MASHe review: Mobile technology, mobile connectivity

In this second MASHe review I’m going to look back at some of my posts on mobile technology. This is obviously a very broad topic, elements of which were covered in the first review on electronic voting systems, but I’ve identified some specific areas including mobile connectivity; and mobile hardware (phones and netbooks) to theme this post. 

Mobile connectivity

Connectivity is tied to the hardware you use to connect. Broadly mobile connectivity is being achieved through phones or dongles. In September 2008 I posted ‘I don’t need your network, I’ve got Mobile Broadband’, which highlighted that students were potentially less reliant on wireless networks provided by institutions, instead using either their phone or mobile broadband dongle.

Since then networks are beginning to show the strain as they start reaching capacity, not helped by the popularity of streamed media like on demand TV. Interestingly whilst mobile data usage is up it is thanks to the phone and dongle and not, as highlighted in my original post, built-in to laptops which are still the domain of the ‘pro-user’.

One device which wasn’t around back then was mobile wireless routers such as Mi-Fi. These make it possible to create your own wireless network using mobile networks for the data connection. So if you were worried about students accessing dubious content whilst on campus via their phone, now they can do this and share the Internet connection with their friends (hopefully this will mean institutions will focus on e-safety rather than relying on blocking sites).

Mobile and VLEs

A couple of months later I revisited this topic with the post Mobile Internet, Mobile Life, Mobile Learning. This post highlighted the increasing popularity of accessing the Internet through mobile phones. This is further evidence that staying connected is increasing important particularly as we require more ‘on-demand’ access to media, our social networks and data we store ‘in the cloud’.

The ‘on-demand’ culture is influencing education with flexible delivery and blended learning, but as I highlight in the ‘mobile internet’ post certain systems like the virtual learning environment seem ill prepared. There have been some developments in this area and Blackboards announcement last year of a mobile version of their system is probably evidence that manufacturers recognise that mobile optimisation is a must have feature.

Netbooks

I’m probably pushing the ‘mobile’ theme with the inclusion of netbooks, but for me it a very interesting market and one that I’m surprised hasn’t really taken off with students. For the uninformed netbooks are laptops which have been on a diet (slightly smaller, lighter, not as powerful). They first appeared on the market in November 2007 and now virtually every computer manufacturer has a netbook range.

I’ve visited netbooks twice on MASHe. First in September 2008 in Ultra mobile, ultra cheap – Netbooks and then again 6 months later in Ultra mobile, ultra cheap – Which netbook now?. If I was going a follow up post now it would probably be called ‘Ultra mobile, reasonably cheap – Which tablet netbook?’ and in 6 months it would be ‘Ultra mobile – Which tablet?’.

So why haven’t netbooks taken off as a student owned device? Probably because they can get a better spec’d laptop for a similar price and whilst student ownership of laptops is high very few bring them on campus (for various reasons including: storage, lack of desk space with power, using campus desktops instead, not part of teaching/learning).

So it appears manufacturers have realised there market is in the middle ground. Not the high-end titanium clad portable powerhouse  or the low-end portable and cheap, but a medium priced portable second PC which looks nice and has a touch screen. Gong by a recent consumer electronics fair (CES2010) manufacturers are betting on tablet netbooks as filling this market (which maybe of interest to academics looking to replace their conference PC ;)

So if netbooks and tablet netbooks are going to be of limited appeal to students what about ebook readers? Probably not for the foreseeable future. I would argue that the majority of students are looking for multi-function media rich devices like their phone or iPod. 

Phones

A potential challenger to Apples dominancy is the Google backed Android operating system. This is an open source project and the community is working hard to compete against iPhone/iPod Touch. Already a number of manufacturers have phones (and even tablets and netbooks) running Android and the platform potentially has a lot to offer. In August last year I wrote Android Mobile OS: Pandora’s box of accessibility opportunities, which gives an overview of the Android project and it’s philosophy highlighting what is already possible in terms of accessibility. Just as there have been a number of educational ‘apps’ for the iPhone, Android is already being used in this area (one use which I covered in the last review was for electronic voting).

Mobile futures

So what has this review shown? Mobile technology has been and will continue to be an important part of life and learning. This is highlighted in the recent Horizons Report, which reconfirmed mobile computing as having a large impact on teaching and learning and I’m sure it will be a topic I’ll revisiting again and again.