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Being Mobile: The Holy Grail of Educational Technology Is Within Sight

At the ISTE 2010 Conference (Denver), during our spotlight presentation, we made the following prediction:

Within five years every student in every grade in every school in the United States will be a using a mobile computing device, 24/7.

At the time, with cellphone bans in schools, and with the relatively high cost of smart phones, our prediction was met with skepticism — at best. Fast forward: 2015 is upon us, and “mobile learning” has most definitely become a real category in educational technology.  So, in 2015, what is the status of our 2010 prediction?

First, we need to be clear: the iPad is not a mobile device:

The iPad isn't any more of a mobile gadget than a MacBook Air. The iPad is just a PC — over 90 percent of tablet usage is done right inside the home. People need to stop calling the iPad and other tablets mobile devices. They're home PCs that are a little easier to carry around. 

Now, the above is absolutely true of 10-inch screened tablets, but we are less negative about 7-inch screened tablets. With today’s 6-inch screened, phablet craze in its infancy — that extra inch is not so troublesome. We know, we know: one inch here, one inch there.... It is a slippery slope: is a 7.9 inch-screened iPad mini a mobile device? What about 8-inch screened devices (e.g., Acer Iconia W3/W4)?  We leave those decisions as an exercise to the reader. (Smiley-face goes here.)

Inasmuch as we do not consider iPads to be mobile devices, our 2010 prediction has turned out to be wrong — wildly wrong! We were just too early — and we didn’t foresee the iPad Detour

But, here is another prediction — and THIS ONE you can definitely, absolutely, and unequivocally take to the bank!

Within five years — by 2020, but probably during the 2017-2018 school year — every student in every grade in every school in the United States will be a using a mobile computing device, 24/7.

Why? For adults the world over, having a smart phone is now a must-have, not a nice-to-have. And, as such, the cost of a smart phone is plummeting. For example, manufacturers in India and China are churning out low-cost smartphones; a 5-inch-screened Android OS handset can be purchased for about $100.

Even for K-12 youth, a smart phone is fast becoming a must-have, not a nice-to-have. From providing entertainment to supporting communications, from providing personal security to supporting social interactions, K-12 students will be equipping themselves, during 2015-2020, with smartphones — especially when they can be purchased for less than a pair of trendy tennis shoes! 

Keeping with the “religious” metaphor - but in no way meaning to be blasphemous! - there really are three elements — the Trinity — to the Holy Grail of Educational Technology:

  1. Hardware: Each student has his or her own computer; we just covered that.
  2. Software: While BYOD — Bring Your Own Device — will be the norm, with the maturing of HTML5/Javascript, the heterogeneity of the devices in a BYOD classroom will no longer be a problem: Educational software written in HTML5/Javascript will be “device agnostic” — such software will run on any device — inside a browser or as a standalone app. Finally, a teacher can count on all the students being able to run the same software — irrespective of what hardware they bring to class!
  3. Network: Providing WiFi in K-12 schools has always been a problem. But, with the new generation of WiFi gear with Internet-administered WiFi hubs, there is much less need for constant IT support. A good thing since the budget crunch is forcing cutbacks in schools’ IT departments. Connectivity to the Internet, in general, is increasingly less a problem: Libraries to fast-food places, homes to public places — they are all moving to providing free WiFI.  With the telcos battling with each other, the consumer — and the learner — benefits: Internet connectivity via cellular is rapidly becoming a reasonable option from a cost standpoint.

Universal access to computing — the Trinity of hardware, software, and network - the Holy Grail of Educational Technology — is within sight. Lest there be any question about our position, we repeat our 2014 prediction:

by 2020, but probably during the 2017-2018 school year — every student in every grade in every school in the United States will be a using a mobile computing device, 24/7.

Technology is pedagogy-neutral: Technology can be used for drill-and-kill or for inquiry.  The important question is this: How will universal access change K-12? We will address that question in a subsequent blog.

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 www.imlc.io.

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 www.imlc.io.

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at thejournal.com/rc.

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