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What is mobile learning?

2% of OU students (4,000 or more) use tablets when studying.

11% use smartphones (a lot more).

This is one heck of group with whom to collaborate on the development of software to take OU VLE content and support services.

The research indicates that the ‘offering’ is welcomed and that progressive improvements/standardisation is effective.

Many Open University students combine work and study; consequently learning in a number of placed, or on the move, becomes a habit.

Mobile learning is very flexible: it can be the sole mode of delivery, a significant learning activity, or just a small part of a print-based or online course.

What is mobile learning ?

These devices enable students to undertake learning activities that could not be done before, as well as helping them to access materials and connect with others in more convenient ways that are in tune with evolving practices at work and in their lives more generally.

Personal technologies as part of a repertoire of tools assisting them in their learning.

There are clear indications that mobile learning is highly relevant to students in distance learning, who often have to fit their studying around other activities.

Experience shows that not everyone is put off by a small screen, and many people respond well to focusing on a limited amount of information at a time.

It is important to realise that mobile devices are different from desktop computers in several important respects beyond portability. Those differences can be seen as unique advantages.

Mobile devices can support:

  • learning that is more personal and spontaneous
  • learning that makes greater use of a person’s immediate context and surroundings
  • learning that facilitates application of knowledge, skill development and communication in situ

Generally speaking, mobile learning is ‘content-light’.

A mobile device should be regarded more as a tool that helps learners to get most out of learning materials and resources, as well as helping them to tap into potential resources and learning experiences around them.

I liken this to having a tour guide rather than the book

The point of mobile learning is that it focusses on exploring how mobility and device portability leads us to re-think some aspects of teaching and learning.

Key Notions

  • Learning Context
  • Learning Across Contexts

Why is it important ?

Mobile phones have become pervasive. A mobile phone report by Continental Research (Autumn 2008) reveals that around 9 in 10 of UK adults now own at least one mobile device.

Mobile learning can be suitable for all ages and stages of education.

Perceptions and habits can change

Portable devices can help children become more engaged and collaborative, inside and outside classroom.

We anticipate that students will increasingly expect to use mobile devices as part of their studies.

The reasons fall into two main areas: engaging current students and extending opportunities to learn.

Increasing student participation and engagement in situations where they might otherwise be reluctant to contribute – for example in lecture halls.

When the OU first introduced onlince discussion for students, we had to work out how best to use those facilities; we now have flexible opportunities for study that build in some choice in how students will use technology.

Choice of device

For those who do not own a desktop/laptop computer, or don not have consistent, convenient access to one, a personal mobile device can be a very attractice alternative.

Another reason is that the wide geographical distribution of OU students sometimes presents a challenge in terms of teaching and learning, but mobile learning can turn this into an advantage.

  • Citizen Science
  • Volunteers
  • Students can contribute to a course in ways that might have been difficult previously
  • Keeping up their interest in the subject

What is it good for? 07/08

A distance learner’s mobile device can be used as a way to:

  • carry around some study materials
  • access new or additional content
  • build up a series of personal notes
  • help make or maintain connections between different contexts
  • organise personal learning schedules
  • give feedback, opinions or answers
  • get quick information or suport
  • communicate with other learners or tutors

Even for collaboration in face-to-face meetings, as well as remotely.

Mobile learning has been used very effectively for simulations, where the movements and geographical distribution of mobile devices have been used to simulate the spread of infections and diseases.

How will you design for mobile learning?

You have to start by considering where and why people choose to learn, in particular their physical locations, typical movements and motivations for learning.

‘Testing to destruction’ is a concept often used in advertising to demonstrate the superior quality of a product, from supergluing a man to a ceiling or standing a Mini on top of four ‘Really Useful’ boxes. Perhaps asking questions about how you exploit a mobile device for learning is the equivalent of testing course content and learning methodology to destruction?

i.e. if it’ll work on a smarphone as you yacht around the globe, it’ll cope with the daily commute, oil rig or International Space Station.


Consider the following broad questions:

  1. How is mobile learning already used in our discipline (and beyond) and why is it being adopted?
  2. What are our own beliefs, hopes and fears concerning mobile learning in distance education?
  3. Do students’ physical locations and movements have a bearing on what we teach in our subject, how we teach it and how students go about their learning?
  4. In what ways will mobile learning increase or support student motivation during their studies? Can learning activities that take advantage of a learner’s location become a positive force in terms of motivation and student retention?
  5. What implications are there for students with disabilities? How could these be investigated further?
  6. What implications are there for the course team, for the programme team, faculty and Associate Lecturers? Depending on what is being proposed, implications could include porfessional development, hands-on experience, technical and pedagogical support capability, software development and testing and/or specialist support fo evaluation.

Designing for mobile learning

Designing for mobile learning should follow established principles of good pedagogical design, or ‘learning design’, in terms of first specifying objectives, outcomes, resources and interactions; then engaging in piloting or developmental testing where possible; followed finally by evaluation and fine-tuning.

Mobile devices are often used in the midst of, and in support of, some kind of ‘action’.

How will you evaluate it?

A synthesis of usability issues across a range of mobile learning projects (Kukulska-Hulme, 2007) found that issues reported in the research literature, in relation to what is required in the activity of learning, could be summarised under four main headings:

  • the physical attributes of mobile devices
  • content and software applications
  • network speed and reliability
  • the physical environments of use

The key issues relate to six aspects of mobile learning:

  • The learners
  • Other people
  • Tasks engage in
  • Device being used
  • Connectivity/networks used
  • Locations of use

In addition, there is a cluster of questions to be asked about the longer term requirements and outcomes of mobile learning


In general, materials designed for print or online delivery are not likely to be ideal for viewing or interacting with on mobile devices.


Biodiversity Observatory Project

Enabling Remote Activity

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