|Mobile Learning and the demise of the PDA|
|Written by Graham Brown-Martin on Wednesday, 15 August 2007|
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 opposed to being fully fledged standalone devices.
But 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 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.
Which 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
Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Handheld Learning
|Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 August 2007 )|
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