Published on 2012/07/30

Making Mobile Learning a Reality

Proving the value of fully developing mobile virtual learning environments will require better delivery and assessment frameworks that show off the strengths of the devices, rather than their limitations. Image by 3desc.

Given the transforming effect that Mobile Technologies have come to play in our daily lives, it does become very tempting to suggest that education itself, and particularly higher education, can be equally transformed. This is an interesting and justifiable proposition, but one that requires contextualizing in terms of our current experience, technologies and ultimately expectations.

To begin then, what do we understand by the term Mobile Learning? Well certainly it will depend upon the availability enabling Mobile Device Technologies such as laptops, tablets, smartphones and Mp3 players, however these in themselves do not define Mobile Learning. We must also consider the actual learner themselves. According to Mike Sharples [1] a respected authority in the field, Mobile Learning is: “the processes (both personal and public) of coming to know through exploration and conversation across multiple contexts amongst people and interactive technologies”

From this quote it really is the word context that differentiates mobile from deskbound. An equally evocative definition of Mobile Learning emerged from the MoLNET [2] programme and seems to add further clarity to our appreciation of this question.

“Exploitation of ubiquitous handheld hardware, wireless networking and mobile telephony to facilitate, support, enhance and extend the reach of teaching and learning.”

Ultimately we must identify the potential benefits of Mobile Apps to higher education. In answer to that question a short thirteen-point questionnaire produced by JISC [3] called “Potential benefits of mobile and wireless learning”, has been created to encourage institutions to reflect upon and to consider just this point. Indeed we can certainly reflect, because from our earlier mobile project experiences of simply attempting to transfer eLearning resources and strategies onto the mobile devices of the day, very often achieved little more than to expose platform limitation rather than exploit real benefit [4].

From our earlier experiences though, both Mobile Technology and equally important contracts have improved enormously, and to such an extent that Morgan-Stanley reported in its 2010 Internet Report that mobile will be bigger than desktop Internet within five years. If the projection is correct then we are witnessing a clear preference for Mobile over Desktop Internet access, a prediction supported by findings from the iPass Mobile Workforce Report [5]. What emerges is clear evidence of the way in which mobile devices have become part of our life style choices.

It is these two factors that I feel will combine to firmly place Mobile Devices as an increasingly natural medium of choice when we consider options for learning. Evidence would seem to be supported by Noel-Levitz and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions [6], who said “52 percent of prospective college students viewed a school’s website on a mobile device in 2011—twice as many as the prior year. What’s more, 48 percent of those students claimed the experience enhanced their perceptions of the school.”

Furthermore a 2012 report from Pew Internet & American Life Project Cell Internet Use 2012 in answer to the question “Main reasons for going online mostly using cell phone” some 64% stated the reasons were Convenience/Availability (“is more convenient”, “is always with me”, “speed/faster”) [7].

So where then will Mobile Apps come to play a part that improves upon existing desktop-based learning? According to the report “Cross-platform Mobile App Development” from Tribal [8], the niche waiting to be filled would seem to center on:

  • MVLE (Mobile Virtual Learning Environment) learning;
  • Content Delivery;
  • Records of achievement;
  • Just-in-time training;
  • Social learning;
  • Enhanced reality;
  • Learning support;
  • Experience-based learning;
  • Game-based learning.

In my own full-time courses, students are only required to attend classes for two and a half days a week. This means they have four and half days out of class. While I am not suggesting that for most of the time they are out of learning mode (after all they have our virtual learning environment and Learning Resource Center facilities at their disposal), it is more to the point that when learning is taking place it is being constrained by time and location. So it would seem that one of the clear advantages for mobile learning will be in its ability to serve a more compulsively social model in a situated learning space.

In other words collaborative learning can take place at locations and situations of direct interest and relevance to the subject area, radically different from our more didactic approach.

For all things of course there is a cost. From experience we know that simply porting existing materials has proven not to be an option. But it is here that we can begin to refine the question; should we develop mobile apps or invest in a mobile website?

This question has already been posed by the web report from “Is Developing a Mobile App Worth the Cost?” [9]. Here, it is suggested that “you can reach nearly five times as many people per dollar invested with a mobile website rather than a native mobile app”. While the report is careful to establish that there is in fact no such thing as a typical mobile app, a general working figure circa 2012 would give us $30,000 ($20,000 at July 2012 rates) for a single app. Of course, what we are looking at here are costs associated for professional developers. An alternative would be for academics to see this as a new area for professional upskilling and begin developing their own apps, using facilities such as AppMakr for the iPhone and FreeAppMaker for the Android, the cost now becomes one of time.

In reality however, in the absence of reliable long term cross-cohort studies, convincing supportive evidence for enhancements through mLearning (mobile-learning) remains elusively patchy. From my own experience—treating mLearning as a natural subset of eLearning—and given that we can overcome issues of development cost, instructional design and integration to existing systems such as VLEs will only succeed if mLearning can be realised through the adoption of a suitable delivery and assessment framework.

I feel certain that other professionals find themselves mindful of the attention students give to social networking and wonder if we will come to realise a similar commitment to mLearning? The answer I find is yes, and the solution is in fact not particularly surprising; we simply need to reward social learning. And therein lies what I strongly suspect will be a single point of success or failure, not technological or academic, but more the institutional inertia of the funding and awarding agencies.



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

[2] Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET)

[3] Potential benefits of mobile and wireless learning

[4] Making mobile learning work: case studies of practice

[5] Mobile Workforce Report

[6] Noel-Levitz. The 2012 Mobile Exptectations Report.

[7] Pew Internet Research center

[8] Cross-platform Mobile App Development

[9] Is Developing a Mobile App Worth the Cost?

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