Continuing my series on how scholarly communications must transform, I will argue here that scholarship must fit itself to mobile communications in order to be taken seriously in the future.
Of course traditional scholarship must be made available on hand-held devices, but more importantly, the full range of scholarly practices -- research, laboratory work, field work, presentations of findings, and publishing itself -- will all transform themselves in order to conform with the social and intellectual practices of ubiquitous, networked, interactive communication that mobile devices are enabling. The future of scholarship is literally in our hands, and the phone is ringing.
Mobile computing is the future for computing, period. There will always be reasons for desktop computers, just as there remain reasons for mainframe computers. But the PC revolution of the 20th century will be imitated by the smartphone revolution of the 21st. According to the Horizon Report 2009, "A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project predicts that by the year 2020, most people across the world will be using a mobile device as their primary means for connecting to the Internet." Will it really take that long?
Mobile computing is also the future of education. Students are acculturated to and equipped with mobile phone technology beginning in grade school, and the rise of digitally mediated pedagogy will naturally lead to using cell phones to pipe in Open Educational Resources, recorded lectures, podcasts, and of course electronic versions of textbooks. The mobile phone/computer will not only serve up teaching media, but will enable constructive interactivity and superior teaching and learning environments by connecting students (locally or at a distance) and by supplying productive feedback loops for instructors (A good example of this can be found at Abilene Christian University, whose mobile learning initiative includes "Nano tools" that enable in-class feedback for teachers to assess comprehension and adjust instruction on the fly). Of course there is the digital divide, there will be format wars and many adjustments and issues, but mobile computing and education will be as inevitable as teens texting under the table. (See these EDUCAUSE resources on mobile education)
What is often overlooked in the discussions about eBooks or even the pedagogical possibilities for smartphones is the rise of the mobile computer as a data gathering device. Smart phones already come with a variety of sensors that only need programs to be written to take advantage of their GPS functions or accelerometers. Some iPhones are being outfitted with auxiliary sensors or together function in the aggregate as broadly distributed data input points for sensor grids. Citizen science is following the same road paved by citizen journalism.
Mobile phones are also going to serve as a primary portal for student research activities. This may begin with SMS-enabled library catalogs or basic information services, but already students are beginning to use smart phone and browser-level programs to assist them in gathering information intelligently. These include browser add-ons like Zotero or Evernote. Both are tools one can use to collect and tag texts and media needed for research. All that data is synced between desktop, laptop, and smartphone through the cloud. High quality cameras in phones now make it possible through services like Evernote to take snaps of pages from library books that then become searchable. With one's smartphone, one is always prepared to gather, digest, and share research. So there's going to be a lot of gathering, digesting, and sharing of knowledge media just as there is already with music or casual media.
I emphasize these educational uses of mobile technology because more formal scholarly research will follow suit (and indeed, most likely will be blended with the less formal researching done by students). Scholars that do not use their phones to enhance (and ultimately drive) their scholarly pursuits will be left behind by their own students. Imagine anthropology students in the field NOT using smartphones to gather, process, and report field notes. Why wouldn't one record audio or video of natural or social phenomena when it is as natural to do so as it is to dial a phone number?
Scholars unwilling to use mobile computing are going to be disconnected from their peers. When everyone else is getting instantaneous updates about critical issues in the field through RSS feeds or microblogging updates, but you are waiting a month or more for your copy of The New England Journal of Medicine to come out -- well, you aren't going to seem very professional. You know that one professor who was a holdout from email for so long and still needs the secretary to show him how to mail attachments? In the near future, a professor without a smartphone just won't be all that smart.
This has to do partly with the intensely social nature of this hardware and the cultural practices that come with it. Text messaging is still ridiculed by old schoolers, but the intellectual filtering and real-time benefits of microblogging are improving so quickly now that it will be intellectually irresponsible not to use the live web as a primary protocol for any serious scholarship. Services like Twitter and the various tools built on top of that can work on a desktop, but they thrive in the field, on the go, wherever thinking and research can take place, which is a lot more places than an office or a library.
One of the consequences of mobile scholarship will be an evolution in scholarly genres. The best mobile applications are native to the device, not imitations of their desktop counterparts. This at first appears to be a limit, since screens are smaller and the various riches of a graphical user interface from Web 1.0 seem impoverished by this reduction. But with the strict limits of bandwidth and screen space has come a welcome simplicity. I find in my own computing that I am increasingly turning to use my iPhone to look things up because the interfaces for a smartphone are simpler than desktop applications.
Studies will be conducted proving what smartphone users already know instinctively: mobile computing is more efficient not only for what this hardware adds (such as a camera, or integration of data storage and digital tools) but for what it subtracts. It is not surprising to me, as I follow the development of operating systems, to see talk of the mobile OS becoming primary and the desktop OS secondary. There will be more people (by orders of magnitude) using mobile devices, driving innovation, and there will be reasons to prefer smartphones intellectually and socially.
Genres of scholarship will change in terms of their length and their appearance as mobile computers become a primary outlet for intellectual work. Scholarship will include more multimedia because literacy is becoming multimodal. But perhaps even more significantly, scholarship on a cell phone will be more social and more interactive -- and therefore more aligned or coincidental with teaching. We may begin thinking less in terms of scholarly publications as vetted objects, and more in terms of scholarly activities being conducted by trusted authorities. This raises profound questions about peer reviewing practices, as well it should. We are going to find that sophisticated intellectual work is going to be conducted outside of the ivory tower, and those within those elite walls must find ways to articulate their skills and knowledge through these new intellectual mechanisms (hardware, software, social practices) -- or risk getting excluded from the more consequential conversations.
Scholarship has in many ways retained its authority relative to its erudite isolation; but reputation and authority are rapidly evolving online within popular culture and across a vast array of online social interaction. The silo style of authoritative imprimatur is inconsistent with the intellectual and social mores of the Internet that favor open standards and more public reputation methods. In other words, mobile scholarship will have to play by new vetting rules, new rules of reputation management. Being published in a certain place is not going to matter as much as demonstrating the ability to coordinate informal and formal knowledge activities towards measurable outcomes that are of value to more than fellow specialists.
Mobile computing will drive demand in scholarship, prompting ideas and enabling on-the-fly collaboration and coordination, and forcing it to become more timely, more rhetorically nimble, more accessible on multiple levels. It is going to improve learned communication to have it piped into the hands of the masses.
So, by claiming that scholarly communication must be mobile, I am also claiming that this will drive and/or accompany profound epistemological and rhetorical shifts for learned communication. Scholars can hop on board the moving train of mobile computing, or they can stay in their silos and listen to the whine of the doppler effect as the masses with smart phones use those devices in ways more sophisticated than any system based on closed publication and isolated expertise. Scholarship needs to become mobile to survive.
Next up in this series, I will discuss the need for scholarship to be scalable.