Being Mobile | Blog

Putting the Mobile Puzzle Together Today: It's Worth the Struggle!

“We have now crossed into the Brave New Digital World – a new paradigm of digital media fragmentation in which consumers are always connected. One out of every three minutes online is now spent on devices beyond the PC”

  • The number of smartphone subscribers has increased 29% from a year ago and 99% from two years ago.
  • 2012 was a milestone year for the U.S.: it surpassed 50% market penetration
  • 72% of all newly-acquired devices are now smartphones
  • Smartphones have surpassed 125 million U.S. consumers and tablets are now owned by more than 50 million.
  • Smartphones zipped from a 10% adoption rate to 40% in just two and a half years, faster than any technology except television.
  • Consumers have demonstrated a clear preference for engaging with content on smartphones via apps, which account for 4 out of every 5 mobile minutes, rather than the mobile web.
  • Tablets hit 10% of the market in less than three years – far faster than smartphones or anything else.

The above factoids are from [1].

While smartphones and tablets – mobile devices, more or less – have penetrated and permeated our homes, our workplaces, our cars, and even our bedrooms (12 percent of millennial moms (born between 1977 and 1994) admitted to using their phones during sex[2]) and our bathrooms (more than 38 million American shop online while on the toilet[3]).

STOP! STOP! Enough!! We get it!! Mobile technology is everywhere, everywhere.

Not exactly. In contrast, here are some recent numbers about K-12 cellphone banning: “24% of K-12 schools ban cell phones altogether and 62% allow phones on school grounds but ban them in the classroom.[4]” No, mobile technology is NOT everywhere, everywhere.

But wait: what’s this? A recent Pew report[5] found that “73% of teachers use cellphones for classroom activities.” The group of teachers surveyed was “Advance Placement and National Writing Project teachers” – artisan teachers/early-adopting teachers. No surprise that AP teachers in their high end classes let their children use their cellphones to go out to the Internet to find information.

Almost 2/3 [4] of America’s schools do not allow cellphones in the classroom! By the way: this is 2013.

But let’s dig deeper: WHY was there this amazingly fast uptake in smartphones amongst consumers?

  • In 2007, Apple released its easy-to-use smartphone, the iPhone. Till then, one needed to peck away with a thin stylus on a PocketPC with a 3 inch screen. Ease of use? Essentially the PocketPC was Windows XP shrunk down from a 17inch screen to fit onto a 3inch screen. One had to really want to use a PocketPC.
  • Apple required that a dataplan be purchased along with the iPhone – and fortunately 3G was being rolled out nationwide. Getting onto the Internet was a snap!
  • The Internet was becoming second nature and the move to online commerce was heating up.
  • Online stores were populated with gazillions of apps – productivity apps to games, multimedia apps to news apps, etc.

In other words, mobile penetration happened because a bunch of factors came together to make a smartphone easy to own, easy to use, productive to use, even fun to use (admit it… you loved Angry Birds).

In schools what factors have come together to make mobile easy to own, easy to use, productive to use, fun to use?

We’re listening. Speak up, please!

That’s the point!!

  • Wi-Fi in schools is still an iffy thing; an always on connection in a school is an oxymoron.
  • There is still precious little curricula and detailed instructional strategies that truly make mobile devices pedagogically effective. Flash cards in various guises are still flash cards. While it certainly is visually and aurally more interesting to drill using an iPad – is the iPad that much better than a $1.29 packet of notecards?
  • Without curricula, professional development is challenging, to say the least. Showing teachers how to use flash cards on iPads doesn’t take too long.
  • Yes, there are a gazillion apps, but pedagogically-aligned apps, standards-aligned apps, school-friendly apps are still in short supply.
  • BYOD – Bring Your Own Device – a strategy to avoid buying devices for students, results in a heterogeneous mix of devices in one classroom. How does a teacher have all the kids do an assignment – when “Internet search” may well be the only function that all the devices have in common!

The above nothwithstanding, the pieces to the puzzle will come together; it is absolutely inevitable:

  • Publishers will eventually produce resources.
  • WiFi is getting cheaper and more reliable. Now, the telcos with their cellular data plans? A tad more complicated.
  • Developers are putting out educationally effective apps as open resources.
  • Mobile devices are coming way down in price; homogeneity will be easy to achieve when the cost of a mobile device is less than $100.

But, how long can – should -- a school wait?

“The future is already here – it just isn’t evenly distributed.”  William Gibson in The Economist on December 4th, 2003

There are schools that are making it happen now; there are administrators and teachers who are putting the puzzle pieces together themselves so that their children can benefit from mobile technologies – NOW!

We (C&E) are fortunate to be working in several such schools now. And quite candidly, it’s a struggle. But it’s worth the struggle: student engagement and test scores are going up and teachers are saying: “Teaching is fun now!”

Tell us about how your school is putting the mobile puzzle pieces together! Let’s hear from you! Tell us your mobile learning story, please!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at