Mobile learning can be many things to different groups of people. Superficially, it appears from the outside to be learning via mobile devices such as smartphones, MP3 players, laptops and tablets. Certainly, these are important in enabling mobile learning.
"Early definitions of [mobile learning], which focused predominantly on the attributes of mobile technology, have given way to more sophisticated conceptualisations suggesting that mobility is the central issue (Winters, 2006). This denotes not just physical mobility but the opportunity to overcome physical constraints by having access to people and digital learning resources, regardless of place and time."
But mobile learning is more than just using a mobile device to access content and communicate with others – it is about the mobility of the learner. According to Mike Sharples, a leading authority in the field, mobile learning can be defined as:
"the processes (both personal and public) of coming to know through exploration and conversation across multiple contexts amongst people and interactive technologies"
Sharples, M. et al, 2007
The key word here is context. Mobile learning allows for a contextualisation of learning that is impossible with desk-bound computing. A more workmanlike definition of mobile learning was given by MoLeNET, a three year programme of capital funding for further education institutions running from 2007 until 2010. Mobile learning, they reasoned, involves the:
"exploitation of ubiquitous handheld hardware, wireless networking and mobile telephony to facilitate, support, enhance and extend the reach of teaching and learning."
Despite over ten years of work in the field of mobile learning the body of research available upon which to draw is relatively small. This is for two reasons. First, the rapid evolution of mobile devices has caused problems for meaningful longitudinal work. Often, by the time institutionally-purchased devices begin to gain traction they can be shunned for being out of date.
Second, cultural issues in key settings have prevented the use of mobile devices in educational institutions and healthcare. Seen as disruptive, distracting or causing privacy issues, management policy in many such settings has been one of blanket bans.
As you shall see through exploring this guide, mobile learning is more than the sum of its parts. It is, to a great extent, a ‘trojan horse’ and a vehicle for exploring the changing nature of learning in a connected age. Because of the large-scale funding, Further education institutions who participated (or learned from the outputs of) the MoLeNET programme are, perhaps, better-positioned than many schools, higher education institutions, and other providers as regards mobile learning.
Just as with any meaningful intervention or technology-enhanced learning initiative, there are no shortcuts. What this guide provides are some useful pointers and steps to consider along with some ‘snapshots’ of how other institutions have previously trod a similar path.