Mobile Learning for Education
This document introduces the subject of mobile learning for education purposes. It examines what impact mobile devices have had on teaching and learning practices and goes on to look at the opportunities presented by the use of digital media on mobile devices.
Mobile learning is considered to be the ability to use mobile devices to support teaching and learning. It is the ‘mobile' aspect of mobile learning that makes it stand apart from other types of learning, specifically designing learning experiences that exploit the opportunities that ‘mobility' can offer us.
This is because mobile devices have features and functionality for supporting learners. For example, podcasts of lectures can be made available for downloading. Learners are to expected to engage with these learning resources whilst away from the traditional learning spaces.
Although some will say that physical books count as mobile devices too, in this advice document we are concerned with electronic mobile devices.
There is a wide range of mobile devices on the market including laptops, PDAs, and ebook readers. However, we will be looking at the most popular mobile device - the mobile phone. Mass proliferation of mobile phones and the features and functionality they offer make the device stand out as an area ripe for exploration. Mobile phones are multi-function devices which are of interest due to their very nature of offering ‘mobility', but also for their ability to create and consume digital media.
Furthermore its convergence with the internet offers further potential opportunities to support teaching and learning.
What makes mobile learning exciting is that despite many of the individual features being around for years, it is the bringing together of the features, functionality and ability to connect to the internet that means we have now passed the tipping point regarding learner adoption: thus creating and using digital media can be seriously looked at with these devices.
The mobile user experience is different from the desktop computer experience and the face-to-face experience, however mobile learning can be used to support both as well as standing alone.
"If we treat the mobile web as its own environment rich with possibilities, rather than a crippled extension of the desktop experience with restrictive limitations, we begin to understand how to embrace and even exploit those possibilities."
Cameron Moll, 2005
Above, Cameron Moll points out that we are now at a point where we must consider the mobile experience in its own right - the learning objectives remain the same - to provide a rich teaching and learning experience - but that the context of mobile differs from that of designing for a desktop computer experience and that of a face-to-face experience.
Teaching using mobile devices uniquely offers us newfound mobility, and functionality opportunities that are not possible with desktop computers. These opportunities should at a minimum intrigue us and will hopefully lead to many new and exciting uses of mobile devices that we are able to take advantage of.
It is now worth reminding ourselves of what makes up a typical mobile phone and then look at some of the emerging trends:
Current capabilities and applications
Basic mobile phone features include:
- Making and receiving calls
- Sending and receiving text messages
- Basic office tools e.g. calculator
Advanced* mobile phone features include:
- Camera capable of taking stills and more commonly now video
- (e-book readers, games)
- Recording audio
- GPS / location aware
- Web browser to connect to the internet
* The term smartphone
It is quite common to hear the term ‘smartphone' which is meant to signify that it has many features that traditional mobile phones do not. However in the last few years this gap has blurred as nearly all new phones would fit in this 'smartphone' label so we will just be using the term ‘mobile phone' as we are looking at current and emerging mobile phones.
By now, it should be clear that with the wide range of mobile phone functionality, there will be many potential uses for mobile devices in education, including the creation and delivery of content. Not directly related to the teaching itself, there are also potential secondary benefits, such as the possibilities for making the teaching environment (smart buildings) more aware of learners based on their mobile phone acting as a beacon or identifier and then both parties having the ability to respond or act on pre-defined inputs and outputs. For example the Mobile Campus Assistant Project gives learners information about PC availability and bus departure timetables in nearby campus buildings.
Opportunities and challenges
We will focus on the use of mobile devices and digital media opportunities but there are many other possibilities beyond the scope of this document.
There are a wide range of mobile devices, it is estimated that there are around 350-400 different mobile devices to cater for. So where do we start? There are a small number of key players emerging, each with their own operating systems and hardware such as Microsoft, Apple, Google Android and RIM. It would make sense to start by accommodating whichever are the most commonly used in your institution, and also to use any common standards where possible to reach as many devices as possible.
Creating and publishing multimedia
Most new mobile phone devices have the ability to create digital media, typically still images and video with audio. This provides the opportunity for both teaching staff and learners to produce multimedia that may have been expensive in the past and involved institution-only devices. Now, using learner devices that have common features for creating images, audio and video, we can design activities that support these media such as evidence based learning activities. Other examples include creating media that can then be used for discussion.
Further opportunities include using the context-specific opportunities of a mobile device to devise new teaching and learning activity that takes advantage of mobility, and features such as GPS for location-based activity. JISC is actively exploring opportunities for mobile learning and has already funded projects that experiment with many aspects unique to mobile learning.
With the increase in usefulness of a mobile device, its use will also increase and this will dramatically reduce battery life.
A huge range of mobile phone devices may make support difficult, for example interoperability issues to do with video file formats will plague us until the key players agree on which standards to use. But even if they do not agree, there are already methods to allow the device to choose from a range of formats to help alleviate problems.
The cost of devices, service charges and range of features will always result in learners owning a wide range of devices. This will make conducting ‘feature specific' activities difficult for all (GPS related activity for example.) However having an alternative suitable activity will mitigate much of this as will institutional support of the infrastructure including wireless internet availability.
Consuming digital media
Many mobile phone devices are able to view and/or download digital media such as audio and video. Once again this provides us with an opportunity for teaching activity including contextualised fieldwork opportunities. For example, listening to audio based activities that incorporate the listener's location are already being used in multiple disciplines.
The use of QR codes, which work much like a barcode, can send the learner to relevant media/web services such as the printed session slides having a QR code that send the learner to the download location online.
The range of mobile devices means that anything created for multiple devices will have some interoperability issues that need to be considered, which may mean producing alternatives.
Supporting the mobile user
Even if you do not intend on designing mobile specific activities, where possible you can begin to make your current resources mobile device friendly. For example it may be that your video uses a format that works for both desktop computers and mobile devices. It is also important to consider the platform from which the learners will interact with publishing and consuming resources. In his book mobile web design, 2007 (p31) Cameron Moll suggests that there are four levels of support for the mobile user covering the 4 delivery methods:
- Doing nothing
- Letting the mobile learner figure it out
- Providing full support
- Designing the user experience for the mobile context.
Whichever you choose, the very fact that you are now aware of the mobile experience is pivotal for future resources and media that you may produce.
One of the main problems regarding mobile was that until recently the institution had to provide the hardware. However now we are at the stage that we can use the learner's own devices - hopefully meaning fewer cupboards with unused devices! Additionally, mobile devices can often mean that our teaching and learning materials can be re-purposed and/or usefulness extended which can only be a good thing.
We are at a point where for at least a small percentage of our teaching and learning we can begin to incorporate part of the mobile learning experience into our course design. Initially this may simply mean that we acknowledge that some learners will interact with our course using mobile devices and impact how we choose to disseminate information.
We can, fairly safely, expect that many learners are already checking course email and accessing your resources such as podcasts using a mobile device. It won't be long until we are able to fully integrate parts of our courses with the mobile experience. A recent study by Edinburgh University, mobile survey 2010 highlights that 50% of learners have contract phones with unlimited internet connectivity. As more of these studies are released we can take stock of what opportunities we can reasonably pursue.
The use of mobile devices is here to stay and we can progressively accommodate this new platform to enhance our teaching and learning. Finally, the use of personal devices for both teaching staff and learners has blurred the line between formal and informal learning. The implications of which we'll know more about in the near future.
JISC Mobile learning infoKit [Accessed 12 September 2011]
JISC Mobile and wireless technologies review [Accessed 10 May 2011]
Making mobile learning work: case studies of practice [Accessed 10 May 2011]
Web futures team, 2009. Mobile campus assistant. Available at:
http://mobilecampus.ilrt.bris.ac.uk/ [Accessed: 21 July 2010].
JISC TechDis, 2006. GoMobile! Available at:
http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/UpwardlyMobile/ [Accessed: 10 May 2011]
Clay, J, 2009. The future of learning is mobile - presentation
http://www.slideshare.net/jamesclay/the-future-of-learning-is-mobile [Accessed: 21 July 2010]
JISC, 2010. JISC Mobile learning. Available at:
http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/topics/mobilelearning.aspx [Accessed: 21 July 2010]
Designing Mobile Interfaces Presentation [Accessed: 21 July 2010]
Moll, 2005. Mobile learning - a handbook for educators and trainers, Routledge,
BBC online, 2010. Our mobile future. Available at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2010/02/bbc_online_our_mobile_future.html [Accessed: 21 July 2010]