What is ‘mobile learning’? Despite over ten years of research into mobile and wireless technologies and numerous projects, the concept of what comes under its auspices remains problematic. Advocates are keen to point out that ‘m-learning’ is not simply an impoverished version of ‘e-learning’. As Traxler (2007, p.14) puts it, ‘mobile’ is not a qualifying adjective but instead a whole new approach to learning: “just-in-time, just enough, and just-for-me”.
This leaves those interested in mobile learning initiatives in a quandary: how should mobile learning be considered in relation to e-learning and how does it change pedagogies? Winters (2006) identifies four dominant perspectives:
- Technocentric (mobile learning means using mobile devices)
- Relationship to e-learning (mobile learning as an extension of e-learning)
- Augmenting formal education (adding something to face-to-face teaching)
- Learner-centred (mobile learning as learning by a mobile individual)
Traxler’s 2009 article expands on his 2007 paper, explaining that ‘mobile learning’ means more than the conjunction of the phrase’s constituent words:
[Mobile learning] has always implicitly meant mobile e-learning and its history and development have to be understood as both a continuation of conventional e-learning and a reaction to this conventional e-learning and to its perceived inadequacies and limitations.
In a sense, mobile learning is a proxy for wider changes in the educational landscape. Individuals and publications involved in this review have cited everything from social constructivism to cloud computing in their justifications of the importance of mobile learning. Given the fragmented nature of the current mobile learning environment, there are multiple definitions of mobile learning; however, most of these definitions recognise the importance of context, access and conversation a widely-accepted definition being that mobile learning involves:
“the processes (both personal and public) of coming to know through exploration and conversation across multiple contexts amongst people and interactive technologies” (Sharples, M., et al, 2007)
It is not the mobility of the technology that is important in mobile learning, but the mobility and flexibility of the user. The difference is explained well by Sharples, et al. (2007) in the example given of a tourist who enjoys a ‘mobile lifestyle’ and learns about a destination from both non-technological sources (e.g. her friend, a magazine) and technological sources (e.g. a web search, multimedia guides on her mobile device). Focusing on the learner in mobile learning ensures the emphasis is placed upon pedagogy rather than hardware/software.
The Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET) is one of the largest mobile learning initiatives in the world. The definition of mobile learning they use is a broad one as, although influenced by academic research, MoLeNet is focused on innovation and implementation:
[Mobile learning involves the] exploitation of ubiquitous handheld hardware, wireless networking and mobile telephony to facilitate, support enhance and extend the reach of teaching and learning” (www.molenet.org.uk/about)
This is the definition of ‘mobile learning’ that we shall assume for the purposes of this review (unless otherwise stated).
There is no one, homogeneous mobile learning landscape. Whilst this is true of most disciplines, subjects and areas of research, this is particularly true with mobile learning. Due to funding arrangements, which sector is involved, and country-specific contexts, mobile learning means different things to different communities.
In addition, what has been deemed to be important in mobile learning has shifted over the last decade. “Ten years ago mobile learning was about displaying e-learning on a small screen” (Woodill, 2011, p.12). The focus moved from the mobile device to the use of the device in a non-classroom setting in other words, allowing a device to be used on-the-go. Our current understanding of the ‘mobile’ element is that mobile learning applies to the learner and involves not only mobility but connectivity. “Learning is interwoven with every life,” writes Sharples (2007, quoted in Woodill, 2011, p.12), “Mobile learning can both complement and conflict with formal education.”
Ultimately, as Richard Hall states, “We need to ask what is it for? M-learning should be seen within a broader TEL/learning and teaching focus.” Kukulska-Hulme (2010) adds, “Mobile learning is here to stay, even if in a few years time it may no longer be distinguishable from just learning.” John Traxler, however, sounds a note of caution,
[Learning in future will] be learning transformed by the near-universal capacity to generate, discuss, store, transform, broadcast and consume ideas, information, ideas In ways not defined, constrained, imagined by institutions.
In other words, it may be ‘just learning’ but not learning as we currently know it.
Given that institutions need to deal with their own survival and with business models, an emerging metaphor worth watching is that of the ‘new nomadism’ (Economist, 2008). This marks the decline of the ‘road warrior’ and the normalisation of mobile technologies for work and learning:
“Today, we are all nomads. For many people… being mobile is the very essence of their work environments. And, for most of us, commuting to work is an unavoidable fact of life and takes up a significant part of the day” (Woodill, 2011, p.3).
Mobile learning, then, is more than simply the use of a certain class of technologies. Instead, it is a “philosophical approach to the possibility of learning anytime anywhere knowing that you can find information when you need it” (Woodill, 2011, p.184)