I read an interesting blog post from Rory Cellan-Jones on mobile phone connectivity. The launch of the iPhone 4 served to demonstrate the increasingly complex services that smart phones can now deliver. But services have been announced before when 3G phones first came on the scene. The problem then, as it is now, was the lack of capacity of the mobile phone network. As Rory Cellan-Jones pointed out, phone technology is developing faster than the networks over which they are expected to run. There were many comments on his blog, most decrying the lack of decent mobile connectivity which prevented many of the sexier applications from running. Rory was blogging from an event being held on the outskirts of Oxford – but had to resort to using (and paying for) the venue’s wireless network as he was unable to get a good enough signal for either his phone or mobile broadband dongle.
All of which got me thinking about those studying at universities. It has been suggested that it will be necessary to start to deliver learning via mobile devices. But is it? What do students use their smart phones for? I suspect that it is largely for the social aspects of their lives (accepting that the boundaries are blurring between work and play) and that they would not want to use their phones for much more than that (excepting the growing volume of applications designed to help them in their institutions). Would they attempt to use their phones for downloading educational material? The anecdotal evidence on network coverage suggests that it is unlikely that anyone would attempt to use their phone for anything complex. Do they use their phones to connect wirelessly where they can? Again I suspect not – most will have packages that suit their lifestyle and so they would not consider the hassle of identifying a wireless network and entering the criteria required to connect to it.
So where does this leave the sector? Should we just wait until the mobile phone networks catch up with phone technology? Will this ever happen? Or should we press on and develop learning applications for smart phones in the expectation that the mobile networks will step up to the mark in the future? All of these questions may be irrelevant. The cutbacks as a result of the current economic downturn are likely to drastically reduce the development of innovative learning material. Is the availability of learning material on smart phones something that offers real competitive advantage to an institution to merit investment? I doubt it. Until the mobile phone networks can deliver reliable 3G connectivity in cities like Oxford, I don’t think it’s a starter.