There was a time when getting on to the Internet meant logging on to a personal computer, but that is no longer true following the arrival of portable Web-enabled devices such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) mobile phones.
According to forecasts made by the London Business School's Future Media Research Programme, the number of WAP phones will reach 600 million worldwide by 2003, but PCs on the Net will total only 500 million.
WAP is text-based, somewhat slow and not terribly clever, but it is the precursor to third generation (3G) mobile phones (so-called as they follow on from analogue and digital) that will give users high-speed Internet access on mobile devices. Five British licences for 3G were recently issued following a bidding process that will earn the Government over pound;22 billion, reflecting the crucial importance of the new technology to the four existing mobile network operators.
Mobile phone manufacturers are busy developing 3G phones for the new networks, which should be available by 2002. Nokia, one of the big three firms in mobiles, says the combination of digitalisation, the Internet and mobility that 3G promises will herald a "mobile information society". It says e-education will be one of the services, along with information, entertainment, e-shopping, e-banking, video, voice and access to corporate networks. Nokia's concept devices all have high-resolution colour screens.
Speaking at Nokia's headquarters in suburban Helsinki, Tytti Varmavuo, director of research and education policy, expects mobile devices to take one of three forms. Some will only need one hand to operate, like existing mobiles; others, like the Nokia Communicator which is closer to an electronic organiser than a phone, will have a keyboard and need two hands; while others, still being developed, will use a pen input. Nokia is working on a device that combines a phone with a Palm Pilot personal digital assistant.
As a result, different devices will be used for different functions, and Ms Varmavuo says research is necessary to determine how both existing and new mobile technologies can be applied in education.
Jari Salminen, of Helsinki University's department of teacher education, says the coming mobile revolution could help to change the structure of schools by giving students more freedom about where they study. A personal broadband Internet device could allow pupils to study from home with a videoconferencing link for help when necessary from a teacher at school or anywhere in the world. However, Salminen points out that this sort of scenario could also divide societies if only the wealthy can afford the technology.
It is difficult to predict when this vision will become a reality, but Yrjo Neuvo, chief technology officer of Nokia Mobil Phones, says that by 2005 many of the emerging technologies will become "ripe" and open up enormous possibilities. "The question is what should we do with them to help education? It's a very difficult issue."
Nevertheless, he finds the prospect of a large screen device permanently connected to the Net that could relieve students of carrying books, as well as be used for exercises both at school and home, very exciting. Another expectation is that using far more multimedia in education will engage some students better than print-based materials.
In terms of definition, Dr Neuvo says text on screen still cannot compete with paper, but higher definition displays are only a few years away. Then the advantages of an electronic device over books will become truly apparent: "Books cannot speak to you or play music, and you can scan and organise information much more conveniently in electronic form, so there are many advantages."
The cost of technology is likely to remain a problem for the education sector in the future. 3G services are not going to be ubiquitous for years, but other wireless technologies such as Bluetooth could be applied. Bluetooth is an emerging industry-wide standard for wirelessly connecting digital devices over distances of about 10 metres, and Dr Neuvo says it could be used for wireless networking in schools and the home. Psion is considering using Bluetooth for its netBook, a portable computer aimed at education and corporate users.
Meanwhile, ADSL, which gives high-speed Net access over existing phone lines, is becoming available in developed countries and Dr Neuvo points out that it should help to make real the idea of communities where homes and schools are linked by technology.
As Varmavuo says, getting children to use new technology is no problem, as their enthusiastic embracing of computer games, the Internet and mobile phones proves. Encouraging teachers to accept that students might not need to spend every minute of every day in the classroom and could well learn more by finding information for themselves, is likely to be a bigger challenge.
* WAP phones on trial
Professor Stephen Heppell of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab is running a project using WAP phones with pupils at schools in Walthamstow, east London. He says the children have quickly become confident with the technology and it has potential for use in education despite the expense of the service. Apple iBook laptops with Lucent wireless network cards are also being trialled. Heppell says cutting the umbilical cord has changed the dynamic in the classroom. Online will take a closer look at this project in a future edition.
Meanwhile Tiny Computers has announced a deal with Vodafone offering PC purchasers a free WAP mobile. Vodafone offers a range of information services for WAP phones.