ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Going mobile
m-learning's future may be bright, but other wireless applications must lead the way

By Lisa Currin / November 2001

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Picture this: You're trekking through Nepal, hot on the trail of the elusive Yeti. You and your sherpa set up camp and settle in for the evening, a thousand miles from anything resembling civilization. Not wanting to fall behind your classmates, you whip out your iPhone and download that day's lecture from your Torts class at Harvard Law School.

If you think this picture bears any resemblance to reality, you've been watching too many TV commercials.

The hype around mobile everything, learning included, has led to a considerable amount of frustration on the part of consumers. Yes, it is possible to access e-mail and visit the Internet on your cell phone. But service can be spotty, downloads are painfully slow, and the idea of typing more than a word or two on a tiny little cell-phone keypad is ludicrous. (Unless you're a 14-year-old girl with nothing but time on your hands.)

Don't Look for Education to Lead the Way

Technology continues to rush inexorably forward, making possible today what was little more than a notion just a few months ago. Equipment manufacturers have turned their attention to wireless, and are beginning to offer solutions that will eventually make ubiquitous computing a reality.

But those solutions are still in their infancy, and Elliott Masie, founder of the Masie Center, an international e-lab and think tank, cautions that education will likely not be one of the earliest fields to benefit in a significant way from advances in mobile technology.

"A shift to a form factor is never going to happen because of learning," says Masie. "Learning follows function. We didn't start learning on PCs until we had PCs for a while; we're just now starting to learn on the 'Net, after several years of experience. Nothing's really different about mobile learning. Inevitably, it will be used, but it will be a second, not first-wave utilization. We tend to take some time to get familiar with those things that are not mission critical. We play with our palmtop for a while before we start using it for critical business information."

Masie says the "first wave" of m-learning implementation is already beginning to take place on college and business campuses where advanced wireless networks can be established, enabling users within a set geographic area to have high-speed wireless access to the Internet via palmtop devices and even cell phones.

"Over time, we will find ways to make that level of wireless access a community standard," he says, "but it's not going to happen because of learning. It's going to happen because of other broadband desires [such as e-commerce]. The arrival of mobile learning in a full-fledged sense will happen six months to a year after mobile access is there for other applications."

Some workable m-learning innovations have hit the marketplace, making it feasible for some people to learn some things, in some places, some of the time. Not exactly the rousing vision of utopia Madison Avenue has been selling, but still worth a look.

Mobile "Learning Nuggets"

Global Knowledge, the exclusive training provider for Nortel Networks, recently developed a mobile e-learning subscription series that allows users of Palm devices to quickly access Nortel Networks training information. Called eSentials, the program is designed to supplement classroom and wired distance-learning training programs by enabling users to access information from virtually anywhere via palmtop or laptop device.

"Over the last couple of years, we're seeing a need in our audience for increased mobility," says Jean Bennett, V.P. of course design. "They need access to information on the go, and we're looking for ways to provide them with more support on the job. With eSentials, it's like taking the classroom to the job site."

The reason eSentials works over the turtle-slow wireless network currently available in most locations is that the information it dispenses has been whittled down to what Bennett calls "learning nuggets," bite-sized chunks of information pertinent to specific tasks such as system specifications and installation procedures. The format is simple and text-based, so it's suitable for the small screen typical of a palmtop.

"For years and years we've seen technicians [in the field] with their cheat sheets and notes, and we realized that these folks need better access to current information," Bennett adds. "A lot of the IT and telecom professionals we deal with have their laptops or palm devices with them, so we decided to create a series of reference tools that would allow them to have the information they need on the job."

Putting Stanford Law Online

When Mitch Davis was recruited to Stanford University Law School in 1998, what he found was an anachronism. "Here we are in the middle of Silicon Valley, and we're using chalk on blackboards in our classrooms."

Davis, CIO and associate dean for Information Systems at the school, was brought in to make Stanford "not just from the Valley, but of the Valley," he says. Currently, the school is in the midst of a technology upgrade that will run up a tab close to $10 million. A big chunk of that budget is going to the creation of a campus-wide, high-speed wireless network.

Partnering with a number of corporations including Cisco, Nokia and Airwave, a San Francisco Bay-area firm providing high-speed wireless Internet service, Stanford created a wireless system with 25 access points around campus where students could download research, class assignments and other information to their laptops.

Last year, Palm Inc. approached Stanford with a proposal to add Palm Pilots into the wireless mix. This past spring, 50 students were equipped with Palm VIIx devices, portable keyboards, downloadable software, and six months' worth of wireless access. West Group is providing wireless access to the Westlaw legal research service.

The program ended last summer, but Davis says the applications developed will be available going forward to any student with a Palm device.

Davis and his staff worked with other vendors including PDA Verticals, NearSpace, Town Compass and to come up with additional applications, including a mapping program to help navigate the Stanford campus, and QuizApp, which helps students practice for exams. offers hospital, housing and local restaurant information, and a PeopleSoft application will let students register for classes wirelessly. Bluefish Wireless has installed access points around the law school, enabling students to not only download, but also send files from their Palms.

Davis, who believes that effective voice-recognition technology will be the key to turning cell phones into useful information devices, is also working on a project that uses a content transformation engine to make Web content device-independent. Partnering with 3WCI (WorldWide Wireless Connections Inc.), Stanford is allowing students limited access to information via Java-enabled phones.

Mobile technology is ideal for lawyers, says Davis, explaining that familiarizing them with the technology while they're in school will make the transition to professional use seamless. "They're mobile anyway," he says. "Let's say you're in court. Why should you have to go back to your office to check documents or send e-mail?"

An M-Learning Forum

While successful mobile learning efforts are still notable by their scarcity, it's clear the momentum exists for tremendous future growth.

Peter Bates, founder of pjb Associates, a London-based e-learning consultancy, is capitalizing on what he sees as a market with huge potential. He organized the industry's first m-learning forum, held Sept. 24 in London.

Bates predicts that today's teenagers, who are comfortable with nascent wireless technology, will be ready and eager to embrace the future reality of m-learning. "You've already got a generation of 14-to-16-year-olds who are used to using mobile phones to send text messages," he says. "They represent a big potential market for even more sophisticated devices."


  • There are no comments at this time.