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Mobile in Ed Tech: Moving Beyond Browser Replacement

        This article was originally posted at e-Literate

In 2003 Steve Jobs made a speech to the International Design Conference in Aspen, and the audio for this speech has just been re-discovered and shared. There is even a transcription from the Verge available here. During his talk, Jobs foresaw future mobile devices as well as the challenge we would face in truly taking advantage of these mobile devices.

Ok let’s go back to this revolution, what is happening? What’s happening is the personal computer is a medium– of communication. One of the medium. So what’s a medium? It’s a technology communication. A book is a medium. Telephone. Radio. Television. These are mediums of communication. And each medium has pitfalls to it, it has shortcomings, has boundaries which you can’t cross. But it also, generally, has some new unique opportunities.

The neat thing, is that each medium shapes not only the communication that goes through it but it shapes the process of the communication. Perfect example: if you compare the telephone with what we’re seeing if you link a bunch of computers together and we can send messages to an electronic mailbox, which people can then receive– at their leisure.

We see that, indeed, in one sense we’re sending voice through these wires and in one sense we’re sending 1’s and 0’s through these wires so the content that’s traveling through the medium is certainly different. The most interesting thing that’s different.. is the process of communication. When I talk on a telephone with anyone, we both have to be on the phone at the same time. When I’m working, or when I want to send something to somebody with a computer terminal. I want to do a drawing and zip it over and put it in their mailbox. They don’t need to be there. They can retrieve it at 12 AM in the morning, they can retrieve it 3 days later. They can be in New York and retrieve it.

One of these days when we have portable computers with radio links they can be walking around aspen and retrieve it. And so the process of communication itself changes, as the mediums evolve. So what I’m claiming is that computers are a medium and if personal computers are a new and different medium from large computers.

What happens when a new medium enters the scene, is that we tend to fall back into old media habits.[emphasis added]

To me, this situation describes the most common implementation of mobile in educational technology as simply a browser replacement. The purchase of TerriblyClever by Blackboard in 2009, followed by their release of Blackboard Mobile in 2010, was a watershed moment for mobile in educational technology. Unfortunately, in the rush to match or neutralize the Blackboard announcement, most vendors rushed to market with browser replacements.

Mobile is more than just laptops with small screens and awkward keyboards. Mobile is always on and with the individual, not tied to wi-fi networks, capable of multi-media recording, location and motion aware; it is a new medium. A mobile browser replacement strategy has many benefits, but it does not unleash the power of the new medium.

In his speech, Jobs went on to describe the transition from old habits to new habits.

From radio to television, television to this incredible new interactive medium of the video disc. If you go back and you look at our first television shows, they were basically radio shows with a television camera pointed at them. And it took us the better part of the 50’s to really understand how television was going to come into its own as its own medium and I really think the first time that a lot of people were shook into realizing that television had come into age was the JFK funeral. The nation, a lot of the world experienced the JFK funeral in their living room and at a level of intensity that wouldn’t have been possible with radio.

One key for the new medium of mobile is the ability to provide the right information at the right time, focusing on individuals’ tasks and context in the moment of decision or need.

Driven by advances in consumer technologies, we are starting to see mobile for educational technology emerge into a different concept. Rather than viewing mobile as browser replacement for smaller screens, the market seems to be developing new media habits with the concept of engagement-based apps (or HTML5) that. These new apps are not directly tied to a specific system (e.g. LMS, student information system, CRM), but rather pulling in appropriate information from multiple systems to address a specific problem or opportunity enabled by the unique features of mobile devices.

This view is not precise, but I’m looking forward to the upcoming WCET and EDUCAUSE conferences to see if  there are signs of new mobile concepts and usage.