HEA Starter Tools


What is mLearning?
Mobile learning or mLearning is the use of mobile devices to enhance personal learning across multiple contexts. 

Where did mLearning come from?
The emergent field of mLearning, which has its roots in online learning, has been enabled by the intersection of technological advancement and learner-centred pedagogy (Crompton 2013). Mobile technologies were conceived in the 1960s and 70s, with the first experiments using head mounted devices (1968), the development of the first mobile phone (1973) and the conceptual articulation of handheld electronic books (The Dynabook in 1972). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, improved functionality and reductions in the size and cost of devices led to a sharp rise in their use and by the mid-2000s, with the advent of web 2.0 technologies and the launch of a diversity of powerful products, there was exponential growth (iPhone 2007, Android operating systems 2008, iPad 2010, Google Glass 2013, Apple Watch 2015).

These advances in technology - combined with the evolution of learner-centred theory (Discovery Learning and Experiential Learning in the 1970s; Constructivist Learning and Constructionist Learning in the 1980s; Problem Based Learning and Socio-Constructivist Learning in the 1990s) and wider societal changes (changing patterns of discourse and knowledge construction) - have created the conditions for new models of education (Crompton 2013). Within this context, mLearning can provide HEIs with a gateway towards innovative practice which acknowledges the need for flexibility, the importance of blending informal and formal education, robust digital strategies (Digital literacies; BYOD) and creative learning spaces.

How does mLearning work?
Over the past 20 years mLearning has largely been approached in three ways:

  1. As a technological experience in which devices and their capabilities are the focus of the learning. mLearning is enabled by a range of technologies including smartphones, tablets and wearable devices (e.g. Google Glass and smart watches). These devices have a diverse functionality (multimedia options, social networking communication and geo-location GPS capabilities) and learners can connect to virtual learning environments, personal learning networks, learning conversations, open educational resources and a diversity of apps (e.g. augmented reality apps).
  2. As an opportunity to learn outside of the classroom in which learning becomes a powerful contextual experience. Liberated from a desk, students can enrich their learning in new environments and with a powerful relevancy to the subject at hand.
  3. As an approach which empowers the learner to be mobile with the potential for greater flexibility (access to learning anytime and anywhere) and self-directed learning experiences.

(adapted from Cochrane 2013; Sharples et al 2007; Traxler 2011)

Where is mLearning currently being used and how?
Approaches to mLearning have varied in scale and type. Whilst some institutions have explored content delivery (Open University mobile VLE) and SMS text messaging (University of Aberdeen’s Flood Disaster Simulation), others have experimented with augmented reality (e.g. University of Manchester SCARLET project).

One of the largest mLearning projects to date is the MoLeNET project, which was funded by the Learning and Skills Council and involved 147 Further Education college, 37 schools, 40,000 learners and 7,000 teachers across the UK. MoLeNET supported 104 projects, which ranged from the introduction of wireless infrastructure and the testing of mobile devices for accessing course content. Whilst the project evaluation suggested measurable success (improvements in retention c.8% and achievement c.9-13%), critics have argued that the focus on technology and content delivery was a “step backwards” in the development of innovative mLearning approaches (Cochrane 2013).

It is within informal learning spaces that mLearning is at its most creative. Learners participate in mobile-enabled MOOCs, engage with their personal learning networks and collaborate to solve problems. In 2012 MobiMOOC (designed and led by Ignatia de Ward) explored mLearning design and development and considered the MOOC format as a pedagogical approach for mLearning. The MOOC resulted in a number of mLearning collaborations and demonstrated the potential for informal learning spaces to influence formal design processes. Despite efforts like MobiMOOC, the gap between flexible informal approaches and the mLearning projects that arise within HEIs (driven by technological considerations and content delivery) are glaring and, to date, there is little work underway to bridge this divide.

What are the potential benefits of mLearning?
mLearning broadens the opportunities available to teachers in designing learning and enriches the student experience. Benefits include:

  1. Contingent learning, in which teachers and learners can respond and adapt to their environment (e.g. fieldwork might progress differently when mobile applications are used to process data in real-time).
  2. Situated learning where learning occurs within a context relevant to the subject at hand (e.g. augmented reality might be used to support learning in museums).
  3. Authentic learning in which activity is immediately related to the learning at hand (e.g. where professional working, such as nursing, is enhanced by mobile access to colleagues, data and other resources).

(Traxler 2011)

In addition, mobility provides a flexibility that promotes mobile thinking in which learners think across contexts and make creative connections - a key 21st century skill.

How do I get started with mLearning?
Yeonjeong Park’s pedagogical framework for mobile learning is a good place to start. The model extends transactional distance theory (the cognitive space between learners) by adding the social dimension (a measure of interaction) present in learning. It therefore enables a mapping exercise in which designers can consider how mobile learning might work in their context (Park 2011).

See: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/791/1699

Another useful resource is the International Association for Mobile Learning which lists mLearning projects from across the globe and is a good place to get a feel for the current mLearning landscape.

What should I expect if I try this approach?
Agile approaches focussed on pedagogy are the key to sustainable and impactful mLearning. Projects that have designed their own software (and sometimes hardware) have quickly been outpaced by rapid advances in technology and find that their efforts have a limited lifespan. In addition, the quality of mLearning research is patchy and a lack of rigorous evaluation, longitudinal data and transferable design frameworks is impeding progress in the field (Cochrane 2013). mLearning is best implemented as part of a comprehensive digital strategy which incorporates blended learning, digital literacies, and BYOD in addition to a consideration of blending informal and formal learning spaces.

Where can I learn more about mLearning
JISC has produced a practical guide to mobile learning which supports practitioners who intend to design and implement a mobile learning project. See: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/mobile-learning

Listen to, and join the mLearning conversation by following these hashtags on Twitter:

  • @Quinnovator
  • #mobilelearning
  • #mLearning

What HEA resources should I take a look at?
Traxler and Wishart (2011) Making mobile learning work: case studies of practice. York: The Higher Education Academy 

The HEAtoZ glossary contains an overview and further links.

Further examples can be found using “mLearning” as a combined search term in the Knowledge HUB.

How else can the HEA support my professional development?
The HEA provides support for disciplines and common themes where mLearning is involved. You may find these under Employability, Assessment, Flexible learning etc.

Investigate the Frameworks for developing your practices, policies, processes and partnerships. See https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/frameworks-toolkits/frameworks

Attend an appropriate HEA event to share your mLearning teaching experiences with others.

The UKPSF offers opportunities to capture your teaching innovations within your practice at many levels from Fellowship to Principal Fellowship. 

Cochrane, T. (2013) A Summary and Critique of M-Learning Research and Practice. In Berge, Z L. and Muilenburg, L Y. (eds) Handbook of Mobile Learning, London: Routledge

Crompton, H. (2013) A Historical Overview of M-Learning: Towards learner-centred education. In Berge, Z L. and Muilenburg, L Y. (eds) Handbook of Mobile Learning,  London: Routledge

Hwang, G-J and Tsai, C-C, (2011) Research trends in mobile and ubiquitous learning: a review of publications in selected journals from 2001 to 2010 British Journal of Educational Technology. 42 pE65-E70

Park, Y  (2011) A Pedagogical Framework for Mobile Learning: Categorizing Educational Applications of Mobile Technologies into Four Types. [Online] Available at: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/791/1699 [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

Sharples, M., et al,. (2007) Mobile Learning: Small devices, Big issues (in Sharples, M., et al. (eds.) Technology-Enhanced Learning, 2009, Part IV)

Traxler, J and Wishart, J. (eds.) Making Mobile Learning Work: Case studies of practice [Online] Available at: http://www.cumbria.ac.uk/Public/Education/Documents/Research/ESCalateDocuments/MakingMobileLearningWork.pdf [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

@iamlearn #mobilelearning #mLearning