As a recording device, or for taking down illustrations or graphs, the multifunction mobile phone rivals, or will soon rival, the iPod. Few seem to have noticed, but a whole generation of students have taught themselves shorthand (texting, that is). This has not been exploited educationally.
Ringtone interruptions in a teaching or learning situation are, of course, intolerable. And having to overhear one-sided mobile chatter is as blood-boilingly irritating in the library or computer cluster as it is in the railway carriage. But texting enables rapid notetaking to oneself, silent interchange between auditors at a lecture, or participants in a seminar. Used conscientiously, even today’s generation of phones could be used for teaching purposes – to foster uninterruptive cross-interaction, rapid access to outside information sources, or simple queries ("what the hell did he just say, I missed it?")
I’d be a lot more confident about our universities’ ability to absorb the Gates tablet if, in the lecture hall, the signs on the wall said: "Please turn your mobile phones on".
My predictions: Using cell phones to record lectures is easy, and the playback should speed up the pace. Might the linked information technology improve the lecture by adding material or explanation? How about phones which flash red whenever the instructor says something questionable or controversial? How about phones which monitor the reaction of the individual listener and send this message to the other listeners? So if everyone else is sleeping, upset, or sexually excited, you would know about it. Overall, I do not expect the balance of power to shift in favor of the lecturer.