Mobile Momentum and Doubts

Technology companies promote convenient versions of services, but some professors still worry that all that convenience comes at the expense of attention in class.
October 14, 2010

ANAHEIM -- Mobile is on the move.

That is what one is inclined to conclude, anyway, after a quick stroll around the bazaar-like exhibit hall here at the 2010 Educause conference.

The Blackboard encampment, though it has small desks devoted to various planks of the business, is flying a single banner this year: that of Blackboard Mobile, a platform that pipes various aspects of higher education (“teaching, learning, and campus life”) into your mobile device. I pause in front of an iPad, a Blackberry, an Android, and an iPhone, each displaying a demo of what is promised to be the future hub of campus life. An enthusiastic member of the Blackboard team -- Trent Gillaspie, Southwest regional manager for mobility solutions -- pounces.

“I get a lot of people asking me, why doesn’t the regular interface look like this?” Gillaspie says, navigating around the iPad version with a practiced hand. The answer is that Blackboard is designing advanced platforms for mobile that it will never bother retrofitting for regular computers. That’s because in the future, mobile will be everyone’s portal to campus resources, says Gillaspie.

Over at the booth of Desire2Learn, another learning-management provider, I hear the same thing. “Parity with the desktop version is no longer a goal,” says Matt Teskey, technical product manager for Desire2Learn, whose tent was sponsored by Blackberry. “This year,” he adds, “mobile is big for us.”

Big for many technology vendors here. Among the usual mascots and sideshows hired to draw in crowds, the vendor booths were crawling with company representatives, armed with iPads, poised to demonstrate how their services were adapting software to the popular mobile devices — and in some cases, raffling them away. “It’s big this year,” said Bret Hansen, a principal technical architect for SunGard Higher Education.

Hansen had just emerged from a conversation with someone over at Turning Technologies who had been selling him on an app called ResponseWare, which allows professors to poll students in real time; a clicker system for mobile devices (and laptops). “[Mobile] is just getting to the crest of where it’s about to be more relevant,” Hansen says. Datatel officials were talking about a mobile version of the Intelligent Learning Platform.

The emphasis makes sense, according to the results of Campus Computing Project survey, released today. Among the respondents -- CIOs at 523 nonprofit institutions -- 70 percent agreed that “mobile [learning-management] apps are an important part of our campus plan to enhance instructional resources and campus services.” New data from the Educause Center for Applied Research, released here on Wednesday, showed that among the nearly 37,000 two- and four-year college students surveyed, more than 60 percent own Internet-enabled mobile devices, and another 11 percent plan to buy one in the next year. The proportion of the total sample who actually use their devices to browse the Internet (49 percent) and the percentage of that subset who do so daily (55 percent) are both up from last year.

But if mobile is indeed on the move, there are still professors trying to barricade it from their classrooms. At a session ostensibly about mobile security, called “Mobile Computing: Safe or Sorry,” a good chunk of the discussion revolved around how to answer professors who ask I.T. officials if they could please install a switch allowing the professors to shut off students’ access to the Internet during class — a task made even more difficult now that students can access the Web from their mobile devices.

John J. Suess, the vice president for information technology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, described a conversation he had had with a faculty member who, while not averse to using technology in the classroom, cringed when he started seeing his students surfing the Internet during his classes. “His point, and I think it’s a fair point, is that multitasking does lead to distraction,” said Suess. “And the idea that students can actually multitask and learn as much as those that are completely focused on the material is a fallacy.”

The professor had asked Suess if he could make it so students could not access the Web while class is in session. Judging by the testimony of some audience members, this was not a unique request.

For those tech administrators inclined to try to help professors keep the Internet out of the classroom, the options are few, explained Suess and his co-panelist, Mark S. Bruhn, associate vice president for public safety and institutional assurance at the Indiana University System.

One option, said Suess, is for the college to build classrooms specially designed to block incoming and outgoing electronic signals, rooms known in the world of defense technology as “skiffs.” “I could see at some point some schools might decide to build a classroom or a lecture hall that has a sort of skiff-like capability,” Suess said. (“I would just love to see the proposal that suggests that a campus develop a skiff,” cracked Bruhn, who had been assigned to represent the pro-mobile stance per the session’s point/counterpoint format.)

A cheaper solution would be having teaching assistants patrol the lecture hall and police any undue Web-surfing. Suess said one professor at his institution does just that. Or Internet-leery professors could move their lectures to classrooms deep in the basement of any old buildings on campus — preferably limestone — where mobile 3G reception would be poorest, suggested Bruhn.

The alternative, of course, is to try to harness the clickaround habits of modern college students, rather than to suppress it. Although Bruhn did, in his role as mobile advocate, recommend this approach, the most vehement — and theatrical — champion of this view on Wednesday was W. Gardner Campbell, director of the academy of teaching and learning at Baylor University.

Assigned the role of Internet advocate in a point/counterpoint session taglined “Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?” Campbell spent several minutes gallivanting through the audience, strewing flowers while the song “Age of Aquarius” played over the speakers.

Campbell’s point, he explained after returning to his seat, was that we are once again at the dawning of a new age; not the Age of Aquarius, as in the ’60s, but of a new age in teaching and learning — one that must inevitably accommodate the communications behaviors of the Internet generation. “Even though Prince would like to turn off the Internet, we’re not,” he said. “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We once thought we were in control…. We know that time is over.”

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