Pervasive MCDs Pervasive M-learning

Just how widespread is mobile-learning (m-learning)?

I wrote this blog two years ago, but never published it. It makes interesting (historical perspective) reading today.

Formal m-learning is not widespread, yet. However, it is claimed, by 2016 100% of K12 students in the USA will use mobile communication devices (MCDs) in their education.

Informal m-learning is as pervasive as MCDs. If someone uses a MCD to search for an answer or information on the web or other network, m-learning is taking place.

A very few boring statistics

It is claimed 77% of the world’s population owns a MCD. Even if this is a hefty 50% over estimation, it still means over half the world’s population has a MCD.

In some African countries, almost every student owns a MCD, but very few own a computer.

Android is king in the EU, USA, and Australia. Apple accounts for 16% of sales in the EU, while Samsung have 45% of the market as of the date of this post.

So, how useful can m-learning be in learning?

Consider, how often you use your MCD, or see others use their MCD, to access on-line information? I think we can all agree the answer is somewhere in the region of ‘very useful indeed’. The next question must be ‘what can we (teachers/trainers) do to take advantage of the benefits presented by m-learning?

Real examples of students putting m-learning into action with MCDs

  • Living in regional areas with access to limited public transport use MCD to download study guides;
  • Working ‘in the field’ download readings and journals for review to support ‘professional’ practice, or listen to audio formats whilst driving to ‘work’;
  • Attending via Distance Learning. Select from a list of prescribed texts by reading samples on-line, then purchase the chosen eBook, which is conveniently to-hand at all times;
  • Students with families. Access complete ‘set readings’ on-line and, pod casts of lectures;
  • Use Digital Object Management System (DOMS) to access resources posted by staff and students. Links to DOMS resources are easily shared;
  • Access e-learning and chat with other students in real time;
  • Update e-Portfolio and add details of any emergent/unintentional learning;
  • Use MCD to take photos of geo-tagged pictures from study guides (e.g. plants identified ‘in the field’) and upload later to discuss with peers thereby supporting contingent learning (reacting to environment/experience) and situational learning (‘in the field’);
  • Studying arts subjects, whilst out-and-about, can share photos via, e.g. Flickr, make comments, and discuss progression. Context Aware learning is strongly supported;
  • Access educational games designed to explain complex ideas in a way that removes the barriers that often appear when a student encounters one of those ‘I just don’t get it’ topics;
  • Respond to classroom/virtual classroom polls then discuss why particular options are favoured over others. The subject matter immediately becomes relevant;
  • Use Twitter to engage in live discussions with remote ‘class mates’. The character limitation requires participants to effectively and concisely express opinions;
  • Share experiences ‘in the field’ and engage in discussion via a blog, thus supporting authentic learning (meaningful learning tasks related to learning goals);
  • Use a dedicated Fresher Facebook page to get to know and support other students through the first weeks;
  • Use SMS to share information about new on-line resources where Internet services may be less reliable;
  • Use Web Application Clients to aggregate and share content in one central location, allowing students to use familiar tools to gain access (personalised learning);
  • Submit on-line multiple choice tests and receive immediate feedback;
  • Access assessment materials on-line and submit comments for feedback by students and staff;
  • Access on-line support tools, information, and interactive tutorials from anywhere at any time;
  • During the Fresher period, Kindles pre-loaded with required text books, guides to academic practices, references, campus maps, and so on, can be borrowed.

Remember, whatever works for the student/learner can also work for the teacher/trainer.

What does this mean for the ‘student/teacher’ relationship?

Some argue m-learning and the use of social networking in learning will transform the ‘student/teacher’ relationship beyond recognition. The premise being the weight of responsibility for learning will shift dramatically from the ‘teacher’ to the ‘learner’.

Such a proposition is overly simplistic. There is no doubt the relationship will evolve and adapt, but it must not be allowed to be transformed as some have advocated. My argument is best summarised as 'why do children need parents?'

Mobile learning is not new, quite the contrary. Mobile learning was almost certainly one of the earliest methods of knowledge and skill transfer. Long before schools came into being. Masters and their apprentices would roam; discovering, practicing, sharing, and debating. In fact, the ‘traditional’ concept of learning; a classroom containing a black/whiteboard, a teacher, and a class, is very new. It has existed, for the masses, for less than 100 years.

What is different about m-learning in the digital on-line age is not the fact the master teaches and directs, and the apprentice attends and explores, it is how the roles are manifest. M-learning will not just turn back the educational practice clock to (the modern equivalent of) a master/apprentice relationship, it will do so, not on a one-to-one basis in real time, but on a many-to-many basis in real time, without regard for distance or the relative location of the masters or the apprentices, for the first time in human history.

Of equal importance is the capacity of supportive technologies to:
  • Convert, what has always been unintentional, contingent, situational, and authentic learning (albeit transient and vulnerable) into recordable, shareable, submit-able, and media rich ‘evidence’;
  • Enable access to formal and informal sources in support of learning from anywhere in the world, at any time.

We are living in very exciting times, promising almost magical opportunities to ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ alike, never before experienced. But let us keep our composure. Remember ‘Gartner’s Hype Cycle’, let us learn from the mistakes of the past.

The future’s bright. The future’s... m-learning (but it needs to be ADC).

What about evaluation?

Teachers/trainers can use on-line resources to seek feedback from students about subject delivery and coverage. This helps do identify where the teacher/trainer needs to focus more effort to ensure understanding. Such systems will identify what works well and why.

Students/learners can use their MCDs like ‘clickers’ to provide feedback in-class or from remote locations. Notifications can be sent by ‘teachers’ regarding evaluation activities. The student is able to respond immediately, which improves participation, and can expedite remedies.

Of course, the technology means that not only can students/teachers evaluate learning/teaching, students can evaluate each other.

Points to consider

  • Not everyone has access to MCDs, but they can be provided.
  • Need to be aware of phone number identification where anonymous participation is required.
  • M-learning integrates well with blended and flexible learning.
  • Real vs mediated communication?
  • Use of ‘mobile’ language is not always acceptable.
  • Variable web access and platforms (Apps vs Open Source).
  • Is it just a fad (Gartner’s Hype Cycle).
  • Mobile security. 
Supportive software. Don’t forget QR codes in the workplace can support learning access and retention.

Cost vs Return on investment (ROI)

People are already asking, "What is the likely ROI of m-learning?"

I would suggest this is a question that cannot be answered quantitatively at present. Firstly there is essentially no current data upon which a valid assessment can be based. Secondly, making such an evaluation will be difficult to perform as many of the benefits are qualitative, and thereby difficult to quantify in an accurate and meaningful way.

The current lack of equitability between formal and informal learning may well become a thing of the past. That itself would represent a huge, although unquantifiable, ROI.

The Real Challenge

M-learning could be a victim of its inherent and desirable qualities, i.e. flexibility, accessibility, immediacy, and commutability.

For example, consider the many-to-many relationships that exist for a typical college student. A student has many relationships with many lecturers and with very many students. The permutations already require a computer to calculate the numbers. Now add to the formula the ways in which m-learning may be communicated. By text message, e-mail, mobile up-load, file sharing platform, social networking sites, blogs, intranets, web sites, social media sites to name but a few. Now consider the possibilities for multiple instantaneous 'sharings', e.g., a notice posted on LinkedIn is also sent to Twitter and Face book.

Now imagine you are a lecturer with only 10 different classes a week, and each class has only 20 students.

If you are, or have been, a teacher/lecture and you are thinking about the end-of-term assessments and reports you must write, and you are thinking about using m-learning, having read the above, I know you are in a terrifying place right now.

It cannot be left to the student/learner to 'get on with their learning' in an m-learning enabled environment. There will be chaos, and a vast amount of evidence of learning that will never see 'the light of day'.


We must ensure we give due consideration to the environment in which 'teachers' and 'learners' operate and recognise that structure must be imposed. The key to success will be how to balance the maximum flexibility with the need to manage learning for oneself or for others.