E-learning in the Mobile World and the Right Business Model to Deliver It

I think it is safe to say that for most of us the personal computer is the first place we go when we are looking for web-based information; however, new web-ready mobile devices are emerging with increased speed and are blurring the line of what traditionally constitutes a viable endpoint for digital content. Have you seen the new Verizon netbook? Is it a laptop, a souped-up PDA? Neither, it’s a “netbook”—netbooks have been around for awhile now, but the fact that this one was selling for under $200 definitely caught my eye.

As the computing power of mobile devices improves and they become more affordable, the demand for content that works well on these platforms continues to grow.  Consequently, new possibilities for delivering E-learning content to mobile devices are redefining the E-learning industry in exciting ways.iphone

While many user interface and usability people have given lukewarm reviews of the Kindle, the popularity of this E-book device has revealed what appears to be strong evidence of consumer demand for this type of technology. It’s hard to find fault with the practical benefits of having an ultra-lightweight E-book that holds up to 200 books, connects to the Internet wirelessly to download content and displays text in a relatively familiar format without the flicker of the CRT monitor. A sign of things to come? Many think so, like Steve Brotman in his Vcball blog.

How might a ubiquitous E-book like the Kindle and other new mobile web-ready devices reshape the world of instructional content? Smartphones like the iPhone and Palm Pre are quickly building a loyal following of application developers and end-users. The iPhone 3 will be released soon and Apple recently stated they have over 50 thousand applications for download in their App Store where over 1 billion applications have been downloaded by their 40 million iPhone and iPod Touch customers.  Until the Kindle can withstand the rigors of being tethered to a 3rd grader and Mom and Dad are willing to pay for little Johnny’s new iPhone, it’s hard to imagine these types of devices displacing the book on a large scale for the K-12 demographic (although there are numerous educational applications available for this group).  Nevertheless, let’s look at some examples of how mobile devices are already enabling new ways of delivering educational media.

Michael Hanley, in his E-Learning Curve blog, offers some compelling examples of E-learning applications for the iPhone and  one need only look at the diversity of these educational “mini” applications to see how E-learning developers are already finding new opportunities for reaching a wider audience with their media.

While much of the educational content developed by iPhones is created by individual developers, some companies, like Modality Inc., make it their business to transform reference materials into iPhone compatible media. Is the Kindle too bulky or a bit too expensive for your tastes? No worries, the iPhone has an E-book application for under ten dollars and a growing list of book titles. Do you want to learn sign language or how to fly a plane? Sure, “mini” apps for mobile devices can at best augment some larger and more robust instructional activity that normally occurs on a standard personal computer or within the classroom (or an airplane), but considering their cost (many are free) and convenience, it’s hard to ignore their value to both the learner and the content developer. In many ways, the popularity of the iPhone and these educational “mini” apps lends credence to the idea that smartphones will continue to take on increased importance in the educational media space.

The take away for those of us who work with instructional technology? Outstanding content is still the starting point, but before disseminating this content, much greater care must be taken to understand rapidly changing audience needs and the growing use of web-ready mobile devices. Shaping content for a specific digital endpoint should obviously incorporate some level of instructional design and in many cases a basic feasibility study attached to your needs analysis. In the past, some of my projects have warranted the extra effort required to develop ancillary E-learning content or modules for mobile devices like a smartphone, whereas other projects have not. As these devices continue to become more ubiquitous, it’s probable that more and more E-learning projects will be developed exclusively for a specific mobile device like a smartphone or netbook.

So, what does the E-book and other web-ready mobile devices have to do with academic institutions? Interestingly, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, states the main difference between the Kindle and Sony’s E-book is that the Kindle has wireless networking capability and this access to the Internet means their device enables a service.  In private industry, the survivor of a “technology battle” is not always the company with the superior technology or the deepest pockets (although the latter does prevail quite often), but oftentimes the company who can sustain their product via the most appropriate business model and make progressive adjustments to that model when needed. The Kindle may indeed be the superior product, but the main reason it has become a viable technology for end-users is primarily because Amazon utilized a superior business model to support the dissemination of Kindle-based content, i.e., a service-based model.

For public academic institutions, these trends can and should encourage more attention to intentional and strategic content design. Additionally, there are surely lessons that we can learn from in this domain as public universities grapple with how to progressively translate content dissemination into a more privatized business model. As the funding from public sources dries up and the privatization of our universities seems to be shifting into high gear, discussions of what type of business model will support meaningful movement toward new methods of delivery for educational media will be more and more relevant if we hope to avoid some of the missteps taken in private industry and want to reach our audience using the devices that our end-users or students prefer.

What do you think? Do you think web-ready mobile devices provide new opportunities for educational media? How might the business and revenue models used for disseminating mobile device educational content in private industry be relevant for academic institutions who are moving towards privatizing their funding sources?

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1 Comment So Far

marcus on 12 June, 2009 at 12:45 am #

Technologies are evolving very fast these days and gadgets are getting smaller. all these technologies are making our lives more convenient. hope these technologies will be use for the better.

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