Mobile learning is generally defined as training or education conducted via a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet, generally connected to a wireless network such as GSM, G3 or Wifi. Typically mobile learning — or m-learning — entails extending teaching beyond the classroom environment, connecting with learners further afield, as well as empowering students to learn wherever they are.
Portable devices feature strongly in our blog, because they are a powerful way for teachers to design learning modules that students then can carry with them and complete wherever they are. There is however, I think, a nuance between learning that is possible on a portable device such as a laptop, and the learning possible on smaller devices such as tablets and smartphones, a difference which simply boils down to ergonomics: screen size and navigation.
7 PROs and CONs of m-learning in the classroom
So, for me, while e-learning is a genre of learning that encompasses all tech-enabled learning, m-learning is a subgenre that specifically applies to smaller, portable devices. As such I think that a good e-learning strategy should incorporate m-learning, but that m-learning is not sufficient as a primary content and engagement driver; my opinion is that e-learning works best on a semi-portable device such as a laptop, or indeed a tablet supported with a bluetooth keyboard.
So, then, why all the hoopla about m-learning? Well, m-learning can play a powerful supporting role to e-learning — here’s why:
- Direct: A course that is designed with supporting mobile modules can ensure that students receive reminders of work to be completed, or tasks due as push notifications to their phone. These needn’t be boring text messages, but via a bespoke app or even the school LMS, that can send gamified notifications of grades, points, results, reminders and notifications of shared content from other students.
- On-Demand: Typically people pull out their phones when they are waiting around, such as bus stops, waiting rooms, waiting for friends at a cafe etc. It’s normal for students in these circumstances to check their social media, but an e-learning interface that is supported by a mobile app, could also enable on-the-go learning where students can capture a thought or idea, complete a short quiz, or review bite-sized pieces of course content.
- Contextualized: M-learning also enables in situ learning. Students that are perhaps on field trips, or excursions, use m-learning technology to capture their findings, write up reports, share discoveries with other team members or look up specific definitions or facts regarding the course while they are conducting field exercises, or experiments.
- Cost: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is proving to be a practical strategy for schools seeking to develop online content and curricula, without the significant cost and logistics of providing school-owned devices. This study found that in 2017, 71% of teens claimed to either own or have use of a smartphone. With this type of increasing ubiquity, smartphones, can be at least part of the solution.
There are also a number of drawbacks to mobile learning, few of which are actually based on the pedagogy possibilities of “on-demand, in-time” learning and have more to do with costs, access and usage. Let’s take a look:
- Distraction: While administrators and policy makers wring their hands about whether cell phones are distracting in class, any “on-the-ground” teacher will unequivocally say, “yes, indeed it is!” Mobile phones may have the potential to be learning tools, but in the hands of a teenager, we all know that gramming, Facebooking, IMing, WhatsApping, Snapchatting and Tweeting are its primary function.
- Cost: One response to the above challenge is to provide students with school issued devices, carefully decluttered of all distracting social media. Naturally this comes with a host of anticipated, as well as often unanticipated, costs such as insurance, administration time, staffing and tech support.
- Support: As I said in the intro, m-learning, in my opinion, cannot be a stand alone teaching methodology, and must be supported, by another device with a larger screen and keyboard for in-depth, detailed learning opportunities. So any m-learning initiative needs a back-up in terms of portable devices and even learning activities.
In the end
While the challenges of mobile learning include screen and keyboard size, distraction and cost, it will remain an unavoidable part of the blended learning mix because it is ubiquitous, well understood by students and powerfully immersive and adaptable.