Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Smartphone Achieved Escape Velocity - Can Education?


A typical smartphone has considerably more computer power than Deep Blue that beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 - back then IBM's Deep Blue was the the 259th most powerful computer in the world with 11.38 GFLOPS...  the Samsung Galaxy S6 with its Exynos 7420 GPU measures 210 GFLOPS!

Not only has a smartphone got orders of magnitude more computer power than the computers that got us to the moon back in 1969 but a typical smartphone has a faster CPU and more memory than the average satellite today. Bristling with sensors and communications and benefiting from significant research and development efforts and economies of scale today's smartphones are extremely capable devices and cost effective devices that have caught the attention of NASA. PhoneSat is a NASA project that uses unmodified consumer-grade off-the-shelf smartphones and Arduino platform to build nanosatelites and launch them into Low Earth Orbit. 

2014 was the year in which the smartphone achieved "escape velocity" - breaking free and moving away forever from the gravitational attraction of the previous generation. 2014 was   “a tipping point for Internet” and when mobile users exceeded PC users for the first time. In 2015 Ofcom reported that smartphones are the UK’s most popular device for getting online and Google confirmed that there are now more searches on mobile than on desktop

The smartphone is a technology paradigm shift and herein lies the problem - many haven't recognised it yet and attempt to assimilate it into preconceived modes of use.

I remember the computing - telecommunications merger narratives of the early noughties. Back then - in one corner we had Pocket PC style devices mostly from the computer industry and in the other corner the mobile phone devices mostly from the telecommunications industry. And then, along came the iPhone - although it was from the computing corner Apple put all the pieces together and created something new and different. Charles Arthur describes the iPhone like a cold shower - a shock to pretty much everyone and something so dramatically different from what has gone before it upended our expectations. More than just a computer, more than just a telephone  - the smartphone is more than the sum of its parts - the smartphone is a new generation of technology.
Thomas Kuhn used the duck-rabbit optical illusion to demonstrate the way in which a paradigm shift could cause one to see the same information in an entirely different way. 

"The Phone that works like your PC" - Microsoft advertising for Lumia with Windows 10

Its clear that many still see the smartphone in old ways. During the 1980s Microsoft helped bring about the last paradigm change from mainframe computers to personal computers but appear stuck and incapable of going with the shift to see smartphones as a new generation of device. Microsoft still see the smartphone as a combination of phone and computer and present the new Microsoft Lumia as "The Phone that works like your PC".

The iPhone was released in 2007 - this blog post is almost a decade out of date but the issues with understanding the smartphone today are as pertinent for some today as they were in 2007. Perceptual blindness causes many to fail to see objects or stimuli that are unexpected and quite often salient and almost a decade on the ships are not unseen the smartphone is treated as if its a computer or a phone in the same old way or ignored completely.

Its clear that the education system has perceptual blindness when it comes to information technology and like Microsoft still sees the smartphone as a "phone that works like your PC" - seeing it as just another content delivery device or as John Traxler puts it in What killed the mobile learning dream? 

"we've ended up with mobile access to virtual learning environments that are being used as repositories. So, in practice, students reading their notes on the bus."

I suspect that the education system's perceptual blindness to the smartphone may be permanent rather than temporary and may in fact indicate a more serious and systemic problem in adapting to change.

While the smartphone may have achieved escape velocity - can the education system and what will it take for it to do so?

For the education system "What got you here won't get you there" - John Traxler sees this in What killed the mobile learning dream? 

"Mobile learning has stalled. It has spent quite some time barking up the wrong tree, looking backwards and inwards"

"The way in which institutions have traditionally provided desktops cannot simply be extended to laptops, mobiles and tablets"

John suggests the education system needs to open up and open out - enabling students to use their own equipment. However, if students bring and use their own technology this shifts and challenges traditional dynamic of control:

When students bring their own devices, they also bring their own services and connectivity, and whereas we used to make the rules by which they could use the desktops or by which they could access the network – because it was ours - in future it will be their network and their devices.

Suddenly, students are bringing all of their habits and expectations with them about who and how and what they learn – and that isn’t necessarily limited merely to accessing whatever stuff the lecturer puts on the VLE. That's quite challenging in terms of the lecturer identity.

Education technology has a crisis of relevance and needs to stop fearing our young learners and to connect with them in ways that are meaningful to them rather than the institution? 

The education system has to open the box and race with the machines if it is to have any chance of remaining relevant and achieving escape velocity.

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