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Many schools, teachers, and administrators are turning a deaf ear to using wireless as another tool in the education process, but on the other side, a growing number of educators are embracing wireless.

What I Learned at the Mobile Learning Conference

Monday, February 23, 2009

Last week I attended and presented at the 2009 Mobile Learning Conference, which brought together educators, administrators, wireless companies, and federal and state regulators to discuss the trends for mobile learning and explore how these communities might work together more closely. This first, one-day program was packed with information and I believe this event was a success.


The sponsors of the conference were CTIA The Wireless Foundation, Wireless Reach from Qualcomm, which has been very active in providing wireless access for students around the world, Project K-Nect, the Software & Information Industry Association, Education Division, and The Consortium for School Networking. Digital Millennial Consulting organized the conference and it was run by its Managing Director, Shawn Gross.


The keynote speaker, Dr. Irwin Jacobs, co-founder and chairman of the board of Qualcomm, set the stage for the rest of the day and presented clips showing some of the work Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach Program has been involved in, both in the United States and around the world. Many companies are following Qualcomm’s lead to help provide wireless access to students around the world.


The program had something for everyone from the various groups of attendees. One of the most important insights I gained from the conference is that there are two camps in the field of education and wireless technology. Many schools, teachers, and administrators are turning a deaf ear to using wireless as another tool in the education process, but on the other side, a growing number of educators are embracing wireless. They admit that there are issues including phones being used to send and receive inappropriate pictures and text, cheating on tests, and disruption to classes. However, they feel this is outweighed by the benefits of providing access to students and teachers who are learning to embrace wireless and wireless connectivity.


In one speech, I heard about the idea of extending the school day beyond 3:30 in the afternoon to provide for learning opportunities outside the typical classroom setting using wireless devices. One analyst in the audience remarked that there were many similarities between enterprise adoption of wireless and the education market. Wireless connectivity helps companies to be more productive and at the same time enables workers to stay in touch, thus extending their workday.


We were given the results of many research projects (the education community loves research) and there were several very interesting points: 

  • Students want to learn, but they find listening to a teacher lecture to them day after day is boring. The highlight of their day is when they can visit the computer lab, go online, and find out about a wide variety of subjects, or when teachers become more like tutors, working with the class interactively using their wireless devices and notebooks to search for information, share it with the class, and learn from each other.
  • Wireless connectivity using wide-area wireless broadband shifts the cost of wireless from the school to the parents in more affluent schools, helping reduce the cost to the school district.
  • A high percentage of students of all ages, from kindergarten up, have wireless devices they use, and they are not afraid of using them for gathering information, sharing with their peers, and even collaborating on homework with fellow students.
  • Today’s students are oftentimes more familiar with all of the technologies from PCs and laptops to wireless than the teachers are. If teachers don’t take the time and make the effort to use these tools to their advantage, the students will. The current generation of students has grown up with all kinds of technology and it does not faze them, so they are willing to experiment and try new things.
  • Most students already have wireless access and devices, and trying to curb their use instead of incorporating them into the learning process is counterproductive.

I also learned that there are many companies that understand that wireless or wired connectivity and learning go hand in hand. One speaker, the CEO for Project Tomorrow from Sesame Workshop, told how it is extending Sesame characters and learning to wireless devices. One such program is a wireless Elmo. Parents are sent a specific letter for their child to learn with examples of how to use it during the day. Next, the parents hand their wireless phone to the child to play a game with Elmo using the letter of the day. Talk about starting kids out early with wireless!


A number of sessions focused on incorporating wireless into learning, and there was much discussion about how to work with students and their wireless devicesthings as simple as having them Google for information during a lecture to finding the results of a math or science problem using their phone, or collaborating with their peers on a project. I found all of these sessions interesting. Some of the speakers were from Europe and their message was about how successful they have become in incorporating wireless into the overall learning experience.


The technology side of the conference, which was the main reason for my being there, dealt with wireless broadband access in and out of the classroom. Historically, the education community has done a very good job of using Wi-Fi and/or wired Internet connections in the schools. Some are even reaching out and giving their students access to the school network from home and many of the schools in the more remote areas of the United States have broadband in the school—wired and/or wireless (Wi-Fi). But once students leave school at 3:30 in the afternoon, there is no broadband connectivity for them to use to contact their peers or to use for learning purposes.


One of the panel sessions included speakers from T-Mobile, Cisco, SkyTerra, AT&T, and Clearwire. All of these companies are spending time and effort helping communities become more connected and each has one or more initiative for making use of wireless in education. This is not only to benefit the companies, which it does, but also to give back to the communities they serve in some meaningful ways. The discussion was lively and included questions from the audience, one of which was about the cost of wide-area broadband on a per-student basis. Even at its lowest per-month cost of $35, this was seen as too expensive for most schools to be able to afford.


The responses from the panelists did not revolve around price reductions or different pricing for students, but rather around the fact that many of the schools do not have to pay anything for their students to be wirelessly enabled since many of them come to school with their own device and their own voice and data plans, so in some sense, the use of wide-area wireless can be considered as a cost savings for the schools. Other comments on this topic had to do with being able to provide data cheaper at lower speeds (coming), deferring delivery of large files (coming), and offering students additional discounts. No one on the panel mentioned providing a group data purchase for schools, which is common today in the corporate world. Many companies buy blocks of data on a monthly basis and this block is shared among all employees. Some use more and some less, so it evens out and the corporation saves with the bulk rate.


My presentation was based on my white paper, “Broadband for All Americans,” which is my view on how we should spend the $7.2 billion from the stimulus package that is earmarked for broadband services. I outlined concrete actions for many of the ideas I put forth, and ended with the statement that we could provide broadband services to more than 95% of the U.S. population within three years and not the ten years some people think it will take if we simply realize that we need to make use of the multiple technologies we already have (wired, cable, fiber, local and wide-area wireless). Instead of building a new network on new spectrum, my answer is to extend the networks we already have into more of rural America and to find a way to help those who have access to broadband in urban areas but cannot afford it. Today we have wireless voice services that cover more than 95% of the U.S. population and wireless broadband services that cover between 90% and 92%. By adding data services where today there is only voice, and building backhaul to support tomorrow’s as well as today’s data speeds, we can use today’s technologies now and easily move forward when the new technologies become available. In urban areas, my solution is to work with not-for-profit organizations that are already in place to help subsidize broadband connections and devices for broadband access.


In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter since the money is going to two different government agencies and there are no tax incentives in the package to help provide services on an ongoing basis. It is interesting to me that those in charge cannot remember or read the history books and learn that electricity and wired and wireless voice first came to rural America as subsidized services, paid for by our tax dollars. If we really want broadband for all, we will need a government/private partnership to make it happen.


I think mixing educators with government types, and administrators with executives from wireless companies, made for a great conference. It was well attended and there will be more of them I am sure. I learned a lot about how the education community is dealing with the reality of wireless everywhere. Kids will carry the devices and use wireless even if schools make it difficult.


Those from the education community who attended this conference were, for the most part, the forward thinkers and more enlightened when it comes to wireless and other technologies. Unfortunately, they represent only a small percentage of this sector. The good news is that as more of them successfully meld the learning experience with connectivity, more educators will learn how to make it work. The bottom line of the conference? That’s easy. Kids of today are very comfortable with technology (lots of technology). They will use it for their own benefit and enjoyment and will learn more by using it. The best way to deal with this is for the education community to embrace these technologies as more tools and incorporate them into the classroom.


Andrew M. Seybold

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

john sweitzer - 02/23/2009 11:23:38

Andy, you are "spot on" about the need for subsidizing rural build outs and doing it with build outs of existing technology. I was in the Bell System for the first 14 years of my career and I saw first hand what could be done to eliminate party service and get to 100% subscriber coverage. In those cases, the PUC would approve adequate rates as a percentage of investment and would keep them in place as long as the Telco showed progress on elimnation of party service and reductions in held orders. It was a time of cooperation between private industry and government that worked to serve the public.

Mel Samples - 02/23/2009 12:13:16

Reference your first bullet. I think your researchers may have missed an important fact regarding our connected students.

My son is one of the college students that gets bored with lectures. He mentioned the other day that when he can go online while in class he can do "other research" (or substitute your favorite words like "be entertained" or "be distracted") while the professor drones on. He can catch up with his facebook, compare notes with his friends using IM (including share test answers), or just play games.

Maybe a little more research is needed. And maybe your point that far too few educators have any clue regarding effective methods of employing technology is one that should be in all caps and must be a pre-requisite for just sending "stuff" over broadband.