Friday, 19 March 2010

Defining mobile learning for myself

Ok, so this blog is exclusively focussed on the use of mobile phones in learning (specifically ESL), but I'm still not sure I have a clear idea in my head of what Mobile Learning actually is. But I think that's fine because reading around the internet I'm not sure anyone really has a fully defined idea since it's very much a field under development and also constantly changing as new technology is introduced and new ways of using old technology are invented.

That's pretty vague I admit, so let's be a little more concrete. I was talking to a teacher from my school the other day about my mobile group and she was fairly upfront about her dislike of the concept - at least for her - and this largely stemmed from her experiences with students and mobile phones in class. You know, the furtive glancing at them under the desk, the phone ringing at an inopportune moment, all those things we hate about mobile phones as teachers. I think she felt that any kind of mobile learning would involve students messing around with mobile phones in class or her being sent lots of unwelcome SMSes from her students at strange times of day.

I didn't really disabuse her of this concept as I think she had already decided she wasn't that keen on the idea of mobile learning, but it did get me thinking about exactly what I thought I meant when I talked about mobile learning and I realised my own views were pretty shakey. However, it's important for me to start to develop a clearer concept of mobile learning if I am going to work out ways to implement it to help my students.

So, will mobile learning involve students 'messing around with cellphones in class'? I don't think so, or at least that should not be the primary conception behind mobile learning, though I can see some times when mobiles CAN be used in a focussed way in class or a lecture.

For example, I'm quite happy for my students to use the dictionaries on their phones to look up words and sometimes check pieces of information on the internet. Most teachers would be quite happy for students to look up things in physical dictionaries or encyclopedias in class and I see no major difference in the physical media they use to do that.

I can also see the use of mobile phones in lectures for students to provide feedback/comments to the lecturer in a comfortable environment. In previous posts I discussed the use of PollEverywhere as a means of conducting feedback or a questionnaire during a class/lecture and can see that as a great interactive tool. I also think that Twitter could be used quite effectively in lectures as a way of collecting questions or getting feedback from the students about the content/quality of the lecture. This video shows an example of this from the University of Texas.

But for me, these uses are secondary, largely because they are not really examples of mobile learning. They are still very much rooted in the classroom. My conception of mobile learning is something that takes place outside the classroom, when the student is on the bus, walking down the street,lying on their bed, having a coffee in Starbucks, sat in a dentist's waiting room. If I could define mobile learning it would be in a form of a little description of a learning moment for a student:

A student walks down the street and a sees an advert for something in English that contains words he's interested in but doesn't know. He takes a snapshot of the poster using the camera on his phone and then uses Google Goggles (see this post for how this works) to find out more info about the words, maybe getting a translation in the process. He then shares this picture or word via a private Twitter group with the other members of the class. The other members of the class (wherever they may be) share any further knowledge they have on this word/expression and add it to the Twitter thread. The teacher picks up on the thread, pulls up the Twitter page in the next lesson and then comments on the words or designs a short lesson based on it.

For me, mobile learning takes place outside the classroom but then is naturally fed back inside the classroom. It is also a social phenomenon, the wonderful thing about phones is that they are always on and (many) are always connected, so it's possible to share with others wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Mobile Learning's greatest role is to encourage and motivate students to understand that learning doesn't stop when they leave the classroom and there are many ways they can exploit their phones and other mobile technologies to learn on the go and share their learning with their peers and teacher.

I'm still very much in the process of learning how to do this as a teacher, I'm not even sure I've really begun to do this, but it's what I'm working towards. The next step for me is to convince one of my actual classes to take part in my mobile experiments and see how what they learn on their devices outside the classroom can feed back into it. I'm hoping to do this next term...


  1. Hi David, thanks for this thoughtful post.

    Coming up with a good definition of m-learning in our profession is exactly something that has been going around in my head recently. There is (as you point out) is a tendency to assume that m-learning means using mobile phones, but as you rightly say, this is a very narrow view of mobile learning. Perhaps if we used the word cell phones versus mobile learning we might not conflate the two quite so much!Perhaps they have this problem less in the US?!

    To pin my colours to the mast: mobile learning for me covers the spectrum from a more structured formal learning use of mobile devices in the classroom, right across to independent self-sufficient behaviour outside of the classroom by the learner, and totally independent of the teacher, such as listening to BBC podcasts on the bus.

    I just wanted to share with you this video of a project in a UK school where a class of 8-year old children were given iTouches, and how this was very effectively integrated into f2f teaching across the curriculum. IMHO, this is an example of a very effective way of integrating mobile learning into the (formal) face-to-face classroom, and using mobile devices as a real learning tool. Apologies if you already know this video, but I think it's fabulous :-)

    Nicky Hockly (Barcelona)

  2. Wow, thanks for the video Nicky, it's great. Actually made me think about buying an ipod touch myself to play around with some of the apps and see what's available!

    Like you, I have a broad definition of mobile learning, anything that 'frees' the students from the traditional constraints of the classroom and the less traditional constraints of a desktop computer is mobile in my view. I love the idea of students taking advantage of learning in odd situations (like you say, listening on the bus, or while waiting for your friend to arrive).

    In many ways I find those ideas of mobile learning much easier to grasp than the use of mobile devices in class. So far I've only really been able to get students to use them in class on a couple of occasions, once just for looking up words in a dictionary and another time for getting them to record themselves for pronunciation purposes. The stumbling block I frequently come up against is the plurality of devices (from very high-end to very low-end) and the range of payment plans they are on. It's not fair to expect them to expend money sending SMSes etc in class if they have to pay for them. If only I could get my school to shell out for a class set of devices like the ones in the video :-)

    Still, next term I am definitely going to extend my work in this area and try to get one of my groups to get on board with using mobile devices. This I think will make it easier to work with as I will be able to feed things we're doing in the classroom onto their phones/MP3 players etc. At the moment my mobile group is just a random collection of students from the school who volunteered to sign up for it. With a focussed group I will be able to talk to them, explain things better and really exploit the possibilities available...

    If you have any other success stories of mobile learning then I would love to hear them. I'm doing a presentation on the subject at the university in a month or so and would like some real life stories to convey and show.


  3. David - I'm collecting a few case studies and examples together for the presentation on mobile learning I'm doing at the upcoming IATEFL conference in Harrogate. I'm still at the reading and researching stage (gulp! The conf is in 10 days), and will be happy to share the final results and PowerPoint with you when it's ready. You could then use any of the case studies or quotes you like from that for your own university presentation. Would that be helpful?

    By the way, I must say I'm very impressed with the work you're doing with your students. I don't have my own face-to-face group of EFL learners at the moment to experiment with this kind of thing, so it's really fantastic to read about your hands on project, and your thoughts as this develops. I'm going to see what aspects of m-learning I can include myself in a face-to-face intensive two-week ICT teacher training course I will be running this July in Seville. So we can swap notes :-)

  4. Hey Nicky, would be very grateful if you shared the Powerpoint with me, would certainly help with the presentation.

    Thanks for your kind words. Like you I was involved in teacher training for the last four or five years and I found it quite frustrating at times not being able to put into practice a lot of the ideas I had about teaching because I wasn't actually teaching any classes! It's been quite liberating starting this new job here in Sheffield and having the time and opportunity to try out some of these things.

    I think students are ready for mobile learning, you can see at our school with the ubiquity of mobile devices and how much students use them. If teachers were just willing to try to channel that interest into learning I think great things could happen. I hope we can continue to swap and share ideas about what can be done in and out of the classroom with mobile devices. The course in Seville sounds interesting and look forward to hearing more about it.

    All the best