John Traxler

Mobile Learning: towards a research and learning innovations agenda

The RiLI Seminar will attempt to explain and justify this analysis and address the challenge of defining new research directions and new research to support in this changed environment.

The idea of learning with mobile devices in its current form is about a decade old. The first research workshop was held in 2002 in Birmingham. Recent events and trends suggest however that the nature of mobile learning and the future of the mobile learning research community might both be under threat.

In the earlier half of the decade, sophisticated mobile technology was scarce, fragile, expensive and difficult, and was the prerogative of institutions, and the global economy seemed buoyant and robust. This meant that mobile learning was positioned at the vanguard of e-learning research and necessarily bought into the rhetoric, vocabulary, mechanics and funding of innovation, leading to an ecosystem of projects and pilots, and ideas about early adopters, opinion-formers and critical mass within institution settings. It grew out of the aspirations and frustrations of e-learning and built on the same foundational disciplines of computing, education and psychology but produced evidence and output that had little to say outside the realms of small-scale fixed term subsidised projects and pilots run by enthusiasts with stable consistent hardware platforms. 

In the second half of the decade, mobile technology became universal, robust, cheap, diverse and easy, and suddenly the global economy seemed fragile and weak. For institutions, change, if it now happens, is forced outside-in, no longer promoted top-down and mobile technology became so familiar that policy makers and practitioners could be excused for thinking that learning with mobiles was now common-sense and that research and researchers were no longer necessary.  The foundational disciplines should now perhaps include sociology rather than psychology and mobile technologies challenge, disrupt and by-pass the processes and institutions of formal learning and knowing rather than merely enhancing and reinforcing them.

About two years ago, the USA discovered or in its own eyes, invented the idea of learning with mobiles but an idea now flavoured with its own history and preferences, not the theoretically informed, informal and contextual learning of Western Europe but content, drill, training, games and then apps. iTunes and its smaller clones have extended but distorted learning with mobiles but also provided examples of sustainable business models, sometimes captured in education - there's an app for it.

Over the last year, agencies such as WEF, UNESCO and USAID have started to see mobile devices as a viable delivery mechanism for their various educational missions. This development has however come with imperatives to sustain and scale. These might seem benign but makes assumptions that pedagogy and culture will scale up as easily as technology and infrastructure. The idea of mobile learning is now more likely sustainable and mainstream but less recognisable.

This analysis is important not only because of its relevance to technology and learning locally within educational institutions at a critical epoch but also for its implications for the ideas of agency, authority and control within and outside the educational system as a whole. 

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