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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 messaging.

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 other visitors.

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.

posted by Kevin Walker on 10/05/05 00:44:50
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