Here’s the podcast of a rather intriguing panel discussion I participated in at the Mobile Fringe Festival earlier this year in Barcelona. Moderated by the indomitable Russell Buckley (the big daddy of mobile marketing), I was joined by Vincent Hoogsteder (Founder & CEO, Distimo) and Alina Vandenberghe (Head of Mobile and Gaming, Pearson) discussing how elements of games and, indeed, mobile technology can aid educational demands – not only for the iPad-clad haute vollee of the first world but also in regions where traditional schooling is a lot more challenging.
I wrote about the topic previously and it is one of the areas I take an increasing amount of interest in. Have a listen, let me know what you think.
I tried to paste a fancy Soundcloud widget but this didn’t work out, so go listen to it here.
So, what if you could effectively combine mobile and local? As in asking someone if there is a free washing machine in the launderette down the road (before you haul your laundry down there), if Lady Gaga is on stage already (or if it is still that pesky opener), that sort of thing. Sounds cool? Yeah. Have we heard about this before? Hell yeah. Do you know of anyone who has solved this successfully? Erm…
The funny thing is we all know how important it is. We all use mobile local services all the time: the use of maps and navigation (for one thing) have changed tremendously by the introduction of GPS into mobile phones. There is a plethora of services we all use that use it. However, they barely seem to scratch the surface as yet.
MoboQ to the Rescue?
But, alas, help is on hand. There actually IS a service that is doing just that: it WILL tell you about that washing machine, about free parking slots, about almost everything you want to know. And they have, well, 100,000 users so far. So not Twitter but, alas not Color either (they allegedly had 400,000 users before they shut down). But, hey, they didn’t raise 41m bucks for nothing either… And, well, that means that there might just not be someone in just my neighbourhood just now, huh?
It gets better (no, worse) though: Because, if you ask just who that mythical company is, the answer is not the former employee # 21 from Google an unknown Facebook rockstar engineer or, sorry, a Stanford nearly-grad, either? No. The service is called MoboQ and is operated by Sina Weibo, the “small” Chinese provider with some 400m users on this Twitter-esque service.
Unicorns are Hard to Breed
Sooooooo: 100,000 users out of 400m and the service has been operating for a year now. That’s a conversion rate of, what, 0.025%. Not really a landslide victory then, huh? And that is the challenge of this unicorn of all mobile services: they are really hard to breed (scil. scale).
Why is that, you say? Well, because they are, well, local. That is to say, you need to convince a fair few people in your area to use it. And unless you have a really successful SXSW launch (the stuff of legends, I know), this might not be that easy to do. Mobile & local each work on the combination of total usage plus really smart algorithms. This is why I am blogging about mobile stuff: huge scale there. This is why Yelp, FourSquare, you name it thrive: huge scale there. But the moment you need real-time response, you need an insane amount of usage to be able to make sensible use of algorithms. I would posit not even Facebook can do this (oh, wait, they try: there is this thing called Nearby they do. Heard of it? No, me neither…)
Help at Hand?
The New Scientist offers a couple of soundbites from execs involved in the various programmes and all sound a little stale, to be honest: “people will use it once they become aware of it” said someone from USC. Really? Well, I don’t know.
Now, I agree that this is somewhat of the holy grail of combining two hugely powerful concepts but the big spanner in the wheels is as per the above: tough to algorithmitise (is that a word?) and possibly slowed down by privacy concerns and queries as to the value extraction formulae applied: what is in it for me if I am over-sharing local information about my very own locale; I know my own environment, no need for me to reciprocate then… Because, you see, 95%+ people do not actually race around the world that much other than on vacation. And isn’t the first thing they look for when they finally are on vacation either a drink or bliss uninterupted by digital hyper-connectedness? Just sayin’…
So I continue to wait for that killer combo app/service a little longer then, I guess. Sigh…
Hello stranger. It’s been too long.
However, with no further explanation, let me tell you about an area that tickled more than one of my senses over the past couple of months, and that is education. You see, I am a governor at a rather wonderful school, the Fallibroome Academy, in Macclesfield, so this infatuation is nothing new. And this school, like many others, is looking at employing mobile media to improve on learning conditions and harness education. However, is there not more? Or, rather, is there not more that could be done with the various toolsets we have on our hands to further the education not only for children in affluent first-world neighbourhoods?
Self-organised or taught?
There are some cool solutions that use the scaling power only digital media have. You will have read about a lot of the MOOC‘s that are all the rage these days: Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, etc., etc. All these share their fair (?) share of criticism, too, which mainly revolves around a) lack of personal interaction, b) general suspicion if really large things work in this context and c) politics and egos (this is the least interesting).
Now, a) in particular is of course a potentially big one. Then of course, there is the famous story about the African kids that managed to learn from and ultimately hack an Android tablet without ever having been exposed to electronic gadgets, programming or indeed touchscreen interfaces before.
However, I would posit that most would agree that a great teacher is still the best way to lift the minds of children. It is not only about grasping algebra or grammar or learn how to program (I still only write BS# and Legalease) but about providing motivation and outlook and goals. So as impressive as the Ethopian youngsters are, there must be (even) better ways to provide for a rounded education. And, no, I don’t think spoiled English kids with iPads is the be-all-end-all of this.
Mobile is a Tool. A powerful tool but yet only a tool.
So, let’s take a step back. First: tools. Mobile is the obvious solution: its penetration is by far highest. Infrastructure is easier to build even in rural and remote locations than fixed-line connectivity. It is cheaper. Now, let us not forget though that mobile technology is – per se – a mere carrier: it can transport meaning from A to B, from one person to one (or many) other person(s). A regular textbook remains a regular textbook, it is “only” transported via a different means.
Did I say only? When I wrote my first big thesis at university (“the suspensive elements of article 90 para. 2 of the EC Treaty”), I needed some sources that were only available at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (I went to law school in Germany). It would take two weeks for a librarian in Washington to tell me if a) they really had the book and b) if and when I could borrow it and then another 3-6 weeks for it to arrive. I managed to short-circuit the system as I was subscribed to a listserv of law librarians and they reduced step 1 to one day and – probably because it was all so new and exciting – step 2 to 5 days. My professor was flabbergasted. Now imagine I would have been studying in, say, Arusha (that’s in Tanzania). Much harder you would think. Today? Hah, you log onto the Interwebs and you’re off to the races. But this access is not necessarily there in, say, Lera Town (that’s a village in Ethopia, very deserving of your support; if you feel like it, go here), you’re buggered. No Interwebs there. Not easily accessible anyway. Enter mobile…
Access + Meaning = Power
So, it is a big deal. But it still is only the first step: providing access to a (potential) wealth of information. You still need to get this information transformed into knowledge, and that is the process of learning. We all learn better from other people: kids from their older siblings, apprentices from their masters, junior programmers from senior programmers – in short from teachers. And, yes, I know: Zuckerberg dropped out, Thiel tries to talk kids out of it, etc. But the Zuckerbergs and other prodigies are not the norm we need to model educational systems for, so let’s leave this aside.
So, step 2 is then motivation and nurturing. How do we best motivate and nurture children – ideally irrespective from wealth, class and geography? If we can find universal mechanisms that promote motivation and learning, it will be easier to bridge the gaps between well-schooled Europe and more marginally accessible systems in, say, rural Africa but also in emerging economies with much younger populations (and thereofore higher student numbers, i.e. larger classes, lower teacher/student ratios, etc.) such as, say, Indonesia or the Philippines.
Now here, alas, we leave the realms of tools and hardware and enter the world of concepts and ideas. And there are, of course, plenty. Most circle around motivation across a large number of kids (and how can you unify these: every child is different, isn’t it?). The challenge then is that scale requires some sort of unification. Customize too much, and you lose scale. So, from that lofty 50,000′ spot, I will not look at very customized solutions but I am intrigued by universal concepts that might help here.
Games thrive on a number of basic fundamentals, most of which center around concepts of competition and collaboration. These concepts seem indeed to be very universal: games are being played all over the world and most people are able to understand the rules of a game fairly quickly – even if they didn’t grow up with it (cricket is an exception; I will never understand that one). This is because those two fundamentals are pretty much everywhere. Now then, use these mechanics (of which there are plenty) and harness education. Infuse self-motivation into learning and you expand the reach tremendously. Couple it with the right tools (cf. supra under mobile) and you are onto true scale.
These are only some lose thoughts that sprint around my brain. All other things permitting, I will attempt to explore this more over the next couple of months. Until then, bear with me…
If you are in the North-West of England and have nothing to do or, rather, nothing really, really important to do, you may want to drop in for our latest Mobile Monday Manchester edition, which takes place tonight starting at 6pm at the BBC in the brand-spanking new MediaCityUK.
The topic of the night will be “Second Screen” and we will have people from all corners of that: speakers from the Beep itself, companies providing infrastructure and service as well as creative agencies that deliver on these screens.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of delivering a talk at the Social Gaming Summit in London (which was fun even though it was at Chelsea FC…). Given that the audience was fairly clued up on all things social, I was focusing a little more on the mobile side of things – highlighting market sizes, roll-out speeds and platform risks (and opportunities!).
Here’s the deck, I hope you enjoy it: