Defining Mobile Learning

30 11 2007

Some of the best research into defining the meaning and purpose of mobile learning has come from Prof. Mike Sharples (University of Nottingham), who has collaborated with a number of other distinguished academics and organisations to research the definition, pedagogy, and practice of mobile learning. Sharples’ numerous publications and collaborations, the majority of which deal with the use of mobile technologies in education, span more than half a decade of experience and research (detailed in full here). Recommended background reading includes the following:

  • Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2005a) Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning. In H. van der Merwe & T. Brown, Mobile Technology: The Future of Learning in Your Hands, mLearn 2005 Book of Abstracts, 4th World Conference on mLearning, Cape Town, 25-28 October 2005. Cape Town: mLearn 2005, p. 58. Available from Mlearn 2005 as a PDF file.
  • Naismith, L., Lonsdale, P., Vavoula, G. & Sharples, M. (2005b) Literature Review in Mobile Technologies and Learning. A Report for NESTA Futurelab. Available from NESTA FutureLab.
  • Sharples, M. (Ed.) (2006) Big Issues in Mobile Learning: Report of a workshop by the Kaleidoscope Network of Excellence Mobile Learning Initiative . LSRI, University of Nottingham. Available as 725K pdf file.
  • Sharples, M., Taylor, J., Vavoula, G. (2007) A Theory of Learning for the Mobile Age. In R. Andrews & C. Haythornthwaite (eds.) The Sage Handbook of E-learning Research. London: Sage, pp. 221-47. Preprint available as 256Kb pdf file.

The work of Sharples and others has seen a gradual refinement of the way we think about mobile learning. Something of a watershed occurred in January 2005, when core members of the multi-million-euro, 30-month-long MOBIlearn project reflected (at the project’s conclusion) on how mobile learning is differentiated from other forms of learning mediation and support (Sharples 2005a p.4). Among the outcomes was a learner-centric view of mobile learning:

it is the learner that is mobile, rather than the technology … with learners opportunistically appropriating whatever technology is ready to hand as they move between settings, including mobile and fixed phones, their own and other people’s computers, as well as books and notepads.”

Liberating the definition of mobile learning from a device-oriented one revolving around mobile phones or PDAs allows mobile technology to be viewed as a means of supporting learning mobility, rather than defining it. An extreme interpretation of this principle would mean that many kinds of learning, pre-dating handheld computerised devices, could be considered as mobile learning. For example, learners have listened to audio books on cassettes and portable CD players anytime and anywhere since the 1980’s – well before the iPod was even imagined. Getting away from devices altogether, a book or a pad of paper could easily be used as mobile, learning tools, while school “field trips,” to museums, galleries or places of interest have been an effective learning strategy for decades.

In reality, completely disassociating the term “mobile learning” from the use of digital devices in education in that way feels artificial. There are the obvious semantic and developmental links with computer-based e-learning, but apart from that, digital devices are (variously) very good at helping us to create, store and use information, and at connecting us with peers, mentors, and remote information tools and resources – to the extent that (in the case of mobile phones in particular), we take them everywhere. It’s been well documented that these inherent properties of mobile, digital devices make them capable companions for supporting and enhancing all kinds of learning activities, both in and out of the classroom.

For me, the great utility of the learner-centric paradigm derived by MOBIlearn is that it helps to maintain a pedagogical focus in the field, and provides a constant reminder of the underlying need for mobile learning approaches to be underscored by effective learning design and support.

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2 responses

30 11 2007
» A Brief History of Learning With Mobile Computers Mobile Learning

[…] idea of using computerised mobile devices to support learning was formally conceptualised a surprisingly long time ago. In his 2002 paper “Disruptive […]

6 12 2007

Hi Leonard – you (or someone) really should head over to wikipedia and update the mLearning entry to include the ‘learner as mobile’ concept using some of the quotes from this post – the article there is getting a little dated…

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