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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Voting Now Open for Edublog Awards!

26 11 2007

I’m very honoured to have learned that the Mobile Learning Blog is a finalist for the 2007 Edublog Awards. 🙂  If you’d like to show your support for the Mobile Learning Blog, come and vote for it here:

Best individual blog
Congratulations to my fellow nominees!  In particular, I’d like to mention some outstanding Australian finalists such as Sue Waters (multiple nominations incl. Best New Blog, yaay!), Graham Wegner (Best Teacher Blog), Judy O’Connell (Best Library/Librarian Blog), and Jo Kay (Best Educational use of a Virtual World).

It’s an honour to be in such inspiring company, and I’m looking forward to continuing the terrific conversations and reflections we’ve exchanged on these terrific blogs!

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Cyber Policy: Learning From, and With, Our Learners

21 11 2007

In hindsight, it almost seems so obvious that a child could have thought of it.  To draft a cyber-safety policy for young Australians… why not involve (a) young Australian(s)?

Tom Wood, the 16-year-old schoolboy who initially gained attention when he managed to circumvent the Australian Government’s multi-million-dollar filtering software, has been helping one of Australia’s major federal political parties to draft their cyber-safety policy.

If your educational institution is implementing or revising its online or mobile phone policies, or you’d like to determine guidelines for your classroom, it’s not a bad idea to involve the students themselves in the process.  It may very well generate better ownership in the resulting guidelines as well as insightful commentary that may help educators and policy makers to formalise more sensible and effective approaches that we ourselves could think of!

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Developing Us! M-Learning and More…

19 11 2007

Advocating educational innovation is usually not an easy task. While some aspects of educational technology – such as online learning and teaching – have gained a foothold in many institutions, newer ideas like mobile learning or the use of virtual worlds are being explored and practiced by a much smaller number of educators.

There are many barriers to teachers trying out and using new and innovative approaches in teaching and learning. It can be hard to find the time to explore and develop new ideas; online “social learning” sites such as YouTube may be blocked; or teachers may not be able to access equipment or funds needed to try out new ideas (such as for mobile learning activities). And that’s if a given teacher even has the inclination to pursue innovative teaching and learning practices; while most teachers are at least interested in new ideas for teaching, there are many more who are just fine with doing it the way they’ve always done it, and see no reason to change.

As part of my work at CIT’s Flexible Learning Solutions (shortly to be re-organised as a unit within the Institute’s Centre for Excellence in Education), I’m currently working on a few ideas for getting more teachers interested in using innovative methods and activities for learning. I’d be keen to hear what other people think about these ideas… 🙂

The first of these is the concept of “Teaching Commons”. Our organisation has several distinct campuses – none of which provide space for teachers from various disciplines or campuses to mingle and share their ideas for learning and teaching, let alone exposure to new practices.

A Teaching Commons area would be a space on each campus where all staff could spend some time getting a cup of coffee and talking with their colleagues. As such, it would have a “social” atmosphere and would feel like a welcoming place to visit. Staff visiting other campuses would find it particularly appealing since there currently isn’t anywhere to log into the staff network if you happen to be visiting another campus away from your own department’s offices.

However, this would be so much more than an ordinary “common room”. The idea here is to dedicate part of the space to be a functional and flexible workshop area, with computers and a Smartboard, as well as the ability to connect additional laptops if required. Various staff who support best-practice teaching and learning at our Institute would use this as a regular base of operations for consulting with and assisting teachers; and we’d also run workshops in this area. Adorning the walls would be posters on different innovative learning approaches and new practices, and all-in-all, the space would be a regular hotpot of professional development, peer discussion, and teaching and learning support. By converging social and learning spaces for teachers, it would provide an ongoing opportunity for engaging, developing and supporting teachers in flexible learning practice.

This physical “teaching commons” space could be complemented by an online “teaching commons” space reflecting many of the same ideas and themes as the physical one. Allowing teachers to put up their own interest groups in a “groupware” environment such as ELGG would lead to the development of a healthy online community discussing both teaching and learning issues as well as what people did on the weekend.

Another project I’m working on is an activity for CIT’s “Developing Us” all-staff professional development day, scheduled for the 29th of January 2008. There is a choice of some 50 workshops to be held across three time slots, including a large number of sessions around professional development. To make the day more engaging, I’m developing a learning activity to play across the whole day… but this activity could equally be played out by a class over the course of a week or a semester.

Where in the Web is Crimson Sanfierro? (CC)” is a Creative Commons game styled after the popular childrens’ educational game, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (TM)” 🙂 Instead of being a computer game about geographical locations, however, “Crimson Sanfierro” flips the paradigm on its head – it’s a game played across physical locations, about the web. 🙂 Participants pick up “clues” from various sessions they attend during the day, and locations they visit… and use these clues to solve “cases”. They can get some additional information from the MySpace profiles of various fictitious suspects to help solve the cases, which are also all themed to fit in with the learning issues being explored on the day.

As we’ve yet to play out the game here, I can’t say too much more, except to say that I’ll say more after we’ve run the game. 🙂 It promises to be a lot of fun. 🙂

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Ideas that Spread, Win

30 10 2007

Another gem from the TED conference: Seth Godin explains why some innovations succeed… and some fail (even (initially) sliced bread… which is now the benchmark for great ideas, as in “the greatest thing since sliced bread”).

YouTube link:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Seth uses the word “remarkable” to describe ideas that work: simply put, things that are “remarkable” are things worth remarking about; and these are ideas that spread!

While Seth’s talk has its basis in marketing, there are significant lessons in here for educational innovators about how to spread ideas. For example:

  • The “otaku” principle: sell to the people who are listening; they will tell their friends.
  • Safe is Risky: “safe” ideas are boring. The *real* safest thing to do right now is to be at the fringes!

Check it out!

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Setting the Bar

24 09 2007

In this inspirational lecture, one of the greatest minds in the world, Carnegie-Mellon University Professor Randy Pausch, (diagnosed last year with incurable pancreatic cancer) shares his thoughts on life and learning. With only weeks, or months, to live now, he’s packaged his incredible insights into a moving and entertaining address.

At 40m30s, he talks about one of his classes, entitled “Building Virtual Worlds” which had 50 university students from various disciplines in random, 4-member teams rotating every 2 weeks to come up with (and implement) a virtual world concept. Students were given an open book as to what they could create, with two rules: no shooting/violence, and no pornography. Pausch – who among his achievements had worked with Disney’s Imagineers – was blown away by the first cycle of concepts.

“The work was so beyond my imagination… I’d copied the process from Disney’s Imagineering lab, but I had no idea what they could or couldn’t do with it as undergraduates, and when their tools were weaker… Ten years as a professor and I had no idea what to do next… I just gave them a two-week assignment, and if I’d given them a whole semester, I would have given them all A’s.”

His mentor, Andries (Andy) van Dam, of Brown University, gave him some great advice:

“You go back into class tomorrow, and you look ’em in the eye and you say ‘Guys, that was pretty good, but I know you can do better'”.

Terrific advice in a new era of learning. The entire lecture is worth watching if you’re an educator, particularly one involved with teaching technology or teaching with technology. You can download (or view) the whole video here:


Pausch’s professional legacy as a computer scientist and educator is Alice: a free and open-source 3D development environment which provides “the best possible first exposure to programming for students ranging from middle schoolers to college students”. It particularly supports story-telling, and is designed to make programming both socially and technically accessible to young women.


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Corporation vs Community

12 09 2007

According to my favourite newspaper, The Age, software company 2Clix is suing the Australian open community forum Whirlpool for criticism made about 2Clix in forum discussions.

The Whirlpool community is (in my opinion) the single most knowledgeable community on consumer mobile and internet technologies in Australia – and, quite possibly, the world. This community is responsible for inspiring many of my ideas for applying various technologies to the sphere of education, such as my recent posting on the use of the GPS-enabled Nokia 6110 Navigator as a means of providing context to mobile content, (subsequently picked up by Stephen Downes here).

The thing about an online community such as Whirlpool is that it enables expertise to be shared between community members; and as such, both the good and the bad aspects of various issues, products, and entities are discussed. The ramifications of this case succeeding would be immense and disastrous – imagine a situation where edubloggers, for example, could not openly discuss the advantages of Web 2.0 tools vs Learning Management Systems, for fear of our provider (or organisation) being sued by Blackboard an LMS company? 😀

The almost 200,000-strong community has already responded with discussions and donations to assist Whirlpool’s founder, Simon Wright, and is quickly becoming one of the most highly publicised articles on Digg, even attracting international commentary from Technorati’s most widely-read blogs.

Some commentary from The Age:

Dale Clapperton, chairman of the online users lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said 2Clix was using the law to silence its critics.

He said if Wright lost “it might mean the end of criticising companies’ products and services online”, as “any company will be able to demand that people’s criticisms of them be deleted off websites, and if they don’t comply they’ll sue”.

Amanda Stickley, a senior law lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, said if 2Clix won there would be severe consequences for website operators as they would have to be “very vigilant in checking material on the website and remove anything that could cause injury to someone’s business reputation”.

In a statement of claim filed with the Supreme Court of Queensland, 2Clix said the comments, published in two threads between between late last year and July this year, led it to sustain “a severe downturn in monthly sales”.

It specifically referenced more than 30 comments by Whirlpool users, many strongly advising people to avoid the software at all costs and complaining that advertised features were not actually available in the product.

One of the comments cited by 2Clix read: “The software became such a problem that we threw it out recently … We stuck with it for over two years but in the end the many hundreds of lost hours of work and high stress levels was not worth it.”

2Clix claimed the statements were both false and malicious, and said it contacted Whirlpool about the matter this year but Whirlpool refused to take the forum threads down.

The issue has ramifications for online teaching and learning in Australia.  If open commentary and crititique becomes effectively banned online, the use of social web tools for reflection, discussion and evaluation would be severely compromised.

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Avoiding Mobile Learning Bacn

23 08 2007

According to BoingBoing, the term “Bacn” (e-mail you want, just not now: myspace alerts, twitter followers, newsletters, etc.) was only coined on Sunday, but as of today it has been blogged over 350 times and has become the 14th most-popular search term of the day.

I guess that’s just because it’s such as useful term. I have various spam filters, but my email inbox suffers from inordinate amounts of bacn – particularly various informative and educational sites I’ve subscribed to (e.g. the Networks Community Forum and other EdNa forums), which don’t have an RSS alternative, but which I want to keep tabs on.

This is a good prompt to reflect on the importance of context for mobile learning. Just as students receiving a social phone call in class is intrusive and disruptive, so too could m-learning intrude into students’ lives. Just as most people would not enjoy getting a phone call from work just as they’re sitting down to dinner, we also need to be aware of the caveats to creating learning experiences on our students’ most personal and ubiquitous digital companions.

Quite possibly, mobile learning is, indeed, stuff students want… but is it stuff they want right now? M-learning enables us to provide students with convenience, portability, ubiquity, flexibility and contextualisation… but if we’re delivering it via students’ personal mobile phones, we also need to be courteous guests in their personal space, lest content be considered bacn!

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My Gear Bag

17 08 2007

Inspired by Mitchell Oke at Gear Diary (a great source of mobile technology news), here is the contents of my own Gear Bag. My “daily” compact mobile kit packs into a 25cm-wide mens grooming kit and weighs just 1.5 kilos, fully loaded. 🙂 The waterproof compartments help protect my gear from weather and spills, and the hanging hook (usually used to hang the bag from a shower stall or shower head) allow me to hang the bag next to me wherever I’m working, with easy access to everything inside.


This “compact kit” can be extended by popping it in the front pocket of my laptop bag for when I need more power and screen real estate for graphics, design, or development applications; but otherwise, this kit can do the majority of the specialised tasks I need each day – document authoring and editing, web server administration, and correspondence – as well as a full range of peripheral tasks – GPS navigation, internet access and research, stereo music playback, and audio, video and photographic capture.

1. Nokia 6110 Navigator SmartPhone/GPS (works with Bluetooth Folding Keyboard)


I can use my 3.5G (HSDPA) phone to remotely log in to the (Linux) servers I
administrate without any additional hardware or wireless connectivity.
Combined with my Bluetooth Wireless keyboard, I can do with my mobile
phone almost everything I can do with the desktop version of Putty, and
almost as fast. Actually, it’s probably the best phone I’ve owned for years… and I’ve been through 11 premium models over the last 11 years of continuous mobile phone ownership. The phone has built-in GPS navigation, so I can use it to geotag (add location information to) any photo I take with it. It has the fastest processor of any current Nokia phone (even faster than the N95’s) and a terrific screen.

2. Spare Phone Battery, and SD-Card Family Memory Cards and Adapters


I have an extra battery for my phone, as well as a 2GB memory card inside. On the right of the phone are the range of memory cards and adapters I use – from top to bottom ,these are: microSD-SD adapter, MiniSD-SD adapter, MiniSD card, MicroSD-MiniSD adapter, and MicroSD card.

3. HP RW6828 PDA/Smartphone (works with Bluetooth Folding Keyboard)


For additional capability, I’m using a Hewlett-Packard RW6828  smartphone running Windows Mobile 5. It has Wi-Fi access so I can tap into any wireless hotspots, Bluetooth to connect to my phone, laptop, or any PC I plug my Bluetooth dongle into, and can also be used with my phone’s SIM card for telephony and/or data connectivity.

I can use this device to edit Microsoft Office documents, provide basic
editing to images, input data into custom databases, and log into
servers using shell or GUI access. Using the same wireless Bluetooth
keyboard I use for my phone, data entry is fast and easy.

4. Bluetooth Stereo Headset and Charger, Wired Stereo Headset, and Tape

The largest item in my mobile kit is my pair of wireless Bluetooth
headphones and their charger (top right). These headphones connect with
all of my mobile devices – phone, PDA and laptop – to allow me to
listen to audio discreetly, and have built-in controls so I can control
my music (volume, play/pause and next/last track) using the headset
itself. Unfortunately, unlike my phone and PDA (which can be charged using standard USB cables), my headphones need their own charger… one day I’ll probably upgrade these to a version that’s more flexible, but
they’re doing a good job for the time being. 🙂

The in-ear headset in the bottom right of this image can connect with
either my phone or my PDA/Smartphone to allow me to use either device
as a hands-free phone, or to listen to audio with stereo sound.

The small roll of tape is invaluable. I use tape to temporarily bind
cables when I’m out of elastic bands; to stick tiny memory cards to
other larger things so they don’t get lost; to do minor repairs… it’s
a lifesaver. Probably comes from my many years in theatre, where Gaffer
Tape is used for just about everything… but on a rather smaller
scale! 🙂

5. Bluetooth 2.0 Dongle and USB Memory Key

I carry a USB 2.0 Bluetooth dongle to enable me to connect wirelessly
to any desktop PC I might use. My laptop, PDA and mobile phoneare all
Bluetooth-capable, so ensuring my desktop environment is able to
connect to these is worth carrying this tiny device.

I also carry a memory stick for quickly saving files or data for later
use, and for carrying work in progress. I’d rather not have to plug in
my PDA or Bluetooth a file to my mobile phone when I could just plug
and save. Sadly, this memory stick is getting a little old (only 256MB!) and is next on my list of equipment to upgrade. It’s been a faithful and reliable work tool for quite a few years, but I have my eye on a new 8GB model…

6. USB Cables and USB Car Power Adapter

I carry two USB cables with me; these allow me to connect two peripherals to my laptop or desktop PC (choose between phone, PDA, and
digital notepad) and can also be plugged into the car adapter (in the
middle) to charge my PDA battery. Not pictured here is my the car
charger for my phone which is, as I type, plugged in in the car. It’s
necessary to power the phone when I’m using it as a GPS, as having the
screen continuously illuminated chews through the phone’s battery.

7. CD of Essential Software and Drivers

This may not look very glamourous, but digital mobility often means being able to take advantage of whatever computing devices are at hand. This includes other computers I might happen to use around my various work locations, or computers at Internet Kiosks, for example. I carry up-to-date versions of all of the software I need to work efficiently from any PC (assuming a Windows-based operating system is installed, and nothing else), as well as any drivers I need to connect a new PC with my various mobile devices.

Size Comparison


Here’s a comparison of my laptop bag and my mobile kit. Most mobile
professionals would take something the size and weight of the bag on
the left around with them on a daily basis. I am able to do just about
everything I need to using the kit on the right, which is small enough
to fit into the spare space in the front pocket of the laptop bag (next
to the mouse and power cord for the laptop, and all my pens and paraphenalia that are also in there) and weighs just just 1.5kg, total. Each square on the mat in the image on the right is 2cm wide.

So… what’s in the Laptop Bag?

Just a couple of extra devices: but both are too big to go in the compact case.


My laptop is terrific. It’s probably average size and weight, but
it features a built-in SD Card slot so I can copy files to and from
memory cards (for my phone, camera, PDA, and digital notepad) without
the need for an external reader. It also has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for wireless connectivity. I can have it going for about 2.5 hours with the screen on full brightness and wireless and Bluetooth going before it conks out.

The digital notepad on the right allows me to take handwritten notes, and makes a digital copy of everything I write and draw. When connected to a PC, I can instantly email a digital copy of my notes to others, and convert
my notes to typed text using the handwriting recognition software. It’s
cheap and light, so I don’t have to haul a tablet PC around to do this
simple task. Files are saved to SD Card – compatible with my laptop’s
internal reader. This tablet also doubles as a basic digitizing tablet. At home and at work I have dedicated Wacom graphics tablets, but this is a nice convenience when out and about… 🙂

Also in the laptop bag are pens, business cards, tissues, a mouse for the laptop, the laptop’s power cable, and a webcam (maybe I’ll have one built into my next laptop). Sometimes I carry a sketching kit in the bag for when I have a spare moment (I tend to prefer to listen to music, draw or compose poetry rather than playing computer games, although I have some extra games on my PDA and mobile phone too).

There you have it! The contents of my road warrior’s mobility kit…

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Mobile Phones in Classrooms

17 08 2007

There’s a great conversation going on on the blog of teacher Siobhan Curious, concerning the permissibility of mobile phones in the classroom. As a classroom teacher, Siobhan’s first instinct is to confiscate mobile phones that disrupt her classes; and to tell you the truth, I can certainly see situations where this would be the appropriate thing to do.

As I said in my comments to her post (you will just have to go over and read them for yourself if you want the gory details), mobile devices provide opportunities for both disruptive and constructive applications in educational settings. Just as it’s possible to use a cassette walkman or iPod in a negative way (e.g. listening to music in class) and a positive way (listening to a language e-book outside of class; or recording a class lecture for later review), a mobile phone is a tool that can be used politely, thoughtfully, or even positively; or negatively and counter-productively. Teachers, as classroom “moderators,” should have the freedom to decide which uses fall into which categories.

I would classify accepting a call and beginning a phone conversation with a friend in the middle of a class disruptive and rude – just as rude as starting a conversation with a neighbour in the classroom. But some teachers may be happy to permit students to video chemistry or physics experiments for later review, for example… or to make a video of the teacher solving an algebraic equation, to help their understanding of the deductive process when they have to complete their homework later.

(via Stuart Smith at 3 Sheep Musings)

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