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Mobile Computing and Online Learning

Moses Wolfenstein, Research Director, Academic ADL Co-Lab, UW Extension, October 11, 2011

A decade ago, if you heard the phrase "mobile computing," it probably conjured up images of corporate executives with BlackBerries and other assorted power users with expensive gadgets. Today, "mobile" is everywhere. According to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 35% of American adults own smartphones like an iPhone or Android phone. That's a little more than one third of the entire adult population in this country. Additionally 87% of those smartphone owners access their email or the Internet through their phone, with 68% doing so on a "typical day."

Of course, mobile isn't just about smartphones. The recent wave of tablet devices like the iPad has created a new range of options for computing away from the desk. Additionally, while e-readers like the Kindle aren't quite as powerful as the contemporary tablets, their cost has dropped massively over the last few years. Even laptop computers (the most well established form of mobile computing) have continued to advance, becoming lighter and more powerful over time.

All of these changes in the consumer market offer us the ability to keep a handle on activities in our social networks, use location-based services, and access news and entertainment virtually anywhere. However, they also represent the face of a mobile learning revolution that's taking place all over the world, including here in Wisconsin. The following list represents just a few examples of the opportunities that mobile technologies create for learners taking courses, receiving on-the-job training, or even just pursuing personal interests.

  • Mobile devices are now available at a greater variety of price points than ever before. An e-reader like the Kindle runs a little over $100, while a full-featured tablet like the iPad 2 or Motorola Xoom comes in at roughly $500. These devices make it easier than ever to take course readings and other learning materials with you wherever you go.
  • Cloud storage and computing services make it possible to start a learning activity on one device, and then transition seamlessly to another device to continue work in another setting. For example, the file storage service Dropbox makes it easy to start a writing assignment at home, review it on a mobile device while in transit on the bus, and then pull it up for edits upon reaching your destination.
  • Contemporary learning management systems (like Learn@UW) are beginning to offer services that allow instructors to reformat their course content for easy access on mobile devices. This means that within the next few years, an increasing number of courses offered within UW System will be as easy to access from a smartphone or tablet as they are from a regular computer now.
  • The market for self-guided learning materials on mobile devices is expanding rapidly. While Apple's App Store and the Android Market focus primarily on entertainment apps, interesting educational apps are also making entries into both spaces. Perhaps most importantly, the conventions of app store pricing continue to keep the costs of these learning experiences relatively low, while the community of users provides ratings on the quality of various educational apps to help in selecting the best options.
  • Developments inside of UW System, including the ARIS project developed by DoIT at Madison and the MASLO project currently in development by the Academic ADL Co-Lab at UW-Extension, are just two examples of new educational technologies being created right here in Wisconsin.

Online learning has always been about offering learners more flexibility in when and how they learn. Examples such as those above show how mobile technology creates the potential to truly fulfill the ideal of any time/any place learning that has always been an essential goal of online education.