Students in a Project K-Nect math class use smart phones to learn algebra.

Students in a Project K-Nect math class use smart phones to learn algebra.

Speakers at a recent education technology industry summit had a key piece of advice for the company executives who make and sell products for schools: Go mobile.

Hosted by the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), the summit was intended to keep company executives abreast of the latest trends and recent developments in school technology. But its content also gives educators a glimpse into where business leaders see the ed-tech industry heading.

Keynote speaker Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of Qualcomm Inc., pointed to a successful initiative in North Carolina, called Project K-Nect, that uses mobile phones to help teach algebra as an example of how mobile technology can empower learning.

At-risk ninth graders taking part in the project have access to specially created mobile applications that help explain algebraic principles, and they also can watch videos of other students explaining these principles. In addition, they can text or IM their peers for advice when they get stuck.

According to early studies of the program’s efficacy, students taking part in this Qualcomm-funded project outscored their peers who did not have access to the mobile phones and content by an average of 30 percent in algebra proficiency.

“Kids are excited—[they’re saying,] ‘Wow, we get to use cell phones in class?’” Johnson said. “It lets them learn in a way they’re learning outside of school.”

Mobile technologies can provide “24-7 connectivity [for] learning, just as we see in business,” she said, adding that mobile devices offer an emerging platform for the “21st-century textbook”—one that is more flexible, interactive, and allows for instant feedback, as well as greater personalization of the learning process.

The future of mobile computing

Research suggests there are some 1 billion 3G wireless subscribers in the world today, Johnson said—and according to wireless industry projections, that number will soar to nearly 3 billion by 2014. By 2011, emerging regions are expected to represent 50 percent of all 3G handset shipments.

“Emerging markets are stepping over the steps we took” in computing, Johnson said. “Their first PCs are smart phones.”

And the proliferation of mobile devices in these areas of the world is having “a huge transformative shift” in the literacy and quality of life of their populations, she said—noting that the Gross Domestic Product of a nation goes up as its cell-phone penetration increases.

What’s more, the speed of innovation in the chip sets that are driving mobile devices “has been astounding,” Johnson said, “and it’s not stopping here.”

She showed a graph indicating the growth over the last decade in MIPS (millions of instructions per second) that cell-phone chips can handle. The curve of the graph started rising steeply in 2004, when cell-phone chips could handle roughly 400 MIPS; today, that figure stands at nearly 2,000.

Today’s smart phones give users “all the power of a laptop in your pocket,” she said.

Cell-phone screens and battery life still remain challenges, Johnson acknowledged; the screens are very power-draining, and the developments in battery life haven’t been nearly as dramatic as the gains in chip sets.

But Johnson revealed new advances in these areas, too, that could make mobile computing even more powerful.

For instance, Qualcomm has invested in a technology developed by a San Francisco company, called “mirasol,” that uses a series of mirrors to hold color in place, creating a reflective display that uses less power than an LCD screen—while at the same time allowing the screen to be seen in bright sunlight.

“Full sunlight actually helps the screen, not hurts it,” Johnson said, explaining that the technology uses ambient light to help with reflection. She said Qualcomm will begin commercializing the technology later this year.

Although today’s applications reside mostly on the device itself, in the future these will exist largely in the “cloud,” Johnson said—meaning users can take their personal information with them wherever they go, and they’ll have access to it no matter what device they’re using at the time.

In addition, 4G wireless devices soon will be deployed, and these will support cellular connections that are 10 times faster than 3G speeds, Johnson said—enabling wireless video conferencing and other bandwidth-intensive applications. However, that will put an enormous strain on the operators of mobile networks, she acknowledged, who will have to solve the challenge of bandwidth management in a way that won’t upset consumers.

Smart phones vs. other mobile devices

Not everyone at the summit was convinced that smart phones are the future of education technology.

One industry executive whose business is involved with netbooks and laptop computers, as opposed to cell phones, noted that smart phones allow users to consume media and also collaborate with others—but they’re not as good at supporting content creation (a third important pillar of a 21st-century education).

It’s one thing to leverage a technology that today’s students already have, the executive said. But “if you invest in smart phones for learning, you then don’t have enough money to invest in a full-featured learning platform.”

Plus, when you factor in the cost of the associated service, “the public sector can’t pay $45 per child, per year for a data plan,” she said.

Monthly service fees do present a challenge for schools, Johnson acknowledged. But telecommunications companies are starting to feel market pressure to reduce their rates and offer consumers more flexibility.

For instance, users of Apple’s iPad will have the option of paying for a monthly data plan as they go, rather than being locked into a two-year service contract—and “we’ll see more of this in the future,” she said.

A proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to expand the use of e-Rate discounts could help, too, Johnson said. The FCC’s plan would provide full e-Rate support of wireless internet service delivered to portable learning devices that are used off campus.

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the One-to-one computing: The last piece of the puzzle resource center. Educational technology once meant taking a weekly trip to a PC-filled computer lab, or using a classroom projector or PowerPoint for a presentation. But today, technology is as ubiquitous in schools as it is everywhere else. Modern students are digital natives–they’ve grown up with constant access to laptops, cell phones, the internet, mp3 players, and other tech tools for both homework and social use. Go to:

One-to-one computing: The last piece of the puzzle