Another dot in the blogosphere?

Thinking about digital access (Part 1): Mobile first

Posted on: May 29, 2020

This opinion piece by two academics about digital access as a universal right and basic utility could not be more timely. But I seek to balance it with some critique.

The article cited a statistic that might surprise those who view affluent Singapore from the outside:

According to Professor Jean Yeung’s recent Straits Times article on her study of a nationally representative sample of over 5,000 children aged six and under, although the Wi-Fi penetration rate is near universal in Singapore, 8 per cent of families in her study who lived in rental units did not have a connection, and 44 per cent lacked a computer or a laptop at home.

The authors pressed with this statement:

As local media reports revealed, the home-based learning experience was highly uneven across families.

Whereas affluent families fretted over higher order concerns such as the quality of online instruction and children’s excessive screen time, less well-off families grappled with basic problems of device ownership and Internet access.

I agree, but I think that that we should not be looking for equality, i.e., treating everyone the same. We should be striving for equity, i.e., provide more help and resources for those that need it more. This is not just a semantic argument. It is a pragmatic one because it shapes the actions we take.

U-Save 2020.

Consider a system we already have in place, U-Save — vouchers that eligible households receive to offset the cost of utilities. The government provides more financial aid to those living in smaller apartments and less to those in larger ones. This is based on the working principle that the less well off live in small apartments and need more assistance.

The authors of the article then proposed that a system like Wireless@SG be extended to every home:

With our Nationwide Broadband Network successfully in place, offering broadband access speeds of 1Gbps and more, extending free home Wi-Fi to residential areas will not involve more than a concerted coordination with telcos outfitting every home with modems and wireless routers.

Our other utilities — electricity, gas, water — are not free and their infrastructure needs to be maintained. Wired and wireless infrastructure need to be maintained and upgraded. The latter tend to be the first to fail and make headlines compared to the more established utilities, e.g., StarHub and M1 each had a major outage in April and May respectively during our circuit breaker (our shelter-in-place).

Making Internet services “free” will place the burden on taxpayers. The same taxpayers will also likely have to put up with inferior customer service since there is no commercial pressure to compete and improve.

The authors then addressed the need for digital devices:

The current NEU PC Plus scheme offered by IMDA is generous and well-intentioned.

Yet, as with all mean-tested programmes with conditions, coverage will fall short. Some who need it will not apply while some who apply will not be given.

NEU PC Plus programme by the IMDA.

[Image source]

They then pointed out how disadvantaged families tended to choose mobile phones over computers because phones cost less. Computers, if present at home, were old and shared.

Financial cost is not the core issue. A Chromebook or mid-range laptop costs less than a high-end mobile phone. You might even be able to buy two or three Chromebooks instead of fully-specced iPhone.

The pressing issue is that learning resources and platforms tend to be optimised for computers. Computer screens are larger and computers have more processing power, storage space, and extendibility (think peripherals).

I argue that there an urgent need to shift the mindsets of teachers, instructional designers, and platform developers. The shift is mobile first (or even mobile only). This means that content delivery, curation, and creation, as well as cooperation and communication, be designed with the affordances of a phone or slate first.

Such a shift highlights another need: Access to professional development for learning and platform designers to operate with such a mindset. If we design first for mobiles, we reach all who have access to mobile devices.

Thinking and doing mobile first is not reaching for low-hanging fruit. If designers and developers currently operate on the desktop paradigm, it can be challenging for them to do otherwise.

But if they do, they might discover how the many affordances of a phone — location-awareness, orientation in 3-D space, augmented audio and video among them — provide opportunities that level the playing field.

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