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May 25, 2010

The implications of mobile... or "carry on up the smart phone"

This is the second of my two posts on the Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, this one focusing on the day's content.

I'll start by revisiting the sound-bites that I used in my brief summing up at the end of the day. I'm not totally sure how useful these are but I wrote them down as things I would have tweeted, had I been on Twitter during the day (which I wasn't, for the reasons outlined in my last post). I'm not going to analyse the talks in detail - all the material is now available (slides and video) so you can watch/listen to it all in any case and various other people have written their own summing up of the day - Marieke Guy, Mike Nolan, Christine Sexton, Paul Sweeney, Chris Thomson and Mike J for example. [Who have I missed?]

Paul Golding kicked the day off with a great overview of the mobile space.  He provided all sorts of facts and figures but added, "It [mobile] is not just about the tech, it's about how it changes behaviour" and I think this theme re-emerged at several points during the day. The key point, for me, is that mobile is different this time round and it is different because mobile technology now allows us to do things we couldn't do before, to work, communicate, socialise, play and relax in different ways, and that is being recognised not just by the geeks but by all sorts of ordinary people.  So what is different? Paul's key drivers for smartphone adoption are worth re-iterating:

  • "faster access,
  • rich user-interfaces,
  • sensor proliferation,
  • cloud computing,
  • social computing,
  • real-time web"

and it strikes me that one of things that is really interesting here is the coming together of handheld devices with the social web.

Christine Sexton re-iterated the cultural change aspects of mobile anecdotally by noting that students now turn up at university not with questions like, "how do I get a username and password?" or "where are the computers?" but with "where's the Internet?". She went on to outline the implications on support models for universities - control, choice, innovation and hands off - before ending with a nod to the business model drivers at play in this space... something that I'll return to in a moment. Christine ended with a call for universities to build 'mobile' into existing strategies and policies around delivery, infrastructure and support and to "carry on innovating".

Andy Ramsden drew an analogy between change in universities and 'soil creep' (a slow underlying process where you can't tell if much has really changed, where the changes themselves are quite variable across the landscape and where it's not clear what the underlying processes are). He was talking specifically about moves towards the greater use of mobile in teaching and learning within the HE sector, though I suspect that the analogy works just as well more generally!  Andy also characterised two kinds of mobile adoption - the first being "more of the same but on your phone" (continuing the trend from desktop to laptop) and the second being the "new learning landscapes" that the use of mobile enables.

Simon Marsden ended his lightning talk by suggesting that we (as providers within universities) need to "lighten up" - again a strong reference to the cultural changes that are happening around us but also, I suspect, echoing Christine's anti-"we don't support that" approach and hinting instead at a 'just do it' kind of mentality.

Tom Hume's talk was very pragmatic, coming from years of experience of building mobile apps on various platforms.  It struck me that much of what he talked about concerned quite generic 'agile' approaches to software development ("release early, release often"), rather than being specifically about mobile but it was very interesting nonetheless. For example, I really liked his case-study where a mobile app was built around the hypothetical needs of a bunch of named but imaginary "real" people. He noted that one of the key things that Apple had done with the introduction of the iPhone was not the handset itself but the fact that they managed to force mobile operators to move to flat-rate data tarrifs (he used the phrases "more fragmentation, simpler tarrifs" and "commoditisation of access" both of which I quite like), a fundamental part of the cultural shift we have seen happen since.

Finally, John Traxler rounded off the day with a wide-ranging keynote about the use of mobile in education. He noted that "mobile doesn't necessarily mean free[dom] - there are a new set of affordances but also a new set of tetherings" - something that we would all do well to remember the next time we are tempted/forced to make work-related use of our smart phones outside of working hours... which reminds me of Dick's regular calls back to the office in Woody Allen's Play it Again Sam (1972):

Making telephone calls from landlines wherever you are such as "This is Mister Christie. I'm at the Hong Fat Noodle Company. That's er, 824-7996." are probably lost on the mobile phone generation. Infact, there were barely any people like this in the early seventies but this running gag is a classic addition to this great movie anyway.

John hinted at three problem areas:

  • "Lack of scale,
  • lack of sustainability, and
  • lack of evidence of effectiveness."

Which brings me back to those business-model issues...

Towards the end of her talk, Christine considered the financial situation. She said (words to the effect of), "the question is not, 'can we afford to support mobile?' but, 'can we afford not to?'" - not an unusual sentiment where new technologies are concerned, particularly where uptake outside education has been widespread.  But it is an interesting statement and I can think of two reasons for making it - either that there will be financial penalties for not adopting/supporting it or that universities will be failing in their mission to deliver learning and research effectively unless they do (or both). Note that this is my interpretation, Christine may have meant something completely different. However, given that the assertion was made in the context of money, I assume that the former was intended.

Which makes me wonder...

In financial terms, how significant are the drivers for universities to adopt 'mobile', or any other form of ICT for that matter? The implication is that prospective students and/or prospective staff and researchers will not bring their funding to a university that is perceived to be lagging behind others in ICT terms. Speaking as a parent of one actual (and two potential) university student(s), I'm not convinced we are at that point yet. Provision of (and use of) ICT is a factor in the overall perception of what makes one university a better choice than another one but it is only one such factor and (I suggest) still a relatively small one. Coupled with the lack of evidence for the effectiveness and sustainability of mobile in both teaching and learning and research I'm not sure how much of a watertight business case could be made for significant investment in 'mobile' currently?

Now, of course, a similar lack of business case would have existed around the adoption of the Web at the end of the last century (I love being able to say that!) and there would have fairly rapidly come a point (though I don't recall exactly when it was) where any university that didn't have a website would have looked very out of place, probably to the point of having a negative impact on staff and student recruitment. Are we at that point yet with mobile? No, I don't think so. How quickly will we reach that point? I don't know, though I guess it will be reasonably soon. But I also think we need to understand the issues about the effectiveness and sustainability of 'mobile' and the perception and decision-making factors within our target audiences rather better than we do currently in order to be able to make more balanced decisions in this area.

At the start of the day I suggested that the symposium had two objectives from an Eduserv perspective... Firstly, to help us understand the impact that 'mobile' might have on both our current services (single sign-on, licence negotiation, web development and hosting, and the data centre) and our potential future services. Secondly, to help the HE community in thinking about how it responds to an increasingly mobile world.

I find it hard to comment on whether we succeeded in the second of these two aims, other than to note that all the talks seemed to me to be both relevant and helpful in that context. In terms of our own services, it seems clear to me that we have to take 'mobile' on board in everything we do, whether that's in the way our access management services work on smart phones, the relevance of our licence negotiation services to the mobile space, the kinds of web solutions we build for government and other clients and the kind data centre services we offer.

Or, as Christine put it, we have to build 'mobile' into everything we do and carry on innovating.

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