Mobile Consumption vs. Laptop Production

Why we need to design education for mobile, and why laptops for learning will not be going away.

January 20, 2016

What do you think of the idea that our digital world is bifurcating?

On the one side is mobile, and on the other is a laptop. IOS vs OSX. Android vs. Chrome OS. Windows vs. Windows?

On one side is consumption, and on the other is production.

If this is true, and I’m not sure that it is, then there are all sorts of implications for education.

In 2016, consuming content is better on a mobile device than on a laptop. Our mobile devices are always with us, always ready to go. With our mobile devices we can lean back, walk around, and use on the go.

Consuming content on an phone or tablet is (mostly) a one platform / app experience. The challenges of multitasking on a mobile device is more a feature than a bug. If I’m waching a movie or paging through Twitter or reading the NYTimes on my iPhone I am not tempted to write an e-mail.  The fact that typing is not great on a mobile means that we type less, and focus instead on taking in information.

Our laptops, conversely, are much better for producing than they are for consuming. If I’m on my laptop I am probably typing something. Mostly I’m writing e-mails, but often I’ll be writing other stuff - or putting together a slide deck - or maybe working on a spreadsheet.

Almost never on my laptop do I spend lots of time reading content or watching video. Those tasks are reserved for my mobile devices.

What this means for education, I think, is that we need to design our content primarily for mobile. Anything that has to do with consumption will occur on a small touch screen.  Our text, presentations, and videos all need to be designed mobile first.

Worryingly, our main education platform - the learning management system (LMS) - was built first for the browser. Mobile-first / mobile-centric LMS systems have not gained significant market share. My guess is that in some markets, such as executive education, we will start seeing a switch to platforms like Apple’s Private iTunes U Course application - as the mobile app experience is so much superior to that of the browser experience.

What I am not saying, however, is that we will see the end of the laptop. I expect that laptops will remain key for education for many years to come. The reason is the keyboard. Every educated person must now be comfortable expressing their thoughts in writing.  All of us need to build competency and confidence in writing for information sharing and persuasion.

The keyboard is the killer education app of the 21st century, and the keyboards on mobile devices suck. With a laptop we can type anywhere we have a lap - which is everywhere.

Apple, Microsoft, and a whole host of companies are trying to convince us that mobile keyboards are effective. Don’t believe it.

After having spent a few weeks with the new $169 iPad Pro Smart Keyboard (the combined case and keyboard), I can tell you that it is not something that you will want use for any serious writing.

We should be suspicious of any education program that is mobile only. Mobile-first sure, but not mobile only. Any good postsecondary program should stress production over consumption.

Writing is at the heart of any worthwhile education.

Any student showing up to campus with only a mobile device will condemn themselves to an impoverished educational experience.

How do you use your phone, tablet and laptop?

Are you designing your digitally mediated educational experiences to be mobile-first?

Do you also worry that the push towards mobile will diminish the amount of writing that we expect of our students?



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