Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Mobile University

Last Thursday I attended the Eduserv 2010 Symposium on the Mobile University, an excellent event, well organised, with a good mix of interesting speakers, delicious lunch and sensational cheeseboard. There was an impressive array of cameras, leads, mics in evidence (the event was streamed live) and I see that slides and videos are now available. If you watch nothing else, please try to see Paul Golding's opening keynote for some staggering stats (59 countries have more active mobile accounts than people) and scary/exciting predictions on augmented reality.

Just before I left to catch a train to Mashed Libraries Liverpool (completely different, equally excellent - no cheeseboard, lovely bacon butties) there were a series of short talks from universities who had already made some progress on the mobile front. Among them Edinburgh, who presented a short survey covering what gadgets and gizmos their students own, and also what they expect to be able to do with them (thanks to Laura James for the reminder!)

Looking at the list of expectations, one thing which struck me (again) is that users don't see boundaries between different parts of their academic life - they just want to go to one place (in this case their phone) and do everything. This kind of developing across institutional boundaries is something we're working towards, particularly with projects such as the JISC funded UL/CARET project CULwidgets.

Last spring, Arcadia's own Keren Mills produced a Cambridge-based study of mobile use and student expectations, in which she says "people are currently more positive about accessing information via SMS than via the mobile internet, although iPhones and iPhone like smart phones may change that". And looking at Edinburgh's survey, it seems that a year is a long time in mobile phone-land. It would be interesting to repeat Keren's survey now and compare figures.

Paul Golding points to a number of drivers which are pushing the smartphone, touch-based, mobile internet world (chief among them being more data-friendly tariffs), and to a dramatic shift in the use of mobile technologies - essentially, a smartphone isn't just a new kind of mobile phone - it's a completely different beast. We are not talking about replacing like with nearly-like.

The consensus seems to be that in c. 3 years the majority of students will have smartphones and expect to be able to come to university and use them. And, for universities, the trick seems to be to get started now. Even if you get it wrong, you'll be engaging and learning in an area where you might soon have to be an expert.

Which is what we're doing at the UL with CamLib the Cambridge Libraries Mobile Interface. It's been out in Beta for a few weeks now and use is starting to pick up. Meanwhile, we're analysing Google Analytics stats and user feedback to see where we're going right and where we're going wrong. But in a sense just being involved is getting it right - staking a claim in what's likely to be a very important new territory.

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