Course:ETEC522/2010ST1/MobileTechnologies/Stability and Usability

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Stability and Usability

This vector explains the technical limitations of mobile learning. As stated in previous vectors, there are many advantages to m-learning. With the emergence of wireless technologies such as 3G connectivity which has made downloading podcasts viable anywhere and the improvement of Wi-Fi wireless technology has made m-learning a strong emerging market for educators. It is important to understand the limitations of m-learning due to the dependence on mobile devices and the technology they depend on.

Technical Limitations of M-Learning

Since m-learning is dependent on devices and their ability to connect to the Internet, there are some glaring limitations that may limit the affectability of the learning a student can achieve. The focus will be on smartphones (such as Apple’s iPhone and Research in Motion’s Blackberry line), mp3 players (iPod Touch) and portable readers (Amazon’s Kindle reader).

The Screen

The screens of the iPhone and BlackBerry

Most mobile devices are small to allow for its major advantage: portability. The problem is that a small portable device requires a small 2 to 4 inch screen. Focusing on nearby, small objects are taxing on the muscles inside the eye. When eyes need to focus up-close, the ciliary muscles to focus the lens work for a long time, they get tired and leads to temporary blurred vision (Spencer, 2006).

Another problem is the resolution of the screen. Although screen resolution has improved over the past several years, blurry fonts and images can cause undo strain on the eyes trying to focus clearly on the small screens.

“Our eyes were not designed for the visual demands of 21st-century America,” says Andrea P. Thau, a spokeswoman for the American Optometric Association (Spencer, 2006). The need to focus on small screens is putting unprecedented strain on the eyes.

The small screen also limits the information we are accessing. Graphics and multi-column layouts are difficult to read on a small screen. Unless the site is designed for a mobile, traditional websites are designed for the larger screens of the desktop computer.


Security is an issue for all computer-related environments but is increased for mobiles due to their size and portability. Mobiles are easier to lose, to damage and to be stolen. The loss of the mobile device (due to theft or damage) could render the student incapable of accessing the required information.

Also, data security in mobiles is almost non-existent. “Probably fewer than 10 percent of mobile devices used by major organizations have serious protection for stored data. This vulnerability persists despite the annual Computer Security Institute/FBI studies that document substantial financial losses associated with theft and exposure of confidential data and despite federal regulations governing the security of private data collected by financial and health care organizations” (Muir, 2003).

Input Limitations

Watching teenagers text blindly in classrooms would dispute this limitation but mobile devices are limited by their ability to input information. Again, due to size, keyboards are limited to the number of keys that can be accessed. Virtual keyboards (keyboards on the touch screen) are limited by its size of keys and many people would have difficulty with the non-tactile touch of the “keys.” Despite the speed at which teenagers text, the real world speed of a mobile typing is less than 1/10 of the speed of typing on a traditional computer keyboard (Houser, 2004).


In the global economic environment we live in, money and cost must be considered. Mobile technology is not inexpensive. The expectation of all students purchasing a mobile device that would be capable of m-learning is an expensive prospect. Although, smartphones are becoming increasingly inexpensive due to subsidies being provided by the cellular networks, the issue is the cost of data plans for the mobility. A more realistic possibility would be the purchase of an iPod Touch which would be less expensive because it would not need a data plan from a cellular network. Instead, the iPod would only use WiFi networks, which leads to another cost.

To be able to use non-cellular devices like iPod Touch or to enable smartphones not to use the cellular network to reduce costs to the students, the learning environment must provide a wireless WiFi network for the students. The limitations of a WiFi network are:

Students using their smartphones

1) Range and user limitations: Unlike a cellular network which can go anywhere there is coverage, a WiFi network is measured in feet (ranging from 50 – 300 feet) and is limited to a specific number of users that can access the network. To cover a post-secondary institution would require the expenditure of thousands of dollars to create a network capable of covering the area and handle the number of users that require wireless access.

2) Bandwidth: If we created a large enough network to cover the entire institution and to be capable of allowing all students to access the network at the same time, would the network have enough bandwidth to access the Internet? Can the network provide successful message delivery or throughput over the communication channel? A good network would be able to provide an acceptable rate of data transfer to provide an encouraging environment for m-learning.

3) Repairs: By focusing on m-learning, there would be a pressure placed on the functionality of the wireless network. The network needs to be dependable and fast, thus putting a premium on the IT staff. The institution would require a top-notch IT staff to repair the network and, possibly, the mobile devices. If the network is inoperable, there would be a complete shutdown of the institution, which would not be acceptable.


As with all educational devices, the impact and effectiveness of any technology will be based on the instructor. The instructor must have the tools and knowledge to use the apparatus for proper teaching. The instructor must be provided with lessons and in-service for the technology. It is akin to having a Ferrari in the garage without knowing how to drive. The Ferrari looks great but if you do not know how to drive, it is a good-looking waste of money.

Instructors need to know how to use the software and devices to encourage usage by the student. The instructor is the first-person contact the student has with the technology and if the instructor can demonstrate the ease-of-use of the equipment, the students will be more compelled to take advantage of the learning tools. To do so, instructors must be given the time and training to benefit from the technology.

Report Card Rating

Mobile Learning - Stability and Usability: C+

There are quite a few technological limitations to mobile learning. But most of the limitations can be overcome with an influx of capital to address the areas of network and instructional limitations. The potential of learning anywhere and at anytime is tremendous. The ability to review directly from the class is a huge benefit to the student.

The new generation of learners are accustomed to the small screen and information input limitations.

The overriding factor is cost. If economics is an issue, then this platform does not make sense. It would take a huge commitment of money to make mobile learning a success and, therefore, a grade of C+.

Vector 3 Discussion Question

Could mobile learning make physical classrooms obsolete? With podcasting, email and discussion forums, do we need to go to “class” anymore?


Houser, C. & Thornton, P. (2004). Japanese college students’ typing speed on mobile phones. Proceedings of the 2nd IEEE International Workshop on Wireless and Mobile Technologies in Education. 24-25

Muir, J. (2003, July 14). Decoding mobile device security. Retrieved from

Spencer, J. (2006, April 25). The BlackBerry squint: PDA use triggers eyestrain. Wall Street Journal, D1.