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Mobile Learning It's Here But What Is It?

John Traxler,  University of Wolverhampton

Mobile learning has growing visibility and significance in UK Higher Education. Look at what’s happening.

First, there is the growing size and frequency of dedicated conferences, seminars and workshops, both in the United Kingdom and internationally. MLEARN 2002 (Birmingham) was followed by MLEARN 2003 (London). The latter attracted more than 200 delegates from 13 countries. The series continued with MLEARN 2004 (Rome) in July 2004. Another dedicated event, the International Workshop on Mobile and Wireless Technologies in Education (WMTE 2002), sponsored by IEEE, took place in Sweden in August 2002; and the second WMTE (WMTE 2003) was held at National Central University in Taiwan in March 2004. Another notable event was the ICML International Conference on Mobile Learning: New Frontiers and Challenges, 5-7, March 2003, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There are a growing number of national and international workshops such as the June 2002 national workshop in Telford on mobile learning in the computing discipline with 60 delegates from UK HE () and the National Workshop and Tutorial on Handheld Computers in Universities and Colleges at Telford on 11 June 2004 and again on 12 January 2005, each with 95 delegates.

Other European events have included ‘The Social Science of Mobile Learning’, in Budapest, on 29 November 2002, and the Workshop on Ubiquitous and Mobile Computing for Educational Communities: Enriching and Enlarging Community Spaces, Amsterdam, 19 September 2003, part of the International Conference on Communities and Technologies.

Secondly, there have also been a rising number of references to mobile learning at generalist academic conferences. Online Educa Berlin, the world's largest e-learning conference, annually attracts 1200 participants from over 60 countries. It includes mobile learning in its theme on Future Technologies for Learning; the latest one was held in December 2003. Issues of usability and interaction with mobile devices are the focus of events such as the annual International Symposium on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (recently in Italy in September 2003  then in Glasgow in September 2004.

As academic learning becomes more integrated with workplace learning, we are also seeing a growing emphasis on collaborative ways of working/learning, including collaboration via mobile devices. Mobile technology can be used as a bridge between formal and informal learning. A special session on Mobile Collaborative Work was held as part of the 2004 International Symposium on Collaborative Technologies and Systems (CTS'04) in California in January to be available to the publishers by April 2007.A special edition of IEEE Transactions on Education on the theme "Mobile Technology for Education" is expected mid-2005.

Mobile learning can perhaps be defined as ‘any educational provision where the sole or dominant technologies are handheld or palmtop devices’. This definition may mean that mobile learning could include mobile ‘phones, smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and their peripherals, perhaps tablets but not perhaps laptops, desktops in carts etc. And the definition doesn’t really address the growing number of experiments with dedicated devices such as games consoles and iPODs.

So the practice of mobile learning currently exploits both handheld computers and mobile ‘phones. Mobile learning using handheld computers is obviously relatively immature in terms of both its technologies and its pedagogies but is nevertheless developing rapidly. It draws on the theory and practice of pedagogies used in technology supported learning and others used in the classroom and the community, and takes place as mobile devices are transforming notions of space, community and discourse (Katz & Aakhus, 2002), (Brown, 2001) and the investigative ethics and tools (Hewson et al, 2003). 

The term covers the personalised, connected and interactive use of handheld computers in classrooms (Perry, 2003), (O’Malley & Stanton, 2002), in collaborative learning (Pinkwart et al, 2003), in fieldwork (Chen, 2003) and in counselling and guidance (Vuorinen & Sampson, 2003). Mobile devices are supporting corporate training for mobile workers (Gayeski, 2002), (Pasanen, 2003), (Lundin & Magnusson, 2003) and are enhancing medical education (Smordal, 2003), teacher training (Seppala & Alamaki, 2003), music composition (Polishook, 2005), nurse training (Kneebone, 2005) and numerous other disciplines. They are becoming a viable and imaginative component of institutional support and provision (Griswold et al, 2002), (Sariola, 2003), (Hackemer & Peterson, 2005). In many of these cases, they give uniquely ‘situated’ and ‘context-aware’ learning experiences but in other cases they may be reaching remote or inaccessible learners and supporting conventional learning.

There is developmental work that looks at the possibility of extending standards to mobile learning (Shih, 2004), delivering usable content in mobile devices (Kukulska-Hulme, 2002) and supporting online mobile learner communities (Salmon, 2000). There is as yet little research that looks at how the dominant pedagogies of e-learning might translate into the mobile domain (Rudman et al, 2002), (Sharples, 2001), (Luckin et al, 2003) and not a great deal of work that moves beyond using technologies provided by the market-place to looking at ones underpinned by sound pedagogic theory (Rudman et al, 2003), (Lyons, 2003). The specifics of evaluation and ethical aspects of mobile learning are only starting to be considered (Traxler, 2004), (Taylor, 2003).

Mobile learning also covers the delivery and support of learning using mobile ‘phones and in the last five years, mobile ‘phones have steadily assumed a place in further and higher education in the USA, the Far East/Pacific Rim and the UK (Garner et al, 2002), (Briggs & Stone, 2002), (Alsop et al, 2002), supporting distance learners and part-time students. There has also been a growing understanding of mobile ‘phones’ potential for supporting learning (Attewell & Savill-Smith, 2003) and of the evolution of cultural life and social behaviour with the take up of mobile ‘phones in many parts of the world (Plant, 2001).  

There is experience of using mobile phones’ to deliver educational content. One study looks at SMS in learning Italian (Levy & Kennedy, 2005), another at learning literature (Hoppe, 2004). There is also experience in using mobile ‘phones to provide study support (Traxler & Riordan, 2003). This work shows that SMS can be used to provide support, motivation and continuity; alerts and reminders; bite-size content, introductions, tips and revision; study guide structure. Experts in online learning are mapping out how to transfer their support strategies (Salmon, 2000) to SMS and anticipate the gradual transition of any SMS service from operational issues, through tutorial and pastoral support, to fully moderated asynchronous conferences.

However the earlier definition and description of mobile learning is perhaps rather technocentric, not very stable and based around a set of devices. It merely puts mobile learning somewhere on e-learning’s spectrum of portability (figure 1). The uncertainty about whether laptops and Tablets deliver mobile learning (figure 2) illustrates the difficulty with this definition. When we look at learning from the learners’ and users’ perspective, a definition of mobile learning becomes clearer. People use a variety of words to describe the nature of learning when it is mobile.  Many of these characteristics are the core of what separates mobile learning (m-learning) from (‘tethered’) e-learning (figure 3) and we are beginning, just beginning, to see the emergence of a distinct mobile learning community. If we look back at the examples described earlier, we can see these characteristics emerging. So there are core characteristics that define mobile learning. But finally, once we look more closely we see some characteristics that separate and define different types of mobile learning experience (figure 4). Latency is the waiting associated with a particular service (anyone booting up a Windows PC knows latency can be quite an overhead, anyone looking at their wrist-watch knows it needn’t be); mobile learning usability varies from reading and writing SMS text on a matchbox-sized device to something comparable to a desktop PC and mobile learning connectivity can vary from ‘always-on’ to ‘haven’t got any’.

This then is a very brief overview of some of the current activity and thinking in mobile learning – much will happen and much will change in the next couple of years.

John Traxler
University of Wolverhampton
Telford Campus
Telford TF2 9NT
Tel: 01902  321696


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