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Learning 3.0 will be mobile

July 13, 2010

As more and more humans come equipped with a networked mini-computer in their pocket, it’s obv that the next wave in distance learning will be mobile. We need some conceptual tools to help us understand the pedagogy and practice of mLearning, and the last 10 years has seen the rise of a remarkable body of mobile learning theory, much of it pioneered by the Open University’s Mike Sharples and his collaborators.

The starting point for analysis is the idea of mobility itself – which, as Agnes Kukulska-Hulme has pointed out, applies not only to spatial but to temporal and contextual movement as well. It also includes mobility in conceptual space, mobility in social space, and mobility of technology. “The common denominator is context: physical, technological, conceptual, social and temporal contexts for learning.” (Kukulska-Hulme et al, 2009)

This contextual mobility inevitably blurs the traditional distinction between formal and experiential learning, in the process placing much more control in the hands of the mobile learner. In Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning, Sharples et al define mLearning as “a cybernetic process of learning through continual exploration of the world and negotiation of meaning, mediated by technology.” (Sharples et al, 2005)

The ability that mobiles give us to slide from context to context aligns mLearning with some important characteristics of learning in general. Like experience, mobile learning is labile:

Learners are continually on the move. We learn across space as we take ideas and learning resources gained in one location and apply or develop them in another. We learn across time, by revisiting knowledge that was gained earlier in a different context, and more broadly, through ideas and strategies gained in early years providing a framework for a lifetime of learning. We move from topic to topic, managing a range of personal learning projects, rather than following a single curriculum… (Sharples et al, 2005, p2)

Mobile networks connect learners with each other as well as with educators, so mLearning is seen as inherently collaborative as well as situated. Sharples draws on the influential Conversation Theory of Gordon Pask, which describes learning as a kind of distributed cognition, a conversational process of coming-to-know through continuous adjustment and negotiation. For Sharples mobile learning enables this conversational process to take place across multiple contexts, mediated by personal interactive technologies. He sees it as enabling us to move beyond 20th century ideas of education as knowledge construction and information processing, into a new era of education as continuous interaction between learners, educators, personal technologies and everyday experience.

Sharples also draws on Yrjo Engestrom’s activity theory (which I blogged about here) to analyse mobile learning in terms of 1) a semiotic system layer in which the learner’s object-oriented actions are mediated by cultural tools and signs, and internalised as private thought; and 2) a technology layer “in which tools such as computers and mobile phones function as interactive agents in the process of coming to know, .. to mediate agreements between learners, .. and to aid recall and reflection.” (Sharples et al, 2005, p7)

Mobile devices, then, are both semiotic and technological mediators, sliding seemlessly between different domains – the public and the private, the networked and the personal, the formal and the experiential. They also mediate between stability and flux, enabling learners to engage with the flow of experience to construct what Sharples calls “transiently stable and effective sites of learning”, just as teachers do in traditional classrooms to allow meaning-making and reflection to take place. As such they promise to extend learning outside the classroom into the interactions of everyday life.

Mobile technologies offer the potential for a new phase in the evolution of technology- enhanced learning, marked by a continuity of the learning experience across different learning contexts..[They] can support the design of learning experiences that cross spatial, temporal and conceptual boundaries, and interweave with the learner’s everyday life and into her web of personal knowledge, interests and learning needs. (Kukulska-Hulme et al 2007, p14)


Sharples M, Taylor J and Vavoula G (2005) Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning. Available online at

Kukulska-Hulme A, Sharples M, Milrad M, Arnedillo-S ́anchez I, Vavoula G, (2009). Innovation in Mobile Learning: A European Perspective. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 1(1), pp. 13–35.

From → H800

  1. grammar cop permalink

    Will we no longer need to know the difference between “its obv” and “it’s obv”?

    • johnmill permalink

      Fair cop, grammar cop. Ive learnt my lesson

  2. Stephanie Rollins permalink

    I would like to pose a question: what should be considered a mobile device? Just smart phones? Tablets too? Even laptops? So many devices can be considered mobile today because of the adaptive technologies and their ability to achieve “mLearning,” but where do we draw the line between mLearning and eLearning?

    • johnmill permalink

      hi stephanie – hard to be categoric because today’s smart phone becomes tomorrow’s bogstandard mobile, but I was definitely thinking of pocket-sized devices.

      For most of the world’s mobile users it’s basic models they have in their pockets, and there are some interesting models of mobile supported networked learning in developing countries – for example this one, using SMS to create an online course conference at Capetown University :

      • Stephanie Rollins permalink

        Interesting use case, thanks for sharing. There definitely is a grey area when it comes to classifying “mobile.” Personally, I think smartphone-like devices as well, but there is always the argument for further devices. As you point out though, you can’t underestimate the power of tomorrow’s innovations.

  3. Excellent article. Thank you very much to the author.

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