Each day, more than half a million new connections are made to the Internet. 500,000 people who were not on the Internet yesterday are today taking their first tentative steps onto the global network of networks. The majority of these new connections are being made with a mobile device of some kind, in most cases a cell phone. For every laptop or desktop currently being used to connect to the Internet there are two mobile devices being used to do the same. And of the 500,000 people connecting today, some 400,000 of them live in the developing world.
With between one third and one half of the world’s population already online (2.8 billion as of December 2013), most of them in the developed countries of the world, the greatest scope for continued growth in Internet use in the next few years will be in those parts of the world where a combination of relative under-development, an immature market for the large fixed-line telecoms operators, and therefore an as-yet-inadequate wired infrastructure, has propelled a massive expansion in wireless networks. Countries all around the world recognise the economic benefits of connectivity and this is driving growth in the deployment and usage of LTE (4G) networks at a rate of 250% year on year at the present time. There is no reason to think that this rate of expansion will slow down any time soon. Indeed with the Koreans already working on a 5G network amid claims that it will be ‘thousands of times faster’ than 4G, the mobile market globally is still in its infancy in so many respects.
M-Learning: An Emerging Phenomenon
While the growing mobile networks are already having an unmistakable impact on education around the world, mobile-learning is still fundamentally an emerging phenomenon. Much play has been made in some places, for instance, of the many and varied schemes to introduce tablets, e-readers, and even connected handheld gaming devices into the classroom. Some of these have been successful while others are more conspicuous by the hype surrounding them than by any proven effects on teaching and learning. But such schemes are, in my opinion, really only scratching the surface of m-learning. They have validity in their own right, of course, but they are for the most part simply attempts to extend the range of connected devices for students from desktops and laptops to devices that are small, versatile, easy-to-carry and, yes, more mobile. So while they do have the capacity to enable access to learning in a greater variety of settings, whether in school or out of school, than with desktops, and even laptops, their mobility capability is by no means always the pivotal factor in their deployment.
Three Sets of Affordances
Truly effective m-learning derives, I feel, from three related sets of affordances that mobile networks give to education, but more precisely from the compound effect of the three affordances when taken together. Two of the affordances are probably not hard to discern. The first is that they allow virtual teaching and learning to take place anywhere and at any time. The second is that they offer access to online education to billions of people worldwide who have not previously been able to enjoy that access.
The third affordance offered to education by the expansion of mobile networks to so many more people across the world is that having a cell phone or any other small connected device in your hand, no matter where you are in the world, gives the learner the potential to establish a very high level of control over their own learning. Of course, that has been true in many ways since the first desktop computers were linked up to the Internet, and has been all the more true as laptops became smaller, cheaper, lighter and more mobile over the past couple of decades, but the ability now to enjoy the same level of connectedness with a truly mobile handheld device has taken this process to a new level. Combined with the growing trend to render websites fully responsive, by deploying HTML5’s capabilities to produce sites that are geared to run on low-powered, small-form devices such as phones and tablets, the mobile data networks are now putting m-learning in a very interesting position indeed.
Is the Tipping Point Coming for M-Learning?
When we take these affordances together, along with the progress towards a truly responsive Web, it is clear to me that mobile learning, across its many manifestations (with some still to be formed and defined, no doubt), is about to take off in a big way. The combination of trends, factors and affordances is creating the perfect social and technological ecosystem for virtual learning to spread far beyond the larger desk-bound and lap-bound devices that have dominated for two decades to the kinds of devices that fit in a pocket or are so easily carried and used anywhere, any time.
Two things will happen now. One is the glaringly obvious one that, in the shorter term, and worldwide, providers of content, courses, and programmes of study, both free and paid-for, will increasingly customise and configure their products for the mobile learning market – many are already doing so, of course, but the volume of this will surge hugely over the next couple of years and beyond. Content and course providers, particularly those trying to monetize their products, will be seeking to grab whatever segments of the market they can, and we can be sure that providers will spring up in every part of the world, some looking to build international markets, others happy to focus on regions, on language-communities, on individual countries and even on specific disciplines that will cut across all such geographical fault lines . The effect will be to extend massively the educational choices available to learners all over the world.
The second thing that I believe will happen will take longer to realize. That is that, as this ‘market’ expands, and as learners everywhere and anywhere begin to recognize the sheer scale and spread of what is becoming available to them, they will begin to focus less on accessing or buying discrete ‘packages’ of learning products aimed at them, and more on simply picking and choosing what they need from the torrent of material flowing past them as they seek to learn exactly what they want to learn and not what someone else has decreed they should learn. Smart learners will become skilled in disassembling the packages offered and taking just the bits they want, and then creating their own programmes of study from all the options in front of them. It is a process that will at once thrive on the massive expansion in mobile-ready content online and also render the market in mobile-ready content much more complex and unpredictable than many of the players in the market would wish it to be.
M-Learning in the Developing World
Where people live, whether they want to or can afford to pay for formal educational offerings, what language(s) they want to learn in, how much they require formal accreditation, how systems of informal accreditation (such as digital badges) expand in the years ahead, and a host of other questions pertinent to the individual learner, will all encourage and stimulate learners increasingly to take control of their own learning. This will be a global phenomenon, of course, but I believe that it will be in the developing world that the effects of these transformations will be most profound: learners in the developing world have a hunger for learning that has not been provided for in the past because the means simply weren’t there for its ‘delivery’. Just as the mobile networks themselves are expanding most rapidly in the developing world, so it will be paralled by a rapid escalation of people taking advantage of those networks for their own education.
M-Learning is about to go mainstream, but in ways that the providers of mobile education will find very hard to predict. Providers will need to consider very carefully the combination of affordances described above if they are to match their strategies successfully to the changing times and changing circumstances over the next few years.