Despite being in the middle of a war zone, Mohammad Ahdali isn’t focused on bullets, but on bond indexing. Mohammad is hitting the books (well, the iPad) for next week’s business administration exam from an internet cafe in Damascus. Mohammed is one of 1,500 students from 132 countries who attend University of the People, the world’s first tuition-free online university, many of whom employ tablets and other mobile devices to complete their coursework.
“I have an iPad2, which I bought to read the learning materials and so far, it’s very handy”, Mohammed said in an email from his Hotmail account. “Tablets should be the future replacement for paper and pen because you can update materials easily and own a library that weighs less than two pounds”.
At a time when technology and mobility is remaking industries, higher education is ripe for disruption. One person who knows this is Shai Reshef, founder of University of the People, who has created perhaps the largest virtual campus of free learning in the world. When I met Reshef in Tel-Aviv last month, he spoke passionately about a world where students could learn despite their financial, geographic or societal constraints. “The exciting thing about tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices is that they open the gates of learning for everyone”. Backed by the Clinton Global Initiative and a recent grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, University of the People is sustained by a network of 3,000 volunteer teachers from schools like NYU, Harvard and Columbia and over one million fans on Facebook.
While Reshef is the first to point out the tablet’s keyboard limitations, so far his undergraduates don’t seem to mind: “Most of our students need to travel to get connected to the Internet, whether in a developing country or in a war-torn region”, says Reshef. And indeed many of University of the People’s students desperately need this type of flexibility, with many having no access to broadband and needing to download their coursework in Internet cafes across the Middle East and Africa. One student who was studying in a tent in Haiti was recently accepted to a Master’s program at NYU in Abu Dhabi.
Other educators see the potential for tablets go into self-education. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child is now designing an inexpensive solar-powered durable tablet that can be dropped by helicopter into the most remote regions to help the world’s poorest children. The tablets are designed for self-learning, or “minimally invasive education”, as Negroponte puts it.
And that’s what makes tablets and other e-readers so especially attractive as tools of the classroom of the future: If tablets follow “Moore’s Law“, they’ll be as inexpensive as other maturing consumer electronics. For instance, a $35 Android tablet from Indian manufacturer Ubislate is being tested in the Philadelphia school system, while the Long Branch middle school in New Jerseyhas issued its students Samsung Galaxy tablets. Here, educators aren’t just being tech-forward, but weighing the cost of a tablet and data plan (bought in bulk) saving millions, if not billions in textbooks when multiplied across nearly 50 million elementary and secondary institutions in the U.S. alone. South Korea has apparently bought into this logic and announced plans to replace all textbooks in its public schools with tablets by 2015.
The final promise of “Tablet U” is a mobile window into cloud learning, which could erase the educational divides inherent in public school districting. One such killer app is e-reading platforms 24symbols, which is kind of a Netflix for books, where students users access their library through a variety of devices. This Spanish start-up moves books from your backpack to the cloud, saving students money and backaches. Another is Edmodo, a “Twitter meets classroom assembly”. Formed in 2008, this social learning start-up offers a secure network for K-12 teachers, administrators and students to share ideas and study together. This past August they held their first EdmodoCon, which invited educators from all over the world to mash teaching curriculums along with the latest ways to improve learning.
Educators have always sought to teach in modes that stimulate children’s natural interests. Indeed, tablet learning is a perfect way to maximize the on the go, anywhere, anytime tech behaviors kids already have. John Burk, a ninth-grade teacher in Atlanta, recently used “Angry Birds” in a physics lesson. John Burk, you are Tablet-U’s “teacher of the year”.