iPad: m-learning at its best or worst?

Much has been said about m-learning, and the technology fueled future… rich with possibilities for the next generation of student learners. And that we are now entering a phase where we can peek into that future, through emerging technologies. Apple can be termed the big daddy in this race, the mover and shaker who challenges our perceptions of what technology can do for us, with innovations abound, come every MacWorld. In this post, I’d like to talk about where m-learning is heading, using Apple’s latest contribution to the mobile computing world – the iPad.

As early as the January unveiling of the iPad, the e-learning blogosphere has been buzzing with the possibilities that the device presented for learning, both at the corporate and the school/university level. I would say that post the initial excitement, the ground realities really sunk in. Innovative? Yes. Made things interesting? Yes. But recommend as a formal learning tool? Not so sure. Why the hesitation to a device that was designed to really ‘push the boundaries’ according to the maker?

Let’s look at the initial buyer side reaction – how happy are universities/students?

Some universities (the likes of Princeton and Cornell) have already taken a stand and straight out banned the iPad on campus, due to issues with network access and connectivity. These institutions are just not prepared, the infrastructure is not efficient enough, and it probably won’t be for a couple years.

As far as students are concerned, sure there will be many takers (we saw how the iPod really took over the world), but what about essential academic work, how does the iPad score? No multi-tasking capabilities (something that’s second nature to any student working online), problems with ergonomics (having to remain hunched over while typing out a 3,000 word paper – I think not!) and readability of e-textbooks don’t bode well for the device. Coupled with this, the data costs and prices of e-textbooks (not to mention no resale value) aren’t exactly catering to the average thrifty student. Zack, a student blogger from ZDNet  sums up the general sentiment quite well on his post here.

What are the industry implications…for e-learning providers, trainers and even publishers?

The biggest source of discontent on this front is clearly Apple’s rigid stance on ostracizing Flash applications from all its mobile devices. This has multi-fold implications for e-learning providers, as much of the learning content available makes creative use of Flash. Not only is the web plug-in excluded, the Apple stamp must be given to all applications, and developers are less than happy with the lock-in agreement which requires them to only use the company’s dev tools. This essentially means that a conventional e-learning provider will have to reinvent the wheel in terms of back-end technology to be able to cater to the niche Apple crowd (god forbid his client company select it for enterprise use).

Again, this may be an opportunity for a new player, and interoperable solutions for major LMS’ can be expected to evolve, but at what cost? Why lose out on the many leaps (even if they may be deemed small) in learning that have been made through the use of Flash in the last few years…whiteboards and interactive, engaging content for learners of all ages and walks of life. As this goes to print, Adobe just announced its Flash 10.1, which is all set to support touch screens, conserve battery life and take advantage of faster mobile processors, and in the process, pretty much prove Steve Jobs wrong! And of course, there are workarounds to getting Flash into Apple devices, but this is merely a reaction by the rival company. Why can’t we all just get along, especially as Apple has already professed its commitment to furthering education?

I’ve personally seen some vendors’ briefings where innovation in learning content was facilitated through Flash. So why be forced to abandon ship simply so the device company is able to earn more than a few bucks from its organized app store (take my colleague Vivek’s coverage of the publisher’s plight for example)? I would really like to hear about this from a service provider. Do innovations in technology have to come at this cost? Or this is really an opportunity to redefine mobile learning as we know it today (as Rutgers University just illustrated)?

Last 5 posts by Reetika

  • Ashutosh Thatte

    Nice one Reetika,

    Apple products so far have been more eye-catching than knowledge enhancing. Be it the i-pod, i-phone or now the i-pad. Serious use of these devices for formal learning is highly clumsy right now. More to do, maybe, with the MATURIY of e-learning in general. Exchange of Information is one thing and Learning is quite another. Maybe, once users settle in to using i-pad, they can think of using this for formal learning. Maybe the pace at which companies are churning out newer technologies and products is not giving time to the users to fully utilise the product in hand.

    But surely a nice article. Was wondering if you are also keeping an eye on the Indian eLearning market?


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  • George Kunz

    You may be missing the forest by concentrating on a few trees. The significance of the ipad is the large scale commitment by a major manufacturer to an innovative small form factor content delivery tool.

    The first telephones had terrible audio, and a great many limitations. I’m sure there were some who pointed to these and pronounced the telephone a bad idea with little future.

    I wouldn’t judge either of these technologies based on features sets that will ultimately play a minor role in the future use.
    Lack of multitasking, university network support and Flash are simply early stage irritants in this trend.

    The advantages of this form factor vs laptops and/or book bag, the greatly expanded notion of a text book and ever present web access will ensure domination in the academic world – and elsewhere….despite this somewhat disappointing first effort by Apple.

  • http://www.tatainteractive.com Vivek Achary

    The iPad is an important milestone in the m-learning saga but it clearly has some way to go. That’s the problem with any new technology — low acceptance, low compatibility and in this case, high costs as well.

    By definition m-learning is _the_ perfect choice for some applications (see examples at http://www.tatainteractive.com/mlearning.html) and it helps increase user adoption if the technology is already widespread – e.g. smartphones etc. In such a case the technology gets out of the way, and remains a medium to deliver the learning, which is the more important goal. To average users, learning on an iPad would first require them to get comfortable with the device, which can actually become an impediment to learning. It will be a while before the iPad or its clones iron out their wrinkles and achieve critical mass. What matters more is the quality and innovation of the learning content itself — the tool is just an enabler.

    What the iPad does offer is a great opportunity to develop exciting content that is specifically targeted at niche users who are already sold on the technology.

    Interestingly, while Adobe launched Flash 10.1, they also announced a new suite of HTML5 tools (see http://nyti.ms/dfG4F5), so they’re hedging their bets it seems :)

  • http://www.sourcingnotes.com Reetika

    Thanks for your comments, guys.
    Yes, weighing the good versus the bad, it seems like Apple is in it for the long haul, and this recent release is just a sign of things to come. Here’s a great article talking about the ‘Macpocalypse’ – five years in the future (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/04/why-steve-jobs-hates-flash.html).

    Though the learning curve will be high, the low acceptance will eventually give way, as Apple churns out its next versions with more practicality thrown it! Innovations in learning will come steadily, but as George puts it, it will definitely be for the niche few.

  • Akshay

    Hi Reetika

    I think IPAD would be the tipping point in a way content is delivered to students now. Only a fool would miss the golden opportunity that a high resolution touch based device presents. My mouth waters at the prospect of a history text book whose pages i can flip through, zoom into graphics, read about the world war and on the same page click a button to watch a small clipping of the battle of Stalingrad.

    IPAD per say is isolating flash and this means most content we build today is inaccessible on the IPAD and honestly speaking they are not meant to be on the pad. What we do today is just not good enough. This may be a time when we start building what is called a natural user interface with which you can interact by touching it and sometimes even speaking to it.

    We now have a device and possibly more such devices that will enable amazing creativity to come forward. Just a matter of using them properly. Imagine after you get an IPAD (type of device) at a certain age, no carrying school books. Every year just download your new books and you are ready to rock.

  • Sandhya Nagee

    A very interesting read. All said and done, I see great potential in ipad. It might have to undergo refinements and learning itself might have to be revamped in order to leverage the emerging technologies. I think Apple is doing a great job by delivering great products into the market. When you compare a BB to and iphone, iphone is my choice of smartphones hands down. The apps are amazing and you can just about create an app for just about anything.
    It is upto the learning professionals to come with innovative and creative ways to leverage these hand held tools to deliver content. What I believe is we will see more and more of informal, and unstructured collabratiive learning happenning.
    ipad gives us the potential to break out of brick and motar mentality and start thinking of true collaboration. Although, I do believe that these tools are more of performance support and performance engineering tools rather than delivery of huge learning pieces.

    Evaluations and assessments will need to change too. Evidence-based assessment should be replacing the traditional assessments as the interaction, and participation using these tools will provide sufficient evidence about the knowledge, skill and ability of the individual rather than simply writing a test.

    I can write so much on this but I will end with just one sentence: potential is endless, we just need to think smart.

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