What Does Mobile Learning Mean?
Mobile Learners & Tools
A good place to start in any discussion of a topic is to consider your definitions. As I’ve been working on this post, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s more important to center the discussion on mobile learners than it is mobile tools. In other words, I think mobile learning is defined more by the mobility of the learners and the context of learning than it is about the tools those learners are using (see “Mobile Learning”). According to The World Is Open, “With mobile devices, the educational event or activity follows the learner, instead of the learner having to arrive at a designated place in which to acquire it. Access, access, and more access is demanded everywhere one travels” (Bonk, 2010, p. 293). Mobile learners are able to access academic material or complete their coursework as they move through their day: as they wait in line at the DMV, as they sit on a park bench on their lunch break from work, or as they ride on the metro on their way home. Mobile students move across contexts as they study and learn.
So what tools are “mobile” tools? Because I think that mobile learning can be conceptualized as being more about the mobility of the learner than the tool, I prefer not to include laptops as a “mobile” tool. Laptops are “transportable computers…one moves it from place to place, working at each of those places. But, one doesn’t use a laptop computer while one is moving about” (Norris & Solloway, 2013). In a 2015 Educause study, around 40% of students say they wished their instructors used smartphones or tablets more frequently (Dahlstrom, Brooks, Grajek, S. & Reeves, 2015). Similarly, the number of students who do access academic resources on mobile devices is quickly rising: in 2013, 67% of students’ tablets and smartphones were used for educational purposes, which is nearly double from the previous year (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013). Clearly, post-secondary students are using their mobile devices (not just transportable laptops) to access academic content, which makes a discussion of mobile learning timely and relevant to higher education.
Context is Critical
According to a blog post exploring mobile learning’s impact on instructional design, “mobile learning assumes that modern learners are continuously in motion, and allows students to learn the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. This immediacy could increase the effectiveness of authentic and situated learning tasks by giving students the ability to approach a topic in real time, as they go about their daily routine” (Remington, 2015). In other words, mobile learning has the potential to adapt to the context of learning.
I particularly like this diagram of mobile learning, which explains mobile learning as the intersection of the social aspect, device aspect, and learner aspect. In the next section, I will first consider the intersection of Learner and Device, and then consider the intersection of the Social aspect and the Learner.
Designing for Mobility
If you are an instructor designing a course, you probably recognize that your mobile students will access your course content in a variety of contexts. According to Remington (2015), “Whether or not you formally design curriculum for mobile learning, it will exist. Learners will find ways to consume content and learn in different environments. So embrace that concept!” So how can we embrace the concept of mobile learners?
First, I think it’s important to consider a few practical elements of design that can make mobile learning more or less effective. How do learners interact with their mobile devices? (This is the “device usability” section of the diagram above). Obviously, viewing content on a mobile device is different than viewing it on a laptop or desktop. The way we use these devices, the contexts in which we use these devices, and the physical ways we interact with these devices are quite different (Buff, 2013). According to an article by ICS Learning Group, “While audience and content vary, one constant that is largely accepted; an mLearning module that tries to be like an eLearning module does not make for a great learning experience” (Gipple and Lord). If you’ve ever tried to scroll sideways on a smartphone or accidentally hit “cancel” instead of “submit” because the buttons were too close on a small screen, you know the frustration of trying to interact with a device that isn’t designed for mobility.
In order to take into account the needs of your mobile learners, you may want to think about things like screen size and file download limits. Unlike students working entirely on laptops, students who use smartphones for schoolwork are perhaps using up their (limited) phone’s data plan (Buff, 2013). Also consider your use of flash or other things that may not work across all devices. Remember that scrolling or typing essays can be difficult in a mobile context. An Inside Higher Ed article suggests that when designs for mobile learning could be “chunked, and be less about typing and text. Video capture could replace typing. Short statements could replace long paragraphs” (Kim, 2013). When in doubt, try out Google’s URL Tester to see if a course will work for the mobile learner (Avey, 2016).
The Benefit of Apps
When we use mobile devices to learn, we can access a variety of apps that can broaden learning, fill in knowledge gaps, and enhance academic productivity (West, 2013). For example, teachers could compile a list of reference apps and encourage students to use those apps. In an Educause study by Chen and deNoyelles (2013), these were some of the most common apps that mobile learners said they used on a regular basis:
- University-specific apps: UCFMobile, Tegrity, Mobile Learn
- Apps for education: Flash Cards, Khan Academy, iTunes U
- Books and references: CourseSmart, Inkling, Dictionary, Wikipanion, WolframAlpha
- Apps for productivity: Evernote, Dropbox, Pages,Keynote, Notes
- Apps for searching: Google, Safari
An Inside Higher Ed blog post explains that:
We universally dislike the browser based learning management system (LMS), and universally love our phones. We love apps.We love apps because they are purpose built, simple, lightweight, cheap, and fast. Imagine a mobile first online learning platform that strips away all the unwanted features of the LMS. No more complicated gradebook. No more list of features that we never use. Only a method to collaborate, share materials, complete and collect assignments, engage in formative assessment, and build a community in the class (Kim, 2016).
The power of mobile learning is maximized when students are encouraged to take advantage of the unique features of mobile devices.
Mobile learning has a unique potential to enhance student learning, and can be particularly powerful when courses for mobile learners are designed to play to the strengths of mobile devices. For example, mobile learning can be a uniquely connective and social process. (This speaks to the intersection of “social aspect” and “learner aspect” in the diagram above). Bonk (201o) describes that more people and resources are “fully loaded in the teaching and learning loop” (p. 353). Mobile devices offer instant opportunities for connection; more connection with resources, but also more connection with other like-minded learners. As Remington (2015) describes, “Social media has created a culture where people have near-instantaneous contact with any other person, anywhere in the world. By focusing on Mobile Learning, instructional designers can take advantage of this culture to further improve learning opportunities” (Remington, 2015). With mobile tools, “interacting with a learning community could become organic to activities of daily living” (Kim, 2016). Essentially, mobile learning creates new opportunities for connectivity with other learners as we move throughout our day and access learning spaces in a variety of contexts.
Learner-Centered and User-Generated Content
Some argue that mobile learning is more learner-centered. Access–instant, flexible, and varied–characterizes mobile learning. As The World Is Open describes, “The emergence of mobile and wireless technologies for learning— which place educational opportunities literally in the learner’s hands and allow him to schedule learning when he wants it—has paralleled the growing acceptance of a more learner-centered educational philosophy” (Bonk, 2010, p. 295). “mLearning” has become a common abbreviation for mobile learning. As you may imagine, the “m” usually stands for “mobile.” Sergio (2012) argues that the “m” could “just as easily” represent “me” (Sergio, 2012). Mobile learning has the potential to be centered on the needs of the learner.
Designing for mobile learners also means we encourage movement across contexts and user-generated content. Jisc explains that a “holistic” approach to mobile learning “is to engage the learner in creating user-generated content and engaging through audio, video and other features of mobile devices in the learning experience” (“Mobile Learning”). An Educause article also explains that mobile learning offers an opportunity to create user generated content, explaining that, “Devices such as smartphones, tablets, and e-book readers connect users to the world instantly, heightening access to information and enabling interactivity with others. Applications that run on these devices let users not only consume but also discover and produce content” (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013).
Mobile learning, then, represents this intersection of the Learner Aspect, Device Aspect, and Social Aspect. Considering these three elements of mobile learning will help us maximize the potential of mobile devices to positively influence higher education.
Avey, S. (2016, January 6). Mobile-ready education: Making education more accessible. [Web log comment]. Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://campuspress.yale.edu/yctl/tag/mobile-learning/
Bonk, C. (2010). The world is open: How web technology is revolutionizing education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Buff, T. (2013, October 8). Top 5 design considerations for creating mobile learning. [Web log comment]. eLearning Industry. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/top-5-design-considerations-for-creating-mobile-learning
Chen, B. & deNoyelles, A. (2013, October 7). Exploring students’ mobile learning practices in higher education. Educause Review. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/6/~/link.aspx?_id=F2A5EF6E40704CAC8729BEDA7514E1AF&_z=z
Dahlstrom, E., Brooks, C., Grajek, S. & Reeves, J. (2015, August 17). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2015. Educause. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/2015-student-and-faculty-technology-research-studies
Gipple, J. & Lord, E. Understanding mobile learning and best practices. ICS Learning Group. Retrieved from http://www.icslearninggroup.com/whitepapers/understanding-mobile-learning-and-best-practices/
Kim, J. (2016, May 11). 3 theories why we are intrigued by mobile learning. [Web log comment]. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/3-theories-why-we-are-intrigued-mobile-learning
Mobile learning. Jisc. (2015, November 12). [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/mobile-learning
Norris, C. & Solloway, E. (2013, June 5). Is a laptop a mobile computer? And why is that even an important question? [Web log comment]. The Journal. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/articles/2013/06/05/is-a-laptop.aspx
Sergio, F. (2012, May 31). 10 ways that mobile learning will revolutionize education. [Web log comment]. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcodesign.com/1669896/10-ways-that-mobile-learning-will-revolutionize-education
Remington, K. (2015, April 23). Mobile learning’s impact on instructional design. [Web log comment]. Designed to Learn. Retrieved from http://lpd.nau.edu/mobile-learning-impact/
West, D. M. (2013, September). Mobile learning: Transforming education, engaging students, and improving outcomes. Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/BrookingsMobileLearning_Final.pdf
Wong, W. (2012, June 1). How mobile devices are changing higher education. Community College Daily. Retrieved from http://www.ccdaily.com/Pages/Technology/How-mobile-learning-devices-are-changing-the-face-of-higher-ed.aspx