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Where are we going? A look at the future of mobile learning


The movement toward a one-to-one computing environment—that is, one device for every child—soon will be moot, says Phil Emer, director of technology planning and policy for The Friday Institute, which is housed within North Carolina State University. “The truth is, we’re going to blow through one-to-one. Right now, we might have four kids to one machine, but two years from now, we’ll have one-to-four. That is, one kid to four devices.”

That might not seem possible for schools to manage or support—but to remove some of the burden, schools should considering stopping the practice of doing certain things locally and do them online instead, Emer says.

“Why run your own eMail service now?” he says. “Have Microsoft or Google run it, [and] save a bunch of money. Get out of the business of running eMail servers and domain control servers and servers that run your finance systems. There are services available now that do that very well, very inexpensively—and big enterprises use them. So why don’t [schools] use them and free up time and money, and invest that money in devices?”

Another key shift is that telecommunications companies are no longer in the business of selling and managing wireline or even wireless telephone service. They’re in the business of wireless data networks. “We can talk about my iPhone being a phone, but it’s really an eMail device, a phone device, an internet device,” Emer says.

Along those lines, Emer believes that eventually the telecom companies will be “involved in the whole solution: not just the 3G wireless solution, but how do you provision the end devices? How do you engineer, manage, and monitor the wireless networks? How do you ensure that the students have data access outside of school? There’s an AT&T answer” to all of these questions.

A third thing that will have to change, according to Emer, is the Federal Communications Commission’s e-Rate program, which currently helps schools connect to the internet. “What we need to be doing is having the e-Rate discount the cost of the data plan,” he says. “So, fix the e-Rate, which the telecomm companies can help us to do, so that it addresses the data connection to users.”

The FCC is already funding a study to look at the merits and challenges of funding wireless off-premises connectivity for mobile learning devices. The pilot program will help the FCC decide whether—and how—those services should be eligible for e-Rate support. As part of the pilot program, the FCC authorized up to $10 million for funding year 2011 to support a small number of innovative, interactive off-premise wireless connectivity projects for schools and libraries. As of the December 2010 due date, the FCC had received 85 “seemingly valid” applications.

—J.N.

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