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The Napster-Ification of K-12 Learning

MOBICIPNEWS on July 06, 2011

There is something happening in K-12 education. A movement. A revolution. A paradigm shift. Call it what you may, but something is changing for sure. For lack of a better phrase, it is has been termed "Mobile Learning". You have probably heard this term bandied about at various K-12 technology conferences already. What does it really mean?

I have been thinking about this change and what it means to students, educators and parents. I realized that this was a movement only when I attended the Mobile 2011 conference. There were K-12 educators, administrators, technology staff and even app developers at the conference. As the founder of - a safe Internet filter for student mobile devices - you could say I was one of the early converts that believed that students were going to use a mobile device in lieu of textbooks, notebooks and basically to replace the backpack. As much as I believed in the certainty of this change happening, I did not fully comprehend the implications of this change until I listened to Graham Brown-Martin, founder of Learning Without Frontiers and organizer-in-chief of the Handheld Learning conference in London.

During his keynote speech at Mobile 2011, Graham had an interesting take on the implications of mobile learning.

Think about what the automobile did to horse-drawn carts. That is exactly what mobile learning means to K-12 education. In fact, the phrase "Mobile Learning" by itself is slightly misleading. It is not about the mobility, although it is an important component. This change is about ubiquitous, equitable connectivity and access to information at the students' fingertips. What does such access do? It gives them access to high-quality interactions that allow them to learn by doing, learn by practice, learn by repetition, learn by enjoyment of a game, learn by the instant-on nature of the connectivity. If you have any iota of doubt, talk to Travis Allen, the founder of iSchoolInitiative.

According to Graham, mobile learning will eventually lead to the "Napster"-ification of how K-12 students learn. Let's think about this for a minute. The diligent student would seek the information, app, and content she wants at the time she wants it. Given that there will be an incredible number of options available, she would try to seek the best quality learning experience available. There is no question that high-quality content is available online. Lets look at a few examples.

1. MIT Open Courseware
According to their website, OCW is "a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity." This is incredible, isn't it? And its not just MIT. Several higher education institutions have followed the example and created online courses accessible to anyone with a web browser.

2. iTunesU
According to Apple, iTunesU has "more than 350,000 free lectures, videos, films, and other resources — from all over the world." All free.

3. Connexions
According to the Connexions website, it "is one of the most popular open education sites in the world. Its more than 17,000 learning objects or modules in its repository  and over 1000 collections (textbooks, journal articles, etc.) are used by over 2 million people per month."

4. Khan Academy
Khan Academy is inspiring simply due to the incredible fact that one person has created 2100 videos which have been viewed 44.3 million times and counting. To learn more, watch this video of Sal Khan at TED 2011.

5. App Store
But of course. The App Store has brought about a whole new level of instant interactivity to learning that was not possible before. The most common recurring theme at Mobile 2011 has been about the incredible apps that people are using. Every school, every educator, every student has a personalized list of favorite apps that they are more than happy to share with the rest of the world.

Clearly, Graham is on to something when he says that mobile learning is about instant access and connectivity. However, I have a feeling that everything discussed at Mobile 2011, every back channel conversation, every article on this blog, put together, is still the tip of the iceberg. If Graham's prediction is true, ubiquitous connectivity and instant access will change the fundamental definition of learning as we know it. The flow of education, from institutional entities to students, will be irrevocably reversed. The student now becomes the learner, the seeker, the ultimate arbiter of what a quality learning experience means to her at a personalized and individualized level. The teacher, especially the good ones, will be incredibly valuable and sought-after and will command an income proportionate to their value to society. A new class of "mentor/coach" might arise who will be the friend, philosopher and guide to the learner, but with perhaps little authority to dictate terms over the why and the what, but simply guide the how. The institution's role will undergo a transformation into a commoditized aggregator of high-quality learning resources, its survival at the mercy of the choice of the discerning learner. Institutions that do not transform themselves will be left by the wayside as relics of an older time.

Will Graham's prediction come true? Will there be a disruptive change in education as we know it? Is it simply inevitable as a consequence of truly "mobile" learning?

Only time will tell. Mobile 2011 will then be seen as a harbinger of times to come.

Thanks to the organizers for a wonderful and inspiring conference.

This article was written at the Mobile Learning Experience 2011 conference inspired by Graham Brown-Martin's (Founder of the Handheld Learning Conference) keynote.

Suren Ramasubbu
President & CEO

About Author
Suren Ramasubbu is the Founder of, a leading online child safety service for mobile Internet devices like the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and netbooks. Mobicip's mission is to provide a safe, secure and educational Internet experience for school-age children. Mobicip's dynamic content filtering technology helps parents protect their children from a new wave of Internet hazards stemming from mobility so they can learn and love the mobile web. By delivering an online safety net through its parental control solution, Mobicip gives parents and educators the ability to safeguard their children's mobile devices.  Before launching, Suren was an Operating Manager at Agilent Technologies, responsible for a division's enterprise web infrastructure strategy and team. At Agilent, Suren has led QA automation strategy, evangelized software engineering methodologies, and developed software for RF and mixed-signal electronic design automation. Suren has also volunteered as a consultant for educational technology projects and led successful United Way volunteering and fundraising campaigns. He holds a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech and an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

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