Mobile Technology in K-12 Schools and Universities

While reading this section, I have a few questions I'd like you to keep in mind. These questions will form the basis of dicussion for this section.

  1. From an educational institution's point of view, why might they adopt mLearning?
  2. What might stop institutions from adopting mLearning? How are companies trying to mitigate the disadvantages?
  3. How closely linked are mobile technology hardware and the services they enable? Can they exist independently, or are they better off intertwined?
  4. How important is a company's image when working with educational instutitions?
  5. What sort of image does a successful mLearning company want to cultivate?
  6. Ultimately, is mLearning worth the cost to educational institutions? This single question will determine the health and longevity of this market.

The Case for Investing in Mobile Technologies in Schools

mLearning technology is an exciting new technology that provides a lot of potential for reaching students. A big advantage is the possibility to reach students anywhere. Study on the bus. Write quizzes on the road. Learning is no longer bound by the walls of the classroom.

There is also the novelty factor of using mLearning technology. Since cell phones, cameras, and mp3 players have long been taboo in K-12 schools (even banned), they have gained a high degree of cool amongst naturally rebelous youth. By tapping into this, teachers can make traditional assignments fresh and engaging by encorporating mobile technology into their lessons.

Challenges to be Overcome in This Market

Cost of Adoption: One major hurdle for any mLearning venture to in the door at K-12 schools and universities is the cost of adopting it. Especially in today's economy, schools are strapped for funding for the most basic supplies nevermind spending it on adopting new and not necessarily proven educational technology. One way around this is the "Everyone Has One" model that is especially common with cell-phone learning services. The idea is that everybody owns a cell phone these days, so there is essential no cost to adopting their product. This is especially problematic in K-12 public schools. From my experience in Canadian schools, school districts are extremely against any policy that might single out students that are financially disadvantaged. In that past, I have been banned from asking for computer-related homework assignments as poor students do not have computer access at home and are therefore disadvantage. At least in Canadian public schools, and I strongly suspect elsewhere, any service that assumes students have their own technology will be a difficult sell. On the other hand, the cost of mobile technologies is rapidly falling. In their article "The Good Enough Revolution," Wired Magazine points out that one of fastest growing gadget markets is inexpensive, low-quality mobile devices. If cost is a hurdle now, it seems like this hurdle is getting shorter and shorter all the time. Burden of Proof: How effective are these technologies in enhancing education? mLearning is new and generally untested in educational institutions. Educational institutions tend to be conservative and slow in adopting change. That doesn't mean that they won't, but cash-strapped educational institutions that are under a lot of pressure to cut costs will make difficult targets as early adopters for mLearning tech.

Iconic Case Studies of mLearning Technologies in Schools

In order to understand how these advantages and disadvantages are playing out in this fast-paced market, we will look at three iconic examples of mLearning Technology: the OLPC, iTunes University, and Lego's Mindstorms.


The OLPC is the quintessential example of mLearning technology in schools. Simply put, if you can make a mobile learning device that can affordably run in rural African schools, then mobile learning can work anywhere. How the OLPC does can be viewed as something of a baramoter for how far mobile technology has come in the classroom.

Watch this video from the New York Times web site to learn all about the OLPC:

So, how is the OLPC doing? To start, OLPCs have spread like wildfire. There are currently over 1 million OLPC's in operation in third world countries - that's over a million kids that didn't used to have laptops that now do. This is an indication that the OLPC has broken through the Cost of Adoption disadvantage - sort of. Although the OLPC once billed itself as the $100 Laptop, the project has yet to bring it's cost under $170 per unit. But the spread has been fueled by "Give One Get One" programs that encouraged globally concerned gadget geeks to buy an OLPC for a poor child and receive one for themselves. So, clearly the west is ready to invest in mLearning solutions even if they are a bit pricy.

Has the OLPC broken through the Burden of Proof disadvantage? There are certainly some indications that technical difficulties have hamstrung the project in some areas. A recent article in the Economist cited a number of problems with the OLPCs. Many initial orders were shipped with the wrong language installed, aging teachers didn't know what to do with the machines, the OLPC's Internet connectivity was highly problematic in many countries, and the "gadgets' were often criticized for taking the spotlight away from more important issues such as creating greater teacher accountability. But the article is also quick to point out that many schools have found the OLPC delightfully refreshing and engaging, and that it have been many reports of the OLPCs starting to divert traditional educational practices away from rote learning and more towards constructivist models that encourage critical thinking. Ultimately it is too soon to say how much of an impact the OLPC is having on education in the actual classrooms they are in.

One thing is very noticeable from this video - the effect of altruistic branding on nay-sayers. Did you notice how the OLPC's philanthropic reputation quickly silences David Pogue, the New York Times' reviewer? In fact he quickly dismisses legitimate criticisms of the technical limitations of the product: "I can see why the bloggers are a bit snarky about this laptop ... but think again, this laptop is not meant for the snarky bloggers, it's meant for poor kids in other countries. And for that, I say it is amazing." Clearly altruistic branding is essential in the mLearning market.

Apple's iTunes University and the iPod

Apple has been very active in pushing the Podcast as an educational tool. Now you can use their music downloading software, iTunes, to access a large database of free audio and video content from famous museums, universities, and cultural institutions.

Allow Apple wow you with this video that describes this product.

iTunes U illustrates a very important concept in mLearning technologies targeted at schools: devices do not stand alone. The iPod is just a music / video player, but combined with free quality educational content, the iTunes U service transforms the iPod into a learning tool. This is an effective pattern that most mLearning technologies follow. It is also important to note the fact that the iTunes U service is completely free and does not necessarily require the iPod to function. Thus, Apple breaks the Cost of Adoption disadvantage of mLearning technologies (although this is still a problem with the iPod itself). This might seem like a bad business move on Apple's behalf - after all, couldn't cheaper portable video players be potentially used to play this content and undercut the iPod product (which is what generates revenue in the first place)? The second disadvantage - the Burden of proving educational efficacy - is effectively countered by Apple's partnerships with universities, museums, and cultural institutions. Apple side-steps the Burden of Proof because it is offering audio and video content that is either historical in nature or provided by proven educational institutions and world-renowned scholars. The real question is: does buying an iPod to watch these educational videos anywhere really add educational value? Again, Apple doesn't really address this concern. These two points would criple the iPod as an mLearning technology if Apple were trying to push it onto universities as some kind of mandatory educational device to be thrust upon cash-strapped student bodies. But that's not what Apple is trying to do with the iPod and iTunes U. As a free, open service, iTunes U effectively brands Apple as an organization that is seriously cares about education, and re-brands the iPod's rockstar image into that of an altruistic educational tool. This is exactly the right kind of image you want when trying to promote yourselves in the world of education, and it enhances all of Apple's education-focused projects. It's also the kind of image college kids want the iPod to have when they ask for one from their parents at Christmas time, and it also helps consumers justify buying a newer iPod for those people who have older non-video models.

Lego Mindstorms

Lego Mindstorms is a mLearning technology that I am personally using in my own classroom. The Mindstorms is a portable robotics kit that you can use to construct an endless variety of robots with. At it's heart is a sophisticated minature computer (pictured) that you can program to interact with the kit's various sensors and servo motors. As a mobile technology, not only is it small enough to carry with you, it can actually propel itself! My experience with the Mindstorms kits at Lord Byng Secondary in Vancouver BC underlies both the advantages and disadvantages of mLearning technologies in schools. The Mindstorms certainly suffers from the Cost of Adoption disadvantage. At $350 CAD a piece, plus taxes, shipping, and the cost of batteries (6 AA requried, plus a battery charger), each kit is a significant investment. A single kit can be used at most by 3 students at a time, so to outfit an entire class would cost upwards of $4000 CAD. Only a few high schools have this kind of funding. To outfit my class, I have spent $1400 of my own money, and turned to outside sources to build the rest of the fleet of robots in my class - the Parent Advisory Council funds, for example. I have also been trying to leverage Olympic Funding (as Vancouver is the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics) for our school towards the robotics program. Getting the robots into my school has been a significant challenge. The Proof of Burden disadvantage has not been a problem for the Mindstorms products. It is quite clear to anyone who has seen my students working on the robotics projects that there is serious learning going on, spanning the realms of physics, math, and computer programming. Students are intensely focused and motivated towards learning anything that can make their robots more effective and competitive, and will go to great lengths and spend long hours to tweak the most out of their designs. Much like Apple's iTunes U, Lego has also bundles a valuable free service with the Mindstorms to further promote their product. Students from around the world can entire the First Lego League and compete against other teams at various robotics challenges. Of course, students must use the Lego Mindstorms kits in order to participate. This gives students an international focus for their activities, and is also a source of challenges and lesson plans for teaching robotics with the kits. Although my school does not yet particiapte in this event (it might be free, but you still have to get everybody to the challenge!), the FLL activities and lesson plans were instrumental in my choice for adopting the Lego Mindstorms over competing robotics kits.


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