iPhones Each Day Keep the Instructor OK; Mobility and Place in American Academic Life
I used to have insomnia; sometimes I couldn’t even stay asleep with Lunesta or Ambien. On a whim I bought an iPod, subscribed to a dozen feeds, and started listening to them whenever I woke up in the middle of the night. Now I fall right back to sleep, lulled into dreamland by the soporific tones of NPR. And I’ve come to depend on Apple to help me keep the pills in the medicine cabinet.
This dependence makes me one of Apple's most appreciative customers. My bedroom is littered with shuffles, nanos and iPod touches; they’ve become my sleeping-pill methadone. If I had an iPhone I’d probably call it a methaphone.
I’m actually a Windows workstation user during the day (my essays are authored on a Dell). But Apple’s uncanny ability to hook me into their mobile product line in spite of my cognitive lock-in to Windows is just a small illustration of how successful Apple has been in capitalizing on America’s longstanding love-affair with mobility. Of course, I sleep pretty much motionless. But I’m atypical; most people use these devices on the move.
From a historical perspective, however, Apple isn't the brand that most evokes an attention to mobility. That distinction actually belongs to IBM (a.k.a “I’ve Been Moved”) which frenetically shuttled its employees from place to place in the 50s and 60s as a way of exposing its workforce to diverse challenges and opportunities.
America’s mobile dispositions didn’t begin with high tech, or even with Henry Ford and the affordable car. In fact we’ve always had a restless disposition, ceaselessly venturing toward the real (or metaphoric) frontier as noted by the French aristocrat Alexis Tocqueville during his visit to America in 1831: “It is the Americans themselves who daily quit the spots which gave them birth to acquire extensive domains in a remote country. . . . Millions of men…marching at once toward the same horizon. . . . The gifts of fortune are promised in the West, and to the West they bend their course. . .”1
All of this serves to illustrate that mobile technology--whether in the form of the covered wagon, the Model T, or the iPhone--is our manifest destiny. America’s mobile culture and technology grew up together, spurring each other onward. Apple’s products may enjoy worldwide popularity but they are as strikingly American as, well, you know what kind of pie.
Given mobility’s persistent and growing presence in American culture it’s no surprise to find that mobility is also featured prominently in the recent Horizon Report--which academic technologists look for clues about emerging trends in higher education.
Of particular note in that report was a study done by Lifang Tien who compared the amount of studying students did when they had access to an iPhone versus the amount by students who did not. According to Tien, iPhone-enabled students would visit course material in passing moments: “One of my students goes to the playground with her kids and can study there," Tien reports. "Another one logged in while waiting in the dentist’s office.”2
For many of us, Tien’s study confirms impressions we already had; the mobile device provides greater opportunities for study than when the modality isn’t available. But where the report broaches more interesting and less familiar ground is in claiming that a mobile device is increasingly the only avenue of access that students have to online materials “as they are often far cheaper than desktop or laptop computers.”3 The report doesn’t provide hard statistics that measure how many students are acquiring data plans and mobile devices in lieu of a discount desktop and a DSL or broadband connection. But the possibility that mobile devices are more appealing financially to less-wealthy demographics is important for community colleges and public universities that harbor commitments to the democratization of higher education. The technology that facilitates this mission may be the iPad and the $15 dollar a month 3G subscription or an equivalent Android package rather than the lowly desktop and DSL or broadband. The ironies here are profound: if the economics are really as the Horizon Report presents them, the ultimate item of fashion, the item which epitomizes conspicuous consumption may actually be a tool that catalyzes the democratic consumption of education.
Whether or not our faculty have embraced (much less recognized) these potential trends, on our campus we have started various mobile computing initiatives so as not to be left behind. Even if we turned a blind eye to it, a generation of younger programmers are ushering it in. I came into the office yesterday bristling with mobile devices that had been loaned to me by unnamed patrons of the mobile revolution. They promptly disappeared into the eager hands of my fellow programmers only to reappear at the end of the day installed with various mobile programs they had coded. The challenge isn’t in opening our eyes to the prospect of mobility, or finding interested programmers to cater to it, but doing it in a balanced fashion so that our pursuit of mobility and the latest gadget doesn’t eclipse or subvert our other university missions.
To achieve this balance we should be considering the following things: First, we should clarify the underlying household economics that impel our students toward desktops or toward mobile computing. If the economics are really as the Horizon Report suggests then the reasons for restraint are fewer. But if mobile data plans are still a luxury then a second look is in order. On our campus only 32% of students reported having a data plan. And, of those who did not, 49% claimed that it was too expensive.4 In keeping with those statistics, in my household I stubbornly refuse to shell out another penny on communication. Between broadband and three cells, I’m already paying $150 a month. Adding another $30 a month seems onerous; especially when Americans a hundred years ago paid out much less per month on communication. But maybe that’s just the historian in me talking. A work-study student I know who makes $8.00 an hour and is raising a child still has a data plan even though she says she doesn’t know how she affords it. My colleague in computer science swears that he’d rather starve one day a week than give up his plan.
Second, not everyone sees as much promise in the pedagogical potential of mobile computing as the Horizon Report proclaims. For example, Roger Schank, renowned iconoclast and leading visionary in artificial intelligence, made this 2010 prediction in eLearn magazine in a blurb titled “Bye bye phone” (I quote him in full):
Mobile e-learning will go away. There is always the latest thing in e-learning that everyone must do. One of my least favorite of these is mobile e-learning. E-learning will not happen, at least not seriously, on mobile phones. Why not? Because it takes time to learn something. You have to really understand a situation. You have to practice a skill. You have to consider alternatives. You have to create deliverables. At least you do for the e-learning that I build. This takes time—a lot of time. It was seriously suggested recently in a full year all day every day course I was building, that we needed to make it available on mobile phones. I don't know about you, but staring at mobile phone for an hour makes my eyes hurt. Try doing it all day for a year. It makes no sense. We don't learn anything instantly. Real learning is not done on a train or a bus. The kinds of courses that can be delivered that way will be shown to not be particularly useful.5
And Stephen Downes, another well-known commentator on online learning has expanded on Schank’s predictions:
There's that, but I would add, on a mobile phone, time is money--sometimes big money. I think he is essentially right, but let me add some subtext and subtlety to the discussion. Learning is often done through reading and creating, which are surfaces in a stationary environment. Narrowing our focus and trying to work on a phone-sized screen will not likely ever be as effective. But for audio and even video, a device like the iPod Touch works really well. Learning can be supported through audio and video, which means the phone can play a role. But this role is limited in two major ways: first, it's mostly passive, as we watch or listen; and second, it's slower, because audio and video are linear and flow at a static rate.6
Neither of these criticisms has achieved much press but should. Their counsel suggests that we proceed with caution in pursuing America’s mobile destiny. As these commentators argue, not all pedagogical methods are served by a move to mobile devices, and some methods are seriously jeopardized. Although left implicit, Schank and Downes also allude to the fact that while the curve of American history may bend toward mobility, we also have, within the university itself, monastic and cloistered practices that are usually associated with more place-bound learning. These counter-traditions celebrate the practice of concentrated and focused study where one is removed from the information deluge. Even as CIOs work to cover their entire campus in a wireless network, many are banning mobile devices from their classrooms. Sometimes this tension can be seen as problematic, yet in reality it’s just a manifestation of the multiple traditions to which the university caters. To ensure that the virtues of both traditions are carried forward we need to make sure that we invest in them in a balanced fashion.
Left unanswered in the accelerating intrusion of mobile devices into campus life is the question of which aspects of learning can transcend place and which are still intrinsically place-bound. This is in many ways an extension of ongoing conversations as residential visions cede ground to distance education and its mantra of delivering education “any time any place.” But the popularity of mobile devices draws more attention to the question.
It is possible that mobile modalities will simply enhance our ability to engage in the quiet contemplative study that is afforded by traditional locations like the cloister, the carrel, and the library. Certainly there are precedents that suggest this, since universities have hardly withered away with the advent of printed books--which are, of course, our original mobile information devices. Even as students and instructors could access more knowledge by toting around books, they have continued to frequent the physical campus. Identifying more clearly where learning in-place has advantages over more peripatetic education will help us delineate the promises as well as the strategic limits of our mobile ventures.
Third, while mobile modalities are bound to grow, they probably won’t replace the browser that we access through a desktop or a laptop. We will need to continue to invest in our older, more traditional and sedentary interfaces even as mobiles proliferate. The newest iteration of Web programming, HTML5, may provide approaches that allow programmers to easily code across these platforms. But if this transition isn’t managed well, a competition for programming resources could develop.
This same competition may develop as different mobile platforms vie for dominance. The contest between platforms recalls the bad old browser wars of years past, which thankfully are on the wane. As browsers have moved toward more standard rendering of the code that programmers write, cross-browser coding costs have declined even if they still are not trivial. But the expense, that seemed to be diminishing, once again threatens to increase as programmers gear up to support the iPhone, the Droid and whatever else is in the wings. While university programmers may not be able to avoid being the collateral damage of these new battles, there are benefits in staying out of the crossfire until it is clear who the winners are going to be.
In spite of the iPhone’s trendiness, it is not a shallow or an ephemeral drift. On a visceral and very personal level I know this. Even though I’m a PC person, I am not about to give up my methaphone. The same is true on a macro-level; the iPhone caters to a longstanding pursuit of mobility in American culture, in the tradition of the Conestoga and Model T. Moreover, in the academy these trends appeal to peripatetic traditions that go all the way back to Aristotle.
Still, the university as a perennially Janus-faced institution (looking back as much as it looks forward, catering to the elite, even as it parades as a gateway to the middle-class) has mobile traditions that are complemented by place-bound ones. In our pursuit of a more digitalized campus let’s make sure that both traditions are carried forward.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America, 8th ed., tr. Henry Reeve (New York: Pratt, Woodford, Co, 1848), 320, http://tinyurl.com/277gtg7. [return to text]
2. Jeffrey Young, "Teaching with Technology Face-Off: iPhones vs. PC's," Chronicle of Higher Education (February 27, 2009), https://chronicle.com/blogPost/Teaching-With-Technology/4547 . [return to text]
3. "2010 Horizon Report," http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2010/chapters/mobile-computing/#4 . [return to text]
4. Weber State Technology Survey 2010, http://www.weber.edu/wsuimages/SAAssessment/Technology%20Survey%20Summary.pdf . [return to text]
5. Roger Schank, "Predictions for 2010," eLearn Magazine (January 7, 2010), http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?section=articles&article=106-1 . [return to text]
6. Stephen Downes, "Stephen's web", http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=51397. [return to text]