Smartphones and tablet computers are radically transforming how we access our shared knowledge sources by keeping us constantly connected to near-infinite volumes of raw data and information. We enjoy unprecedented instant access to expertise, from informal cooking lessons on YouTube to online university courses. Every day people around the globe are absorbed in exciting new forms of learning, and yet traditional schools and university systems are still struggling to leverage the many opportunities for innovation in this area.
We have been focusing on the concept of mLearning--where "m" usually stands for "mobile" but also just as easily for "me.” The near-ubiquity of handheld devices and their constantly lowering costs will enable the idea of "education that you can hold in your hand," so it becomes a widespread reality in so-called developed markets and resource-challenged parts of the globe alike. Here are 10 key themes likely to drive development of mLearning initiatives in innovative directions:
1. Continuous learning
Up until now, most people relegated “education” to a finite time in their lives: entering school at around five years old and attending school institutions all the way to university. Education had an expiration date, then working life began. This model, which has its roots in the industrial era, is quickly becoming less relevant or applicable to the way we live our lives in the connected age.
Education is getting increasingly interspersed with our daily activities. On our phones, tablets, and PCs, we download and digest life or work-related articles with instructions on how to fix our appliances or how to use a new professional software program. Many people across age groups decide to take formal online courses in their spare time, including complex subjects such as artificial intelligence, computer science, and game theory -- all real examples of free courses offered by Stanford University and taken by everyday people, including 11-year-old kids and retirees.
Continuous learning will simply be a given for the generations of today’s youngsters who are often literally born within reach of a connected personal device.
2. Educational leapfrogging
Continuous learning isn’t just happening in the developed world. With low-priced computers, tablets, and cell phones in the hands of children in resource-challenged communities, many kids who are engaging in technological leapfrogging will have the opportunity to skip past outdated formal school systems, too. This is especially relevant in the case of children living in poverty, who may be denied an opportunity to improve their condition through education because they start working very early to help sustain their families or do not live near schools.
The ability to interstitially access educational content during pauses throughout their daily routine, or at night, or even as a running “soundtrack” that accompanies them during their tasks are all novel opportunities offered by a classroom that can follow you wherever you go.
3. A new crop of older, lifelong learners (and educators)
A by-product of the continuous learning phenomenon is the fact that the grandparents of children growing up with a touchscreen in their hands--people in their 60s today--are being pulled into mLearning more than ever, motivated to adoption by the need to stay in touch with their grandkids.
The availability of tablets and other touch-enabled devices has radically reduced the perceived complexity of computers, helping older users to more easily communicate with their middle-aged children and grandkids via email, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.
This is a demographic group that often has the time availability to take online courses for fun, but the same time availability also offers another untapped opportunity: Retirees represent a huge potential talent pool of educators who could address the scarcity of qualified teachers in many areas of the world--especially if they teach remotely, via mLearning.
4. Breaking gender boundaries, reducing physical burdens
In parts of the globe where, because of centuries of cultural practices, young women may still not be allowed to access a formal education, mLearning promises to be able to put girls and women of all ages in contact with high-quality education privately and on their own time.
Along similar lines mLearning also helps bring educational material within the reach of people with extreme disabilities, who may not be physically able to get to a classroom or campus on a regular basis. In both of these cases, new freedoms can be exposed. As a result, these groups can take control of their educational and professional destinies.
5. A new literacy emerges: software literacy
MLearning could usher in a boom of interest in learning software programming languages, which could very well become a new lingua franca. This is already happening; Numerous startup web-based businesses today such as Codecademy teach people via interactive lessons how to understand and write software programs. Not even a year old, Codacademy has more than a million “students” and has raised about $3 million in venture-capital funds.
This scenario is particularly relevant in emerging economies, where gaining software development expertise can introduce new opportunities for economic growth, or give communities what they need to address unmet local needs. Consider the boom of homegrown startups in Kenya that has been shaping mHealth solutions to solve some of the many health care issues affecting the country, or the success of an organization like Ushahidi, which has been financing a social high-tech accelerator called iHUB in Nairobi precisely to promote software literacy and local entrepreneurship.
6. Education’s long tail
MLearning solutions are poised to tap into the vast amount of existing educational materials that could be made accessible via mobile channels. This is especially true with YouTube, Vimeo, and other video-sharing services already providing a critical mass of tips, tutorials, and full-fledged lessons that can be re-aggregated by theme and packaged as educational material.
The recent TED-Ed initiative attests to the opportunity offered by the clever repurposing of existing quality lessons.
Others have leveraged the video-sharing social platforms to distribute educational materials created in an ad hoc way. It’s a model made famous by Salman Khan, an MIT graduate who, with his eponymous academy, "flips" the traditional education model by having pupils absorb lessons at home, and practice and discuss what they’ve learned at school instead.
The range of mLearning materials does not need to be limited to higher education but can easily encompass valuable, practical know-how, from grandmothers showing how to prepare traditional recipes to companies demonstrating how to install solar panels on mud huts.
The nature and complexity of educational materials can also vary greatly and not necessarily require a video-capable smartphone: Humanitarian organizations like MAMA have put to good use simple text messages to help mothers in developing economies learn about pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for their infants.
These examples illustrate how the power of mLearning lies in its ability to offer solutions for numerous niche audiences.
7. Teachers and pupils trade roles
The same handheld-connected tools that enable children and adults to access existing educational solutions also provide the opportunity for them to capture and share knowledge in return.
In other words, imagine kids who are raised with programming and video-production knowledge from very early ages creating educational materials for their peers, or even to teach adults, exposing them to very young people’s points of view of the world. Imagine a 12-year-old boy explaining how effectively to communicate health information to him as a tutorial for nurses, physicians, and parents.
8. Synergies with mobile banking and mobile health initiatives
Developers of emerging mLearning ecosystems can learn a lot from their predecessors in mBanking and mHealth and such services as mobile money transfers or mobile health monitoring. Beyond adapting some ideas, including using text messaging to deliver short lessons, teacher feedback, and grades, mLearning, mHeatlh, and mFinance can also be synergistically combined. After all, better education can easily improve people’s financial condition and in turn positively influence their health. These three factors can be combined in different orders without changing the result, which will always be more than the sum of the individual components. Applied on a micro or macro scale, this virtuous cycle has the potential to become a very effective way to improve personal, regional, and even national economies.
9. New opportunities for traditional educational institutions
The mLearning phenomenon will not necessarily compete with well-established schools but actually complement and extend their current offerings. An intriguing new model was offered when Harvard and MIT announced that they have teamed up to offer free online courses via a joint nonprofit organization, edX. Both universities will observe how students respond to the courses to better understand distance learning.
After a few missed opportunities in the early 2000s, established universities seem to be looking beyond turning a profit and are turning to mLearning as a means to find new promising students or research how people learn. Traditional institutions could also help mLearning solutions scale quickly by leveraging their vast and established networks of students, faculty, and alumni. The business potential could also be big; a report published in February by Global Industry Analysts projects the global market for online and other electronic distance learning to reach $107 billion by 2015.
10. A revolution leading to customized education
The key for successfully channeling the mLearning revolution will not simply be about digitizing current educational systems. The real appeal will be allowing people to choose their own paths, leverage their talents, and follow their passions and callings. MLearning has much business potential, but the most exciting and rewarding aspect of these solutions is that students of any age or background might have the chance to pursue knowledge that is meaningful, relevant, and realistic to achieve in their own lives.