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Mobile learning #2: The issues

[Or: What do I need to keep in mind if I want to start using m-learning?]

iphoneYou´ve decided to introduce some mobile learning into your teaching. Where to start? What to do? Before you focus in on possible content and activities, there are some wider issues that you need to explore. You want your use of mobile and handheld technology with learners to be principled and coherent, rather than adhoc and, well, incoherent. You need to have a clear idea of why you´re getting your learners into m-learning, and what benefits it will bring them. How your use of m-learning relates to overall pedagogical principles will not only help you decide what to do, but reassure your students that you know what you are doing and why!

The first question to ask yourself is: Why do I want to use mobile learning? Here are some possible reasons:

  • You like technology
  • You want to try out something new with your learners
  • You’ve seen your learners all have smart phones or iPods / iTouches already. Why not get them using these for learning?
  • A few of your learners have asked you to recommend apps, games and other mobile-friendly content they can use out of class
  • You’ve read/heard about the benefits of  informal learning

The second question to ask yourself is: How can I use mobile learning effectively with my learners?

Answer: you need to relate your use of mobile learning to wider pedagogical issues. Here are what I see as some of these issues. I imagine these issues as a series of clines or continuums. It´s not a case of one or the other, but a matter of degree. Each cline lends itself to a series of questions you can use as check list.

arrow in the classroom ————————————————— on the move

Are you going to get your learners to use handheld devices regularly in the classroom (e.g. to access dictionaries, to research on the web, to take polls…)? Or are you going to encourage your learners to use their own handheld devices outside the classroom for independent study (e.g. to play games, to listen to podcasts, to learn vocabulary…) on the move and in their spare time? Or both? It may be easiest to start by simply recommending a number of good apps to your learners for their own informal learning. Make this optional – encourage only those students interested enough to try this out. Get them to report back regularly to the class. The enthusiasm may spread to other learners. Or not. Mobile self-study may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it may be some learner´s cup of tea. And that´s better than no tea at all!

arrow class sets ————————————————————– own devices

What handheld devices will your students use? Smart phones, netbooks, e-readers, iTouches…? And whose devices will they use? Will you or your institution invest in class sets (e.g. of iTouches or netbooks), or will your learners need to use their own devices? Or both? What if only some learners have handheld devices, or if everyone has a different make of phone? How effective can classroom-based mobile work be if everyone has a different device and operating system? It makes a lot of sense for learners to use their own devices for out of class , optional, on the move mobile learning, and class sets in the classroom for more formal learning activities…

arrow rich content ————————————————— discrete content

What about the content that will be used on the mobile devices? Is it going to be rich content that includes multi-media (images, audio, video), the chance to interact with others via social networking, and access to web resources? Or are you going to focus your learners on discrete content such as quizzes, polls, SMS, simple games, and apps? Or both? Given the danger of assuming that mobile learning only means SMS or apps, it makes sense to at least explore rich content options, and to refer your learners to these both for in class work, and for out of class self study. Don’t make the mistake of thinking mobile=apps, or mobile=SMS.

arrow push content —————————————————– pull content

And how is this mobile content going to reach your learners? Are you the teacher going to ‘push’ content out to your learners? In other words, are you going to be responsible for sending mobile-friendly content such as quizzes, SMS-based content, audio and video to your learners? Or are your learners to ‘pull’ in content themselves? In other words, are they going to search for and access mobile-friendly content on their own, depending on their own interests and needs? Or both? And how does this fit into the clines above? Will you focus mainly on pushed content for learners’ out of class work, and mainly on pulled content in the classroom? Or the other way round? Or a mixture of both, in both contexts?

arrow strategic use ———————————————————- discrete use

And related to the previous cline, is your use of mobile learning overall going to be strategic – that is, learners use handheld devices as a resource and tool covering a wide range of functions, in every class? Or is your use of mobile learning going to be discrete – that is, learners use handheld devices every now and again, for ´one-off´ activities? Or both? How about strategic use of class sets of handled devices in the classroom, and discrete use as optional for out of class self-study work, for example?

Once you’ve come up with sensible answers for some of the above questions, you’re ready to start trying out some mobile learning with your classes!

Any comments or thoughts on the above clines, and how useful or not they are as a basic framework, are very welcome!

Related posts:

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
April 2010


  1. I certainly feel the importance of using a mobile device for learning purposes. I have made an attempt to motivate my students to use their mobile for recording their presentations. The aim is to make them prepare and present their ideas effectively, thereby enhancing their presentation skills. Some students have given a positive feedback so far. I hope to receive a good number of videos taken in the mobile.

  2. Nicky Hockly says:

    Great idea, Revathi, I´d love to hear more about this. It sounds like an excellent use of mobile devices. Do students record themselves on mobile phones at home, or do you use something like Flip a camera, or phones, in class? How do the students give the videos to you (if they do at all)? What exactly do you do with the recorded videos? How and when do you give the students feedback on their recorded presentations? This really sounds so interesting, especially if students are giving you positive feedback on the experience!

  3. kshema says:

    I have seen (and am an admirer of) the efficacy of mobile phones in my English classes and certainly believe that we need to bring them more into ‘mainstream education’, rather than just as a reference or googling tool. Am also trying to understand the reading processes and strategies involved in m-learning environments. (This interests me since my PhD was on reading hypertexts.)
    Need some clarifications about the push-pull content:
    The ‘push’ content: An immediate benefit I see is reducing whole classroom viewing/ listening time and also ensuring individual and close attention to the video/ audio used. What else?
    And when we allow pulled content: how do we assess what is learned? How do I see what each of my leaner sees? Or are we just allowing autonomy in language learning with a teacher standing by?

  4. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for your comments here, kshema.
    I liked your comment about the reading processes and strategies involved in England learning environments – it reminded me that in some contexts the reading of mobile novels is fairly common (e.g. Japan and South Africa). There is in fact it very interesting ongoing project in South Africa called m4lit, which brings mobile novels to low income, low literacy groups (you can check it out here if you’re interested – http://m4lit.wordpress.com/about-the-project/).
    In terms of the push/pull distinction in the context of mobile learning – I don’t see pushed content is necessarily having to take place in the classroom, or in a whole group format(although it could). It simply refers to the teachers telling students were to go to find specific content (e.g. a webpage, or a specific app).
    For pulled content, I envisage students accessing the content that they specifically want/like – it may originally have been pushed to them by the teacher, but they then go off and access it (pull it down) themselves in their own time. So this would definitely be something that fits in with autonomous learning.
    As this push/pull distinction is a cline, it’s not a case of one or the other, and teachers/students can move from one to the other, or there can be overlap (at least in my view).
    Hope this helps clarify things!

  5. I think there should be some special functions of mobile devices to use only at the lessons and with educative purpose.Otherwise the learners might be distracted.

  6. […] What educators need to keep in mind when starting out with mlearning (mobile learning)  […]

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