Used effectively, mobile devices can help change and refocus pedagogies. Unlike interactive whiteboards, which perpetuate a ‘stand-and-deliver’, transmission model of education, the affordances of even commonplace mobile devices allow for a transformation in learning activities.
This ‘pedagogic shift’ has a decidedly social element. Whilst learning remains an individual activity, the context in which it happens is, and always has been, based around ‘conversations’, loosely defined. Indeed, “the processes of coming to know through conversations across multiple contexts amongst people and personal interactive technologies” is another definition of mobile learning (Sharples, 2005 quoted by Wingkvist Ericsson, 2010, p.185)
The idea that learning is created through interaction is the central tenet of a learning theory called ‘Constructivism’, based on the work of Jean Piaget. Some, such as Seymour Papert, took this further into ‘Constructionism’ which stresses the importance experiential learning and of creating learning objects.
More recently, Connectivism, “a learning theory for the digital age” has been developed by its two main proponents, George Siemens and Stephen Downes . Using the metaphor of a network, Connectivist theory states that, “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore… learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Downes, 2007). Constructivism, Constructionism and Connectivism have important consequences for mobile learning as they reveal that, not only is our learning augmented by interactions with other people, but that it is, in fact, predicated upon them.
Another metaphor for learning is that of situated learning and the ‘cognitive apprenticeship’. Rendered easier by mobile devices, “the idea of cognitive apprenticeship [is] where teachers (the experts) work alongside students (the apprentices) to create situations where the students can begin to work on problems even before they fully understand them.” (Naismith et al., 2004 quoted in Woodill, 2011, p.66). In the field of vocational and work-based learning particularly, ‘cognitive apprentices’ can have their contexts transformed by the use of mobile devices for learning. The idea of a ‘mobilography’, where reflection is prompted by the earlier capturing of images or videos on a mobile device, is an emerging example of at least the modification of learning, as defined by Puentedura’s SAMR model:
The above model is gaining traction, especially by more pragmatically-informed mobile learning projects, as a holistic method of combining technology, content and pedagogy.
Combining these approaches, it becomes clear that educational institutions need to shift their attention from being focused solely on the individual learner towards the wider ecosystem in which learning takes place. As Woodill (2011, p.32) puts it, “a mobile learning ‘ecosystem’ [is] made up of people embedded in a particular cultural context using mobile technologies on a network to access or store information as part of a learning experience.”
Unfortunately, much of the small-scale, experimental work being carried out by practitioners in Higher Education is hampered by a combination of institutional caution, elements of insouciance, and taking for granted the results of (often) transformational, innovative projects.
In schools and Further Education, however, a different picture emerges. Becta have commissioned research into the next generation of university students, finding that they have not been learning in environments where ICT is seen as important:
Source: Becta (2009, p.28)
As the researchers note:
“School is increasingly the place where the next generation meets face to face. They then go home and text, phone or go online to contact their social group.” (Becta, 2009, p.29)
Another Becta report found the role of the teacher to be ‘critical’ in the appropriate and transformational use of student-owned devices for learning. Where teachers can use devices effectively, so young people also use them more effectively (Becta, 2010, p.1). The two main benefits in a school-based context were seen to be “increased motivation and engagement” and “improved learning continuity”, the latter due to devices being used both at home and at school, meaning “learners take advantage of new opportunities for learning outside the classroom” with “increased family involvement” Becta (2010, p.2).
Motivating learners is also a key theme in reports from MoLeNET, an LSN-funded programme, providing “technical and pedagogic advice and support, materials development, continuing professional development, mentoring, facilitation of peer-to-peer support, networking and resource sharing, research and evaluation” (www.molenet.org.uk). Running over three years, MoLeNET has found mobile learning to encourage “a safe, private and non-judgemental environment for learners to try out ideas and make mistakes in order to progress” MoLeNET (2010a, p.4). Truro College, in particular, found that a mobile learning initiative engaged learners to the extent that not one student dropped out of a course with a traditionally high turnover rate (MoLeNET, 2010a, p.5)
This is not to say, however, that the mobile learning has been a panacea for the ills of chalk-and-talk. As a representative from Stoke on Trent College pointed out:
“Relationships between tutors, learners and IT staff need to be further developed so that productive debates can be had over issues such as security, curriculum planning and delivery, resource development, establishing authenticity of work and fitness for purpose of IT infrastructure.” (MoLeNET, 2010a, p.8)
This has been echoed by many institutions, including Wirral Metropolitan College who found:
“The main barrier to sustaining mobile teaching and learning [to be] the amount of time involved in training and supporting staff and for teachers themselves to develop their delivery to include effective mobile learning.” (MoLeNET, 2010a, p.8)
There is a wealth of research outputs and publications on the MoLeNET website (www.molenet.org.uk/pubs) to inform future mobile learning initiatives. Perhaps the key findings were summed up in another MoLeNET report (2010b:3) which found that over and above increased flexibility and learner retention, mobile learning initiatives led to improvements surrounding:
- Efficiency of assessment
- Standard of evidence
- Management of portfolios
- Personalisation of assessment processes
- Access to assessors and teachers
Those wishing to replicate the success of MoLeNET-funded initiatives may wish to explore a new ‘ITQ for Mobile Learning’ qualification developed by LSN in collaboration with City Guilds (http://itq.e-skills.com/Framework/ITQ-Mobile). These Level 2 and 3 qualifications are available for both staff and students and may serve as a solid, recognised basis on which to base initiatives and related staff training.
Finally, mobile learning is already with us. Whilst not all formal learning providers have launched initiatives or have started embedding mobile learning into their curricula, many are experiementing. The Horizon Report 2010 (http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2010) backs this up, with ‘Mobile Computing’ being in the ‘One year or less’ section of their ‘Key Trends’. Cloud-based, location-independent, collaborative work and learning is on the rise.