Conceptualizing mLearning

1 Conceptualising the Notion of Mobile Learning:

Experience and expertise in the development and delivery of Mobile Learning has resulted in a discrete community of practice evolving separate from the e-Learning community. Mobile Learning has had a propensity to focus primarily on producing solutions and has tentatively developed distinctive theoretical conceptualisations (Hagen, Robertson, Kan, & Sadler, 2005; Traxler, 2009). The term Mobile Learning is currently applied to a vast area of learning exploits with handheld computers and mobile phones as well as other mobile devices. The focus of these interactions tends to colour the conceptualisation of what Mobile Learning is. Mike Sharples (2011)articulates current national and cultural focus as follows:
Table 2‑1: Geographic Region and current perceived focus of Mobile Learning
Geographic Area
Application of Mobile Learning
M4D (mobile learning for development)
Focus on access, emerging contexts, basic technologies
United States
Anytime, anywhere learning Corporate training
Focus on delivery, relevance
1 to 1 learning
Focus on personalised learning in classrooms and field trips
Contextual learning, Connected learning
Focus on context, community, connecting formal and informal learning
Seamless learning
Focus on continuity
Personalised distance education
Focus on learning design, open content, standards
Ubiquitous learning
Focus on availability and embedding in everyday world

A single definition of Mobile Learning has been much debated and current working definitions from the literature appear to reflect the priorities of the community that has put it forward.
Solution based technology research have a propensity to define Mobile Learning in terms of learning through mobile devices (Chen, Kao, & Sheu, 2003; Houser, Thornton, & Kluge, 2002; Liang, Liu et al., 2005; Quinn, 2000; Trifonova & Ronchetti, 2004). Learners are described as accessing mobile devices to “acquire and learn through a wireless transmission tool anytime and anywhere (Chen et al., 2003).” Reflecting the early solution based technology focus, Traxler (2005) initially suggested that Mobile Learning be regarded as “any educational provision where the sole or dominant technologies are handheld or palmtop devices.”

In contrast, research which has been driven by concerns emanating from a pedagogical point of view, have defined Mobile Learning in terms of the extent it has enriched a particular learning environment and the learners’ experience of learning (Farooq, Schafer, Rosson, & Carroll, 2002; Grohmann, Hofer, & Martin, 2005; Roschelle, Vahey, Tatar, & Penuel, 2003; Rushby, 2006; Young & Vetere, 2005).
Another perspective has been in terms of the mobility affordance, framing Mobile Learning as “the study of how the mobility of learners augmented by personal and public technologies can contribute to the process of gaining new knowledge, skills and experience (Sharples, Arnedillo Sánchez, Milrad, & Vavoula, 2007, p. 3).” Mobility is further deconstructed by Sharples et al. (2007) as:
  • the mobility experienced by the user due to the change in physical space,
  • the mobility as being able to interface between different technologies,
  • the mobility in conceptual space as users move between topics,
  • mobility in social spaces, and
    • the mobility over time, extending the formal learning situations as a cumulative experience.

Consensus, however, is that Mobile Learning, as a phenomenon needs to be considered in the context of the emergence of mobile phone (Laouris & Eteokleous, 2005). Traxler suggests mobile technology be recognised as fundamentally transforming societal notions of communication and understanding. Nyiri (2002, 2005) articulates this, stating that the “mobile phone is evolving towards the dominant medium. It is becoming the natural interface through which people conduct their shopping, banking, booking of flights, etc. Moreover, it is turning into the single unique instrument of mediating communication not just between people, but also between people and institutions or more generally between people and the world of inanimate objects”. Traxler (2009, p. 14) proposes that “mlearning is not about ’mobile’ as previously understood, or about ‘learning’ as previously understood, but part of a new mobile conception of society”.
Considering these perspectives, it becomes clear that the definition of Mobile Learning seems to be as fluid as the requirements of the application domain and the functionalities of the technology that support it. This being said, the notion of mobile learning as a discrete phenomenon is possibly expressed most eloquently by Kukulska-Hulme (2010) as “the key to mobile learning lies in taking advantage of the learning opportunities offered by mobile technologies, and that this typically happens when learners are not at a fixed, predetermined location, so that they are able to engage in situated learning and make use of context-specific resources. Mobile learning also enables learners to move seamlessly across different settings and to connect up learning in different locations”.