Tuesday, July 7, 2009

EQ >The Revolution No One Noticed: Mobile Phones and Multimobile Services in Higher Education

EQ Volume 32 (2009) » Volume 32, Number 1, 2009 » The Revolution No One Noticed: Mobile Phones and Multimobile / By Alan Livingston Director of Research, Development, and Planning / Weber State University / Ogden UT

Key TakeAWays
  • Mobile phone usage among students is virtually universal, presenting an opportunity for higher education to pursue.
  • Higher education, however, has failed to notice the potential of mobile devices to provide students with educational experiences and services.
  • A collection of scenarios demonstrates the many ways students, faculty, and staff can benefit from multimobile services.
The past decade has witnessed two revolutions in communication technology. The first — the Internet revolution — has changed everything in higher education. The second — the mobile phone revolution — has changed nothing. We're vaguely aware that our students have mobile phones (and annoyed when they forget to turn them off in class), but it hasn't occurred to us that the fact they have these devices might have anything to do with our effort to provide them with educational experiences and services.


The first U.S. mobile phone networks were launched in the 1980s. Coverage, interoperability, and pricing issues limited subscription rates until the mid-1990s; then the revolution leading to today's near-saturation level of usage began. Mobile phone technology has evolved and improved at the same time. High-speed third-generation networks are operational in most parts of the world, with even higher-speed fourth-generation networks on the near horizon. And today's mobile phone is an amazing device, a tiny radio/computer capable of interacting with speech servers; sending and receiving text messages, instant messages, and e-mail; browsing the web; downloading and viewing documents and reports; and much, much more.

Our students own these astonishing devices. They have them in their possession all day long and use them far more frequently (and in many cases with far greater facility) than they use the Internet. How can we take advantage of this fact to make our services more convenient and/or effective?


Elucidation: Characteristics of Multimobile Services

There are 10 things I'd like you to notice about these services:
  • They're convenient. Students can use them from home, from the library, from computer labs, walking across campus, or wherever they happen to be.
  • They're flexible. Students can use them by calling, texting, instant messaging, e-mailing, or browsing — whichever they prefer, or whichever happens to be most convenient at the moment.
  • They're proactive. Janet never has to check her position in the English 2220 queue, for example; WSU Mobile notifies her whenever her position changes. Because they're proactive, the services can play a preventive role, or at least try to: Richard's password expires, but he can't say he hasn't been warned.
  • They're friendly and personalized. WSU Mobile recognizes the students' phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and instant messaging IDs and calls them by name. Notifications are sent only to students who've signed up for them; when sent, they're sent in the form each student prefers.
  • They're intelligent. The services know things and use what they know to anticipate students' needs. Richard doesn't have to tell WSU Mobile he needs a new password — WSU Mobile already knows.
  • They're more than mere alternatives to corresponding web-based services.
  • Their convenience, flexibility, proactiveness, friendliness, and intelligence put them in a class of their own. I've already labeled this class multimobile services. To emphasize the features I've just called to your attention, I'd like to propose this characterization: A multimobile service is a convenient, flexible, proactive, friendly, and intelligent service that may be used on a mobile phone.
  • Their importance is cumulative. There is no "killer" WSU Mobile service. The value of the services is their collective value — the fact that they enable the accomplishment of a lot of little tasks, not that one of them enables the accomplishment of a hugely critical task. Part of the reason is that multimobile services are best suited to relatively small tasks that can be performed in one or two steps with minimal entry (that is, thumb-typing) of data. Whimsical State University students use WSU Mobile services to register for classes, receive notifications, and vote; they don't use them to fill out applications for graduate school. The flip side of this observation is that one of the keys to the success of WSU Mobile is the relatively large number of multimobile services offered.
  • They're used with remarkable facility. There's an obvious reason for this facility, according to Steven Johnson. Students have grown up in a world in which systems as complex as WSU Mobile are, quite literally, child's play. Today's 10-year-olds are "shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching…." As a consequence, they possess a "seemingly effortless ability to pick up new platforms on the fly, without so much as a glimpse at a manual. What they've learned is not just the specific rules intrinsic to a particular system; they've learned abstract principles that can be applied when approaching any complex system."
  • The students use WSU Mobile services in different (but overlapping) ways. Janet and Edward refer to the user's guide whenever they need to use one of the services. Helen has the keywords memorized. Richard and John take advantage of the help system. Adèle prefers to use the web. Regardless of the way they use the services, however, they do so with enviable ease. If we hesitate to introduce multimobile services because we think our students will find them difficult to use, we're projecting our own technological comfort levels, not gauging theirs.
  • Some of them raise security issues. Text messages, e-mail, and instant messages are widely regarded as too insecure for the transmission of sensitive information. I don't pretend to know how to resolve this issue. In some cases it may be irresolvable, in which case (obviously) it won't be possible to offer the proposed service.
  • I'd like to suggest, however, that the security issues raised by particular multimobile services be construed as challenges to be overcome (if possible), not as knee-jerk reasons to dismiss the possibility of offering these services. My bank recently introduced a number of text-messaging services. I'm now able to see my account and loan balances, transfer funds, make loan payments, change my PIN, and perform several other functions by sending text messages. If a financial institution can figure out how to offer these services without exposing me (and itself) to an unacceptable level of risk, is it fanciful to imagine that the IT staff and security officials of a university, thinking together creatively, could figure out how to manage the risk associated with offering a proposed multimobile service?
  • Collectively, they're far from trivial. They make a significant contribution to the friendliness, convenience, and effectiveness of WSU's educational environment. The university continues to support the creation and introduction of new services, like the "Happy Holidays" service, for this reason. And the services aren't just for students. WSU Mobile benefits Whimsical faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni as well, as the rest of the story illustrates.
Commencement: Joining the Revolution

If I've accomplished my purpose in telling you this story, three things will happen:
  • First, "multimobile" will remain in (if not on) your mind. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the factors that cause products and technologies to suddenly leap from limited to widespread adoption. One of the factors he identifies is the "stickiness" of the terms and slogans used to brand and advertise a product or technology. By "stickiness" he means the tendency of the terms and slogans to stay in your mind, causing you to continue to think — even against your will — about the product or technology. We're a long way from the tipping point for multimobile services. If my story has lodged "multimobile" in your mind, however, it may be a start.
  • Second, ideas for the creation of multimobile services will begin to occur to you with surprising frequency. We're surrounded, on the one hand, by chores that insist on being performed in ways that ignore the fact that the mobile phone has been invented and, on the other hand, by unrecognized opportunities to turn the universal use of mobile phones to our advantage. Once your attention has been called to a few of these annoying anachronisms and squandered opportunities, you can't help noticing others and musing over multimobile alternatives and possibilities.
  • Third, your musings will stop seeming whimsical and start looking like genuine opportunities to make your educational environment friendlier, more convenient, and more effective. Resources for getting started may be found at http://weber.edu/whimsy.

Now for the surprise ending: I've asked you to imagine multimobile services. Would you like to try a few? At http://weber.edu/whimsy/tutorials.html you'll find a mock-up of WSU Mobile and tutorials that will let you use — and produce — some of the kinds of services I've described. For our fictional friends, the story ends here.

For higher education, it's time for the story to begin. Multimobile services have the potential to improve the educational environment in substantial ways. That we've ignored this potential for 10 years, and continue to ignore it today, is a blind spot we simply must correct. A billion mobile phones will be sold this year. A billion. This isn't a case of handwriting on the wall — this is a case of a revolution having occurred while we weren't looking. The information appliance of the future isn't in the future anymore; it's here today, in astonishing numbers. All of your students, and all of your prospective students, own one of these appliances. HELLO?



See Also

Whimsy Project



ECAR 2009 Study > Chapter Six > Undergraduates And The Mobile Revolution


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