This past Friday was the 5th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. Over at the NYTimes Bits blog Brian Chen, author of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future -- and Locked Us In, has some observations about how the iPhone changed phone and software industries.
The way to think about the iPhone in relation to higher ed is less as a single product but a new product category. This category, which includes Android/Google and maybe eventually the Windows 8 phones, equals smart phone plus an app ecosystem. The carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T etc.) remain a critical (as they own the cellular network), but annoying component of this ecosystem. Annoying because their voice/data pricing plans are only getting more expensive, restrictive and confusing as the hardware and software on smartphones improves exponentially each year. Any impact that the iPhone and its cousins achieve in higher ed will be in spite of, rather than because, the big cellular companies that we all must endure.
How has the iPhone changed higher ed?
1. A Glimpse Into A Mobile Learning Future: The iPhone has allowed us to clearly peer in our learning future, and that future is mobile. The only limitation will be that processing power, storage and software will improve faster than our ability to re-engineer learning tools around the mobile form factor. What would an LMS (learning management system) designed from scratch for Apple's iOS and Google's Android look like? Can we imagine virtual synchronous classroom/meeting tools such as Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate look like with a native mobile design?). The iPhone screen seems plenty big enough, the rate-limiting step of the iPhone as a learning platform seems to be the keyboard. Mobile devices are great for content consumption, not so wonderful for creation (and education depends on creation). Despite the challenges, it seems clear that the ubiquitousness nature (always with us, always connected) of the iPhone type device will make mobile the primary platform for 21st century learning. We are evolving to a place where our mobiles are extensions of ourselves, our outboard brains and always at hand communications and entertainment devices. Where gaming and social media and communication go, education will soon follow.
2. The Apps vs. Browser Debate: To a great and growing extent education is already mediated through technology. We interact with our fellow students, professors, and course content via software. This software is moving from our computers to our smart phones (and tablets). The question is, how what form will this software take? Will it be delivered through the browser or an app? Perhaps the browser/app debate will soon fade, as native apps become web apps - simple shells around browser based content and data exchange. The desire to avoid the expense and complication of coding separate apps for each platform (iOS, Android) and for the Web is understandable. I'm unconvinced, however, that this approach will provide us with high quality mobile (and mobile educational) experiences. The gold standard for apps in my experience is the NYTimes and Amazon Kindle iPhone app. These apps are easy to navigate, sync automatically, and work offline. Reading a book with the Kindle app or news through the NYTimes app causes the device to recede into the background. I don't know of any education app that performs as well as these two examples, and I have a hard time believing that when that app comes it will not be a native mobile app.
3. The Mobile Services Imperative: Every college and university feels the pressure to mobilize our web content. All the work we have done in the past 20 or so years to get our higher ed content and services to the web seems inadequate if this same content and services are not available for smart phones. Where we are going to get the resources to bring everything we do on the web to the mobile screen is a reasonable question. The web work will not go away (it will expand), and the pull to mobile will only get stronger. Will web sites designed with RWD (responsive web design) techniques be robust enough to perform on iPhones at the level that our students, faculty, staff, alumni, potential students expect? Can we avoid coding around native apps, and instead go with a write-once display everywhere web app strategy, allow us to move rapidly and cost-effectively enough into our mobile campus future?
4. Device Proliferation and Support Challenges: Campus technology services and campus applications now need to work with both computers and mobile devices. Do you have an easy way that your students, faculty and staff can get their iPhones on your secure wireless network, your printing and application authentication systems? What devices will you support in your student help desk? How far will you go to help your professors troubleshoot their mobile devices? What training, advice, and support will you offer instructors on incorporating mobile phones into teaching?
5. A BRIC Education Growth Roadmap: The BRICS are Brazil, Russia, India and China - they are the fast growing emerging economies with huge populations and a rapidly increasing role in global trade, manufacturing, services and consumption. We could (and should) spend lots of time thinking about the opportunity to export US higher education to the BRICS, and to grow the footprint of our educational technology and educational publishing companies in these countries. As the action in higher education moves from the already wealthy to the growth economies (the BRICs and beyond … such as South Korea, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, and Nigeria), the mediating technology will be the mobile device. The BRICS largely skipped over landline technology, jumping directly to cellular phones. The demand for educational services at every level will be way larger than traditional place based (campus based) institutions could ever provide. Education will be mobile. Campuses will still be built, but the great volume of educational interactions will take place on the mobile phone.
6. The Disappointment of Unrealized Mobile Education Potential: The final way that the iPhone has changed higher ed over the past 5 years is the degree to which the iPhone has not changed higher ed. The mobile education hype has outpaced the mobile education reality. Smart phone education applications and service continue to be an appendage to those designed for the web. We lag behind in delivering our students the course, library, and campus services and content that they want on their mobile devices. We have very little understanding of how we can incorporate these handheld mobile computers into our teaching. And from what I can tell, Apple, Google or Microsoft have not made education a core part of their long-term mobile strategies.
What would you add to this list of how the iPhone changed higher ed?