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Mobile: The Key to Education Anywhere

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iPad in schoolIn 1985, when Bruce Springsteen wrote “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school,” he was talking about the lure of whatever might be waiting outside every classroom around the world. That  youthful feeling of the world passing you by — the things you were missing as you sat in a classroom day after day — is an age-old challenge for educators. It’s one that’s about to be subjected to an even greater assault as the digital generation moves deeper into education.

The Internet was the first volley on the way a generation learned. Students no longer had to trudge to the library to research a topic. The encyclopedias of our parents’ generation were tossed into recycling bins, and a combination of Google (s goog) and Wikipedia was all students needed to complete even the most ambitious assignments. Even with all their merit — the world’s opinions and research at your fingertips — educators shunned the tools in the class. They banned the Internet to the corner, equipping it with the dunce cap.

Mobile is the second volley in this assault on education, and the impact is going to be far larger and broader-reaching than the Internet and computers were before it. If the web brought research to the desktop, mobile brings all that power — plus context — to the hip pocket. We all have the ultimate ability to find, disseminate, discuss, opine, distribute and create on the fly, and this power is something educators will need to embrace — and quickly.

New mobile technologies such as augmented reality, Google Goggles and real-time language translation applications are helping smartphones become key tools in the real-time learning toolkit. And students are bringing this technology into the classroom.

This generation of students is far different from its predecessors when it comes to the consumption of technology. Students coming of age during the Internet revolution seemed to be much more engaged in the making of technology — building the foundation of bits and bytes — while students today are much more inclined to use the technology for other pursuits, including education. Using mobile technology to learn is as natural a move and non-disruptive for this generation as it was for their parents to bring encyclopedias out of the library and into the home.

The single, most powerful pull of mobile is the seamless connectivity it enables. There has never been a time in history where the earth has been flatter, where it was easier to have a social network that extended beyond a city or country or hemisphere, or that different cultures were as exposed in real time – and it’s all because of the smartphone. This power is global and comes to life through the 250 million mobile Facebook users, photo applications like Instagram and mobile video sharing services like Qik.

“The next wave of teaching, when you’re facing students who have computers in their hands or on their desks, really is about taking advantage of that connectivity,” says Sidneyeve Matrix, National Scholar and Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Film at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “So that’s just another reason for educators to push for mobile learning opportunities or to challenge themselves to figure out to utilize the technology their students already have.”

With this power, there’s the growing potential to also increase the gap between the technology haves and the technology have-nots, as well as the growing concern that  “always connected” means never able to concentrate on the task at hand. The classroom is the perfect place to teach the potential of mobile learning and, at the same time, expose the technology to students who don’t have access to it. Teachers can start by bringing in games that leverage mobile. Quizzes and micro-learning opportunities abound during the school day; use mobile to capture them. Exposure can also come in the form of recording classes and turning them into podcasts, assigning teams to work on mobile video projects or even doing real-time scavenger hunts on campus or in the community.

This often leads to a profound argument that has been in our discourse since Google launched and became the Internet’s conduit to humanity’s collective brain: Are kids learning to learn or are they simply learning to find. It’s a subtle difference. Has information become temporary, or even disposable? Face it; we don’t go to school really to learn about things — natural curiosity will overcome learning lethargy to drive lifelong education — but we do go to learn to learn and that’s what will be impacted the most with mobile.

Learning is a skill. Teaching that skill happens every day in the classroom but it need not end there, and that’s where mobile can truly shine. Mobile holds the nascent promise of bridging the desire to learn about everything and the ability to learn about it anywhere. The key now is to start.

For almost 10 years Rob has been immersed in the middle of the mobile revolution in roles ranging from strategic advisor, board member and coach to VP Operations and President and CEO. Rob currently runs where he interviews mobile luminaries about how they are building their businesses and he also strategizes with major brands on embracing mobile within their organizations.

Image courtesy of Flickr user mortsan.

6 Responses to “Mobile: The Key to Education Anywhere”

  1. Douglas Crets

    Who, reel it back, gigaom and Rob. The internet is still the first volley. Actually, the ball is in the air, and the server’s racket is poised. Reel back. We still have to loosen up the restrictions on access to the internet in public education. Although, I would that it were true that mobile is even in this category. Let’s allow students to bring a mobile device to school, for starters. I’d be interested to know what conversations with teachers and administrators this gentleman has had, and what was revealed in such conversations. It’s easy to work in this field of internet and mobile and video and see the future, but it’s another to try to integrate it into education. There are political, legal, and bureaucratic nightmare scenarios that hold sway. Let alone that it is a vendor only market, and the way the vendors operate really precludes any mass adoption of the kind of solutions those of us outside of public education readily use and manipulate to success.

    • Thanks for bringing these points into the conversation Douglas. You are right – starting by allowing students to bring devices into the classroom is a good place to launch from. This isn’t going to be easy but there is movement on all fronts here. Some universities and colleges are handing every freshmen an iPad, K-12 schools are bringing iPads and tablets into the classroom for learning purposes, schools of all levels are bringing WiFi to the campuses and forward-thinking teachers are assigning homework for students that involve the simple act of using their phone to take a picture of something on their way home.

      The full interview I did with Sidneyeve Matrix (quoted in this article) will shed some great light into how she uses mobile to teach at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. The interview also addresses a number of issues you raise and can be found here:

  2. When talking about inside the classroom learning, concern that mobile devices may be a distraction is natural reaction. Some would consider a piece of paper and pen could be the most distracting technologies inside the classroom. In progressive pilot projects around the world, when the school systems took time to comprehend the technology (its power and its liability) and use its built-in features to control access (disable texting) and or functions to be strictly educational, they have noticed a steep incline in student participation and learning. In these cases, devices were used to complement learning during class, the same way bunsen burners were brought out when it was time to learn about titration in our chem classes of yesterday.

    This learning model is still in its 3rd trimester, it remains under-developed to be fully embraced or discarded, but the potential is great.

  3. Too me, it just seems like mobile phones and the like are extremely distracting to students – especially in high school level and below. They will be far more likely to be using it for social purposes then for actually educational purposes.

    • Hi Betty, perhaps they are a distraction now but that may be as a result of teachers/schools/educators not bringing them into the learning process. If mobile phones were embraced by the classroom, used as another research tool and part of how subjects were taught instead of banned in the classroom it would open the students up beyond the social aspect of the devices.

    • Douglas Crets

      Nearly everyone who works in education or has a kid in school thinks this way. It’s probably the most prevalent barrier to the simple process of just trying it out first, to see if it would work. Seems that people are more inclined to think they know the outcome rather than to test one.