Thursday, 6 October 2011

Mobile vs desktop vs print

If you’re trying to predict which delivery medium will predominate in the distance learning of the future, there are some wise words – supported as usual by decent empirical data – in a recent post from Jakob Nielsen on how people use mobile devices and desktop computers for accessing the internet.

His first prediction is that – contrary to the sayings of some enthusiasts – mobile devices will not be replacing desktop computers. (In general, new technologies seldom displace older ones entirely; theatre, radio and cinema co-exist alongside television, YouTube and download services.) People prefer, if they can, to have all options open to them. The question is how they use them.

His second prediction is that “highest-value use will stay predominantly on desktop”. Even if the split of time-spent-on-internet swings increasingly towards tablets and smartphones (because the best computer for an immediate need, like the best camera, is the one you have with you), desktop machines will retain users’ preference for a large proportion of complex high value tasks, because of their superior screen size and keyboards, as well as (currently) superior internet speed and printing connectivity.

Nielsen’s predictions are about internet use in general. How might they apply to distance learning?

First, they confirm the correctness of the Open University’s strategy of giving students flexibility of delivery medium as far as possible. An increasing proportion of them will own one or more mobile devices in addition to a desktop computer and will expect to be able to transfer study materials and their own notes between them. The new feature enabling students to re-render onscreen structured content on formats for eBook readers and MP3 players, as well as printing, will go a long way towards meeting these expectations.

Nevertheless, Nielsen’s observations suggest that students will still prefer to do much of their work through print (whether supplied by us or printed by themselves) or on a desktop computer. The “high value use” which requires a large screen (or printed page) and keyboard (or physical notebook) is the reading of complex texts, requiring regular scanning and skipping backwards and forwards, and the simultaneous taking of content-rich notes: the core study activities at higher education level. Though small-screen devices such as smartphones will be increasingly used for brief, low-intensity activities such as checking the due-date for a TMA or monitoring activity on a forum, their use for core study activities is likely to be secondary and less-preferred – though still convenient as a backup mode, for example when taking study materials to work on during a child’s evening class.

(For Open University staff: updates on our ongoing work to extend and enrich mobile access are available from:

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