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Why Hasn't Mobile Learning Gained Traction?
October 25, 2009 - 9:35pm

This weekend I spent some times reading the NYTimes, reading a novel, exchanging e-mail, watching a TED Talk, and surfing the Web. The only thing notable about any of this is that I did all these things on my ipod touch. I also did some work on a couple of courses, reading some articles, looking at some curricular videos, and checking out course blogs and wikis -- none of which I did on my ipod touch.

Google mobile learning and you get 103 million hits. At, the same search results in 4,060 hits, including articles in EDUCAUSE Quarterly and EDUCAUSE Review. Browse through the EDUCAUSE 2009 conference site and you will discover mobile learning will be one of the dominant themes at this years conference.

There seems to be a disconnect between our excitement and the reality of mobile learning. In my sample of 1 (myself) I find that my ipod touch has changed the way I consume news, video, books, and e-mail, but it has done almost nothing to change what I do in learning and learning technology. The NYTimes iPhone application has completely shifted my NYTimes reading behavior. The ability to put video on my touch through iTunes has meant that much of my video watching now takes place during short breaks when I'm on the go. But, again, my ipod touch does not touch my learning technology or college teaching jobs.

Yes, I know all about the great work being done at ACU on mobile learning. Blackboard's purchase of MobilEdu is very exciting. The 2009 Horizon Report makes a compelling case for the potential of mobile learning, and cites numerous examples of innovative work on mobilizing higher education. The list of pilot projects, interesting education apps, and persuasive research on the benefits of mobile learning could take up whole books (over 2,000 listed at Amazon) and exciting conferences (book now for mobile learning 2010). But I'm just not seeing it in my own work.

Do I think mobile learning will eventually live up to its hype? More specifically, do I think that students and faculty will interact with course materials and utilize mobile platforms for communication, collaboration, assessment, and creation to anywhere near the extent that laptops are today? I hope so, but I think the obstacles for us to get from here to there are bigger then we first imagined.

These obstacles basically come down to the fact that today's mobile devices are vastly inferior to computers for consuming and producing course content.

1. Consuming Content: The lack of campus content policies and a supporting set of technologies to allow the transfer of all LMS curricular content to mobile devices. Until the day where all course video and course reading reserves can be transferred in one step to a mobile device, while preserving any metadata and content organization, the mobile device will continue to be a poor substitute for a laptop (or netbook). Our curricular content is simply too locked down, too copy protected (or streamed) to allow the transfer to mobile devices. The LMS often serves as a portal to curricular content rather then a container, and for mobile devices to work the curricular content much be in a format that it can be fully transferred. The NYTimes iPhone is a perfect model for what we need to mobilize a course.

2. Producing Content : Even if the curricular content problem is solved, mobile devices remain optimized for consuming rather then producing content. Until the day where mobile devices come with robust speech-to-text inputs the lack of a physical keyboard will limit the utility of the devices. We need to be able to participate in course discussions, write course blogs and upload materials to course wikis - all sub-optimal experiences on a mobile platform.

Until these two large obstacles are overcome I'm afraid that mobile learning will remain perpetually just over the horizon.


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