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Mobile Learning and the demise of the PDA PDF Print E-mail
Written by Graham Brown-Martin on Wednesday, 15 August 2007
/pda-rip2.jpgThe death of the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) has been reported more times than sightings of Lord Lucan. Such reports usually provoke a flurry of debate on Internet forums and research lists. I have found myself defending the survival of the humble PDA but it often came down to a debate over semantics. The term “PDA” will always be associated with the simple personal information managers, i.e. digital diaries and phone books, from which they originated. Even when PDAs started to be called “Pocket PC’s” they were intended to be devices to augment an existing PC as opposed to being fully fledged standalone devices.

/apple-iphone.jpgBut none of the above was the final nail in the coffin for the PDA. No, this nail is being driven in by the economics of the mobile communications industry. By the time you finish reading this article about 5000 mobile phones will have been sold by an industry that manufactured 700,000,000 devices during 2006 alone. By 2008, there will be more mobile phones than people. This means that it’s simply cheaper for manufacturers to build and distribute “mobile communicators” than “Pocket PC’s”.

We’re back to semantics again because we can argue that a smart phone or “mobile communicator” is just a PDA with more ways of connecting to the Internet beyond traditional Wi-Fi. This is true but it’s also where things get interesting for mobile learning.

The hype for mobile learning suggests the opportunity for “anytime, anywhere” learning on a “24/7” basis. However, the reality is somewhat different when limitations in basic Wi-Fi connectivity become evident in practice. The challenge lies in the fact that the type of wireless infrastructure designed to support lap/desktop computers, that are in limited number and relatively static, are less reliable when every learner has a device that is highly mobile, i.e. roaming from place to place both in and out of the building. Typically less of a problem to a business user but a major challenge for education users. A further challenge on infrastructure is the bandwidth of the connection that the building has to the outside world. Even a 1000 M/bit/s link will be challenged when servicing a school with 1000 learners. Finally, there is the question of what happens when the learner is outside the school gates on field trips, at home, etc. Where does the connectivity come from to deliver on the promise of anytime, anywhere learning?

In some cases the notion of mobility, or at least connected mobility where devices can access that wonderful late 20 Century invention known as the Internet, has been abandoned in favour of using devices as standalone media delivery systems that happen to be small. There are even “classroom management systems” to manage a classroom of mobile devices as long as they are mobile within the classroom. Perhaps those lucky enough to have built-in GPS will be able to find their way back to their desk after writing on the interactive whiteboard. Or perhaps this is simply about control, teaching vs learning?

/mobile_school.jpgMobile communicators on the other hand approach connectivity differently. In addition to Wi-Fi capability, many devices come with mobile broadband connectivity based around 3G and HSDPA standards providing users with high-speed broadband access directly to their device without taxing the school infrastructure or requiring complex configuration settings to get online. The mobile telco’s have a statutory obligation to provide coverage to at least 80% of the UK by 2008. After realising the limitations of the voice market the telco’s now see the opportunity to recoup their investments via monthly data plans. Consequently the opportunity to supply the UK’s 8 million+ learners must seem very attractive (or 90 million for Europe, 50 million for USA, etc).

Attractive too, is the way in which otherwise expensive devices along with their insurance and warranty can be supplied on standardised plans where the device and supporting software is subsidised through the data plan and purchased by parents. After all, 75% of 11-17 year olds in the UK have a phone purchased by their parents already.

/htc-umpc-2007.jpgWhich brings me back to my original canard concerning the nail in the coffin for the PDA. Mobile communication and handheld gaming devices are outselling desktop and laptop computers 3:1 and many of these devices are as powerful as the PCs we were using just five years ago. Surely, like the PDA, the days of the desktop and laptop PC are also numbered and perhaps like the PDA they will emerge as something different, whether it’s a large screen communication system in your living room or an ultra mobile PC which is a marriage between the mobile communicator and the laptop.

However the technologies converge and evolve, it’s clear that a media-saturated, communication-savvy generation has emerged who have embraced ubiquitous technologies into their everyday lives. Given their acceptance of these technologies to entertain themselves and communicate with each other, surely now is the time that they are encouraged to learn with them too?

Originally published in The Assignment Report, July 2007, ISBN 1748-2402

http://www.theassignmentreport.com/

Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Handheld Learning

Comments from the forum:
Mobile Learning and the demise of the PDA
stu_mob    August 15th, 2007 - 3:51 PM
Relating to your article and the Fujitsu post I think I broadly agree Graham. For a while now I think the terms PDA and mobile phone and UMPC will have limited shelf lives. The power of the device in your pocket is set to grow. I really enjoy looking at the way Wifi connection to Voice over IP 'threatens' the mobile market. What's a PDA, a phone or a UMPC they can do each others 'thing'. For me as some involved in trying to get learning on to these devices the challenge stays the same getting the materials to the learner so they can work and interact with them in a way that they find useful and hopeful meet their desired learning outcomes.

I think this sums it up for me

  "What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet;"

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, 1594



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Quote
The death of the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) has been reported more times than sightings of Lord Lucan. Such reports usually provoke a flurry of debate on Internet forums and research lists. I have found myself defending the survival of the humble PDA but it often came down to a debate over semantics. The term “PDA” will always be associated with the simple personal information managers, i.e. digital diaries and phone books, from which they originated. Even when PDAs started to be called “Pocket PC’s” they were intended to be devices to augment an existing PC as oppose. . .
Re: Mobile Learning and the demise of the PDA
jont    September 4th, 2007 - 10:35 PM
I dont think its dead yet... (mind you the Palm Foleo smells a bit funny )

The power of the device is one aspect but the screen size of the device is an important factor. I like a small phone, but I also like a larger screen for a PDA.  There are also times when I do not want all the information I carry on my PDA with me. So I am back to carrying two devices. (actually 3 as I have a standalone mp3 player, or is it 4 coz I have a separate voice recorder, 5 if I include my usb key. *


There are devices that can do all of the above in one box, but none do it as well as the individual devices. I still wonder if we'll end up with distributed devices that we mix and match, some of which may duplicate function AND content so we have a bit of redundancy/backup.
(or we'll all be surgically connected to Google&Wikpedia so wont need PDAs/Phones/Ability to remember anything anyway)


I think the PDA market has fallen (thanks to those 'wonderful' marketing people) into the more is better PC mindset...(anyone here ever read through "The Zen of Palm"?). More power, more cpu speed etc instead of sensibly thinking what we actually _need_ in the device.

A further  problem is that as the devices are 'Personal' what we all want is slightly different.

I wish my current devices (A Palm TX and 3 different WinMob 5 devices) had the reliability and battery life of my Palm III and a screen I could read in sunlight (not that we see much sunlight in Glasgow)



Jon


*(actually more as most days I now carry more than one PDA...)

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