Friday, August 28, 2015

M-learning and Beyond

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” ~ Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM (1943)

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” ~ Ken Olsen, co-founder of DEC (1977)

Computing power doubles every two years ~ Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore

“Access to computers and the Internet has become a basic need for education in our society” ~ U.S. Senator Kent Conrad (2004)
In my role as IT Director, I need to look ahead at what’s coming in technology, and how it will affect my campus. Technology changes at a very rapid pace, yet we find it quickly becomes indispensable. Computers are now a necessity for education, yet they were virtually unheard of only thirty years ago.

Universities need to become entrepreneurs, seizing new opportunities to deliver the best value. As stewards of our campus technology, we cannot rest on the accomplishments of the past; we need to continually evolve the technology that we deliver, and adapt those technology services to meet the needs and desires of our students. Too often, institutions spend a year or more to design, select, purchase, build, and implement new technology in service of the teaching and learning mission. But in the interim, the technology landscape changes, and the delivered solution no longer addresses the needs of the community.

Consider how students store and transport their information. The most common scenario: a student is working on her term paper in her dorm room. But it’s late, and she doesn’t finish it. The next day, she decides to take the paper with her, and finish it in one of the campus writing labs. Not too long ago, in the 1990s, she saved this data on floppy disks. The most common capacity of floppies stored 1.44 megabytes of data.

Now most of our students have never even seen a floppy disk. Technology has moved on. Just a few years ago, this student might have carried a USB flash drive to transport her data from her dorm room to the classroom. In response, campus bookstores now stock a seemingly endless supply of USB flash drives of various sizes, expecting that students will use them. And a few students do, although if my campus is any indication, an increasing number of students won’t deign to use something so quaint as storage media to save their files. Even a 16 gigabyte USB flash drive (considered huge only a year ago) is obsolete, especially when students can now save all their files remotely (for example, in the “Cloud”), and access them anywhere using a Web browser.

However, storage is just a symptom of a larger trend. Technology is changing, and changing rapidly. How will students access information in another year, or five years? Or ten years? We cannot continue to rely on old methods. That's why campuses constantly need to look toward the technology horizon and think about how the academy will respond in the face of new technology.

The next fundamental technological change is how students interface with teaching and learning. To understand this future landscape, let me first provide the context of past methods.

Learning has always been about students sitting in a classroom, pen and paper in hand, taking notes during a professor’s lecture. But, in the early 1980s, IBM introduced the IBM-PC, which put individual computing power into the hands of students. Almost overnight, institutions needed to integrate the computer into their pedagogies. Those universities that resisted this change, relying solely on traditional teaching methods, did so at their peril. While enrolled students would remain to finish their degree, incoming students exercised personal choice, and opted to attend universities that successfully integrated computing with teaching and learning. Adopting new technology became a matter of attracting students.

Computing has continued to change how the academy serves its students. Today, every campus provides general computing labs, computer labs focused on writing, and other labs that specialize by discipline and software. My own campus has over 15 computer labs, serving 1800 students. While we are proud of the technology centers that we have established on our campus, we must recognize that increasingly fewer students use them. We built large computer labs that are open 24 hours a day, only to find students prefer to do their work on their own laptops. Our focus has shifted from computer labs to always-on wireless so our students can continue to access campus resources no matter where they are.

In response to this ubiquitous computing, many universities have already moved from a pen-and-paper learning model to electronic learning systems, or e-learning. With e-learning, students access their class notes via a course website, participate in online discussions with other students, download certain class materials, submit assignments, and receive grades and feedback from their professors. Universities that adopt e-learning are taking the first step towards the classroom of the future. But these campuses should not rest on the accomplishment of e-learning. How students interface with e-learning continues to evolve and is the next trend that will hit the academy.

Two years ago, most students preferred laptops for their personal computing device. Slowly, a few students began to bring iPads and other “mobile computers” into the classroom. Today, mobile devices are everywhere, and their numbers are growing. My campus estimates about two-thirds of our students use a mobile device to interact with the university. According to a November, 2011 study by research firm Nielsen, two-thirds is typical of mobile device adoption with 18-24 year olds. Students look to their smartphone to check email, not a laptop or a lab computer. They want to access their electronic learning systems via an iPad.

In a listening session conducted this year on my campus, a major concern from our students was how to access e-learning systems from their mobile devices. With a loud voice, our students demanded that we develop learning interfaces that support the iPhone or Android phones. They want mobile accessibility, with better mobile carrier reception across the campus. Students no longer expect the campus wireless network to be their only means to access e-learning; in effect, they now bring their networks with them in the form of their mobile phone data plan.

This is the new landscape. With the widespread adoption of these mobile devices, e-learning quickly shifts to learning on the go. With mobile learning, or m-learning, students continue to interact with e-learning systems throughout their university career, but they increasingly do so via mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. This radically changes the new model of e-learning and how students access the e-learning systems. M-learning is about the mobility of the user, recognizing that students can continue to learn wherever they are and no longer need to be anchored in a classroom. Learning will become increasingly portable, relying on mobile carriers to connect with the university’s online systems.

Mobile computing and m-learning will only expand. In the next five years, I expect to consolidate our computer labs and reduce their numbers. Instead of dedicated spaces, students will access software and programs within these labs through a “virtual presence” via a mobile device. Echoing the mainframes of days gone by, students will use a virtual terminal on their tablet or smartphone to provide a window into the computer labs; the real processing will take place on university systems, located in an isolated server room but accessed from anywhere.

Even after we have built this m-learning utopia, we’re not done. Students will eventually move beyond m-learning to new technologies that we have yet to discover. That’s the reality of computing. And it’s our responsibility as stewards of university technology to uncover the new trends, to continue looking ahead, as we serve the campus mission.
This is a copy of a chapter I wrote for an ebook:
Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+Stories from the Digital Frontlines brought together 130 faculty, staff, and students to generate new vision and direction.

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