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Future Shock

Cellular Colleges: The Next Small Thing

Several U.S.-based institutions are now exploring cellular colleges.
University Business, Feb 2009

We know automakers are in trouble-they paid attention to what once was, instead of what will be. Could American higher ed suffer the same hubris or will we now witness a new generation of cellular teachers and learners?

One virtual Japanese university suggests the answer is in the palm of our hand-the next small thing in higher ed. Fukuoka-based Cyber University delivers its courses over SoftBank 3G smart phones. Japanese students-old and young-seem to love the idea. Travelers packed on the Yamanote subway line can take a cellular course on their way home. Here is the kicker-this first course is free-that is if you buy into the provider, equipment and transmission.

Several U.S.-based institutions are now exploring cellular colleges and are planning to offer full motion courses in real time all with faculty voiceovers, student chat rooms, and self-paced tutorials. By way of illustrative example, the Louisiana Community & Technical College System (LCTCS) aims to expand access to higher education throughout the state with a variety of online offerings-delivered via mobile devices like cell phones and Blackberrys. To this end, LCTCS has partnered with Pearson Custom Solutions and eCollege and AT&T to ensure that its course offerings will be optimized for both online and mobile delivery so that its mobile devices are compatible with new services and features.

Pearson Custom Solutions’s CEO Don Kilburn explains, “This partnership completely changes the future of how online learning is delivered. We don’t just live in an online environment-we live in a mobile environment. This partnership gives working adults in Louisiana the most flexible and reliable working option available-whether it’s on a desktop, laptop or mobile device.”

Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen agrees, “This initiative embodies the type of thinking we need as we work toward our goal of 10,000 additional graduates by 2015.” Joe D. May, the Louisiana System’s president, adds, “The top barriers in attaining their degrees are geographic access, cost of higher education and scheduling conflicts. We are excited to be able to bring a greater level of access to potential students.”

Down the road, tuition and fee charges will likely follow as the Cyber University courseware proliferates and student populations grow beyond the current 1,900 claimed by Cyber U. Sakuji Yoshimura, Cyber University’s CEO, said, “Our duty as educators is to respond to the needs of people who want to learn -- this includes opportunities for people who find it hard to attend real-life universities, including those with jobs and those who are sick have disabilities.” Yoshimura counted those who questioned the value of Internet and cell phone classes, noting “attendance is relatively high at 86 percent.” Cyber U officials say they can check whether students play the lecture downloads to the end by remote monitoring.

Ball State University (Ind.) has already experimented with video instruction via personal mobile devices. This dimension of instructional media can now be exploited with the announcement of a new $17.7 million gift for the creation of Ball State’s emerging media initiative which was unveiled by President Jo Ann M. Gora following an announcement that Ball State is launching a distinguished speaker and workshop series named in the honor of its most prominent alumnus, CBS “Late Show” host David Letterman. Gora notes that there is not a minute to lose -“a decade ago, Google wasn’t even a blip on the business radar let alone an Internet icon and a verb in our vocabulary.”

For those technology stragglers who doubt the ubiquitous potential use by American students, just pop in to your local campus and take a look around at how many students use their cell phone for social, cultural and recreational purposes. Indeed, most of these American cell phone carriers now offer video packages which include video blogs from major news networks and sports media like Fox, CNBC, CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN and Sports Channel.

We think it is safe to say that in the year ahead, other American colleges and universities will be experimenting with cell phone delivery platforms-the next small thing in American higher education brought to you by the same folks who support your cell phone video package.

Though Socrates might have issues with cell phones, cellular colleges are beginning to claim new mindshare in the global higher education marketplace.

James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their latest book is Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).