Reflecting on today’s mobile learning
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I recently got an iPad Air, which I absolutely love! It’s great for surfing the net, posting on social media and answering emails. First thing in the morning will find me snuggled on my sofa with a cup of tea, iPad Air in hand. Tables and smart phones mean that mobile learning anywhere, anytime is now a reality. I was very dubious about the first generation of mobile devices and sceptical of those who raved about their potential for learning. Remember palm tablets? Nasty gritty small screen and not a very intuitive interface.
It sometimes takes awhile for you to assimilate a new technology. I got an iPad a few years ago, but never really took to it; the main reason was that it was just too heavy. I then won an iPad mini at a conference. Again at first I didn’t really use it, but then I had to go abroad for work and needed to read two theses. I downloaded them onto my iPad mini and that was it, I was hooked! Reading from the screen was easy, the battery life was good and I could annotate the documents.
The field of mobile learning research has matured since its nascent beginnings, and now there are numerous sub-fields: seamless learning, cross-contextual learning, BYOD in the classroom, field-trip learning, ubiquitous learning, wearable learning, evaluation of learning on the move, and mobile devices for data capture to name just a few!
The first generation of mobile devices emerged in the mid-nineties, with the promise of enabling learning anywhere, anytime (Sharples, Corlett et al. 2002). Mobile devices have advanced significantly since this time, nonetheless it is worth referring back to Kukulska-Hulme and Traxler’s (2005) statement of the nature of the initial generation of mobile devices:
What is new in ‘mobile learning’ comes from the possibilities opened up by portable, lightweight devices that are sometimes small enough to fit in a pocket or in the palm of one’s hand. Typical examples are mobile phones (also called cellphones or handphones), smartphones, palmtops and handheld computers (Personal Digital Assistant or PDAs), Tablet PCs, laptop computers and personal media players can also fall within its scope.
Sharples and Pea (2014) provide a useful summary of the key developments in mobile learning; starting with the vision for the creation of Dynabooks in the early seventies. They described a number of key mobile learning projects, which explored learning across different learning contexts (informal and formal), different devices, and different locations. They list Wong and Looi’s (2011) ten characteristics of mobile-assisted seamless learning:
- Encompassing formal and informal learning
- Encompassing personalised and social learning
- Across time
- Across locations
- Ubiquitous access to learning resources
- Encompassing physical and digital objects
- Combined use of multiple device types
- Seamless switching between multiple learning tasks
- Knowledge synthesis
- Encompassing multiple pedagogical or learning activity models.
Sharples and Pea argue that the teacher’s role is still crucial, but that they are more of a learning facilitator, rather than content provider. The projects they describe indicate that with mobile devices it is possible:
To connect learning in and out of the classroom using mobile devices to orchestrate the learning, deliver contextually-relevant resources and exploit mobile devices as inquiry toolkits.
They conclude by stating:
Mobile learning takes for granted that learners are continually on the move. We learn across space, taking ideas and learning resources gained in one location and applying them in another, with multiple purposes, multiple facets of identity. We learn across time, by revisiting knowledge that was gained from earlier in a different learning context. We move from topic to topic, managing a range of personal learning projects, rather than following a single curriculum. We also move in and out of engagement with technology, for example as we enter and leave phone coverage.
Bird undertook an evaluation of the use of iPads by Medical students at Leicester University. Overall the students were very positive about the use of their iPads, stating they were convenient, efficient, useful and easy to use. Bird lists the follow as examples of how the students were using the mobile devices for learning:
- To annotate and organised notes
- For group work and development
- Memorising key concepts, through student generated flashcards and quizzes
- For handwriting and drawing
With the increase in access to information and production of knowledge, mobile learning is challenging traditional educational institutions and associated authorities. It provides the opportunity to shift away from teacher-centred pedagogies to an increased focus on learning and the learner, through concepts like the flipped classroom. Because mobile devices enable learning anywhere, anytime and because they can be personalised they are ideally suited to informal and contextual learning. Learning across formal and informal contexts means that there is a blurring of the boundaries between learning and work.
An EDUCAUSE report argues that microlearning encourages learners to focus on discrete chunks of content and learning activities. Fastcodesign argues that there are ten ways in which mobile learning will revolutionise education:
- Continuous learning: learning is increasingly getting interspersed with our daily lives through the use of mobile devices and near ubiquitous access to the Internet.
- Educational leapfrogging: low cost mobile devices are particularly important in developing countries.
- A new crop of older, lifelong learners: often referred to as the silver surfers, are increasingly getting into using mobile devices, often motivated by a desire to keep in touch with their children and grandchildren via social media.
- Breaking gender barriers: in parts of the world where woman are not allowed access to formal education, mobile devices provide them with a means to access high quality resources and to communicate with peers.
- A new literacy is emerging: there are now numerous companies (such as Codeacademy) that teach people via interactive lessons to write software programmes.
- Education’s long tail: The vast array of resources to support many different subjects means that mobile devices enable learners to study niche subjects.
- Teachers and pupils trade roles: Learning and teaching becomes a two way process, where teachers can learn from the learners and vice versa.
- Synergies with mobile banking and mobile health: A lot can be learnt from the way in which mobile banking and health have developed, such as using text messaging to deliver short lessons, and give teacher feedback and grades.
- New opportunities for traditional educational institutions: Mobile learning can potentially complement and extend traditional educational offerings. We are seeing a disaggregation of formal education. Increasingly rather than signing up for a full course, learners may instead choose to pay for components, such as access to high quality resources, pedagogically informed learning pathways, support from tutors or peers, and accreditation.
- A revolution leading to customised education: Mobile learning is not just about digitising existing content, it is about harnessing the power of social media and embracing open practices.
Te@chthought lists the following 12 principles of mobile learning:
- Access: in terms of access to content, peers, experts, and resources.
- Metrics: increasing there are metrics associated with how we are using mobile devices, which can be used to inform and improve the way we learn.
- Cloud computing: means that we can access information anywhere, via any device.
- Transparent: transparency is a byproduct of connectivity, mobility and collaboration.
- Play: is a key characteristic of authentic, progressive learning. In a mobile learning environment, learners encounter a dynamic and often unplanned set of data, domains and collaborations.
- Asynchronous: enabling a learning experience that is personalised, just in time and reflective.
- Self-actuated: where learners plan how and what they learn, facilitated by teachers, who are the experts in terms of the resources and assessment.
- Diverse: learning environments are constantly changing, enabling learners to encounter a stream of new ideas, unexpected challenges, and constant opportunities for revision and application of thinking.
- Curation: there are now a wealth of Apps to support curation so that individual learners can group and share useful resources.
- Blending: Across the physical and digital space and across different devices, supporting both formal and informal learning.
- Always-on: Always-on learning is self-actuated, spontaneous, iterative and recursive.
- Authentic: enabling situative and personalised learning.
So it would appear that mobile learning has finally come of age, it will be interesting to see how the use of mobile devices learning and teaching develops in the coming years.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Mike Sharples, Agnes KuKulska-Hulme, John Traxler and Terese Birds for links to a number of useful references.
Kukulska-Hulme, A. and J. Traxler (2005). Mobile learning – a handbook for educators and trainers. Abingdon, Routledge.
Sharples, M., D. Corlett and O. Westmancott (2002). “The design and implementation of a mobile learning resource.” Personal and ubiquitous computing 6: 220-234.
Sharples, M. and R. Pea (2014). Mobile Learning. The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences. R. K. Sawyer. New York, NY, Cambridge University Press.
Wong, L. H. and C. K. Looi (2011). “What seams do we remove in mobile-assisted seamless learning? A critical review of the literature.” Computers and Education 57(4): 2364 – 2381.