The Smartphone Challenge

Volume V, #2

For any medium, some messages are more appropriate than others. For example, a message that typically would be communicated in an office memo would look a bit out of place, say, on a birthday cake:

Having just returned from CES, the consumer electronics show, I can attest to the fact that for most of us, the medium of choice is now better suited to birthday cake-length messages than, say, this newsletter. As every media company is all-too-aware, the screen has shrunk drastically, and likely permanently. The question every university should be asking is: what does this mean for online learning?
(The deadline is fast approaching. So let’s meet at Carlito’s Cabo Cactus Room and we’ll brainstorm the details.)


After walking the infinite corridors of the CES exhibit halls, it could not be clearer to me that the smartphone has become the global gateway to all things digital. 2 billion people currently have smartphones. In five years, the number is expected to be 6 billion, or over ¾ of the world’s population. Other digital devices are destined to become increasingly peripheral as we get more and more accustomed to the smaller screen.

Just as other mature sectors of the online economy, like advertising, are struggling with the transition to smartphones, online education will struggle as well. In fact, this transition may share some responsibility for the current struggle: according to IPEDS we are no longer seeing any discernable growth in the number of U.S. students taking online courses.

Smartphones are a trade-up for online education due to their ubiquity. While many of us thought online learning meant earning a degree anytime/anywhere, smartphone learning actually has the potential to fulfill that promise. With smartphones, it’s now possible to learn “on the move.” But the trade-off is efficacy. The holy trinity of online learning – content/lecture, discussion, assessment – doesn’t translate to smartphones. To wit:

  • Navigating curriculum is challenging on a smartphone. Not only because of the small screen, which requires buttons/areas large enough to be selected by thumbs, but also because we use smartphones differently; smartphone users are much more likely than PC users to abandon content that takes more than five seconds to load.
  • Discussion boards can work well on smartphones. Ubiquity counts for a lot in discussions. This is the basis behind the partnership between New Oriental Education, China’s largest provider of private educational services, and Tencent, the leading texting provider in China with nearly 500 million users on its WeChat app, to launch an integrated, chat-centric education service. However, smartphone posts are likely to be much shorter and informal than faculty are used to (e.g., 140 characters). Synchronous video discussions also work, but not for an entire cohort or section (more likely 1:1, as with FaceTime), and also for sessions much shorter than class-length.
  • Formative assessments work very well on smartphones both in a classroom environment and out of class. But summative assessments do not.

The common thread should be clear. Anything that can be done in short bursts can work well on a smartphone. So will online education rise and fall on our ability to reengineer learning for bursts, like New Oriental is doing with Tencent? There certainly will be many smartphone educational applications like this. But not for formal learning leading to assessments and recognizable credentials. There are two reasons for this. First, the extensive curricula and summative assessments required to impart such credentials can’t be reengineered for bursts. Second, they may not have to be, because apps open a different path.


Mobile applications (apps) – highly designed “walled garden” digital experiences accessible on your smartphone without regard to Internet connectivity – are the solution to the smartphone challenge. Smartphone users’ sessions are currently 3x longer when they’re using apps vs. browsing websites. Apps are also visited much more frequently than websites. Total time spent on apps is currently growing at an annual rate of over 20% and according to comScore, for smartphone users, apps now account for over 50% of total time spent with digital media. 18-24-year-olds are the heaviest app users.

Apps are purpose-built. So it’s not a stretch to imagine one app for Economics 101 and another for Psychology 110. Apps are ideal for simulations and gamified learning experiences. They’re also perfect for incorporating real-world inputs (such as location of the student) into learning.

But today’s “mLearning” landscape gives no sign of this. Current university apps aren’t about formal learning at all. They’re about course selection or scheduling or finding your way around campus. Or they’re peripheral to the learning experience (e.g., medical abbreviations dictionary). It’s instructive that on the Blackboard Mobile Learn site, product features are pictured on smartphones for all categories (announcements, grades) except actually accessing course materials, which is shown on a tablet. That’s mCheating, not mLearning.

So although most online degree programs are now delivered via learning management systems that claim to be “mobile platforms,” believing that the solution to the mobile problem is simply allowing mobile access to a course with traditional online architecture is tantamount to believing your institution’s online strategy is effectively addressed by putting lectures on YouTube or iTunes. And if you believe that, in the spirit of bridges for sale in Brooklyn, I have a cake here on which you’re welcome to write your next office memo.

Thanks to David Friedman for the cake memo. And apologies to Bartowski; he’s not really a jerk.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

An extensive Inside Higher Education profile of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s experience with skyrocketing enrollment of Chinese students, by Elizabeth Redden: “Sun thinks that’s funny. ‘That was a comment I made! Last semester there was a student panel and they asked, “One thing you want to change, what’s that going to be?” I said, “The rice. Don’t cook brown rice. Please, white rice.”’
‘I said to them, “During the past 19 years of my life in China, I’ve never, ever eaten brown rice. No.”’ Zhang cuts in. ‘Me neither. Me neither.’”
Read more
A Huffington Post article on a report by the Government Accountability Office showing that for public universities, tuition revenue now exceeds revenue from all state sources, by Tyler Kingkade: “Tuition officially surpassed state funding in fiscal year 2012, the GAO found, accounting for 25 percent of public college revenue. Meanwhile all state sources dipped from 32 percent in 2003 to 23 percent in 2012.” Read more A report on the performance of accreditation agencies recognized by the Department of Education from October 2009 through March 2014, by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO): “[While] accreditors were more likely to have sanctioned schools with weaker financial characteristics… schools with weaker [student] outcomes were, on average, no more likely to have been sanctioned by accreditors than schools with stronger student outcomes.” Read more
From College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education Palgrave Macmillan (publication date March 10, 2015)

“Only 29 percent of students are actually what we picture when we think of college students (18-to-22-year-olds attending a four-year college or university on a full-time basis); 43 percent of students are over the age of 25… So if Animal House is your paradigm for American higher education, the most typical student is John Belushi’s Bluto: older, probably not attending full-time and not completing anytime soon.”

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