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Illinois Faculty Developing a Mobile Learning Community

1/12/2010 9:59:00 AM Forrest Iandola

As any visitor to libraries and coffee shops around campus knows, students have long worked together in study groups to collaborate on projects and to help each other learn challenging material. 

Through the work of a team of computer science and communications faculty at the University of Illinois, students may soon have a better way to tap into their peer networks for learning. The team is working on a test bed for peer-to-peer Mobile Learning Communities (MLC), sponsored by the National Science Foundation planning grant, Vodafone and Qualcomm, which seeks to enable students to share trusted educational services with each other via iPods, cell phones, and other handheld mobile devices.

The team is tackling the challenge from every angle. Led by computer science professor and multimedia expert Klara Nahrstedt, the team includes faculty in social computing (Karrie Karahalios) distributed systems (Roy Campbell and Indranil Gupta), networking (Robin Kravets), educational technology (Sam Kamin), communication (Scott Poole, LAS), and trust (William Sanders, ECE).

Students will be encouraged to develop MLC software applications and to share these applications with other students. To facilitate peer-to-peer sharing and community building, Mobile Learning Community faculty will offer a repository for student-designed MLC applications.

Students in the CS 425 (Distributed Systems) course are creating some of the first these kinds of student-designed MLC learning tools. Under the guidance of Prof. Nahrstedt, these students are developing a variety of MLC features, including chat clients and peer-to-peer file sharing programs. The class is using Android-based G1 phones thanks to the generosity of Vodafone and Qualcomm, who are sponsoring portions of the project.

As part of the first live testing of the technology, Illinois computer science students in selected courses will soon be able to receive their homework and machine problems though the MLC. (Read about the apps that CS 425 students created here.)

To help facilitate communication between users in the same geographical area, Prof. Karahalios is working to apply augmented reality to the platform. Augmented reality combines real and virtual three-dimensional imagery to offer a real-time interactive experience. Augmented reality interfaces often draw on common mobile device features such as internet, GPS, a digital compass, map software, and a camera.

“An augmented reality map could provide information about other MLC users in the same geographical area and encourage face-to-face interaction,” said Karahalios. Augmented reality maps would allow users to create educational tours of a geographical location.  For example, a senior in computer science could employ augmented reality in MLC to create an interactive tour of the engineering campus. 

Augmented reality also has the potential to provide real-time, three-dimensional maps of MLC users in the surrounding geographical area.  Through these maps, MLC users would share basic personal profiles and arrange face-to-face meetings.

The team is also investigating how MLCs might link to existing social networking platforms to provide an even greater pool of resources for students. MLC users could draw on Facebook and Twitter connections for finding known, trusted friends in the Mobile Learning Community. MLC might also draw from trust and valuation models utilized in networks like LinkedIn, which emphasize the value of personalized introductions to mutual friends.

The team is also considering the system-level infrastructure needs of such a network, and are researching viable approaches using 802.11 wireless, ad-hoc wireless networks, and possibly Bluetooth to provide connectivity among learning community users.

The MLC faculty looks forward to working with computer science students to develop creative, unique applications for the MLC platform. Through the Mobile Learning Community, students will have a new avenue for collaborating with classmates and making new connections.