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Top Mobile Trends to Watch in 2016

Two visionary IT experts discuss the biggest trends in mobile for the coming year, from 3D touch and virtual reality to wearables and the Internet of Things.

For years, mobile technologies have had an enormous influence on higher education, changing the way students communicate, access information and learn. And there's no sign of mobile losing steam anytime soon. According to the 2015 NMC Horizon Report, which forecasted the most important ed tech developments in higher education, mobile-related trends will rule for at least the next five years: In the short term, with a time-to-adoption horizon of one year of less, the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon will proliferate; in the mid-term (two to three years) wearable technologies will see significant growth; and in the long-term (four to five years), the Internet of Things (IoT) will have wide-reaching impact.

Mobile, BYOD, wearables and IoT are all familiar territory for Robbie Melton, associate vice chancellor of mobilization and emerging technology at the Tennessee Board of Regents, and Jonathan Blake Huer, director of emerging technologies at Ball State University, who have decades of combined experience overseeing mobile strategies and initiatives at their respective institutions. We asked Melton and Huer to identify the top mobile trends poised to impact higher ed in the coming year.

Wearables and Edugadgets

"Mobile devices are now like Swiss Army Knives," said Melton. "You can transform your mobile device into various tools, such as a medical and fitness device, a compass, a scanner, a camera, a construction/carpentry tool, a fashion tool, a musical instrument, a cooking aid — as well as access the entire world of books, newspapers, games, translation and so forth."

In the health field, for instance, devices such as smart watches, smart clothing — even a pair of earrings — can determine in real time a person's heart rate, blood pressure, range of motion, even his or her state of mind. "With on-time data, smart shoes with embedded sensors can assist physical therapists in determining when, where and how a person is moving, as well as make immediate adjustments to a person's therapy," noted Melton.

These smart gadgets and tools — which Melton calls "edugadgets" — can improve teaching, learning and living, she pointed out. Huer agreed, adding, "I think it's about accessories more than just wearables. I've seen some incredible scientific tools that attach to the iPhone to take measurements."

The edugadget trend is still in its infancy, Huer noted, with more developments to come. "As more of these instruments become available, the price will go down, more educational uses will be shared and integrated with class assignments, and the mobile device will act as a hub of scientific discovery. We've already seen the start of this with Apple's HealthKit."

Sensory Apps

With its ability to function as so many different tools, it's no wonder the mobile device is becoming more and more like a personal companion that is with us 24/7. "We now eat, work, socialize, sleep and communicate with our mobile devices," Melton said. She sees a growing trend toward more interactive, dynamic, data-driven mobile apps, incorporating sensory stimuli that allow users to experience tactile objects, smell odors, even taste.

"We are the technology now," said Melton. "We've reached a tipping point where technology and humans are physically merged together (biotechnology) to interact, manipulate and create new processes and environments."

Internet of Things

With wearables and the Internet of Things, a steady stream of data is transmitted from us, and to us, in real time. And in education, that data stream will change the classroom and how we teach and learn, Melton said. For instance, using mobile devices and classroom applications, the IoT can provide an on-demand record of student attendance. "An instructor will instantly know who is and is not attending class; which days and times the students are most engaged; and even the location of the students when they are supposed to be in class."

In another example, IoT apps can be placed in a book to monitor when a student is reading, what the student is reading, how long the student is reading, what the student comprehended and what reading problems the student experienced. "Thus," explained Melton, "the instructor can make immediate adjustments to a student's reading program without having to wait to analyze the data."

Virtual Reality

"Augmented and VR technologies are quickly transforming teaching and learning across the educational spectrum," asserted Melton: They offer "a level of interactivity and engagement in which the learner is immersed in the content and is now part of the content." When used appropriately, VR technologies such as Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung VR have been shown to increase attention span, comprehension, and retention, Melton said. "It is our silver bullet – and it's affordable."

With VR, she continued, students will have the ability to be an active participant in the learning content. In other words, students will be able to address the content as "first person," since they will be incorporated into and able to manipulate the concept. "Just imagine a history or sociology lesson regarding immigration in which students are immersed in the history, and able to travel and interact alongside those that are leaving their homelands."

3D Touch

For Huer, the most exciting mobile trend for 2016 is the 3D Touch interface on the iPhone 6s, 6s+ and Apple Watch.

"For decades," he explained, "the average computer with a mouse and keyboard has been bound to two dimensions because of a flat screen and interactions in a single plane. Although the world around us is in 3D, most of our visualizations and interface tools are in 2D." This continued with the move to mobile: "Although some games and other apps took advantage of this mobility to move into three dimensions, it was generally a 2D surface moving around in 3D space."

With 3D Touch, said Huer, users will be able to manipulate content on the device in 3D space. "The interaction will be very limited, at first. But I think this will provide a whole new toolbox for user experience."

In addition, user interface designers will find ways to change the way we interact with our devices — especially when this interaction paradigm makes its way to larger devices like the iPad Pro. "Once 3D Touch is available on the iPad, laptops and a majority of Android devices (under a different name, no doubt), innovative developers and designers will be able to create new interactions currently not possible."

Challenges Ahead

Although Melton appreciates the transformative possibilities of technology, she is keenly aware of the flip side of innovation — the security issues that inevitably follow technological advances. "With so many mobile devices out there — and many of us have more than two devices — there is a security issues trend," she said. "People with devices are unprotected. It's like having unprotected sex. People online do not protect themselves." If you don't have standard security protection in place, Melton cautioned, you put yourself at risk for identity theft and other privacy issues.

"The trend that concerns me the most is mobile viruses," added Huer. "I think that Apple, Google and Microsoft do a good job with trying to protect their devices in their own way. But, with everyone using mobile devices these days, it's just too tempting for hackers. We've already gotten a glimpse of this with a fraudulent version of Xcode that had developers building infected apps without even knowing it. And we've got government claiming legitimate reasons for a backdoor to devices — although Silicon Valley objects. The diverse device and app ecosystem that exists in the typical higher ed institution "is enough to keep security experts up all night."

Huer noted that it's important to be appropriately cautious in adopting mobile devices, and related digital fluencies, as part of academic rigor. "However," he asserted, "higher ed must be ambitious in experimentation. We must create safe experimental spaces for faculty and students to explore learning possibilities, and prolifically share both the successes and failures with the entire community, so that lessons can be implemented."

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