Ubiquitous Computing: More than Handhelds PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark van 't Hooft, Ph.D. on Friday, 28 April 2006
/mark-05_small.jpgThe word "ubiquitous" can be defined as "existing or being everywhere at the same time”, constantly encountered, and widespread. When applying this concept to technology, the term ubiquitous implies that technology is everywhere and we use it all the time. Because of the pervasiveness of these technologies, we tend to use them without thinking about the tool. Instead, we focus on the task at hand, making the technology effectively invisible to the user. Ubiquitous technology is often wireless, mobile, and networked, making its users more connected to the world around them and the people in it.

When it comes to education, Ubiquitous access to digital technologies changes what is pedagogically possible in at least three ways. First, ubiquitous access to the Internet and telecommunications technologies changes classrooms into places with access to abundant resources and rich connections to the world. Second, ubiquitous access to a variety of digital devices and multimedia tools makes it possible to create, analyze, synthesize and communicate knowledge using a rich variety of media forms. Third, ubiquitous access to digital tools that automate lower level skills allows students to concentrate on higher level thinking, and lessens the skill levels needed to explore a range of complex topics. (See The Educators Manifesto; http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/manifesto/contents.html)

Mobile and wireless devices are increasingly becoming tools of choice, and have caused some substantial changes in which we go about our daily lives. Some interesting observations about the new technologies and related changes that have been made in the past few years include:

  • Wireless, portable, mobile, and multiple units connected in what has been dubbed a “device ecology”.
  • The concept of context-aware computing: who, what, when, where, why; location-aware devices.
  • Users are active, creative, and communicative, not passive receivers of information (Alexander, 2004).
  • New social practices such as blogging, personal area networks, flash mobs, and smart mobs (Roush, 2005); a good example are the first reports of the London subway attack in 2005 (e.g. SF Chronicle account, the Digital Journalist article).
  • The fact that technology is everywhere, and can be used anytime by everyone (ATMs, scanners, cell phones, handhelds, gaming devices, iPods, cars, kitchens)……..it’s ubiquitous.

As a result, these technologies also provide new and unique opportunities for teaching and learning in formal and informal learning environments (e.g. Alexander’s article on Going Nomadic, 2004; Swan et al., 2006), giving learners more choices and responsibilities with regards to their own learning. An important element to keep in mind here is that mobile devices are a key component of the overall technology infrastructure of our society, providing this so-called ubiquitous access and connectivity, providing the “glue” that holds the broad spectrum of technologies together. This is especially the case for the children (and adults) we teach today. We are getting to the point where the students we teach do not know an environment without technology, it was already there when they were born.

However, for this type of technology to be successful for teaching and learning, several things need to happen:

  • Schools need to catch up to society when it comes to access to and availability of technology. This seems to be a never-ending story. It’s interesting and somewhat disappointing to see that schools often tend to take away the digital tools that their students are expected to use once they enter the workforce. That many of these students master these technologies often happens DESPITE what they learn in school.
  • In schools where technology IS available, technology should NOT be the focus, it’s what we do with it.
  • Learners need to be given more choices in the types of tools they use for learning and how they use them. It’s up to the schools to guide students in how to use the tools effectively and ethically (and what that is and who decides is a whole other story!).

In my view, if schools are to be successful in this arena, major changes are necessary. We can no longer prepare students for the 21st century using a 20th century system, as Graham has implicitly pointed out in this story. People in the tech industry, including Bill Gates, have expressed similar concerns.


Within this context, Kent State University’s Research Center for Educational Technology has developed a DVD-ROM entitled: Ubiquitous Computing: How Anytime, Anywhere, Anyone Technology is Changing Education. Funded by the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, the disc was developed to support teaching, professional development, and research as it relates to the impact of technology-rich environments on teaching and learning.


  • defines ubiquitous computing, especially as it relates to teaching and learning;
  • describes the origins of ubiquitous computing;
  • includes a dozen examples of what ubiquitous computing looks like in a variety of learning environments;
  • provides examples of related research;
  • discusses how teaching and learning need to be rethought to take full advantage of what ubiquitous computing has to offer education.

For more information or to request a copy of this DVD, please go to http://www.rcet.org/ubicomp/intro.htm.

The DVD is free and a limited number of copies is available from RCET.

Register for the online forum at http://www.rcet.org/moodle/moodle to participate in discussions on topics related to ubiquitous computing for teaching and learning.

About the Author:

Mark van 't Hooft, Ph.D., is a researcher and tech specialist for the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University, and is a founding member and chair of the Special Interest Group for Handheld Computing (SIGHC) for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). His current research focus is on ubiquitous computing and the use of mobile technology in K-12 education, especially in the social studies.


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Comments from the forum:
Ubiquitous Computing: More than Handhelds
Mark van 't Hooft    May 31st, 2006 - 9:35 PM
For more of my ramblings on the topics of ubiquitous and mobile computing I have started a blog. It can be found at:



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