Mobile, Campus + Strategy (part 1)

Several years ago, I drafted a white paper for Blackboard entitled “Mobile Agility at the Anytime, Anywhere Impact on IT” wherein I explored the notion of mobile strategy within education at a time of considerable technological and societal change. The world has evolved and so has mobile and arguably education, so I am revisiting and revising that piece into a collection of three related posts that explore education, mobile and technological agility toward an end of developing an institutional strategy for mobile that can evolve and grow over time.

The whole notion of mobility has been an interest area of mine ever since I first first saw the Commodore SX-64 and Dynalogic Hyperion luggable computers in the 1980s. Whether typing away on an Apple Macintosh Plus at a gate within Denver’s Stapleton airport, lusting for an AT&T EO but settling for an Apple PowerBook Duo 210, scrawling on an Apple Newton MessagePad, poking at a Philips Nino or Sony Clie, or swiping across an array of connected iOS and Android devices, what I’ve sought is the seamless application of information technology into daily life as a means to assist, communicate, and learn. Focusing on the latter, advances in mobile technology are pushing education, shaping options and creating opportunities that individuals and institutions should embrace or risk carving a chasm between learners, educators, communities and policy-makers.

In its inaugural editorial back in 1997, the journal of Personal & Ubiquitous Computing shared an idea that “the paradigm shift brought about by portable computing is simply another phase in the development of truly personal computing.” Two years later, Hans-Werner Gellerson, guest editor of the same journal, laid the groundwork for what we know as “mobile” by describing portable technology and personal computing as being “seamlessly integrated with the user, tasks, and the environment.” What the editors effectively described in a few unassuming words is the always on, always connected, and personally tailored environment in which we live and communicate.

The term “mobile” in the 1990s was largely limited to cellular phones, and portable encompassed an array of battery-powered devices that enhanced productivity – such as portable digital assistants and laptops. These devices were connected to online resources via local area networks and dial-up services. Consumer WiFi (ie. IEEE 802.11b) hadn’t been formally released, so “mobile connectivity” meant at best, portable gear physically tethered to cellular handsets. Over a decade later, billions of people possess mobile devices across the planet, and the number mobile phones shipped annually have eclipsed the estimated number of personal computers on Earth.

Today, mobile has become the embodiment of personal computing — something that, regardless of the name, personal computers didn’t ever fully achieve. Despite miniaturization to sub-notebook scale, the operating systems and the paradigms personal computers are founded upon create a distance between the user and the technology, which limits the transparent extension of the technology into one’s personal experience. In other words, we adapt to personal computers rather than the personal computers adapting to us. Not surprisingly, we extended that same notion to the World-Wide Web where we expected users to accept and adapt to various forms of web experiences and online content rather than the content and services responding to their needs and desires. In fact, the foundational access-level tool of the web, the “browser,” unintentionally reinforced this detachment for the definition of “browse” is to “to look through or glance at casually” and not to engage or interact with on a personal level.

Mobile, as we’ve learned as a society, embodies a fundamental global shift in communication brought about by a number factors that coalesced at the right time. The confluence of the Internet and wireless, the web and electronic communication, and the miniaturization and commoditization of technology created the perfect ecosystem for mobile to move into our everyday lives. A simple look at smartphone shipments reveals that mobile is a norm, not generation-bound, and should be thought of in the same way as electricity, air travel, and the Internet.

To reach connected consumers who embrace mobile technology for communication, productivity and fashion, mobile has to factor into the overall relationship strategy. But what about education? Education doesn’t function the same as retail, but what can it learn from the intensely competitive world of the consumer marketplace that can inform ways in which to integrate mobile into learning and the student experience? At a high level, this is the question I seek to explore for mobile isn’t the personal computer and web-based paradigms of the past. It is fundamentally different and requires a shift in thinking to be successful in the long term.

(Part 1 of 3)