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Wimba Pronto and new Boston Office Lauded in Mass High Tech

Mobile learning slow to catch on in New England

To read the original article in Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology, click here.

by Rodney H. Brown

With the announcement of Apple Inc.’s iPad and the recent growth in the sales of wireless-enabled netbooks, the subset of distance learning known as “mobile learning” has become a hot topic of conversation — but hasn’t moved past the discussion stage in New England.

Despite a long history in New England of enterprise software development, a vast number of colleges (many of which were early adopters of Internet-based educational technologies) and a strong presence of wireless and mobile development here, this region has not taken to mobile learning in a significant way, say experts.

There is a growing opportunity in mobile learning, according to Seattle-based research firm Ambient Insight LLC. In a mobile-learning market report, they cited growth in the revenue generated by mobile learning products and services to reach approximately $1.4 billion by 2013. The U.S. Distance Learning Association is based in Boston, and that organization’s research director, Nishikant Sonwalkar, says the future of mobile learning is tied to the spread of 3G-capable smartphones and tablets. “I think it’s connected to the development of technology and the devices,” Sonwalkar said.

Sonwalkar knows a bit about the subject. He was principal education architect at MIT, and the founder of IDL Systems Inc., a distance learning startup that has since closed down.

To break down the definitions, distance learning is quite simply taking courses at a distance from the school or teacher. That had its beginnings back in the snail-mail correspondence courses.
Today, distance learning generally means web-based classes.

Mobile learning, on the other hand, is the subset of that category that allows for the course material to be consumed and the student-teacher interaction to happen through a mobile device’s operating system, not just a website.

One of the earliest success stories in distance learning is UMassOnline, the web-based educational arm of the University of Massachusetts system. Launched in 2001, UMassOnline and the strategy behind it was so successful that its president, Jack Wilson, went on to become president of the entire university system. That said, UMassOnline has done little to move toward mobile learning, and declined to discuss its efforts. However, in a recent blog post, CEO Ken Udas said that because the UMassOnline system is based on an older version of the Blackboard Learning System from Blackboard Inc., adding mobile-learning features — which Blackboard supports in later versions — would require a wholesale upgrade that is just too expensive at the moment.

Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard, which has an entire mobile division based in San Francisco, does have a connection to this region. In 2006, it acquired Lynnfield’s WebCT Inc., an early player in distance-learning technology.

Chatrooms to Classrooms
Another local connection to both mobile learning and Blackboard is a recent immigrant into the area, Wimba Inc., now based in both New York and Beverly. According to CTO Dave Dupre, most of the top officers of Wimba are new, and many of them came from WebCT. That North Shore connection was what led the company, with about $100 million in annual sales, to establish what Dupre called “Wimba North.”

“We wanted to reposition the company and set all of the processes up to scale and grow and take on all the market,” Dupre said.

Wimba is best known for its Pronto instant-messaging system for educational enterprise-level software systems. Last April, Wimba announced a deal whereby Blackboard would integrate Wimba’s IM technology into its own distance-learning products, including its mobile module.

The USDLA’s Sonwalkar said the migration from distance learning to mobile learning is desirable, not only for businesses but for the students as well. “It’s quite conceivable that the classroom activity will take place more and more through mobile devices,” he said.

The explosive growth of smartphones will continue to drive mobile learning forward. Ambient Insight predicts that by 2013 there will be 182 million mobile devices that are connected at either 3G or 4G speeds. And having users familiar with that technology is the main factor in mobile learning’s growth.

“The mobile application is really just another extension of the classroom,” said John Flores, executive director of the USDLA. “Students are our digital natives as opposed to our digital immigrants. They have grown up with these devices.”