When it comes to mobile learning, timing is everything

I was discussing with a colleague the fact that some of us were trying years ago to introduce mobile technology into education. I can’t speak for others, but certainly for me it was an insight into how Sisyphus must have felt. He, as you may know, was the hapless guy who was condemned to push a huge rock to the top of a hill, only to see it roll all the way down again within inches of reaching the top. Doing that once would have been bad enough, but he was sentenced to do it forever.

But now, as Brian S. Hall puts it, the numbers are clear: mobile is taking over the world. But why at this particular time? Why now?

Timing is everything! Photo by Alan Cleaver http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/Time and timing rarely features in discussions of about introducing new technology or innovations into education, but their importance has been recognised throughout the ages. And not just in education, of course. The history of business is full of people who were ahead of their time, ie they came too early to make a fortune in their chosen field, and those who changed too late to buck a changing trend. Wherever you look, timing plays a crucial role. Three examples will suffice:

Brutus, in Julius Caesar, tells his friend and co-conspirator Cassius that:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

When the time is not right, it’s a very jarring experience. Everything turns to worms. If you’ve experienced that you will be able to empathise with Hamlet to an extent when he bemoans the fact that:

The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

And finally, of course, there is that most famous of declarations from Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

So, back to mobile technology. What is different now compared with ten or so years ago? In no particular order:


I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of apps. Back in 2002 I wanted to introduce a mobile reporting system into the Local Education Authority in which I worked. To do so, I had to spec out the requirements, and buy a programmer’s time. Because he also had other projects to work on, it took a year for us to have an almost-complete working program. These days, there is probably an app for that  -- and probably free as well.

Cloud computing

We had wireless technology a decade ago, but it was much slower and less ubiquitous than it is today. In order for my mobile reporting system to be useful, you had to be able to log into the Authority’s network remotely, which wasn’t necessarily easy. These days, you could synchronise your data with cloud services. I mean, just to take one example, everything seems to have an option to sync with Dropbox these days, or Evernote. You may not wish to use these services for sensitive data, but my point is that it’s easy: the idea is already ‘out there’.


And that, I think, is of huge importance. Mobile technology is indeed everywhere, but perhaps even more importantly, the idea of mobile technology is everywhere. Nobody thinks twice about checking stuff on their phone, or downloading an ebook while on the bus.

One of the important consequences of this is that it’s easier to make the case for a mobile solution, assuming you have to even make a case at all. Back in 2002 I had to attend meetings in order to convince people that the mobile reporting system would save them time, and even effort as we had built-in reporting sentences, school names and other data. It would also make people more efficient and reduce the need to carry documents around with them. I think these days people are more used to the idea that using a mobile device can save time and effort rather than create more work, but back then it was all relatively new.

The corporate world

You’ll find mobile technology in other areas of the economy too. Many companies are experimenting with Bring Your Own Device. Virtually every time someone delivers a parcel to your door they ask you sign for it using a stylus on an electronic device. You can even find out how long you will have to wait for your bus by using an app or texting a phone number with the number of your bus stop. Again, this is all part of a ‘mobile backdrop’ I think.


Yes, we even had tablet computers back then. But they were really laptops in disguise, ie heavy. I liked them, but I think if anything was a bit ahead of its time the tablet computer of ten years ago was. These days, it’s easy to ‘go mobile’ because the technology is so cheap, and remarkably light.

21st century skills

I think the whole idea of 21st century skills is hype to a large extent. Nevertheless, there is clearly much more a sense that young people should be more in control of what they do or learn, and where, when and how they are they able to do so.

For all these reasons, I think the time is now right for mobile technology in general, and Bring Your Own Device in particular, to find its way into schools. The fact that it is not yet ubiquitous is, in my opinion, a mere quirk of history – a matter of timing you might say.


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