Mobile Learning

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Mobile learning (or “m-learning”) offers many possibilities for both blended and fully online learning—by tapping into the benefits of real-time and real-space (physical space) mixed with digital information and experiences. Mobile learning is a kind of augmented reality—with the mobile devices enabling connectivity and information access in many urban and other environments—to enhance the learner experience. Wireless fidelity (wifi) technologies and the broad popularization of many mobile devices (smart phones, iPads, tablet PCs, small notebook computers, and others) have meant that access to the Internet and Web really is ubiquitous for many. There are many in this “user base” who can access mobile learning effectively.

Even with traditional online learning, it helps to make digital learning objects mobile-accessible for broader points-of-access for “anytime, anywhere” learning. Further, mobile devices, with their built-in mics, cameras, and other ingestion technologies enable the capture of real-world information into digital format and the sharing of that information in the world. The growth of creative apps enable much more human-to-human interactivity, real-time locative awareness, and multimedia interchanges. This module focuses on some basics of mobile learning.


Learners will...

  • Describe mobile learning, with an understanding of its affordances and limitations
  • Discuss the limits of mobile devices in terms of inputs features like touch-screen and keyboard / keypad and some challenges of the delivery of information in the “small screen” environment
  • Consider some of the steps required for the design and building of digital learning objects for delivery via mobile devices
  • Experience some Web-based mobile-friendly digital learning objects, including the following types of activities: Align, Identify, Pair, Presenter, Selection, and Sequence (to use the terminology from SoftChalk 7)
  • Consider some examples of pedagogical methods used in real-world mobile learning scenarios

Module Pretest

1. What is mobile learning? What are its affordances and limitations?

2. What are some of the limits of mobile devices in terms of information inputs? Information receipt through the small-screen environment?

3. What are the steps required for the design and building of digital learning objects for delivery via mobile devices?

4. What are some types of mobile-friendly digital learning objects (DLO) that may be created today? (including SCLB7’s Align, Identify, Pair, Presenter, Selection, and Sequence activities).

5. What are some examples of pedagogical methods used in real-world mobile learning scenarios?

Main Contents

Mobile learning has emerged as a viable form of distance and blended (hybrid) learning because of the new enablements of various technologies: the mobile devices with their built-in cameras, microphones, GPS location-awareness, and other sensors (if mounted); advances in wireless fidelity; advances in programming languages; advances in authoring tools, and the creation of new apps. The popularization of mobile devices which are almost always with users (close-in proximity) offers a powerful motivation for educators to create learning contents playable on mobile devices. Mobile devices also enable the uses of the actual physical environment in ways that were not achievable with other online learning technologies. Further, the communications capabilities between learners on their mobile devices also enable more in-depth collaborative co-learning.

1. Mobile Learning and the Affordances and Limitations

Mobile learning is the latest iteration of ubiquitous (anytime, anywhere) learning.

However, in combination with digital repositories and learning / course management systems and other related technologies, mobile devices may be employed for a range of online learning and research. Various software applications for mobile devices enable off-line learning—formal, informal, and non-formal.

2. Some Limits of Mobile Devices

As commentators have long noted, mobile devices often have small screens, limited memory, and limited processing power. Next-generation versions of tablet PCs have brought larger screens into play. The uses of the cloud to store digital contents have extended the memory of what is accessible via a memory device. The amount of processing power in hand-held devices has also increased.

3. Some Steps Required for the Design and Building of Digital Learning Objects for Mobile Devices

The research literature has some case examples about the building of mobile-friendly learning objects and games for particular learners. The research does not yet offer substantive research about how to approach the design and building of digital learning objects for mobile devices for effective learning in a learning context. It is expected that such research will be emerging in the coming years.

4. Some Types of Mobile-Friendly Digital Learning Objects for Today (Using SoftChalk 7)

Six different types of mobile activities were created on-the-fly to show some of the basic functionalities of mobile activities.

Mobile Activity 1: Align Activity

Computing Devices Align Activity

Mobile Activity 2: Identify Activity

Insect Identification Activity

Mobile Activity 3: Pair Activity

English-to-Latin Word Pairs Activity

Mobile Activity 4: Presenter Activity

iPad2 Apps Presenter Activity

Mobile Activity 5: Selection Activity

Game Theory Words Selection Activity

Mobile Activity 6: Sequence Activity

Planting a Tree Sequence Activity

Integration with Mobile Learning via Learning / Course Management Systems

Learning / Course Management Systems (L/CMSes) may be integrated with a mobile learning strategy. An example of this involves the application of the Axio L/CMS to the mobile learning environment based on its tools.


The Assessment Suite enables record-keeping of manual assignments or learning activities outside of an online course site. Second, a content folder enables the distribution of podcastable contents to mobile devices. (They also enable the collection of information from mobile devices.) Third, an L/CMS may enable the sharing and distribution of digital learning objects, such as through a shared Message or Discussion Board. Finally, an L/CMS may enable mobile device users to call in to a live web conference to contribute their ideas via audio. The mobile devices themselves may also be used to share ideas or live video along with live audio.

5. Pedagogical Methods for M-Learning and Some Real-World M-Learning Scenarios

Offline Mobile Learning

Another form of mobile learning is “offline mobile learning” that taps into various device-specific software applications (instead of Web-based applications which require connectivity to the Internet). This approach is particularly common in locations with poor telecommunications infrastructure or lack of access to electricity (Shrestha, Moore, & Nocera, 2011). Many developing countries are looking to mobile technologies as having the “potential to deliver education without dependence on an extensive communications infrastructure that suits the context of developing countries” (p. 654). In some developing countries, there are strong installed base of users of mobile phones—even among school children (Bahamóndez & Schmidt, 2010). Preliminary research is ongoing about where and when such off-line mobile learning may take place for the most effective application.

Handhelds as In-World Data Collection Tools

Another application of mobile learning involves the uses of hand-held devices to collect information and aid in research. Popular mobile devices (smart phones, tablet PCs, and others) are mounted with digital cameras and automated metadata captures of locations of image-captures. Specialized hand-helds contain sensors that may capture other types of information—such as the amount of liquid in soil, the chemical contents of a liquid, and other information. Such devices, because of their portability, are “wearable” into various in-world (naturalistic) and embodied situations, for greater ease-of-research.

A weather game deployed in Singapore by its National Weather Study Project raises the awareness of weather for children by using a creative mix of Microsoft SensorMap and Google Earth interfaces (Koh, Tan, & Duh, 2009). In another example, students experienced different noise levels in different environments using a digital decibel meter through mobile learning devices (Wyeth & MacColl, 2010).

Design students use mobile devices to create “visual diaries” to inform their design solutions for various circumstances (Berry & Hamilton, 2006). One project at a polytechnic institute in New Zealand uses mobile phones to construct eportfolios (Chan, 2011).

(A more controlled version of this may be “excursion games” in which learners explore a particular space with pre-set problem-solving goals. In these games, the actual physical spaces contain various natural and artificial learning objects, and the learning is enabled and augmented by the software accessed via mobile devices. There may be location-sensitive aspects in which certain types of digital information is pushed out to learners as they reach particular pre-set locations.)

Augmentations of Physical Space

Some universities have created mobile learning for their on-campus students to explore the campus in more depth—and to learn the locations of various resources and to experience enhanced navigation (Brown, Ryu, & Parsons, 2006). An interactive mobile learning application named GreenHat provides an expert video overlay in various locations in a natural environment; this expert point-of-view focusing on sustainability and biodiversity enhances learners’ abilities to actively observe their surroundings (Ryokai, Oehlberg, Manoochehri, & Agogino, 2011).

The Mobile Role in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL)

K. Yordanova (2007) observes how mobile learning may advance computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) by combining popular technologies used in e-learning. Indeed, the wifi connectivity of mobile devices, their information collection capabilities, their communications capabilities, and their location awareness may all be harnessed in creative ways to enhance group learning. Members of a class may share information in a live circumstance. In a natural environment, learners may collect similar data from different locales and compare differences. A team entering a social environment and collect various different information for a “jigsaw” exercise (in which each learner pair or individual or group acquires unique information and learning and shares that with the larger class). For example, a team may go out to a social environment to take images of individuals who typify “cool” (known as “cool hunting”) to get a sense of future-trending as a marketing assignment. Or those in design may capture images of window displays during a certain shopping season. Or researchers may want to know what foods are available at farmers’ markets in particular towns in a certain season. Such data may be collected in a repository or learning / course management system for more in-depth analysis. Such data may also be accessed from the mobile devices for real-time awareness.

Wong, Chin, Tan, Liu and Gong (2010) report on an assignment in which learners use their mobile devices to photoblog and report on their real-world activities using a foreign language (in this case, idiomatic Chinese). The authors note that the students are learning in an open and authentic system of the world rather than a closed artificially-mechanistic classroom environment. Here, the learning carries over into a lived environment as well—which is evidence of some “transfer” (Boticki & So, 2010). Co-learners may collate their knowledge in a knowledge map using their mobile devices combined with a knowledge mapping tool (Nada, Kholief, & Metwally, 2009).

Unsupervised, Informal and Nonformal Learning with Mobile Devices

Other research offers the observation that plenty of learning occurs in an “unsupervised” way by mobile device users (Kumar, Tewari, Shroff, Chittamuru, Kam, & Canny, 2010). This suggests that the creation of Web-based contents that encourage self-discovery learning may enhance overall informal and non-formal learning. This also suggests that educational contents must be made attractive (through the sparking of curiosity and attention) to potential learners in order to encourage such self-motivated accesses. On the technological back-end, there are endeavors to make it easier for mobile devices to identify learning resources by creating more sophisticated search agents. Other researchers taught about serendipitous “contextual micro-learning” moments that may occur during the day which may be taken advantage of through mobile devices and apps (Edge, Searle, Chin, Zhao, & Landay, 2011, p. 3169).

Access to University Library Services

A number of universities have been working to make their portals and Web-based services fully available to those using mobile devices. This work involves versioning library sites for mobile library services (such as offering sites also via HTML-5). This also requires enabling linkage to software programs that enable the opening and display of files in certain proprietary formats (like .pdf or Adobe Flash). The building of the M-library is possible given the confluence of the updated technologies and platforms (Cao, Tin, McGreal, Ally, & Coffey, 2006).


This area consists of some mobile learning scenarios from the real world. More will be added here as they are acquired.

A ‘Law and Order’ Scenario

A criminal justice professor wants to train her students in the fine arts of shadowing a target. She has told her students that between a certain time, she will walk from one location to another, and during that time, they are to shadow her. She will be paying attention to her surroundings, and if she sees any of them, they will earn a lower grade on this assignment. The students are to surreptitiously capture her activities during this time period using their mobile devices. Her job will be to elude detection and to take counter-measures against being followed. She will be using her mobile device to capture her students out in this public space as well. The students and the instructor will write up their experiences of this exercise and post these online in a message board. They will all share what they learned.

An Entomology Field Exercise

Students are going on a field trip out to the fields of Kansas. Their jobs will be to capture still photographic images of insects in their habitats. The students will have to have sharp eyes to see the insects. They’ll have to approach without scaring away the insects. Their images should be focused, have a correct white color balance, reflect the accurate size of the insect if possible, and reflect true-to-life insect behaviors in the context. The students are to capture their observations orally or textually on their mobile devices. Later, they will bring these elements together into a presentation or slideshow or podcast, and they will upload this digital recording into the online classroom for sharing.

A Public Health Walkability Exercise

Students are to explore their own neighborhood to see how friendly it is for a walking lifestyle. How close is the grocery store? The laundry shop? The local coffee shop? Are there sidewalks for strolling? How effective is the lighting at night? Are the walkways accessible (with curb cuts) and free from traffic? Are there parks and green spaces? How safe is the neighborhood at all different times of day and night and seasons? Students are to explore these issues and collect images of their experiences using their mobile device. What may be improved to make the neighborhood more walkable?

An Oral History Walk-through

In a small town, in Kansas, an anthropologist is capturing oral histories of members of her tribe. She collect audio-based digital artifacts—like oral histories, stories, folk stories, speeches, chants, and songs. Tribal members also carry mobile devices to record their memories as they do a walk-through of their reservation. They highlight particular locales and the historical significance of events that occurred there. The images and sounds are captured live and recorded. These are later put up on the professor’s website for future learners.

Notes from a Field Trip to a Factory

Students going on a field trip bring along their iPads or tablet PCs. They are taking a tour of a factory to learn about safety measures built into the workflow, the equipment and machinery, the workplace practices, the training, and the culture of the factory. Every so often, they stop for a moment for the team to each make unique notes and quick drafts / sketches into their note-taking applications. Some record voice notes. All take photographic images of what they see. (Some bring digital cameras with higher-resolution image captures.) Later, they will take these contents and make a presentation to their professor. The class will also write a report back to the individuals that run the factory.

How To

Creating a Mobile-Friendly Digital Learning Object (DLO)


The basic sequential steps of building a mobile-friendly digital learning object is to begin with an understanding of the learning objectives and then planning the design of the object through learning design—which considers the information content, the projected audience, the delivery method and interface, whether the object is a stand-alone object or one integrated with non-mobile activities, and whether the multimedia is rich or light. Then, it’s important to consider whether the object will be an online only or in-world (locative) sort of application or experience. The planned deployment or ecology will be important to consider before the development work commences. Once the critical decisions have been made, then the design may go into the mobile content development phase. The learning object may then be uploaded and stored on a server or learning / course management system or a website. From there, the learning object is deployed. Optimally, the feedback loop from users will inform the design or re-design.

Currently, some mobile devices cannot play Adobe Flash objects, so many developers are going to HTML5 to create interactive objects.

Possible Pitfalls

As with any kind of blended or online learning, mobile learning (m-learning) has to be designed well and effectively, executed well, facilitated well, and then feedback from the learners should be brought into the learning (re)design. A central pitfall involves the accessibility / inaccessibility of the digital learning objects. It is assumed that there will be an experimentation period, too, with this new approach to blended and online learning to see how effectively the teaching and learning may be achieved.

Module Post-Test

1. What is mobile learning? What are its affordances and limitations?

2. What are some of the limits of mobile devices in terms of information inputs? Information receipt through the small-screen environment?

3. What are the steps required for the design and building of digital learning objects for delivery via mobile devices?

4. What are some types of mobile-friendly digital learning objects (DLO) that may be created today? (including SCLB7’s Align, Identify, Pair, Presenter, Selection, and Sequence activities).

5. What are some examples of pedagogical methods used in real-world mobile learning scenarios?


Bahamóndez, E. dCV. & Schmidt, Al. (2010). A survey to assess the potential of mobile phones as a learning platform for Panama. In the proceedings of CHI: Work-in-Progress: Atlanta, Georgia. 3667 – 3672.

Berry, M. & Hamilton, M. (2006). Mobile computing, visual diaries, learning and communication: Changes to the communicative ecology of design students through mobile computing. Australian Computer Society, Inc. n.p.

Boticki, I. & So, H-J. (2010). Quiet captures: A tool for capturing the evidence of seamless learning with mobile devices. In the proceedings of ICLS. Vol. 1. 500 – 507.

Brown, R., Ryu, H., & Parsons, D. (2006). Mobile helper for university students: A design for a mobile learning environment. In the proceedings of OZCHI: Sydney, Australia. 297 – 300.

Cao, Y., Tin, T., McGreal, R., Ally, M., & Coffey, S. (2006). The Athabasca University mobile library project: Increasing the boundaries of anytime and anywhere learning for students. In the proceedings of the IWCMC’06: British Columbia, Canada. ACM. 1289 – 1293.

Chan, S. (2011). Constructing of ePortfolios with mobile phones and Web 2.0. In R. Kwan, et al. (Eds.) ICT 2011. CCIS 177. 243 – 253. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Edge, D., Searle, E., Chiu, K., Zhao, J., & Landay, J.A. (2011). MicroMandarin: Mobile language learning in context. In the proceedings of CHI 2011: Vancouver, BC, Canada. 3169 – 3178.

Koh, R.K.C., Tan, H.X.L., & Duh, H. B-L. (2009). Information empowerment through mobile learning. In the proceedings of Mobile HCI’09: Bonn, Germany. ACM.

Kumar, A., Tewari, A., Shroff, G., Chittamuru, D., Kam, M. & Canny, JU. (2010). An exploratory study of unsupervised mobile learning in rural India. In the proceedings of CHI 2010: Atlanta, Georgia. ACM. 743 - 752.

Nada, N., Kholief, M., & Metwally, N. (2009). Mobile knowledge visual e-learning toolkit. In the proceedings of MoMM 2009: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 336 – 340.

Ryokai, K., Oehlberg, L., Manoochehri, M., & Agogino, A. (2011). GreenHat: Exploring the natural environment through experts’ perspectives. In the proceedings of CHI 2011: Vancouver, British Columbia. 2149 – 2152.

Shrestha, S., Moore, J., & Nocera, J.A. (2011). Open-source platform: Exploring the opportunities for offline mobile learning. In the proceedings of Mobile HCI: Stockholm, Sweden. ACM. 653 – 658.

Wong, L-H., Chin, C-K., Tan, C-L, Liu, M. & Gong, C. (2010). Students’ meaning making in a mobile assisted Chinese idiom learning environment. In the proceedings of ICLS. Vol. 1. 349 – 356.

Wyeth, P. & MacColl, I. (2010). Noising around: Investigations in mobile learning. In the proceedings of IDC 2010: Barcelona, Spain. ACM. 147 -155.

Yordanova, K. (2007). Mobile learning and integration of advanced technologies in education. In the proceedings of the International Conference on Computer Systems and Technologies. ACM. IV.23-1 to IV.23-6.

Extra Resources

Information about Mobile Learning

M Learning

Educause Mobile Learning Resources

Are you Ready for Mobile Learning?

An Authoring Tool for M Learning

SoftChalk Cloud

Some Suggested Standards for Mobile Development

Daniel Su Kuen Seong’s “Usability Guidelines for Designing Mobile Learning Portals”