Being Mobile | Blog

Is a Laptop a Mobile Computer? And Why Is That Even an Important Question?

A Litmus Test for Mobility

So, is a laptop computer a mobile computer? No. It is a transportable computer; one moves it from place to place, working at each of those places. But, one doesn’t use a laptop computer while one is moving about.

Transportable, portable, mobile, schmobile — what’s the big deal? Why is labeling a computing device as a mobile computing device even important?  Is this merely a question of semantics, of academic wordplay or a question of substance, of practical importance to K-12 classrooms?

The latter, absolutely.

The country — nay, the world — is putting computers into classrooms at a fast and furious pace. It is no longer an issue of should K-12 classrooms go 1:1 — one computer per child — but a question of when — how soon will 1:1 happen? Now, we are on record1 as predicting that by 2015 each and every child in each and every grade will be using a mobile learning device (aka mobile computer).  You can take that prediction the bank!

But, with the pressure on schools to be prepared for online testing (e.g., Common Core) and supportive of online delivery of instruction (e.g., MOOCs, blended instruction, adaptive courseware), it is not clear what type of computers will be purchased.

While computing requirements for the Common Core have indeed been modified2 to now allow 10-inch screened tablet computers (running Android or iOS operating systems), and while some online courseware is tablet-friendly (e.g., Amplify’s curriculum is provided on 10 inch tablets3), 15-inch screened (at a minimum) devices (i.e., laptops and desktops) still are the device of choice for online testing and online instruction delivery. And a 15-inch screened computer is ... well, it’s obvious what it is!

If a child is going to use a 15-inch screened computer as they learn, then that child is confined to a learning place, since the 15-inch computer needs a desk to support it and an electrical outlet to feed it. In the Carpe Diem4 schools, where the children sit in cubicles in front of 15-inch-plus desktop computers with headphones on their heads for half to two-thirds of the day, that definition of a learning place makes sense.

But, that is a very, very, VERY narrow definition of a learning place — since it is common-sense that learning is all-the-time, everywhere. EVERY space is a learning place; every minute we are breathing, we are learning. At the dinner table, our children learn how to make a logical argument; at the mall, our children learn to make good choices; on the soccer field, our children learn athletic skills; in the soccer field stands, our children learn to make good choices, again. Learning is more than anytime, anyplace; learning is all-the-time, everyplace.

Since computers are powerful tools in helping children as they learn, it is just common sense that we want a child to have a computer while he or she is learning all the time, in everyplace — and that means each child needs a mobile computer, 24/7. So, here is how we decide if a computer is really a mobile computer; here is our litmus test for mobility:

"The lesson in today's third grade science was about trees and you were put on the three-student team in charge of knowing everything there is to know about the roots of trees. So, as you are walking home after school, pleasantly daydreaming, your eyes 'just happen' to notice the exposed roots of a century old Banyan tree and you whip out your mobile computing device and snap a few pictures of that amazingly complex root system that you can then incorporate into your team's multimedia report on tree roots."

Would a child "whip out their $500, 10-inch tablet" that has been carefully stowed away in a carrying case which in turn was stowed away in the child’s backpack at the end of the school day? NOT A CHANCE. A $500, 10-inch tablet is not a mobile computer.

Would a child "whip out a $100, 7-inch tablet computer?" Probably. And, TODAY you can buy 7-inch screened tablets at places like Walmart5 for $100!!! No reason to buy a graphing calculator. Indeed, in Ann Arbor, a school using 7-inch tablets (and our — Cathie & Elliot’s — Collabrify Mobile Platform6 software) is planning on requiring parents of students in seventh and eighth grade to buy a tablet instead of a graphing calculator!!!

Aside: At $100, it doesn’t make great economic sense to make a 5-inch screened tablet; we are seeing 5- and 6-inch screened smartphones, though. The merging of smartphones and tablets is QUITE an interesting issue — and we will address that issue in another blog.

Learners need mobile computers to support them as they learn all-the-time, everywhere. Adults use their mobile computers (aka smartphones) to support them in learning 24/7.  Is supporting our children in learning less important?

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