Re-thinking Learning for the Mobile Age, by Mike Sharples
My sixteen-year-old daughter is doing her school homework. She sits at the computer, with a background of music coming from an audio link to the bedroom of one of her friends, who also appears on the screen through a webcam link, working but occasionally gesturing or holding up some object to the camera. My daughter has instant messenger connections to three or four other friends and she types in cryptic phrases such as "lol heeeeeeee." A Microsoft Word document fills most of the screen, disappearing when the message panels pop up, and she is writing a formal school essay on The Effects on Society of the Industrial Revolution. To research the essay, my daughter taps in keywords to Google and then browses through web pages, reading paragraphs, sometimes sharing them with her friend who has the same assignment. The phone breaks in with a musical warble and she picks it up to send a brief text message to her boyfriend.
This is the reality of learning for many children in the UK, and
I suspect in other European countries (though there has been very
little cross-cultural research into children's patterns of learning
outside school). Teenagers are entirely at ease not just with mobile
and networked technology, but in mixing learning and leisure, holding
multiple conversations, shifting effortlessly from formal prose to
online chat. This is not simply a continuation of classroom instruction
and playground chat with new media, it would seem to be a distinct new
mode of learning. In Europe such learning is still mainly tied to a
desktop computer, but in Japan and other Asian countries there are far
fewer home computers so people interact on the move - browsing the web,
messaging, sharing files - through mobile devices.
Every era of technology has, to some extent, formed education in
its own image. This is not to argue that technology determines
education, but rather that there is a congruence between the main
technological influences on a culture and the contemporary educational
theories and practices. Thus, in the era of mass print literacy, the
textbook was the medium of instruction, and a prime goal of the
education system was effective transmission of the canons of
scholarship. During the computer era of the past fifty years, education
has been re-conceptualised around the construction of knowledge through
information processing, modelling and interaction. Now, as we enter a
new world of global digital communication, it is no surprise that there
is a growing interest in the relations between mobile technology and
learning. What we lack, though, is an innovative and enhancing
educational framework for the new age of mobile technologies.
As part of the Kaleidoscope special interest group on the Philosophy of Technology Enhanced Learning,
we have been developing a framework to analyse learning in the mobile
age. The aim is to examine the essential role of mobility and
communication in the process of learning, and also to indicate the
importance of context in establishing meaning, and the transformative
effect of digital networks in supporting virtual communities that
transcend barriers of age and culture. The theoretical structure draws
on educational thinkers including Dewey, Pask and Engeström who, from
different cultural and historical perspectives, have developed theories
of learning beyond the classroom.
Our first step has been to distinguish what is special about
learning in the mobile age compared to other types of learning
activity. An obvious, yet essential, difference is that it starts from
the assumption that learners are continually on the move. By placing
mobility of learning as the object of analysis we may understand better
how knowledge and skills can be transferred across contexts such as
home and school, how learning can be managed across life transitions,
and how new technologies can be designed to support learning in a
society increasingly on the move.
Next, a theory of mobile learning must embrace the considerable
learning that occurs outside classrooms and lecture halls. A study of
everyday adult learning episodes by Giasemi Vavoula, as part of the MOBIlearn
European project, found almost half (49 percent) of learning episodes
took place outside the learner's normal environment, such as in a
friend's house or a place of leisure.
Third, we must take account of the ubiquitous use of personal and
shared technology in the industrialised world. A trend relevant to a
theory of learning in the mobile world is that some developing
countries are by-passing the fixed network telephony to install
cellphone networks to rural areas. These offer the opportunity for
people in rural communities not only to make phone calls, but to gain
the advantages of mobile services such as text and multimedia
In its concluding session, at the end of 33 months, the MOBIlearn
project team attempted to identify some specific characteristics of
learning in the mobile age. We concluded that:
It is the learner that is mobile, rather than the technology:
The interactions between learning and technology are complex and
varied, with learners employing whatever technology is ready to hand as
they move between settings, including mobile and fixed phones, their
own and other people's computers, as well as books and notepads.
Learning is interwoven with other activities as part of everyday life: Mobile learning is integrated with non-learning tasks such as shopping or entertainment.
Learning can generate as well as satisfy goals: The
learning can be initiated by external goals (such as a curriculum or
study plan), or by a learner's needs and problems, or it can arise out
of curiosity or serendipity, prompting the learner to form new goals
which may then be explored through formal or informal study.
Control and management of learning can be distributed:
In a classroom the locus of control over learning remains firmly with
the teacher, but for mobile learning it may be distributed across
learners, guides, teachers, technologies and resources in the world
such as books, buildings, plants and animals.
Context is constructed by learners through interaction: To
explore the complexity of mobile learning we need to understand the
contexts in which it occurs. Context should be seen not as a shell that
surrounds the learner at a given time and location, but as a dynamic
entity, constructed by the interactions between learners and their
environment. For example, visitors to an art gallery continually create
contexts for learning from their paths through the paintings, their
goals and interests, and the available resources including curators and
Mobile learning can both complement and conflict with formal education:
Learners can extend their classroom learning to homework, field trips,
and museum visits by, for example, reviewing teaching material on
mobile devices or collecting and analysing information using handheld
data probes. They could also disrupt the carefully managed environment
of the classroom by bringing into it their own multimedia phones and
wireless games machines, to hold private conversations within and
outside the school.
Mobile learning raises deep ethical issues of privacy and ownership:
Mobile technology offers powerful tools for lifelong learning and
provides aid for failing memories. It may also allow parents or
teachers to monitor every intimate detail of learning, so that play and
leisure becomes an extension of school activity, to be checked and
assessed as continuous records of achievement. This could be seen as a
deeply disturbing vision of childhood without privacy.
All these findings raise important issues, not only for
developers of new technology, but also for educators, policy makers,
planners and politicians. We cannot assume that learning in the future
will mainly be confined to classrooms, regulated by curricula. Just as
social-constructivist theories of learning have had a profound
influence on the design of school and higher education, so
contextual-conversational theories may lead us to rethink the design of
homes, workplaces and cities, as settings for informal mobile learning.
Mike Sharples directs the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK.