Mobile devices in education – damp squib?

Five years ago, everyone was going mobile. Tech blogs were full of advice to adopt a ‘mobile first’ development strategy. In education, the debate raged between the purist all-iPad camp and the libertarian BYOD brigade.

So who won? Neither.

desktop vs mobile

At Yacapaca, we have a unique perspective. Millions of users, years of history. Rather than rush in, we started patiently collecting session data. Browsers automatically declare their parameters to web services so they can be served with an interface that fits the device. Here are the data, broken down by academic year.

And you can see what’s changed; almost nothing.

Mobile use has crept up slightly over the years; it’s mostly teachers checking student results. Students use almost exclusively desktops or laptops (we cannot distinguish between these in our data).

Why is it that as the rest of the world went mobile, education did not? Is this just education lagging behind the curve as usual? On this occasion, I don’t think it is.

One factor that was much debated 5 years ago was cost. Small cheap tablets vs. big expensive PCs. Even better, BYOD is free! Except that turned out not to be the case. At £100 each, Chromebooks are now four times cheaper than the cheapest iPads. BYOD suffers from high support costs, and large hidden productivity costs, as teachers and technicians have to adapt to a range of devices they cannot control.

But I don’t think cost was the deciding factor. Students’ primary output is the written, or typed, word. While it is true that you can create text on a mobile device, that’s really not what they were designed for. Primarily they are consumption devices, not production devices. Keyboards make them much more productive. Those who can touch type are wildly more productive.

As the excitement dies down, we’re asking what works. And it is not mobile. The trend, such as it is, is so minor that it will take another 20 years before we would see any significant change in usage. Long before then, some new wave of technology will have swept the whole debate into the dustbin of history, but that’s for another blog post, and another time.

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One response to “Mobile devices in education – damp squib?”

  1. Just interested to know what the bar chart represents – would this be the number of Yacapaca users and how they accessed the content? Was the content designed for mobile delivery? Could you access content via a dedicated app or only via a responsive website? Was there a difference when users were accessing content outside of school/college hours?

    I’d agree that mobile devices are not being used widely in a schools context, but would be interested to know what they’re using outside of school hours. The chromebook vs. tablet argument makes sense in terms of usage (keyboard entry tasks) and cost (vs. Apple tablets).

    On the flipside, there are a number of successful educational interactions almost exclusively accessed via mobile phones – Duolingo regulary tops the charts and seems to provide a positive experience for users. There are interesting examples of dedicated apps for universities which seem to have widespread usage, though not for teaching delivery.

    I suspect it comes down to purpose and context – it might be a ‘damp squib’ in some areas, but definitely not all.


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