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Going Mobile

The Impending Mobile Mega-Disruption

A big change is in the wind that can be your opportunity to revitalize education.

The personal computer caused a big disruption. Essentially all the mini-computer manufacturers, such as DEC and Prime, went out of business as companies realized that personal computers were just fine for business and people started buying personal computers for their homes too. The Internet also caused a big disruption. The cost of communicating has seen an exponential drop; for fractions of a penny we can send a note or a picture anywhere around the world. But the disruption that mobile technologies are in the process of causing will make the personal computer and the Internet disruptions look like mere hiccups.

In our bimonthly columns, we will examine various tech disruptions and explore their implications for K12 education. Our intent is to provide administrators, fully occupied with today’s demands, with a “Zagat’s Guide” to tomorrow’s opportunities.

Mobility Interruptus

Just what is a “mobile technology”? While a cell phone computer is the mobile device that most readily comes to mind, there is a veritable explosion of devices that are very low-cost and lightweight. (In using the term “cell phone” for a cell phone computer, it is easy to forget that the candy-bar-sized gadget is truly a powerful instrument on par, in many respects, with a desktop or laptop computer.) A traditional laptop is as mobile as a mobile home is mobile; “transportable” is a more appropriate term for both entities. On the other hand, the new mini-laptops are definitely mobile devices.

What makes the coming mobile disruption so huge is this: for essentially zero cost, one will have a highly functional, highly malleable, and highly extensible computationally based communications tool. Spare us, please, the letters to the editor pointing out that today the telcos are draining our pocketbooks. Look down the road. Over the next two to three years, the monthly cost of a cell phone computer will drop to less than the cost of your newspaper and will fast approach the cost of a subscription to District Administration.

Must-Have Devices

With the cost of connected, mobile devices hovering near zero, universal ownership is within sight. Indeed, mobiles are no longer nice-to-haves; rather, they are must-haves if one wants to participate in the global marketplace.

For K12, here is what makes the mobile disruption different from previous tech disruptions: Adults brought PC s and the Internet into schools, while today’s youth are the bearers of the disrupting mobile technologies. In the past, the push for technology in schools was from the top down; in contrast, the push today for mobile technologies is bottom up—and there are way more bottom-up pushers than there were top-down pushers!

Our reaction to students bringing mobile devices to school is predictable: by and large, mobile devices have been banned from schools. However, as with previous bans on such devices as ballpoint pens and electronic calculators, the mobile ban is a temporary measure. Schools need time to reflect on questions such as: What pedagogical value do mobile devices have? What is their role in school? What are responsible use policies for cell phone computers? But: tick tock, tick tock. How much longer can schools hold back the floodgates of this mega-disruption?

We are working with schools in the United Kingdom, Singapore and, just recently, in the United States that have become open to the possibility of every child using a cell phone computer for school—24/7. Instead of paper and pencil, the medium of expression is now digital. Instead of a traditional laptop computer—a device that schools cannot afford to provide in a 1:1 implementation on an ongoing yearin, year-out basis—students will use their own mobile computers that they bring to school in their pockets.

And catch this: It is easier and more pedagogically effective to fully integrate mobile computers into an existing curriculum than to use laptops on carts for isolated activities (e.g., Internet searching and report writing). Moreover, just as schools are outsourcing noncore activities such as food services and transportation, outsourcing wireless networking to a telecommunications company makes good economic sense.

Resist or Adopt

By and large, K12 has ignored the changes wrought by the computer and Internet disruptions. Schools remain much as they have been for the past 200 years. One way or the other, however, a change is coming; the impending mobile disruption will without question impact K12. Educators can continue to be enforcers, battling with students over their mobile devices, wasting a unique opportunity in time. Or educators can make their scarce dollars go further by ultimately having students use their own mobile devices for school work—providing them with a layer of software that makes their disparate devices appear homogenous and providing them with a safe data network.

A big change is in the wind, and schools have a choice—build (and patch and patch) a Maginot Line against the impending mobile disruption, or use the energy inherent in the disruption to revitalize education.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder and chief technology officer at GoKnow.