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Mobile Phones, Educational Apps, and the Digital Divide

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EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY
AP

As an education technology journalist, I see a lot of mobile phone apps. A lot of mobile phone apps. I receive a daily flood of email pitches from developers who've just had theirs submitted or accepted to the Apple or Android stores. It's exciting to see so many new apps for education, as mobile and Web development (and the associated app stores) have greatly lowered the barriers to entry for creating and distributing innovative educational content.

But I can't help but wonder if, in the rush to build native apps -- apps designed specifically for iPhones, iPads, Androids, and/or Blackberries, we are neglecting the mobile Web -- applications and websites optimized to be accessed via any mobile browser, smart-phone or not. And as such, the great promise of greater access to more knowledge and technology is only coming to those who can afford smart-phones.

Mobile Technologies and the Digital Divide

No doubt, the adoption of mobile technologies has been rapid and widespread. Currently, about 85 percent of Americans 18 and older and 75 percent of those 12 to 17 own cellphones. But of those, only 27 percent own smart-phones. In other words, cellphones have become ubiquitous, but smart-phones -- although their growth is explosive -- simply aren't there yet.

This means that mobile technologies serve to both address and to complicate our notions of the "digital divide," the gulf between the Internet technology haves and have-nots. On one hand, mobile phones will increasingly serve as both our gateway to the Internet and as our personal computers. As costs come down, more and more people will have mobile computing devices in their hands. But on the other hand, accessibility and equity remain an issue. Income still dictates cellphone ownership and Internet access. And for many people, accessing the Internet via their phone is their only connection, as they don't have Internet at home. A recent Pew Hispanic Center study found, for example, found that 6 percent of Latinos respondents said that they access the Internet via a cell phone but have no Internet access at home. This rate is the same for blacks, but notably higher than the rate for whites (1 percent).

Educational Apps for the Mobile Web

These statistics point to the importance of websites that are mobile-ready. And arguably they should give us pause when we start to succumb to what O'Reilly Media's Gov 2.0 correspondent Alex Howard calls shiny app syndrome," the rush by governments to build an iPhone or Android app when their own websites aren't even mobile friendly.

"The goals that public officials pursue when they create new .gov websites or applications should be based upon civic good," writes Howard. "If that civic good is to be rendered to a population increasingly connected to one another through smartphones, tablets and cellphones, truly open governments will employ methods that provide access to all citizens, not just the privileged few."

As we think about education -- also a civic good -- we should consider how we can bring teaching and learning to as many people as possible, and as such focus on building HTML5 web apps that are accessible via any Internet-ready device.

That's the direction taken by the science education site Scitable, for example, an online learning space that's part of the educational wing of the global science publisher of Nature. Scitable offers a library of science education resources -- all free, peer-reviewed, and updated every other month or so -- as well as a community of students, educators, and scientists.

When Scitable launched its mobile versions of its website last year, it opted not to create apps, but to design the site to be accessible via any mobile phone. As the site is built in HTML5, those students accessing the Scitable site on an iPhone or iPad can get a media-rich experience, and yet the site is still accessible by those with the simplest of cell phone browsers. Scitable's mission -- to "democratize science education" -- coincides with its mobile strategy, making the educational site accessible to those with feature phones and with limited or no access to broadband. Scitable's users, it's worth pointing out, aren't just in the U.S., but come from over 156 countries.

I don't mean to argue here "no more iPhone apps for education." My original contention still stands: we are seeing a great deal of innovation as developers take advantage of smart-phones' features -- mobile Web, GPS, cameras, voice recording -- in the construction of educational apps. But building these mobile technologies for education doesn't have to mean building a native app. If we're to take full advantage of the connectivity and communication afforded by mobile technologies, we should turn to the mobile web to make educational content accessible to more than just the smart-phone owners.

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