Our goal in this article is to understand how scholars — who need to collect, organize, analyze, and present large amounts of information in a short period of time can use mobile information and communication technology (ICT) to work more efficiently and effectively. We argue that wireless fidelity (wifi) and universal serial bus (USB) technologies have made it possible for social scientists to work more productively outside of their own offices, but that many lack the kinds of practical knowledge needed to do so. We discuss ways in which understanding and using some basic and generally inexpensive ICT devices can help the new mobile scholar take full advantage of emerging ICTs.
Introduction: The need to master technology when time is short
A (brief) wireless technology primer
Laptop and notebook computers
Scan and attain devices
Personal digital assistants (PDAs)
Cell phones or mobile phones
Storage and transfer
External portable hard drives
Conclusions and recommendations
Our goal in this article is to understand how scholars who need to collect, organize, analyze, and present large amounts of information in a short period of time can use mobile information and communication technology (ICT) to work more efficiently and effectively. While the seamlessly connected and networked road warrior has become a central figure in the business press and the popular culture, social scientists have made less headway in envisioning and articulating the means by which they might move beyond the boundaries of their own offices to carry out their roles as scholars. We hope to contribute to that discussion here.
Our interest in finding ways to work more effectively on the road grew out of a change in the way in which our program conducts its doctoral comprehensive examinations. For many years, we delivered our examinations inhouse. Students took a series of exams over a twoday period. Two years ago we switched from this format to a takehome format. We gave our students questions, page limits, and one week to complete their exams.
Most students preferred the new format to the old one, but also found that it created new and generally unanticipated demands on their ability to manage information. As students and faculty discussed the new format, it became clear that an unintended consequence of the new format was an increasing advantage to those students who had some mastery of mobile information and communications technology. Some students, far more than others, were able to exploit the technology in order to make the best use of the week they had to write their exams.
Some of this mastery is pretty mundane, not much above the level of knowing what cables to plug into what jacks or understanding the basics of an online search. Still, the ICT available to scholars is growing increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous. Students who do not understand how this technology works and what capabilities it can offer are at a clear disadvantage, not only in their comprehensive examinations but also in their broader scholarly endeavors. Thus, we were concerned about a digital divide finding its way into an assessment process that was never intended as a test of technological wizardry. We needed to look for ways to bridge the gap between scholars more and less wellacquainted with emerging resources.
The issue of an emerging gap between those who do and do not control the available technology is of course far more general than simply that of students writing their exams. The ability to use wireless and portable technologies outside of the office setting is a central characteristic of postindustrial work (Barley, 1992; Orr, 1996). An evergrowing share of the work that professionals and technicians do in postindustrial societies mirrors in important ways the sort of assignment that we ask our students to carry out in their comprehensive exams the need to quickly and efficiently master and manage substantial quantities of information (Hage and Powers, 1992). The more general issue is how to use current technologies to work more productively.
A simple example of the practical value of scholars attaining some mastery of mobile technology is the escalating costs for audiovisual equipment and capabilities imposed by hotels and conference centers at professional meetings. Many of us have had the experience of having to choose between paying excessive technology fees or resorting to less preferred overheads and handouts. The ability to rely on one’s own store of ICT knowledge when participating in conferences can permit both cheaper and more informative presentations.
Many scholars are suspicious of the use of mobile ICT as encroachments on individuals lives and autonomy. Some worry, for instance, about the degree to which mobile phones have forced their way into public spaces where privacy and silence were once the norm. Other technologies have come under criticism as well. In this view, the proliferation of personal digital assistants, wifi, and other portable devices is a logical and unwelcome extension of the invasion of public space.
Many scholars are suspicious of the use of mobile ICT as encroachments on individuals lives and autonomy.
We have some sympathy with this position, but concur with Sassen (2002) that digital technologies are now firmly embedded into the rhythm of daytoday life. We see little to be gained by the failure or refusal of social scientists to take full advantage of these emerging tools. Having said that, our goal is not to find ways to make working lives more complicated. Rather, we hope to offer suggestions that make mobile work easier and less onerous. Our view is that technology should be as invisible and unobtrusive as possible, and that it should be a means to an end (doing better work) rather than an end in itself. We follow Donald Norman in looking for things that make us smart (Norman, 1993).
We speak as generically as possible in this paper, emphasizing process and function rather than particular devices. We do not recommend specific products or brand names, either hardware or software. Such comparisons are valuable, but they are readily available elsewhere. Our discussion is by necessity very selective. Our goal is to provide advice that is as practical as possible to those who need to work effectively with portable electronic technologies. We are also going to restrict ourselves to talking about hardware, although the dividing line between hardware and software is becoming blurrier all the time.
We proceed as follows. We begin with brief and nontechnical discussions of two building blocks of becoming a successful mobile scholar. The first of these is wireless technology. It is difficult to overestimate the advantages to mobile scholars in not having to tote around endless piles of cables and plugs. We then discuss the proliferation of Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology, which has done much to make the abundance of information devices work together, if not always seamlessly, at least fairly consistently . We next turn to how some specific problems faced by mobile scholars can be met with specific technologies and devices. We canvass a wide range, but with no attempt to be comprehensive. Our selection is guided largely by our own judgment and experience about what sorts of ICTs are of most practical use. For instance, we find pen scanners and flash storage devices more useful mobile tools than webcams and portable printers. We fully recognize that eventually our preferred technologies too will be replaced. We close with some specific recommendations.
Wireless is a term used to describe telecommunications in which electromagnetic waves (rather than some form of wire) carry what is essentially a radio signal (although a very high frequency one) over part or all of a communication path. There are two principal wireless standards. Wifi (short for wireless fidelity, and also known as 802.11 networking) is a term for certain types of wireless local area network (WLAN). The primary use of wifi is to provide access to the Internet. Bluetooth, in contrast, is primarily used to replace cable within about a thirtyfoot range. ICT manufacturers are incorporating Bluetooth into an increasing range of products, although adoption has been slow in many cases.
Wireless has gained acceptance in many businesses, agencies, schools, and homes as an alternative to a wired LAN. Many airports, hotels, and fastfood facilities offer public access to wireless networks. These locations are known as networking nodes or, more commonly, hot spots . Many of them are free. An interconnected area of hot spots and network access points is known as a hot zone. Under good conditions, it is possible to make a wifi connection within 300 feet from a hot spot.
The advantage of wifi, and to a somewhat lesser degree, Bluetooth, to mobile scholars may be obvious, but it is not yet fully exploited. Wireless technology essentially permits an individual to become his or her own office. Much as an earlier generation of ICT allowed companies to overcome the restrictions of space to move their offices away from downtowns to virtually anywhere they wished to locate, the current generation of ICT permits individuals to do much the same thing. Access to wireless while on the move can save enormous amounts of time.
Universal Serial Bus, or USB, technology is in many ways as important to the mobile scholar as is wifi. The great advantage of USB is, as the name suggests, its universality. Almost everything that can be attached to a computer, even such large and energygreedy items as printers and scanners, is now available in USB format. This relieves users of having to understand a bewildering array of parallel ports, serial ports, and seemingly endless other ways to plug in.
Modern desktop and laptop computers typically have multiple USB ports. The number of USB ports on ones machine does not, however, set a limit on the number of USB devices that can be plugged in. USB devices can be serially connected (known as daisychaining) with the use of hubs, making them far more versatile than other plugins. A particularly ambitious (if misguided) user has the capacity to connect as many as 127 USB devices at the same time.
A particularly ambitious (if misguided) user has the capacity to connect as many as 127 USB devices at the same time.
Another advantage of USB technology is that it permits hotswapping. That is, devices can be connected and disconnected while the PC is turned on. Unlike the case with earlier technology, there is no need to constantly reboot as devices are added or removed. This is an enormous advantage and a significant timesaver. To return to our earlier example, one does not want to waste two minutes of a tenminute conference presentation waiting for a laptop to reboot.
At one time, a laptop or notebook computer was the hub of the mobile users operations. This is probably still true, but is becoming less so as even smaller portable devices gain in power and capability. Nonetheless, we start this part of the discussion with the laptop or notebook (terms we will use interchangeably).
Even moderately expensive notebook computers have ample power and memory to replace the need for a desktop computer. Many users have abandoned traditional desktop computers altogether in favor of the portable laptop. With portability as a goal, weight becomes crucial, and this involves tradeoffs. Peripherals like a CD/DVD drive add size and weight to a laptop. Moreover, added computing power brings greater demands on batteries, which in turn add significant additional weight. Inevitably, one has to choose between the convenience of a lightweight machine and the power of a heavier one. Still, for most users, even the lightest laptops are adequate. In general, the tradeoffs between size and functionality are not as sharp as they once were. It is now possible to get a small machine with exceptional capabilities .
To aid in the transfer of documents and data, most laptop and notebook computers are equipped with some sort of drive. Floppy disk drives are effectively obsolete and have been replaced by either a CD or (increasingly) DVD reader/burner. In addition, laptops usually have multiple USB ports usually a minimum of two and a maximum of eight. Laptop computers conventionally have standard Ethernet cards, which enable the user to connect to the Internet via a dialup connection, highspeed connection, or LAN. A more contemporary standard is an internal wireless card, as the use of wireless technology is becoming more commonplace in many workplaces.
Scan and attain tools enable users to reduce the time, energy, and money associated with writing or typing notes, copying materials, and adding materials to ones personal files or archives . Most of these devices are pocketsized or less and are capable of scanning, storing, and transferring to computers (or other handheld devices) text, Internet addresses, mailing addresses, tables, graphs, and even pictures. A midlevel scan and attain tool can hold up to 1,000 pages of text and hundreds of tables, graphs, or pictures. Some scan and attain tools also contain dictionary, encyclopedia, and translation functions .
Scan and attain devices come standard with USB connection cables and transfer and storage software. The transfer and storage software will store transferred materials (by type of material) on users computers, but the software also enables users to transfer materials directly to other programs, such as Microsoft Word or Excel.
Some handheld scan and attain devices scan text one line at a time, and users must often wait several seconds after scanning each line. Thus, although a pen scanner could hold entire articles or books, scanning line by line for any length of time is not an efficient use of such devices. However, for relatively small and selfcontained pieces of information, such as citations, addresses, abstracts, graphs, or summaries, scan and attain devices offer users a clear increase in productivity with respect to the collection and storage of information. Newer models, which have not yet achieved the level of use of singleline scanners, can scan page by page. Assuming these continue to develop, they will represent a significant increment to the resources available to mobile scholars.
At present, scholars who want computer access to a whole chapter of a book or a complete article might find a portable scanner appropriate . These are typically singlesheet scanners. These are not generally as powerful or versatile as flatbed scanners, which are relatively easy to operate and are standard hardware in computer labs. Portable scanners are, however, extremely portable and fairly inexpensive. A basic model to scan photos for online use or text only materials can be purchased for under US$100. Connections between the scanner and the computer may take many forms, but USB is the norm.
The benefit of scanning large bodies of text becomes apparent with the further development of OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities. The scanned image can be imported and converted to a word processing document for manipulation. This process may not retain all the formatting of the original document, which can mean the user must spend time reformatting the text, but when large chucks of text are desired, scanners save the user valuable time.
Medical scientists and health professionals have begun to make extensive use of personal digital assistants, or PDAs. These devices have also become widespread among engineers. Sociologists and other social scientists have generally made far fewer inroads into the potential of PDAs (Fletcher, et al., 2003).
Many potential users of PDAs have been put off by their apprehension at having to learn to input data via writing characters with a stylus in such seemingly impenetrable formats as Graffiti. In fact, PDAs permit several forms of data entry, and many users never need to master Graffiti. Some PDAs have builtin keyboards and virtually all models can be outfitted with attachable keyboards. PDAs can accept data via infrared connections, in which data are wirelessly transferred from one PDA to another or from some other source. Infrared connections bring with them a particularly wide range of possibilities.
Most PDAs are based on one of two still not entirely compatible operating systems. These are Palm and Pocket PC. At this writing, PocketPC is generally not compatible with Macs. Unless PDAs are eventually replaced entirely by a generation of cell phones that retains all the advantages of PDAs (actually a not unreasonable assumption), this incompatibility is unlikely to persist.
Other than the very real drawbacks of a very small screen, the best PDAs can do a large share of what laptops can do, including running such programs as Microsoft Word and Excel, sending and receiving email, and accessing the Internet. Moreover, PDAs have substantial expansion capabilities. Relatively cheap cards are available for memory expansion, language translation, and any number of databases. These cards are typically hotswappable.
Students are benefiting from PDAs as professors begin to load syllabi, lecture notes and outlines, quizzes, practice tests, and even diagrams and spreadsheets. The PDAs allow the students to take notes, download these to their personal computers, and essentially run miniature versions of Windows applications. PDAs are not a substitute for the personal computer, but the small size makes portability easier. Students can use their PDA for increased efficiency at the library, in class, or in study groups. While initially seen as mainly a tool to organize schedules and manage contact lists, the PDAs capabilities and applicability to educational settings are increasing rapidly with the development of software programs designed for all levels and areas of study.
PDAs are now becoming so closely integrated with cell phones (often with photographic capability as well) that they are becoming practically indistinguishable. Some observers have even contended that the cell phone market will soon eclipse the PDA market. Compared with much of the postindustrial world, cell phone use in the United States is poorly developed. In Japan and Western Europe Internet access is secured more often with cell phones than with PCs or laptops. Similarly, the cell phone throughout Asia is the device of choice for emailing, and in many nations text messages have become more common than spoken phone conversations (Levinson, 2004).
For the new mobile scholar, the everexpanding services offered by cell phone providers bring potentially great benefits. Cell phones enable emailing from anywhere, even permitting attached files. There are also many subscription services that provide access to various kinds of information. Even more recently, cell phones are integrating the ebook function, meaning that entire booklength documents can be stored and read on the phone. Without exaggeration, the oncehumble cell phone is beginning to function as a small PC. As cell phone photographic capabilities are increased and become more commonplace, the ability of the mobile scholar to take snapshots of research materials, either in the library or at conferences, lectures, and in study sessions will also increase.
Without exaggeration, the oncehumble cell phone is beginning to function as a small PC.
Finally, Levinson (2004) has pointed out that cell phone batteries have much longer lives than do laptop batteries. The cell phone, in fact, is an extremely lowmaintenance device, requiring virtually no attention to its infrastructure. This again indicates its growing role for mobile scholars. The low cost involved in maintenance and in initial startup costs makes the cell phone a cost efficient way for mobile scholars to stay connected and increase their technological advantage.
Tablet PCs occupy a middle ground between laptops and PDAs. Tablet technology has yet to establish itself among mobile social scientists, and our sense is that it may never do so. It may eventually (eventually in the ICT world often meaning a few months from now) fill an important niche, but more likely it will turn out to be a compromise between laptops and PDAs that satisfies advocates of neither.
A tablet PC looks much like a clipboard. Users can enter data either through a traditional keyboard, a stylus, or a regular pen. Its chief advantage is its ability to convert handwriting into HTML. Tablets are exceptionally lightweight, with removable monitors. One can take notes, design ideas, or create pictures on the tablet and then convert them directly onto the notebook computer’s hard drive. This allows for the incorporation of several visual mediums — pictures, graphs, text, objects on one document. Tablets are useful if ones research requires one to get signatures or other handwritten material, but they are at least for now expensive and underpowered relative to laptops.
Mobile users are faced with a variety of ways of storing and transferring data. As we write this, the technology is changing particularly rapidly. There are storage media in which individuals have invested a great deal that are becoming obsolete, leading to some serious user discomfort. Even relative newcomers to ICT can recount many generations of removable storage, and we will not explore the history from punch cards to magnetic tapes to fiveinch floppies to threeinch floppies to Zip disks of everincreasing size to Jaz disks to CD and DVD (in their many variations) and on to flash storage, other than to note that this has been a history of growing power, portability, and speed.
To oversimplify a bit, underlying these trends in the ascendancy of particular devices is a broader trend from the demise of magnetic storage and the rise of first optical and later solidstate storage. The now aging (or ancient) examples of magnetic storage, notably floppies and Zips, were great innovations at one time but have suffered from their inevitable tendency to deteriorate and the need for internal or external drives an expensive addon for most computers.
CDROM and DVD optical storage media are very important, but can be frustrating because of their volatility and the bewildering array of writable and rewritable formats. Advances in DVD reliability and rewritability have enhanced the value of optical storage media, but they are still dependent on internal or external drives, sources of both weight and power demands.
Finally, solidstate storage (often referred to as flash memory) has no moving parts and brings with it exceptional flexibility and durability. USB flash disks (sometimes called thumb drives or sticks) are tiny PC devices. Many are smaller than a pack of chewing gum. These disks are portable flash memory hard drives that allow PC users to store and transport enormous amounts of data. They are often used to transport digitized material from home to office, a task they perform much more effectively and reliably than either magnetic or optical storage media. USB flash disks are plugandplay devices that can support up to two gigabytes of file storage. USB flash disks are beginning to gain traction, primarily because all computers have USB ports and no special drive is needed (unlike with a floppy disk, Zip disk, or CD).
Even larger storage capabilities are becoming more useful and commonplace with the mobile scholar as a result of the desire to work from both the home office and the university office. The ability to work efficiently from both sites is increasing with the advent of the external hard drive. These drives can store between 20 and 400 gigabytes of information, use USB connectivity, are plug and play devices, and function as a portable drive for travel, data transfer, or as a complete system backup. External hard drives widely vary on price, depending on the storage size. Prices range from about US$130 to as much as US$500.
The anthropologist or ethnographer with his or her tape recorder is a classic social science image. Researchers have always relied heavily on miniature recording devices capable of capturing speech in natural, often noisy, settings. Still, until recently audio recording has been built on very unreliable technology. Both reeltoreel and cassette tapes are prone to breaking and distortion.
Here again the technology has changed rapidly over the past few years. The minidisc recorder has become exceptionally popular, although probably more so among broadcast journalists than among social scientists. Minidisc recorders hold large amounts of data very efficiently. Particularly when fitted with an external microphone, users can attain extremely highfidelity sound quality. Further, there is now an assortment of good software programs available for managing and transcribing the audio data (typically interviews) collected via the minidisc recorder. Emerging editing capabilities permit onthespot merging and dividing of ones data.
More recently, minidisc recorders have begun to be challenged by solidstate recorders. The longterm advantages should be apparent at least potentially, devices with fewer moving parts are less likely to wear down.
Even with the abundance of cheap and userfriendly devices, there are inevitably times when one needs to transfer files between computers but is without a hard medium or external storage device. The clear but too often overlooked solution is emailing oneself. This is a quick and efficient way of transferring files between computers, but can result in disaster if poorly planned or executed.
All of the dangers that accompany receiving email from others accompany receiving email from ones own account. Especially when attachments are included, the risk of infecting and corrupting computers or networks (with a virus or worm) is as great when emailing oneself as it is when one emails and receives email from others.
Mobile scholars also need to be aware of space issues associated with emailing oneself. It is much easier to reach the space quota for ones own email account (and thus, stop activity) when emailing oneself than from normal email activity. When emailing others, the message is stored (where it occupies space) in ones account as a sent message. When receiving email, those messages are stored (where they occupy space) in ones inbox. Emailing oneself means that whatever is sent ends up stored twice. This is a particular danger when large attachments are involved. The settings of most email systems can be set quite easily to manage this problem.
It may be a cliché to say that computers, storage devices, PDAs, and so on are simply tools, but it is true nonetheless. We are aiming this paper not at aficionados of gadgetry, but at social scientists faced with the exigencies of getting their work done. Our goal is to seek for and use things that make us smart, and not things that slow us down.
Whatever specific devices one selects storage media, laptops, cell phones, or printers it seems to us that the goal must always be to think of all of these components as part of the same integrated network. Ideally (and this is a condition that is now within our technological grasp), all of these will work together seamlessly to the point where the user does not have to be preoccupied with specific devices, but only with how they can collectively be brought to bear on conducting research and scholarship. As Norman (2002) remarked, After all, what is the differences between machines that scan, copy, manipulate, combine, compose, fax, or print in a world where everything is networked: answer, there is no difference. We are encouraged by the possibilities that ICT is bringing to the new mobile scholar, and urge scholars to seek ways to be in control of the technology, not the other way around.
About the authors
David B. Bills is Professor of Sociology of Education in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies at the University of Iowa. His research interests are in social stratification, educational inequality, and the sociology of technological change. He has recently published The Sociology of Education and Work (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004).
Email: davidbills [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Stephanie Holliman is a Ph.D. student in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Iowa. Her areas of research are K12 teacher retention and firstyear college student experience. She has recently completed surveying K12 teachers in the state of Iowa concerning professionalism, innovation, empowerment, and commitment. She is working on analysis of these data and that information will serve as her dissertation topic.
Email: stephanielevine [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Laura A. Lowe is a doctoral candidate in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Iowa. Her areas of research interest are digital literacy development among postsecondary faculty and adult learners, the role of instructional and educational technology in digital literacy development, curriculum development and pedagogical strategies through course Web site development and distance/online learning, and twentyfirst centuryoriented digital classroom, course instruction, including the construction of courserelated Web sites for greater asynchronous, offcampus access to students.
Email: lauralowe [at] uiowa [dot] edu
J. Evans Ochola is a doctoral candidate in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Iowa. He teaches Contemporary Global System, International News Colloquium, and Technology in the Classroom. His chief area of research interest is faculty retention rates.
Email: evansochola [at] uiowa [dot] edu
SuEuk Park is a doctorial student in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Iowa. His main fields of interest are quantitative methodology, school choice, social stratification, and sociology of education. He is currently examining the effect of parental involvement on school choice and conducting a study on job satisfaction of international faculty.
Email: sueukpark [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Eric J. Reed studies Social Foundations of Education at the University of Iowa. His research interests include job satisfaction, education and social mobility, and the history of teachers unions.
Email: ericjreed [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Christine Wolfe, J.D., is a doctoral candidate in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Iowa. She is currently completing work on her dissertation, an examination of open enrollment as a form of school choice in the state of Iowa. Wolfe works at the University of Iowa College of Law as a research librarian. Her areas of research include school choice, equity and diversity issues, and sociology of education.
Email: christinewolfe [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Laura Thudium Zieglowsky is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Assistant in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Iowa. Her focus is in the sociology of education and arts advocacy. She is also a professional costume designer and makeup artist and a member of USA Local 829. She is the author of Stage makeup: The actors complete stepbystep guide to todays techniques and materials (New York: Back Stage Books, 1999).
Email: Laurathudiumzieglowsky [at] uiowa [dot] edu
1. We do not press the claim here, but the importance of wireless and USB probably pales in comparison to the importance of the broader process of miniaturization. Virtually nothing that we discuss in this paper would have been possible without the relentless drive to make ICT smaller.
2. Finding hotspots has become relatively easy. One can use any of a number of online hot spot directories, invest in sniffer software for a laptop that automatically locates hotspots, or purchase a relatively inexpensive portable device that does essentially the same thing.
6. One could presumably use a digital camera for the same purpose, although this is a generally more awkward solution. As digital cameras continue to become smaller and more versatile, however, they may become an option for scanning text.
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Paper received 13 January 2006; accepted 21 March 2006.
Copyright ©2006, First Monday
Copyright ©2006, David B. Bills, Stephanie Holliman, Laura Lowe, J. Evans Ochola, SuEuk Park, Eric J. Reed, Christine Wolfe, and Laura Thudium Zieglowsky, All Rights Reserved.
The new mobile scholar and the effective use of information and communication technology by David B. Bills, Stephanie Holliman, Laura Lowe, J. Evans Ochola, SuEuk Park, Eric J. Reed, Christine Wolfe, and Laura Thudium Zieglowsky
First Monday, Volume 11, Number 4 - 3 April 2006
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