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Smartphone studying: the technology universities try to ignore?
by Zack Whittaker


Introduction

For the vast majority of us the smartphone is a benign device; a wireless tool not primarily used for voice communications any more but better suited as a multimedia device designed both as an entertainment device and for mobile productivity. Most would take to the desktop for e-mail, web browsing, calendar synchronisation, but not I.

For forty-eight hours in early December, for half of which I was snowed in as the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus was deemed ‘unsafe’ to access, I vowed to undertake a simple enough challenge: to use nothing but my BlackBerry smartphone for two days solid. I left the laptop in the office and walked away from my desktop PC at home, with only a spare battery in my pocket.

Why? I wanted to prove a point; that students can survive on their smartphones, whether it be an iPhone, an Android device, or in my case a BlackBerry, as the three top contenders for student phones. Concluding the experiment, it turns out that it is wholly possible to survive without a desktop for two days if not longer. The smartphone is technologically capable to handle the very vast majority of tasks, ranging from accessing academic articles via library catalogues to downloading music, and even ordering a pizza over the airwaves.

But universities on the most part do not support the widespread use of smartphones in academia, leading me to ask why there is such a disparity towards mobile users, and why these students are not fairly catered for?

Why students, and why smartphones?

You leave the house in the morning for work or campus, and you grab your phone, your wallet, and then your keys. Mobile phones and smartphones have become intrinsic to our everyday lives, and students today are the trendsetters for the ‘next generation’ of the economy and society for when they hijack the current workforce.

The ‘iGeneration’ – a term not necessarily new but loose around the edges until earlier this year when I redefined and clarified the demographic it represented – describes a sub-culture of students and younger people aged within the confines of the Generation Y ’18-30’ range. Popularised by technology intrinsic to their social capital, these kids are not ‘geeky’ or ‘nerdy’ but more rather blending in as the prominent figure of today’s youth.

Don Tapscott (2009: 129-130), a world leading thinker in understanding Generation Y, highlights the crucial importance of educational institutions and organisations focussing on “abandoning the old system” of learning, to progress towards a fluid and dynamic process of intellectual discovery. Technology will be a major intermediary between the academic and the student, so what could be better than introducing education to the one thing we all have with us at any given time?

Many institutions offer ‘mobile’ devices in form of netbooks on the most part. Some still offer fully-fledged laptops as a temporary source of relief for students. Those students may say they have to access numerous academic articles in preparation for their upcoming seminar, but more often than not are instead after a dose of Facebook to catch up with the gossip of the last twenty minutes.

Mobile phones are rarely given to university students unless given strict guidelines of operation. Bridging devices, such as netbooks and tablet devices to borrow are commonplace in the modern university. In many cases, these devices-for-hire are used for tasks that could be performed on a smartphone already belonging to the student.

The vast majority of the student section or portal areas of the Russell Group higher educational institutions are either incompatible with standard mobile browsers using the mobiReady page test, albeit with smartphones ranking higher, do not have adequate functionality to perform simple tasks of attendance monitoring, timetable lookups or library access, for example.

Higher education institutions, it can be said, are trying to ignore the smartphone user. Rolling university functionality out to the web works only when the users are fixed to a fully-fledged laptop or desktop machine.

The 'resources issue'

One of the prominent issues faced in university IT administration is the lack of resources available. The vast number of students ‘addicted’ to social media make up a large majority of campus computer users, though conversely universities may contribute to technological ‘addiction’ by replacing traditional means with purely computerised replacements. You will find that by opening up an application on your smartphone that the stream of information comes pummelling in within seconds; far faster than logging into a public PC in the library and signing in with their credentials. One has to wonder why students are so keen to access the limited resources of the IT infrastructure instead of using their very capable smartphone

E-mail is still a significant part of a student's academic life (Schawbel, 2010: 177-181) though many would believe social networking to be the biggest ‘time-waster’ of all. Universities often use e-mail as the primary source of communication to the students in times of crisis, such as extreme snowfall which may of us have dealt with over the last few months.

The outsourcing of e-mail applications to the cloud has been a significant boost to college and university budgets, with many institutions subcontracting their communication systems to third-party organisations such as Microsoft’s Live@edu (soon to be Office 365 for Education) or Google’s Apps for Education.  This poses two problems for end users and institutions alike.

Out of the two aforementioned major market contenders for educational communications systems, both provide IMAP or Exchange-compatible protocols to allow mobile devices to receive pushed e-mail content. Yet on the other hand, though Google is superseded in numbers of users due to existing volume licences agreed with universities by Microsoft (Foley, 2008: 182-186), Gmail offers a true mobile experience combined with a still-compatible interface  accessible via the mobile browser.

Yet the implications of the USA PATRIOT Act extending indirectly outside US sovereign territory and into to the European Union and UK institutions (Cowles, 2004), user data may not be as secure in the cloud, as service providers do not oblige details of  their datacenter and their policies for moving data across state lines.

Figure 1: Global browser statistics for November 2010 (StatCounter)

Figure 1: Global browser statistics for November 2010 (StatCounter)

Mobile network and wireless coverage

Students know first-hand that mobile signals can be unpredictable at the best of times. High signal strength and 3G coverage does not automatically dictate fast browsing speeds and high quality voice calls.  Dave Pickersgill et al found the installation of what is essentially femtocell technology allowed a greater spread to mobile users, for access to e-mail and remaining areas of the data infrastructure normally reserved for desktop users. Femtocell or picocell technology enables mobile blackspots to be filled by allowing fixed broadband bandwidth to be converted into cell signal for mobile users. The trouble falls in that many mobile networks do not fully support nor yet endorse the use of femtocells. 

But ‘eduroam’, the universal academic wireless network has revolutionised accessibility across campuses, with the vast majority of institutions blanketing their campuses with wireless coverage. Wireless-N (802.11n) technology would extend existing coverage by tenfold, though is not widely used even after finally being certified over a year ago; partly due to the hardware market having not yet adapted to the changes.

For universities who often have little to no web browsing restrictions on their networks, some network administrators opt to block specific ports to prevent torrent applications and the prevention of malware or excessive bandwidth consumption through gaming. But forcing ‘time-wasters’ dominating the public PCs on campus to access non-academic resources could force social networking to the mobile device alone, freeing up machines for those conducting legitimate research, teaching or administrative tasks.  Yet the widely accepted principles of academic freedom allow a broader range of activities and capabilities than those studying at further education colleges, calling into question whether any university machine should block or restrict access to a particular site.

Access to everything promotes mobile learning

Peter-Paul Koch, a distinguished mobile platform strategist recently addressed in a comprehensive article an in-depth analysis of the mobile market, stressing the need for web developers to focus on the smartphone user. Though the mobile web browser is not the be all and end all of the smartphone experience, unlike that of the desktop where the browser remains a core feature, there continues to be a growing parity between desktop browsers and their mobile counterparts. Firefox, Safari and Opera browsers are available for the mobile, ranging from the iPhone, BlackBerry and Nokia devices, yet many sites are still not optimised for the mobile-using student.

Smartphones are a platform designed to be built upon. Their very nature for existence is to act as a conduit for inspiration to developers to create applications that are either frivolous or functional. Yet so many institutions do not take advantage of the ‘advertising space’ they have with their own students. One notable exception is the University of Central Lancashire, where by pushing advantageous tools and utilities to their students’ from fresher’s week onwards helped amplify the educational benefits to their student’s university course.

Whilst maintaining the security of university resources is highly important, many services in the higher education institution are firewalled; accessible only directly through the university network, via eduroam, a wired terminal or through a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel for off-campus users. Unless specific hardware is enabled within the university network, most VPN-enabled smartphones (including the BlackBerry and iPhone) will not work. This needs to be backed up by IT support staff with the knowledge and capability to write user-guides for the lay-student with little-to-no knowledge of these technologies. 

Too many academics and university administrators focus on ‘the home’ and ‘the campus library’ for student working arrangements, and fool themselves into believing that the student on the most part does not in fact want to study. For example, given the opportunity, many students would take advantage of the time on the train they spend visiting their family on the weekend, but are unable to.

Concluding thoughts 

The potential is out there to create a dynamic, consistent and available set of interconnecting systems to allow students greater freedom to study, to learn and to communicate with. Of course this could easily appear to be the buzzword diatribe of a frustrated student, knowing full well the potential that could be created in the private sector to provide such utilities.

Yet the education sector as we know it is to be plunged into a cold, dark winter of economic uncertainty and it would be a lie to say that I personally know that “we will make it through”, because many of us will not. Research and development will stumble, lecturers and academic staff will be pushed further and resources and infrastructure will falter under the increased costs of maintenance versus the budgets provided.

Though with little planning needed and the hunger to give what little is left to the students that remain, a wealth of ideas are still on the table for IT administrators, infrastructure maintainers and research developers to add to the existing capital of educational technology. Whether it can be a small difference such as investing in mobile timetabling solutions like Blackboard's range of mobile accessible applications, or a medium sized adjustment like a template change to optimise the university pages for mobile devices, accessibility to users with pre-existing smartphone technology can make a substantial difference to the university learning experience. 

Zack Whittaker
zaw2@kent.ac.uk

University of Kent, Canterbury

References

Cowles, M., 2004. Privacy, Security, and Hegemony in Cyberspace: The Transatlantic Public-Private Debate over the USA Patriot Act. Montreal: International Studies Association. Available at: www.allacademic.com/meta/p73296_index.html [Accessed 12th December 2010].

Foley, M. J., 2008. Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era. Indianapolis: Wiley.

Schawbel, D., 2010. Me 2.0: Four Steps to Building Your Future. New York: Kaplan Publishing.

Tapscott, D., 2009. Grown up digital: How the Net Generation is changing your world. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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