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.

Insights from the mobile devices survey

I’m very pleased to have had as many as 140 responses to the survey. The answers to the multiple choice questions were fairly predictable:

ImageThe transition to mobile is well underway, with the usual spectrum of early- to late-adopters.

ImageiPads are where it’s at, but the strategy really has to embrace everything. At least no-one said “Google Glass” yet.

As always, the insights were to be found in the comments. Some teachers see no benefit whatever to mobile

…everything you can do on a iPad or Android device can be done on a PC.

whilst others are looking into an exciting future, even if they don’t yet know in detail how to manifest it

Less didactic teaching – more project based, providing resources, more group work, personalised learning, learners making choices about when they take assessments, learners choosing the materials that suit them best…

and of course many simply express uncertainty.

It seems most teachers at the start of the process are asking themselves the question “Can I (or how can I) run the existing system more efficiently with this new tool?”

Those further down the track are starting to discover that usage evolves under its own logic, if you let it

My sixth form students already use their own devices,initially  the biggest change I found that when asked a question they unsure on they turned to Google,  but they altered as they settled in  to the use in the classroom, attempting to answer first and then googling to see who was right, it was nice to see the development from reliance on the device to using it to support the knowledge they had.   (It wasn’t an easy path though!)

What I hope to see if we run the same survey next year is that a few have moved beyond the current framework, and instead are looking outside education for inspiration. Apps and services like Foursquare, Google Goggles and Ease into 5k use a mobile devices’ sensors and capabilities to deliver experiences that are simply not possible in any other way. None of these three are particularly intended as educational apps, but each has potential. More importantly, they inspire us to look beyond classroom and curriculum, and into a new way to develop the minds of our young charges.