Social Learning Blog

Mobile Learning: More than just Mobile + Learning

Mobile learning seems to be creating a lot of excitement in the learning community these days. A quick Google search turns up lots of interesting information about the topic. For example, according to a report published by Ambient Insight Research, the US market for mobile learning products and services reached $958.7 million in 2010. They project that revenues will reach $1.82 billion by 2015.

They cite a “perfect storm” of catalysts that are driving the adoption of mobile learning, including:

  • The increase in number of content distribution channels (such as App stores)
  • Rapid evolution of wireless handheld devices
  • Growing number of mobile learning tools and platforms
  • The sharp increase of new learning content and apps
  • Growing number of buyers and users

So everyone wants mobile learning.  But… what is it, exactly? Defining what constitutes mobile learning seems to be a topic for more discussion than one might think.

Elliott Masie’s Learning Consortium defines mobile learning quite broadly:

“We define mobile learning… as all ‘knowledge in the hand.’ It includes the use of mobile/handheld devices to perform any of the following:

  • Deliver education/learning
  • Foster communications/collaboration
  • Conduct assessments/evaluations
  • Provide Access to performance support/knowledge”

And in a journal article called Defining Mobile Learning, John Traxler posits an initial mobile learning definition as follows:

“Mobile learning can perhaps be defined as ‘any educational provision where the sole or dominant technologies are handheld or palmtop devices.”

But then Traxler points out some of the vagaries of defining mobile learning, (as only an academician can do):

“However, any such definitions and description of mobile learning are perhaps rather technocentric, not very stable and based around a set of hardware devices. Such definitions merely put mobile learning somewhere on e-learning’s spectrum of portability and also perhaps draw attention to its technical limitations rather than promoting its unique pedagogic advantages and characteristics. The uncertainty about whether laptops and tablets deliver mobile learning illustrates the difficulty with this definition.”

Portability: eLearning vs. mLearning

I confess that I’ve been guilty of defining mobile learning in this technocentric way, and as a result have been skeptical of its potential for learning. The small screen size on mobile phones seems limiting. It doesn’t seem very cost-effective for a company to supply devices to their employees to make mobile learning accessible. And speaking of accessibility, there’s the issue of developing “device-agnostic” content to accommodate Android, iPhone, and other platforms. Given the pace of technology’s advances and the fact that developing content is fairly tech-heavy process, it’s easy to get lost in the technology as opposed to the actual learning.

See? Techno-centric!

But instead of focusing on the technology (and its perceived limits), we in the learning community should think about the huge potential of mobile learning to engage the user, and provide “just in time” content in manageable, “bite-sized” packages. Back to John Traxler:

“People use a variety of words to describe the nature of learning when it is mobile. Many of these characteristics are the core of what separates mobile learning [from] e-learning… and these characterize mobile learning as

  • Spontaneous
  • Private
  • Portable
  • Situated [meaning that learning takes place in the same context in which it is applied]
  • Informal
  • Bite-sized
  • Light-weight
  • Context aware”

By focusing on the advantages mobile learning provides, we can begin to think proactively about how to leverage mobile learning to capitalize on these benefits.

Here’s an example:

Eric Tremblay published a study in the Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching [29(2), 217-227. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.] entitled Educating the Mobile Generation – using personal cell phones as audience response systems in post-secondary science teaching. In it, a cell phone-based audience response system (ARS) was used in a science classroom by students as part of the lecture. While this study was conducted in a university environment, I think it’s likely that the results translate to the corporate:

“Survey results show that students who either used or watched others using such a system enjoyed the activity, reported less boredom in class, found the activity made the class more interactive and were more emotionally engaged in the classroom. In addition, the activity was not considered to be a waste of either the students’ time or learning time. From an instructor perspective, the resulting change of pace and the renewed student attention during a lecture was a positive outcome of the cellphone ARS.”

In another example published in Elliott Masie’s 2008 report, Merrill Lynch launched an initiative called GoLearn, which offered three mandated courses via BlackBerry. Over a seven-week period the learning materials were sent to over 2,100 investment bankers and support staff.

“The outcomes exceeded the goals. Higher scores were obtained in half the time. Bankers who completed the training did so in 54 [fewer] minutes and tested higher on the final assessment tests than the remainder of the firm. Mobile users also completed their training twenty days earlier than those who trained via MLU [Merrill Lynch University]…Overall the mobile learners obtained a 12% higher completion rate in 30% less time than the control group.

“170 employees responded to a survey indicating:

  • 99% felt the format and presentation supported the learning
  • 100% would complete more training in this format
  • More than 75% praised the benefits of convenience, time management and training with no distractions

The challenge for our industry is to capture these advantages in the constantly shifting world of technology. But it may be that very shift that keeps m-learning so interesting and engaging for users. By focusing on the advantages that mobile learning can provide for learners rather than on the limitations of the technology, we can capitalize on learner engagement inherent in mobile technology to provide learners with the best and most convenient learning tools possible.


Share what you learned:
Claire joined Dashe & Thomson in 2011 after working as a training and documentation consultant for five years. She has developed and delivered training both nationally and internationally, for a range of industries and systems, from large-scale ERP implementations to specialized, in-house software applications.


  • Craig Taylor

    February 26, 2012, 2:52 pm

    Hi Claire,

    Thanks for putting together such an informative blog post. I particularly agree with your comments about focussing on the possibilities as opposed to the limitations of these types of devices and technologies.

    What really ‘made’ your blog for me was the reference to “context aware” when you categorizing what separated mobile learning from ‘e’learning (neither of which are terms I am fond of, but that’s a conversation for another day!)

    Some time ago I wrote a couple of blog posts around context sensitive learning/performance support (not necessarily just from a mobile device) and I wondered if you cared to comment?

    The mindmap has been set up as a Wikimap which you can edit by clicking the ‘edit map’ pencil symbol on the toolbar at the bottom.

    I hope you’ll be able to contribute.


  • UM

    February 29, 2012, 10:41 am

    In all honesty, I’m still not sold in mobile devices. I don’t think that they contribute to make anything, including learning, more convenient and effective.

    “Less boredom in class, found the activity made the class more interactive and were more emotionally engaged in the classroom”, why should that be my problem? Learning is not entertaining all the time. That’s reality. Being engaged in the classroom doesn’t translate in learning more. Furthermore, that perpetuates the sense of entitlement that it’s the instructor’s job to entertain instead of educating.

    I am not a jester nor a stand up comedian. My job is to educate first, entertain second.

  • Devika P

    March 9, 2012, 12:06 am

    Very true I totally agree with you I think mobile learning has been the next big thing. Even some of the schools have already started using iPhone and tabs for teaching.

    educomp schools

  • Edith Tippie

    May 7, 2012, 12:52 pm

    I found your site because I have another website with almost the same domain name. I was doing searches and thought for a second that my site was ranking high for once hahaha. Solid stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>