Monday, 11 October 2010

The Sustainable University

Does the impact of mobiles and mobility on our society mean that the education system, especially the institutions of formal learning, need to make tactical, technical changes and reforms in order to be sustainable, ask whether business-as-usual is still possible. Or do these changes suggest that the education system is somehow broken, no longer fit-for-purpose and unsustainable? Or perhaps some more complex and fragmented answer lies between these extremes?

The personal, cultural and social aspects of the impact of mobiles on the education system hinge on the essential difference between desktop technologies and mobile technologies, a difference that means we can ignore the former but not the latter. Interacting with a desktop computer takes place in a bubble, in dedicated times and places where the learner has their back to the world for a substantial and probably premeditated episode. Interacting with a mobile is different and woven into all the times and places of people’s lives.

Mobiles have created simultaneity of place, the juxtaposition of physical space and multiple virtual spaces full of conversational interactions, where identity, ideas, images and information are generated, shared, discussed and transformed. This changes learners' sense of time, space, place and location, their affiliations and loyalties to institutions, groups and communities, the ways in which they relate to other individuals and to groups, to learning, knowing and understanding, their sense of their identity, and their ethics, that is their sense of what is right, what is acceptable and what is appropriate. The literature of mobilities research documents and analyses these changes but fails to see their significance for formal education. The literature of mobile learning research highlights disruption and mobiles but usually fails to unpack the deeper significance.

Desktop technologies can be ignored but not mobile technologies; desktop technologies operate in their own small world, mobile technologies operate in the world. Desktop technologies are tied to buildings, mobile technologies to people. Mobiles demolish the need to tie particular activities to particular places or particular times. They reconfigure relationships between public and private spaces, and the ways in which these relationships are penetrated by virtual spaces. Virtual communities and discussions were previously mediated by static networked computers in dedicated times, places and spaces. Now, mobiles propel these communities and discussions into physical public and private spaces, forcing changes and adjustments to all three as we learn to manage more fluid contexts. Mobiles also shift agency and ownership from institutions to people and challenge the role of formal institutions as gatekeepers and custodians of society's knowledge, education and learning. These changes are clearly challenging the legitimacy and credibility of formal institutions, rooted in fixed times, places, relationships, configurations and roles


  1. Thanks for this post John. As I have been processing the mobile learning concept in my studies, this notion of disruption seems to be emerging. I've noticed that you have written about it as well as a classmate here at Syracuse U. (her context relates to her research in Africa).
    Are you familiar with Clayton Christensen's disruptive innovation theory?
    Check this out:

  2. thanks, I think somewhere else I'd said, in relation to the frequent characterisation of mobile learning, that we need to unpack 'disruption' and ask whether we're talking about nuisance (SMS or photos in class) or revolution (shift of locus of control from teacher to learner for example, or school to community)