learning policy assumptions. Rigor in research and analysis is a precursor to dealing with unpalatable truths and then forming the learning objectives to confront and overcome challenges. This intellectual bankruptcy preceded and contributed to the financial crisis which erupted in 2008 in Ireland as the mirage faded.

As in so many areas, this is not to point to inherent national traits. It is however to draw a clear link between the structure of work and learning systems and the social and learning outcomes which result. Basing a system on questions, challenges and integration of contradictions in a coherent future-driven framework is expansive indeed. It is also exciting and challenging. But in our fragmented world environments, it may also be the best and only option we have.


Mobile technology has become the most prevalent technology in the world.
 These concerns inform a lot of the work I have been doing in Finland recently in the whole area of mobile learning. As the world changes, so the learning changes. With my colleagues we have been looking at adaptations that can make learning responses and dynamic capability immediate and real to learners.


The emergence of mobile learning directly contributes to skill and competence in increasingly creative and impacting ways. The idea of learning supports that reach learners in a dynamic, mobile manner that is available at all times means that learning is efficient, targeted and relevant - while at the same time avoiding costly investment in material and transport resources. In addition, required learning support is always available as a channel, even though it is related to the teacher’s schedule and planned availability as well as how often the learner requests support.


Mobile solutions include mobile phones (which are already in use by students), pad type devices, which are becoming increasingly popular especially among the younger population, and other mobile hand-held devices. According to the experiences from a number of applied cases and based on some recent studies, mobile technology is extremely useful when the learning experience needs to be extended beyond classroom training, face-to-face guidance and e-learning. This especially has resonance and impact in the common scenario of work-based learning from a distance.

Mobile learning in terms of work-based learning offers significant advantages in terms of sustainable learning practice in the rapidly changing environment of work and employment. In a world where radical restructuring of priorities to meet tighter resources is required, mobile learning is an efficient and creative methodology with multiple potential applications.


As technology has developed and deepened, so also has changed the definition for “mobile learning”. The very first M-learning developments focused more or less on how to deliver content with the help of mobile devices and networks. As more and more technology is involved in our lives, and people become more experienced in the access to and use of technology, the better we understand how technology can be used for learning. In particular, a younger generation (often termed “digital natives’) have demonstrated that they are actually ahead of the curve. Many have been able to apply mobile technology and informal learning for years. Often their expertise and facility with advanced technologies points up stark contrasts with their educators or teachers, who are very far from the same levels of proficiency.


This has opened a whole new world of opportunities for distance learning and learning support. Innovative technologies and concepts such as the Movel MLS platform developed by Mobiletools International Ltd. (“Mobiletools”) and high-speed networks enable new forms of interaction. The opportunity to interact with peers totally independent of physical location and in real time has led to the development of new kind of virtual and mobile communities.


©Lumeo YE - Haaga-Helia University, Porvoo UnitIn Finland, vocational studies have been identified as a territory where mobile technology can support learning in many ways. On-the-job learning represents 20-25% of total vocational curriculum and some programs are based on 100% on-the-job learning. In these settings, the questions around how students are guided throughout their on-the-job periods become essential.


Since 2007 the mobile learning technology developed by Mobiletools has been applied to on-the-job learning to support mobile guidance and self-assessment. The core of Movel MLS is in using constant mobile feedback as part of the self-assessment process. This feedback is used to evaluate the individual guidance needs by the guiding teacher.


Using the Mobiletools mobile feedback system was perceived as more sensible than using a paper diary (79%). It was seen as handy and useful to use: some 51% of respondents saw that it was easier for them to evaluate their own learning than before by using the mobile system. And 58% felt that it was easier to evaluate their on-the-job learning period. Only 4% of the respondents felt that it was not easy to evaluate one's own learning.


Mobility plays an integral role in this learning concept by allowing instructors to share assignments, reminders, instructions and feedback request with learners. The possibility to schedule learning activities, which are then fed automatically to the learners at a specific moment of time, significantly reduces the need for manual administration of guidance processes and promotes enhanced sustainability. In the context of security/safety training the same technology enables for example the identification and reporting of risks in the working environment.


Mobile technology has become the most prevalent technology in the world, which gives a solid foundation for the development of learning applications as well. The introduction of iPhone gave a boost never seen before to mobile application developers. As result of this, hundreds of learning applications are available for users to download, many of them free of charge. The informal ways of M-learning are often developed by regular mobile users who come up with a need and identify a new technology that is user-friendly enough to become mainstream.


Advanced mobile learning technologies restore a strong sense of initiative to learners. They can access, assimilate and apply learning in cost-effective and engaging ways independent of restrictions due to geography and limited resources. The impact of this in work-based settings and environments is particularly interesting. New companies emerging in the environment of the post-2008 crisis need to design and apply learning for enhanced performance and sustainable operation in innovative ways.


In this context, and based upon the examples so far, we can advance some thoughts about how the future of M-learning will be shaped.

  • Mobile social learning – represents new and varied forms of mobile social interaction
  • User generated content – user-uploaded and shared materials will become a more essential part of the learning experience and this is shaped  and influenced by the mobile technologies available
  • Increasing need for easy-access content authoring will become apparent
  • The importance of recognizing the mobile use context is important: when the e-learning age began, print manuals were copy-pasted into LMS’s. The same process seems to be happening with mobile learning. Many people are asking how can they bring their existing content to mobiles; the content must meet the context.


So part of the expansive learning that Engeström discussed may be encapsulated in a concept of mobility. That is to say, the flexibility to meet needs of learners where they are rather than in where we would like them to be. This may be the lasting insight of an early spring conference in Helsinki. It may also be a clue to where the directions of innovation in applied security learning may lie.

Front page photograph: A view over Ropijärvi lake from the south in 2010 September. Author: Simo Räsänen



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