Mobile Learning

Last month, I had the idea of starting a podcast around the idea of mobile learning, digital media, social networking and everything in between. The first episode is available here. I’ve been writing the second episode ever since but given that it’s just a longform essay, I’m not sure of the merits of recording the audio when I can just post the text.

I’ll probably post it later today. In the meantime, here’s the transcript of the main feature from episode 1.

Last year, schools and universities across america invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in ipads for students. New York City public schools ordered more than 2,000 iPads, over 200 schools in Chicago applied for district-financed iPad grants, and Penn state university specifically designed one of their technical writing courses around the iPad and issued the devices to all students and faculty involved with the course. A prep school in Knoxville Tenassee even made it mandatory for all grade 4-12 pupils, that’s roughly age 9 or 10 onwards, to own iPads. The craziness looks set to continue this year though since the district of Maine has invested 200,000 dollars in 285 iPad 2s to be issued to kindergarteners, with the eventual aim of issuing them to all students in all 6 elementary schools in the small district.

There is a lot of this kind of bandwagon jumping going on just now. There’s no denying that as a research and note taking tool, the iPad can be brilliant but early feedback from students suggests that, as you might expect, they still find themselves going back to laptops or desktops when there’s anything longer to be written.Apple, realising the good publicity to be had here, donated iTunes gift cards to the Penn state university scheme to cover the cost of apps for the students. But with such an untested medium, efforts to push the ipad may seem like folly.

And with the growing number of cuts that the Education system is currently wrestling with in the uk, similar schemes over here seem unlikely. It’s worth pointing out though that a school board in australia recently reported savings of just under 200 000 australian dollars, about 130,000 pounds, by getting rid of their own servers and transferring everything to the cloud, so it’s not necessarily an impossible dream.

What really makes intereting reading though is the recently released results of the speak up 2010 survey.

The massive survey of 300,000 students, 43,000 parents, 35,000 teachers, 2000 librarians and 3500 administrators from over 6000 US schools revealed that:
Almost 100 per cent of pupils owned some form of mobile phone, with over 70 per cent interested in using them to help their school work and 67 per cent of parents willing to buy their children mobile devices specificlly to assist with their schooling. Despite this, only 25 per cent of schools were prepared to allow pupils to use smart phones in class.

I’m sure that if workplaces were surveyed, similar results would be found. Some workplaces are investing in iPads for their workforce but the majority can’t afford such a substantial outlay on an unproven platform. Many workers would happily split the cost with their employer or pay it back over time if the option was available to them.

There’s no question that there is plenty demand and goodwill towards tablets like the iPad right now. A recent survey by google showed that 59% of tablet owners spent more time on their tablet than reading a book. Perhaps more surprisingly, a third of all tablet owners spent more time on their tablet than watching tv. That said, the same survey found that the most popular activity on tablets was playing games, although it was closely followed by searching for information.

Of course, the main problem, if issuing these devices to the workforce is getting them to talk to the existing work network. It departments are notoriously guarded with the keys to the castle. It’s one thing for them to build pc’s based on customised, by which I mean heavily restricted, versions of windows, but quite another to expect them to allow iPads or iPhones, which apple deliberately design to be entirely closed systems, meaning they wouldn’t get to tweak the system to suit their own ends.

Android, may fair better once the android tablet market matures a bit further, since it’s operating system is, for the most part, open source, meaning it could be customised by IT departments if required. In this day and age though, do we even need to be quite so paranoid with what systems are used to access work networks?

Obviously, some degree of caution is needed, but an increasing number of workplaces are seeing the drawbacks of investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in pc’s which rapidly goes out of date when workers are inevitably sitting on far faster, more advanced machines at home. There are definite cost benefits to subsidising your workforce to buy their own machines and make sure the security of the system is robust enough to handle it.

Many large American companies, such as Kraft, Citrix and SNR Denton have launched bring your own computer schemes over the last few years which, beyond certain stipulations around which virus and firewall software must be installed on the machines, allow staff free reign to buy whichever machines they want and treat them as their own. All work related files are accessed securely and remain in the cloud at all times which minimises the security risks. If the worker leaves his laptop on the train, no confidential info can be accessed by anyone else, since no confidential info is saved on the machine beyond the individual session that it is being used.

Once work systems are designed to be as open as this, then there is no reason that tablets and phones with sufficient security couldn’t also tap into the network. Virtualisation software such as go to my PC allows you to view your pc’s output remotely on your iPad and even control it directly using the touch screen.

Of course, while a few companies are forward thinking enough to embrace ideas like this, the majority of companies are slaves to their IT departments when it comes to new technology innovations. Departments who are used to being all powerful and will put every possible obstacle in the way of having to relinquish that power. A few years ago, Hillary Clinton attended a town hall meeting for state department workers and the request was put to her “Can you please let the staff use an alternative Web browser called Firefox?” this was greeted with cheers in the room. The questioner continued that everyone had used it in his previous job and he didn’t understand why state computers didn’t allow it when it was a far more secure, safe browser than Internet explorer, which they were forced to use.

When Clinton looked into it, she was advised that it was too expensive, despite the fact the software is entirely free and open source. These sort of diversionary, stalling tactics are common place amongst it departments the world over. 3% of computers in the UK are still running the ten year old internet explorer 6, despite the fact Microsoft recently launched version 9 along with a campaign trying to convince the remaining stragglers to ditch IE6 as soon as possible. I’m prepared to bet the vast majority of those machines still running IE6 are work machines being held back by it departments still finding excuses not to upgrade five years after the software was superceded.

If we want to see mobile technology embraced in the workplace, perhaps we’ll need to take the battle directly to the it departments. There was a time where it departments were the most advanced, forward thinking departments in the company. It’s ironic that these days, more often than not, they are the ones clinging to old technology and trying to stem the flow.



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