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by Francesco Saviozzi, SDA Professor of Strategic and Entrepreneurial Management and Dept. of Management and Technology, Università Bocconi.
The use of apps in education is on the verge of fundamental change, as online courses with new learning models grow popular. Tomorrow's education is likely to exploit the interstitial attention of students, using portions of multitasking time or filling lulls
“There’s an app for that” said a famous Apple ad a few years ago. Few months later, Chris Anderson wrote on Wired that the web was in the process of dying and being reborn in the shape of an app. Three years later, such a transformation is also reaching the sector of learning and education, which is finding a new life in the long tails of app stores. One app in ten belongs to the education category, accounting for about 80,000 apps on iTunes and 45,000 on Google Play.
Variety does not equate with quality, however. The content being sold is usually about trivia and static notions of knowledge that are hard to be included in a structured process of learning. Also the apps’ potential remains largely untapped, especially the rapid interaction enabled by the touch screens of smartphones. Today, all too often educational apps are just a way to cram content onto the small screen of a portable device.
The scenario could change with the rapid diffusion of MOOCs, massive open online courses that can be accessed for free on platforms such as Coursera, Udacity or edX. Content is produced by leading international universities, and embraces the whole realm of education. Courses are a mix of video lectures, exercises, self-evaluation tools and online support. The main players in this market segment have yet to develop dedicated apps, but they are likely to do it in the short term.
In a context where the abundance of educational content will make human attention an increasingly scarce resource, what will the role of the app be? What value is added by apps?
If portable devices are now part and parcel of our everyday lives, apps are their idioms. Rethinking learning through apps will be more a necessity than an opportunity. This will be a significant challenge for producers of educational content, since apps function according to a new model of ‘interstitial’ attention, i.e. they employ time fractions (adding up to sizable amounts of time) squeezed from the dead time-spans of one’s own life (waiting in line, commuting, traveling, or simply multitasking).
There is also opportunity to innovate on patterns of incentives to class participation and study in the context of fragmented learning: think about integration with social networks or the tapping into new information layers (e.g. check-in data). This has been leveraged effectively by apps in the health and wellness segment (e.g. Nike+) to enrich user experience.
Finally, integration with supporting tools will be needed: the ability to take notes and share learning content, manage one’s personal activities and coordinate them with others. An area ripe for expansion is certainly the provision of original content, which is usually considered the Achilles’ hell of portable devices, although these are endowed with sophisticated creative tools (audio, photo, video etc.). Lectures will no longer be about paper handouts and manicured slides. And homework is likely to be a mix of pictures posted on Instagram, drawings made with Paper, and 140-character-long comments of Twitter-like brevity. Why not?