Scott Wilson, January 27, 2006
Portable and personal
One of the key factors in a personal learning system is portability - it moves with the learner. One solution is the personal device (laptop, pda, phone), another is the personal hosted service accessed from anywhere, while another that sits somewhere between is a portable toolkit that can be plugged into other infrastructure.
This third option comes under the general heading of "portable applications" - systems that can be loaded onto small, largely passive devices such as portable USB drives, iPods, and the like, and then used from any computer that will mount the drive space.
There is a good overview of what makes an application portable in this sense at PortableApps.com.
Generally, the types of solutions fall into the category of either using spare capacity in the portable device for storage and those that simply act as tools on networked services with limited local storage requirements. The former need to prevent the host infrastructure from innapropriately using their information, so this typically involves the use of encryption software for storing sensitive information such as passwords.
A limitation of the approach is the need for OS-level compatibility between the portable device and the host. This can be overcome to an extent by using cross-platform applications or multiple versions, however other issues relating to system configuration (e.g. required system libraries such as Java or Python platform libraries) are problematic.
A potential solution lies in making portable devices that boot a complete system, such as the read-only Linux distribution, Knoppix. However, this may cause problems for the host infrastructure, as it bypasses any security or other restrictions on the host system, and would enable a range of "antisocial" activities to take place such as spamming and DDOS from the "hijacked" machine.
An alternative is to enable the portable device greater autonomy, and essentially only use host infrastructure for I/O purposes - for example, the graphics support and screen, audio support and speakers, keyboard and mouse, network connection, and so on - without requiring one device to "boot" the other. However, I'm not currently aware of any devices being offered that behave in this fashion. There are, however, many solutions for enabling devices such as PDAs and laptops to take advantage of local infrastructure such as the network (Wi-Fi), and various display and input devices, largely through an array of cables, but also through Bluetooth.
An alternative solution is to transform most of the bulky hardware infrastructure itself to make it more portable. For example, Projection Keyboards can be used instead of plastic keyboards; and we have also seen portable screens (for example, as found in the Sony PSP) increasing in clarity while at the same time getting smaller in terms of their non-displaying components. Perhaps also the trend for ever smaller projectors using LEDs will eventually yield something smaller and more convenient to carry around than a laptop or slate screen.
Related item: USB study stick.