The Evolution of the Definition of Mobile Learning

Pedagogy and Learning Comments (1)

When I was first introduced to the concept of educational computing in 1974 while working toward my master’s degree in educational psychology, computers were mostly monsters called “mainframes” housed in air-conditioned rooms and equipped with “terminals” that allowed time-sharing of the computer’s resources. Mobile at that time meant either “luggable” (30-40 pounds in a suitcase) or “portable” (only 20 pounds, with a handle). Then came the TRS-Model 100 “laptop” with its limited screen and memory, and a 6 line LCD screen, followed by various personal digital assistants (PDAs) in the 1990s.

One of the earliest pioneers of mobile learning in the late 1990s was UK Professor Mike Sharples, currently the president of the International Association for Mobile Learning (IAmLEARN).

By the year 2000, Clark Quinn, author of Designing mLearning, published one the first definitions of mobile learning. He said that mobile learning is “the intersection of mobile computing and e-learning: accessible resources wherever you are, strong search capabilities, rich interaction, powerful support for effective learning, and performance-based assessment … e-learning independent of location, time and space.”

In a recent interview I did with Clark, he stated that for the most part he thought that he had gotten the definition right. I would agree that he captured most of the elements of mobile learning, except for his strong association between e-learning and mobile learning. E-learning, as it was practiced then, mostly involved putting courses on servers to be viewed by learners using monitors and desktop computers. Like learners in the classroom, early users of e-learning were immobilized in their seats in front of desk. But, mobile learning is very different than e-learning. It is, to quote Clark, “independent of location, time and space.”

For much of the 2000s, mobile learning is defined in terms of the use of mobile technology. In 2005, John Traxler said that mobile learning is “any educational provision where the sole or dominant technologies are handheld or palmtop devices.” Desmond Keegan had a similar definition based on the size of devices be used when he said that “mobile learning should be restricted to learning on devices which a lady can carry in her handbag or a gentleman can carry in his pocket.” Over the past few years, debate has ensued over whether use of netbook, notebook, laptop or tablet computers constituted true mobile learning. I think that this debate really misses the point.

Mobile learning is not about the size of your device. Rather, it is about people moving through environments, learning as they go, both from the real context in which they are immersed and from use of any electronic device that allows connectivity to information sources and communication facilities while they are able to change their physical location. In short, my new definition of mobile learning is “learning in context.” This change has profound implications for instructional design for mobile devices, a topic that I will discuss in later posts.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. He Gary Woodill is a senior analyst for Float Mobile Learning. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On August 8, 2011
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One Response to The Evolution of the Definition of Mobile Learning

  1. […] The Evolution of the Definition of Mobile Learning by Gary Woodill is an important reminder of the changing nature of a field and the need to keep up-to-date with the latest research. If you’re interested in mobile learning you may want to have a look at the JISC Mobile and Wireless Technologies Review Doug wrote at the end of 2010. […]

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