From e-learning to m-learning: Open education's next move

"Open education" means more than teaching with open source software. It means being open to meeting students wherever they are.
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"Access to computers and the Internet has become a basic need for education in our society."‒U.S. Senator Kent Conrad, 2004

I spent seventeen years working in higher education, both as a campus technology leader and as an adjunct professor. Today, I continue as an adjunct professor. I know firsthand that educational technology is invaluable to the teaching and learning mission of universities—and that it changes at a rapid pace.

Higher education is often an entrepreneurial space, seizing on new opportunities to deliver the best value. Too often, however, institutions spend a year or more to designing, bidding on, selecting, purchasing, building, or implementing new education technologies in the service of the teaching and learning mission. But in that yearlong interim, the technology landscape may change so much that the solution delivered no longer addresses the needs of the education community.

What's more, technological solutions often re-entrench traditional educational models that aren't as effective today as they once were. The "closed" classroom featuring the model of teacher as a "sage on a stage" can no longer be the norm.

Education needs to evolve and embrace new technologies and new modes of learning if we are to meet our students' needs.

Shifts in teaching and learning

The next fundamental technological shift at universities will impact how students interface with teaching and learning. To understand the new learning landscape, let me first provide the context of previous methods.

Learning has always been about students sitting in a classroom, pen and paper in hand, taking notes during a professor's lecture. We've experienced variations on this mode over time (such as small group breakout discussions and inverted classrooms) but most classes involve some version of this teaching model.

In the 1980s, IBM introduced the IBM-PC, which put individual computing power into the hands of everyone, including students. Overnight, institutions needed to integrate the new technology into their pedagogies.

The PC changed the teaching and learning landscape. Certainly students needed to learn the new software. Students previously wrote papers by hand—a methodology that directly mirrored work in the professional world. But with the introduction of the PC, modern students now needed to learn new skills.

For example, writing-intensive courses could no longer expect students to use a standard typewriter to write papers. That would be like expecting handwritten papers in the era of the typewriter. "Keyboarding" became a new skill, replacing "typing" classes in most institutions. Rather than simply learning to type on a typewriter, students needed to learn the new "word processing" software available on the new PC.

The thought process behind writing remains the same, only the tools change. In this case, the PC introduced an additional component to teaching and learning: Students learned the same writing process, but now learned new skills in the mechanics of writing via word processing software.

M-learning means mobile learning

Technology is changing, and will continue to evolve. How will students access information next year? Five years from now? Ten years from now? We cannot expect to rely on old models. And campuses need to look toward the technology horizon and consider how to prepare for that new landscape in the face of new technologies.

Universities cannot rest on the accomplishments of e-learning. How students interface with e-learning continues to evolve, and is already changing.

In response to today's ubiquitous computing trends across higher education, many institutions have already adopted electronic learning system, or "e-learning." If you have stepped into a college campus in the last few years, you'll already be familiar with central systems that provide a single place for students to turn in homework, respond to quizzes, interact with other students, ask questions of the instructor, receive grades, and track other progress in their courses. Universities that adopt e-learning are evolving to the classroom of the future.

But these universities cannot rest on the accomplishments of e-learning. How students interface with e-learning continues to evolve, and is already changing.

By my count, only two years ago students preferred laptops for their personal computing devices. Since then, smaller mobile devices have overtaken the classroom. Students still use laptops for creating content, such as writing papers, but they increasingly use mobile devices such as phones to consume content. This trend is increasing. According to research by Nielsen conducted a few years ago, 98% of surveyed Millennials aged 18 to 24 said they owned a smartphone.

In a listening session with my campus, I heard one major concern from our students: How could they could access e-learning systems from their phones? With loud voices, students asked for e-learning interfaces that supported their smartphones. Electronic learning had shifted from "e-learning" to mobile learning, or "m-learning."

In turn, this meant we needed better mobile carrier reception across campus. The focus changes again—this time, from providing high-quality, high-speed WiFi networks to every corner of campus to ensuring the mobile carriers could provide their own coverage across campus. With smartphones, and with m-learning, students now expect to "bring their network with them."

Finding the future landscape

This radically changes the model of e-learning and how students access e-learning systems. M-learning is about responding to the mobility of the student, and recognizing that students can continue to learn wherever they are. Students don't want to be anchored to the four walls of a classroom.

Our responsibility as stewards of education is to discover the next educational computing methods in partnership with the students we serve.

How will the future unfold? The future is always changing, so I cannot give a complete picture of the future of learning. But I can describe the trends that we will see.

Mobile computing and m-learning will only expand. In the next five years, campuses that have dedicated computer labs will be in the minority. Instead of dedicated spaces, students will need to access software and programs from these "labs" through a "virtual lab." If this sounds similar to today's model of a laptop connected to a virtual lab, that's to be expected. The model isn't likely to change much; education will be via m-learning and mobile devices for the foreseeable future.

Even after education fully adopts m-learning, change will continue. Students won't stop discovering new ways of learning, and they'll demand those new methods from their institutions. We will move beyond m-learning to new modes we have yet to uncover. That's the reality of educational technology.

Our responsibility as stewards of education is to discover the next educational computing methods in partnership with the students we serve. To meet the challenges this future technology landscape presents us, we cannot expect an ivory tower to dictate how students will adopt technology. That era is long past. Instead, institutions need to work together with students—and examine how to adapt technology to serve students.

(This article is part of the Open Organization Guide for Educators project.)

photo of Jim Hall
Jim Hall is an open source software advocate and developer, best known for usability testing in GNOME and as the founder + project coordinator of FreeDOS.


There are lots of educational resources out there but few of them are optimised for small screen viewing.

Thanks for this article, Jim! I am working with several educators right now on moving to collaborative learning community models. I'll be excited to share this with them as well!

Nice information. It's really helped me a lot.

The education revolution is just began in India, even though there are lots of regulatory hurdles still, private companies are optimistic about the opportunities in the sector and continue to invest in the so-called education revolution, in India. The educational market is huge, is estimated to be around US$40 billion, does the educational revolution is here to stay.

Distance learning, electronic learning and mobile learning offer methods, which decrease the limitations of traditional education. This paper discusses the existing devices and technologies appropriate to realise mobile learning. Mobile learning as new stage of distance and e-learning is also examined.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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