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Cellular Data Plans, Laptops, and Blended Learning
August 16, 2011 - 9:54pm

Does our ability to effectively do our jobs in a blended learning, web-enabled, educational model ultimately reduce to the robustness of our data plan? Connectivity is the oxygen of productivity when courses are delivered ,in-part or in-full, via the web. The learning management system, synchronous classroom/meeting tool, and lecture capture platform dissolves into nothingness absent bandwidth. Without a connection, it is like our classrooms are submerged underwater, or perhaps dry but with all the usable oxygen sucked out. No Internet. No job.

The need for a constant connection would not be so extreme if the business of higher education conformed to normal business hours. For better or for worse, and for richer or for poorer, we have (mostly all) committed to teaching environments that blanket the clock and the calendar. 24/7 and somewhere close to 365. The LMS has become mission critical, soon to be followed by lecture capture, campus media and synchronous meetings, a set of services that almost never ever close.

And we need to be connected. Connected while traveling. Connected while parenting (at away games and events). Ubiquitously and reliably connected. Connected not just by phone, and I think connected by something more powerful than a tablet. Connected with our full laptops. Keyboards. Big screens. Flash. But particularly keyboards.

But this need, the need for universal and ubiquitous web connection with a laptop, has seemingly raced ahead of the solutions on offer. Or at least all of the solutions seem like partial solutions, inadequate, half-baked and overly expensive. WiFi is unreliably available at kids soccer games and airports and the places in between. WiMax remains more hype than reality, at least in my geography. Cellular data plans remain the only near total connectivity options, but they are expensive and stingy and the fast 4G nationwide rollout is years away. What to do?

The options:

A) Tether: Being the proud owner of an iPhone and a MacBook Pro, I could purchase from the good folks at Verizon a tether data package. Hook my laptop to my iPhone by Bluetooth and we are good to go. The catch? Verizon will sell me 2 gigs a month for $30, 5 gigs for $50, and 10 gigs for $80. This is on top of the regular monthly Verizon phone charges. How much data does one need? How can we tell ahead of time? Could be very little, could be a ton. What is the right amount? How well does tethering over Bluetooth work? Do I really want to carry my heavy MacBook Pro everywhere, and deal with the ever shortening battery life of a 15 month old laptop?

B) Chromebook: I was all set to order a Chromebook. What's not to like? $500. 100MB of 3G data free a month. Lightweight with full keyboard. A long battery life. A perfect backup and connected travel machine. But then the reviews started coming in, and they weren't great. The general feel I get from reading reviews is that the Chromebook version 1 is half-baked. Offline productivity and usefulness needs serious work. The Chrome OS is a couple versions away from true usability. A good start, but not even a serious 2nd machine.

So I remain torn. If the MacBook Air had come with a Chromebook like data plan, and was maybe cheaper, I think that would have decided the question.

Can you help? How do you plug into the collective?


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