I am a fan of the HowStuffWorks podcast “Stuff You Should Know”. Recently, I listened to the episode titled, “What’s The Future of the Internet” and the discussion on net neutrality and the walled garden of devices got me thinking about how device and OS manufacturers are restricting our experience of the Internet and the implication this could have to learning in general and mobile learning in particular.
Let me provide a little context. When it comes to mobile devices, there are currently a handful of manufacturers that produce devices that mainly run one of two mobile operating systems. There’s Apple and their iOS platform and there are the other devices that use Android. While there are other mobile operating systems out there, I think it’s safe to say that as of this writing, iOS and Android dominate. What these platforms do is refine the experience of Internet for users in a way that makes it simpler for users to access the Internet. However, in doing so, they also confines the experience of the Internet to what the platform delivers. Ultimately, we don’t experience the full open Internet when using these devices – only what is offered through the platform of the device one is using.
One way of looking at this, and one that was mentioned in the podcast, is accessing apps. If you don’t use one of the two major platforms, it’s unlikely developers will spend the time and resources to build an app. Every tried to access iMessage though Android? How about Flash on iOS? How about BBM on either Android or iOS? The point here is that more and more, access to the Internet is being provided through a mobile device and these devices are using platforms that do not provide free and open access to the entire Internet. The podcast makes the point that Adobe Flash, once a standard for viewing animation and video, is becoming obsolete mainly because Apple decided not to support Flash on its mobile devices.
This had some pretty important implications for mobile learning. Many of the instructional ideas around mobile learning revolve around mobile devices allowing teachers and students to access the vast learning library of the Internet and to use that access to improve teaching and learning. The assumption is free and open access to the Internet. If access to the Internet is restricted to what private companies decide to allow for it’s users, then mobile devices become less effective at improving teaching practice and student learning. In fact, without free access to the Internet, mobile devices may actually reduce the quality of teaching and learning. Imagine one day Google decides to block access to Wikipedia on Android devices? Imagine one day Apple decides to block all Google products (i.e. Google Docs, Google Reader, etc.)? Scarier still, what if either platform begin charging websites for access to their platform and their users so that only those who can afford to pay will have their content available on certain devices? That would definitely lead to a world were small websites and blogs such as this one, not to mention student blogs and websites created as part of their learning, would definitely lose it’s audience forever and content would be provided by a small group of rich organizations bending content to their own needs.
A closed and restricted Internet is not necessarily an inevitability but neither is free and open access to the Internet. We will have to see where the debate on net neutrality goes and only hope that, for the sake of learning and social development, that access to the Internet, what some call the new ‘global brain’, remains free and open.