Trends come and go in all disciplines and mobile learning research is no different. Recent work has talked of learning ‘in’ and ‘across’ contexts with these contexts being ‘learner-generated’ (Cochrane, 2010) and intentional ‘Communities of Practice’ models being adopted.
The focus of current research is upon the learner rather than the device, with Norbert Pachler, for example, talking of the importance of ‘appropriation’ as a way of linking curricular practices with the development of a learner (Pachler, Bachmair Cook, 2010). This, as Jon Trinder explains, is more than simply ‘ownership’. It is about the agency of the user rather than the pre-given world of cultural products (Nobert Pachler). Appropriation in the context of mobile learning is the purposeful adoption and assimilation of a device by a learner. When a student learning using an mobile device they have appropriated is compared to a non-mobile learner, says Vavoula (2005), there are,
“indications that mobile learning is more interactive, involves more ‘bustle’, more contact, communication and collaboration with people” (cited by Kukulska-Hulme Pettit, 2010, p.138)
One of the holy grails for mobile learning researchers is to come up with models and categorisations that enable widespread acceptance and uptake of mobile learning; models that can be contextualised but serve as an accepted framework. These range from the very general for example, “‘permanently online’, ‘frequently online’ and offline’” (Shrestha, et al, 2010, p.341), conceiving of the mobile phone as a ‘terminal’ (Ford Leinonen, 2010, p.196-7), or the detailed:
(click to enlarge)
Source: Koole, M.L. (2010, p.27)
One of the most promising models recently developed is that of Wingkvist Ericsson (2010) who propose a four-stage model. Their studies of small-scale trials suggests that their framework “could be offered to funding agencies to serve as an aid to help decide what to fund and when to evaluate”. It could, they suggest, “serve as an indicator as to when the evaluation of a funded mobile learning initiative should take place” and “help to decide which initiatives to continue to fund” (p.190-1).
The four stages outlined by Wingkvist Ericsson are:
- Idea (establish soundness of idea, establish technical platform)
- Trial (test the idea, elaborate the learning)
- Project (large-scale testing, formalise resources and outcomes)
- Release (hand over control, remove reliance on initiators)
At the same time as providing a framework within which mobile learning initiatives can be organised, the focus very clearly moves from the technology, to learning, to social elements and only finally to whole-organisation considerations. Adopting a model similar to this could provide a sustainable model to answer John Traxler’s earlier ‘bubbling of research activity’ criticism.
In addition, individuals and institutions need to be able to learn from the mistakes of others. FAILFaire (http://failfaire.org) is a method of sharing what failed in mobile-related projects, organised by MobileActive.org. Their website provides details of how to organise events and discussion where people can talk frankly about initiatives that did not scale, were not sustainable, could not get around bureaucratic hoops, or faced unanticipated barriers. Sharing of practice and experiences can protect against a celebratory technological determinism.
The danger is that useful predictions within future-gazing documents such as the Horizon Report (http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2010) result in a reification of trends and guesses and lead to a conservatism based on evolution, not revolution. We tend to judge, as Laurillard (2007) points out, technologies by our current standards, norms and expectations. Laurillard suggests a ‘conversational framework’ to define the “minimal requirements for supporting learning in formal education” (2007, p.161) in a way that takes into account learner motivation and agency. Pachler, Bachmair Cook, however, question Laurillard’s framework, as “whilst [being] of merit, the dominant frame, Activity Theory (AT), is characterised by a number of features and weaknesses, which make it unsuitable for our purposes” (2010, p.155).
The difference between learning via mobile devices and the mobility of the learner is brought out in the following quotation from John Dewey in a time when mobile phones were only dreamed of:
“A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive.” (Dewey, 1916:88, quoted in Sharples, Taylor Vavoula, 2007, p.1)
One of the major affordances of mobile devices is that they allow for much greater (and much quicker) access to these ‘channels for the distribution of change’. Hence, rapid evolution in cultural, pedagogical and societal norms can feel like a revolution. A rapid “shift in philosophical, theoretical and professional understanding” has been identified by Herrington Herrington, who present the following table synthesising their findings (2007, p.2)
At at time when a ‘canon’ of knowledge to teach young people is almost impossible to define, and when the boundaries of subjects are increasingly blurred, mobile learning allows for collaboration, community and criticality in a way never before possible (Vavoula, et al., 2007).
Jones Issroff (2007) group the advantages of mobile learning under the headings ‘technology appropriation’ and ‘coping strategies’. They add that “control over learners’ goals, ownership, fun, communication, learning-in-context and continuity between contexts” are the motivational factors that help fuse the informal and formal in mobile learning. A sense of ‘ownership’ over mobile devices, they argue can help learners develop a greater sense of ownership over their own learning (2007, p.248).
This ownership, as Traxler points out, is a result of mobile devices being part of the ‘real life’ of the learner:
“Students no longer need to engage with information and discussion at the expense of real life but can do so as part of real life as they move about the world, using their own devices to connect them to people and ideas, ideas and information of their own choosing, perhaps using their own devices to generate and produce content and conversation as well as store and consume them.” (Traxler, 2009, p.70)
The wider mobility of society has led to ‘approx-meetings’ and ‘socially negotiated time’ (2009:73) which, although mobile devices have not been designed specifically for educational purposes, has a knock-on effect upon formal education. This disruptive effect has both a strong and a weak element, argues Traxler. The ‘weak’ element of the disruption due to mobile devices in formal education is at the level of nuisance such as ‘cheating’ during examinations, inappropriate photographs, devices beeping during class time. The ‘strong’ element of disruption, on the other hand, “challenge[s] the authority of the curriculum and the institutions of formal learning” (2009, p.77); students can effectively become gatekeepers and organisers of learning for other students in a way institutions have only been able to do previously. Whilst institutions struggle to co-ordinate people, time and spaces, mobile devices allow learners to self-organise via ‘affinity spaces’ that allow for “absent presence” and “simultaneity of space” rather than place (Traxler, 2008, p.127).
At a time when a learner can organise any other element of their life independently of their location or context, many institutions insist on the Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) as the only method by which students can access learning resources and course-related information. Whilst providers such as Blackboard have a mobile offering (http://blackboard.com/Mobile/Overview.aspx) many VLEs are difficult or, indeed, inaccessible, via mobile device.
An example of a system featuring a VLE as a scaffold on which to use a whole host of related technologies, comes in Cochrane (2010, p.137). Communication is key, with mobile devices playing a central role:
Such a system, implemented at Unitec, Auckland (New Zealand) demonstrates that a ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ approach can empower learners to take control of their learning rather than be passive users of predefined content and structures. Key to the initiatives outlined in Cochrane’s paper is that spaces are created by learners, with peers and mentors invited in afterwards. This shifts the locus of control and supports the shift from instructivist to constructivist philosophy and pedagogy outlined in Herrington Herrington’s earlier table.
Much of the various contexts for, and elements of, mobile learning are collated in the London Mobile Learning Group’s (www.londonmobilelearning.net) freely-accessible literature database. Given the rather fragmented and diverse environment in which mobile learning research takes place, this is a valuable resource. The ‘Key Readings’ section is of particular use to those new to the field.
To conclude, the research context for mobile learning is varied and, as many proponents argue, depends itself on the context within which individuals and institutions operate. One clear message is that mobile learning is about much more than simply learning via mobile devices, with an emerging picture of mobile learning initiatives as being ‘trojan horses’ for wider changes within the education sector.