Five Signals

I’m now spending part of my time working on the JISC Observatory, so I’ll be writing occasional tech trends posts here. 


Every vision of the future now has a strong place for mobile [1][2]. We’re seeing consistent trends for increasing data use and service access from mobile, and ubiquity of devices, and a strong rise in smartphones as a % of total device ownership. The form factor for smartphones has been established as pure touchscreen interface, with a fairly stable set of standard sensors (GPS, accelerometer, compass, microphone, camera). Innovation is mostly focussed on incremental improvements in each of these aspect [3]; however a recent game-changer is the Siri voice recognition interface [4][5], particularly for blind users, but also as an advance in interaction methods more generally.


Analytics and “big data” are terms being applied to all kinds of sectors and topics, including learning, health, management etc. Mobile analytics [6] is an emerging area, where organisations try to take advantage of the contextual data possible with mobile platforms. In education, areas where analytics are being applied include tracking learner attention [7], behaviour management [8], truancy [9], teacher performance evaluation [10] and school dashboards [11].


The tablet computing category now appears stable, and has effectively killed off netbooks. From the top end iPad, to the $35 device from India [12] [13], there is now a wide range of devices spanning 7″ to 11″ screen form factors. Attention is being placed, as might be expected, on educational applications [14], and in particular to the area of textbooks (see below). A future vision from Microsoft [1] also puts an emphasis on tablets, with possible new future forms including foldable tablets, tablets that can link together into larger canvasses, and surface-based computing.

 Apps, Widgets and Appification

“There’s an app for that” has entered popular culture; almost any service can now be envisioned as an app, from healthcare [15] to agriculture [16]. The key challenges are device and OS fragmentation keeping costs high relative to returns for new entrants, also a worry for education as “bring your own device” can mean “bring your own interoperability problem” [17]. However services like PhoneGap (acquired this month by Adobe [18]) based on HTML5 and W3C Widgets are emerging as the way to solve this in the short term. W3C gained very significant interest in the are of “offline web applications” from a wide range of vendors, suggesting the area of partially-disconnected applications could be one to watch [19].


The “textbook problem” seems to have rising prominence in education technology policy. In Asia, there is a strong push for e-books, e.g. in China from a slow start last year [20] huge growth is now likely [21]; in South Korea [22] there is also a major national strategy. In the US, the concept is even making front-page news [23] although the focus is more often on the hardware – especially iPads [14], although the Kindle Fire platform seems to be garnering attention too [24]. Even Steve Jobs’ posthumous biography states it was his intention to disrupt the textbook market [25]. Again we have an issue of standards and interoperability, particularly as we move beyond basic PDF and e-Book formats towards e-textbooks providing advanced  capabilities such as built-in testing and feedback functions.



























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