Weaknesses of Mobile Learning

30 06 2006

I’m an enthusiastic proponent of mobile learning for its strengths; I see the potential for mobile learning to provide new opportunities for teaching and learning that will be more convenient, pervasive and immersive than ever before.

However, I’m occasionally challenged by other educators who point out problems with mobile learning, in the mistaken belief that I’m attempting to supplant all other forms of learning delivery with mobile learning approaches. I’m certainly not attempting to do that; so here it is, in writing, in my own blog 🙂 : mobile learning has unique strengths that will make it an ideal learning delivery approach in many instances; but it also has inherent weaknesses that will make it unsuitable in many others.

My biggest issue with some “mobile learning” approaches I’ve seen is when mobile devices are used to replace other tools that are much better suited to the activity being attempted.  For example, asking students to use their grainy, low-quality mobile phone cameras to do a task, when a digital camera would be equally convenient and immensely superior in quality; or getting students to painstakingly record data into a PDA in a classroom using a stylus, when it would be equally convenient to use a notepad, or a desktop computer in the same room.  “Mobile for mobile’s sake” approaches like this are common among educators who are enthusiastic, but relatively new to mobile learning.

This practice also manifests itself in the creation or repurposing of content into a mobile “size,” without considering whether that content may also need to be redesigned.  Examples of this practice are: squeezing diagrams into a size that makes them display on a PDA screen, but renders them practically illegible; or providing browser- or Flash- based resources that are basically un-navigable on the mobile device they’re delivered on, or can only be navigated in a linear fashion (page by page), reducing the effectiveness of the resource as a mobile, convenient, and rapidly accessible resource.

To counter this last problem of attempting to cram an existing resource into a mobile format, many educators realise the need to redesign the resource.  However, this also requires caution: in the process of “summarising” content for mobile deployment, care must be taken to preserve the purpose and the quality of the learning.  My favourite example of flagrant disregard for this practice is Microsoft’s condensation of the Illiad into 32 lines of SMS.  The Sydney Morning Herald article covering the release begins:

This literary masterpiece is looking a little battle-scarred. “Sing,
goddess, of the accursed anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, which
brought uncounted anguish on the Achaeans,” Homer may have written in The Iliad.
However Microsoft, the computer giant, prefers something less lyrical.
Wot hapnd when Agamemnon n Achilles had a barny?” it asks in a new
version of
The Iliad produced to appeal to the text message generation.

While the SMS version may have told the story of the Trojan War in a mobile form, I’m not sure a summary like this would be the best way for a learner to develop an appreciation for classic literature.

Using mediums like SMS may also increase the divide between “mobile natives” (who are fluent in the use of mobile devices, and related communication protocols), and “mobile immigrants” (who will be far less comfortable with the language used in the example just provided).  A mobile approach may not be an appropriate one for certain demographics, or indeed, where there are significant equity issues, such as access to the required devices for using mobile resources (the “mobile divide”.  This issue is explored in more detail in a previous post on the human issues relating to mobile learning.

Finally, I like to make a distinction between what I call “transitory” and “destinatory” mobile learning.  There are many resources we can make available in a mobile form which are great for having on an iPod or sticking into a car CD player to learn from while you’re travelling between places (transitory); and other learning resources which may even be inherently dangerous to access (while driving a vehicle, for example) but are excellent resources at a destination – a searchable database of chemical safety data sheets, for example.  Thinking about the way that learners will interact with a learning resource is a useful way of avoiding the creation of a perfectly good mobile learning resource that is never going to be used, simply because it doesn’t fit in with the lifestyle context of its intended learners.

There are other caveats regarding the creation of mobile learning resources, but these are the ones that seem to pop up most frequently in my discussions with other educators who are looking at mobile learning approaches.

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One response

4 07 2006

Re your two examples:
Digital camera – ever tried giving every kid in your class of 28 a digital camera? I doubt it – unless the camera was a part of a handheld computer.

Stylus: I spend the first few days showing kids how to use Graffiti. After that, we hand out the external keyboards. The key is for kids to spend no more than 10-15 minutes on the keyboards – until they can transfer their text to a computer.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against what you are saying, it’s just that these two egs don’t stack up in a class based environment with school kids.

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