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This page was originally authored by Marjorie del Mundo, solo (2009). This page was edited by Jonathan Strang, solo (2011).

File:LG Viewty Smart in Use.jpg
Scenario: Student using smartphones to interact with note-taking applications during a class session. Photo used under a CC licence

M-Learning, or mobile learning, is a subset of e-Learning that uses wireless, portable and handheld technologies including laptops, table computers, smartphones and other wireless computing devices to provide learning experience in more dynamic environments. This field of learning is sometimes also referred to as mobile computing education. M-Learning lays the framework for more exploration into the intersection of education and technology (Ally, 2009; McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2002; Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula, & Sharples, 2004; Quinn, 2004). M-Learning affords flexibility and accessibility which some have described as learning that occurs "anywhere, anytime, anyplace and on any mobile platform" (Arreymbi, Agbor & Dastbaz, 2008, p. 5114; Ally, 2004, p. 5; Maniar, 2007, p. 881).

History of M-Learning

M-Learning technology timeline
Year Technology
1970’s Dynabook, Xerox Alto, Texas Instruments Speak & Spell
1980’s Xerox Star, Apple Macintosh
1990’s Windows PCs, Laptop PCs, PDAs
2000’s Wireless communication, Netbooks, PDAs, MP3 Players, OLPC XO Computer
2010’s Smartphones, Tablet Computers ]

Source: History of Mobile Learning

Each of the different technologies that have been developed since the 1970’s share common characteristics for educational design. These characteristics include personal, informal, highly interactive, and collaborative learning that can occur at anytime, anywhere. The dynamic simulations presented by each technology encourage learning through play (Sharples, 2007). More recent technologies have focused on greater interactivity with the environment including location-awareness (often using GPS technology), constant connectivity, and limitless access to data and information (Kroski 2008).

Characteristics of M-Learning

M-Learning can be analyzed through the lens of learning categories and the learning activities that if affords.

Categories of M-Learning

There are some clear categories of mobile learning emerging (Traxler 2009). These include:

  • Technology-driven mobile learning wherein the technology is introduced into the classroom to show feasibility
  • Portable e-learning. Devices are used to replicate conventional e-learning. This may include making material and learning environments already accessible on desktop computers available on mobile devices.
  • Connected classroom learning: Mobiles are used in classroom settings and perhaps interact with other classroom technologies (e.g. iClickers).
  • Informal, personalized, situated mobile learning: Mobile technology is used to enable location-aware delivery of educational experiences outside the classroom setting.
  • Mobile training/performance support: Technology is used to improve the productivity and efficiency of people working in a mobile environment.
  • Remote/rural/development learning: Technologies are used to address an infrastructure gap where traditional e-learning technologies would fail (e.g. lack of wired infrastructure for electricity or internet).

Learning Activities

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Mobile note-taking application Evernote allows students to upload new notes, pictures, and sounds and retrieve notes by location.

Learning Activities

There are a number of e-learning activities that are particularly enabled by mobile technologies (Patten et al, 2006). These include:


  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • Web forums
  • Email and text Messages
  • Beaming and sharing information
  • Voice over IP (e.g. Skype)

Location Aware

  • Downloading contextual reference information
  • Downloading contextual information in situ
  • Using GPS

Data Collection

  • Recording audio notes
  • Recording sounds to identify later
  • Writing notes
  • Camera to create images for reflection


  • Serendipitous web browsing
  • Dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia
  • Consulting e-books
  • Course material
  • Podcasts


  • making flash cards
  • Using bespoke software


  • Study planning
  • Recording performances or results
  • Calendar and scheduling
  • Storing passwords
  • Storing confidential information

Challenges of M-Learning

Some of the social, educational and technical challenges of m-Learning include (Ally, 2004; Gerth, 2003; Landers, 2002; Maniar, 2007):

  • Learning distractions
  • Ethical issues such as:
    • privacy
    • content ownership
    • bullying
  • Costs such as:
    • Expensive wireless connection fees, especially for Smartphones or any mobile device requiring an Internet connection using 3G or WiFi.
    • Support for certain devices
    • Upgrading lost, broken or obsolescent hardware
  • Design and user issues such as:
    • Small screen size
    • Lessons that are not well-designed, leading to navigation and interface issues
    • Limited memory capacity in smaller devices such as cell phones or audio players
    • Operating system (OS) or file incompatibility
    • Synchronization with other devices

To address and overcome these challenges, instructional designers and administrators must consider the impact the learning devices and materials will have on various learning styles (Ally, 2004, p. 7).

Instructional Design for M-Learning

Technology used in mobile learning has many constraints that should be reflected in instructional design (Ally, 2009). These include:

  • Technology should be easy to use and unobtrusive.
  • Use of presentation strategies that allow learners to process material efficiently on a limited screen display (e.g. use of a single column to represent text).
  • Organization of content into smaller chunks to facilitate consumption of ideas and there should be greater use of organizers to allow learners to make sense of content and a good interface to allow for navigation.
  • Information should be organized in visual concept maps emphasizing important concepts and showing their relationship to other main points.
  • Learning materials should take the form of learning objects which are electronically available and reusable.

Many of these design features share point in common with ubquitous computing, a term coined by Mark Weiser to refer to the process of removing the technological interface from the user’s awareness when undertaking tasks.

Advantages and opportunities

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Woman using her mobile phone to capture an image for future study, use in a project, to share with peers, or for review.

Advantages for learners

Mobile learning, like e-learning, is more informal since it embeds learning in everyday life and can take place outside the classroom (Arreymbi et al., 2008; Naismith et al., 2004).

Activities in a mobile learning environment are enhanced by three factors:

  • the timely and contextual retrieval of relevant information (Diermyer & Blakesley 2009);
  • the juxtaposition of formal learning objectives with an informal setting (Pachler et al 2010);
  • the ability to digitally annotate and comment upon real world surroundings (Sharples, Taylor & Vavoula 2010).

Advantages for educators

Advantages to educators include the use of mobile devices for attendance reporting, reviewing student marks, general access of central school data, and managing their schedules more effectively. In higher education, mobile devices can provide course material to students, including due dates for assignments and information about timetable and room changes (Naismith et al., 2004, p. 4).

Opportunities for M-Learning

Mobile devices, in particular smartphones and MP3 players, are increasingly carried around by “Digital Natives” in pockets, purses and backpacks. M-Learning opportunities in small portable devices include voice capabilities, audio clips, video clips, short message system (SMS), global positioning systems (GPS), Internet browsing, cameras, file transfers (Prensky, 2004) and Bluetooth. Computing capacities continue to increase as processor, storage and memory capacities increase.

Gay (2009) notes the "kairos effect" of mobile technology. The kairos effect is defined as the ability for mobile technology to deliver the most persuasive message at the most opportune time. The personal bond that many smartphone users feel with their mobile devices, referred to metaphorically as a marriage by some scholars, only amplifies the kairos effect.

Theoretical examples associated with M-learning

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Koole's FRAME Model as depicted in Ally, 2009.

Koole's FRAME Model

The Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME) model is one standard for analyzing the process of mobile learning. Koole (2005) represents the aspects of mobile learning as a Venn Diagram representing intersections between device usability, learner, and the social aspects of learning. Mobile learning takes advantage of the context of the device with respect to individual learners, the ability of the device to interact with the environment as well as with other learners with mobile devices.


As learning technologies, computers have had their roots in behaviourist theories where learners are encouraged to have more control over how they learn (Arreymbi et al., 2008). Classtalk and Qwizdom are examples of classroom response systems that enable instructors to present a question or problem to the class where students must answer each question using a specific device. Responses are collected immediately and summarized for the instructors for formative assessment. Such activities help promote learning through examination of the learner's actions (Naismith et al., 2004, p. 3).

Gay (2009) posits that there is a dialectic between social mobile applications and the real world, with the virtual world complementing and supplementing real world spaces through added information, navigation and social understanding. It is this last aspect that he explores in greater detail in his studies in human-computer interaction (HCI) at the art museum at Cornell. Participants used software for displaying location and mood to create a sense of presence within the museum. While location and emotion-recording technologies allowed participants to create a sense of place, it also created social influence through comparison and motivation.


Learning experiences such as "participatory simulations" enable learners to act out key parts in an immersive, dynamic system. Such applications include ARIS, an "augmented reality" (AR) application created by scholars and researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison that presents students with a simulation scenario where they must collect information and create goals or solutions for a problem (Diermyer and Blakesley 2009; cf. MIT, 2008; Naismith et al, 2004, p. 3). Another example of constructivist m-Learning is Apple iTunes U, now used by UBC at UBC on iTunes U, which allows the distribution of digital lessons to students.


Conversational learning happens when students question the structure of discourse, interpret symbols, act on description of goals, and adjust actions to fit the tasks assigned. Mobile technology can enable a rich environment in which these types of conversations can happen. Conversational theory draws heavily upon semiotics to argue that there is a discourse of representation between mobile technologies and the context in which they are used, forming a dialectic of understanding. One example of conversational theory in M-Learning is the MOBIlearn project in the Uffizi Museum in Florence (Sharples & Vavoula 2010). That project discovered that the users developed new conversational strategies in the museum (portrayed by the authors as "sacred space") through the backchannel discourse created by mobile devices.


Situated learning consists of activities where learning occurs in an authentic context and culture. Because mobile devices have context-aware applications available in a variety of contexts, they are appropriate tools for situated learning. Museums and galleries employ context-aware mobile devices to help provide information about particular exhibits (Berri, Benlamri, & Atif, 2006; Naismith et al, 2004; Wakkary et al., 2004). Situated Learning has also been used by M-Learning language projects, particular the Danish school, to encourage formal language use outside the classroom in informal situations (Bo-Kristensen et al 2009).


Collaborative learning promotes learning through social interaction and originates from research on computer-supported collaborative work and learning (CSCW/L). One theory that is not linked to collaborative learning but is significant for mobile devices is conversation theory, which describes learning as conversations between different systems of knowledge (Naismith et al., 2004, p. 3).

Morgan, Butler and Power (2007) describe how the Nintendo DS provides affordances and applications such as Pictochat that could support collaborative learning activities for small groups of learners. The context-aware device also supports situated learning by detecting if players with similar game titles are in the area (p. 721). Such opportunities can help build communities of practice. Notable communities of practice include the University of Wollongong's New Technologies, New Pedagogies M-Learning group and the Abile Christian University Mobile Learning project.

The Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile developed a program called Mobile Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (MCSCL) which studied the use of wireless handheld computers in schools, teacher training and with university students. The study found that MCSCL provided significant differences in learning outcomes (Sharples, 2007).

See also

M-learning in Africa


  • Ally, M. (2009). Introduction. In Ally, M. (Ed.) Mobile Learning: Transforming the Delivery of Education and Training. Edmonton: AU Press (pp. 1-8).
  • Arreymbi, J., Agbor, E. & Dastbaz, M. (2008). Mobile-Education - A paradigm shift with Technology. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 5114-5122). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved February 17, 2009 from the ED/ITLib Database.
  • Bo-Kristensen, M., Ole Ankerstjerne, N., Neutzsky-Wulff, C., & Schelde, H. (2009). Mobile city and language guides - new links between formal and informal learning environments. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 7(2), 85-91.
  • Corbeil, R., Pan, C., Sullivan, M. & Butler, J. (2007). Enhancing E-learning through M-learning: Are You Ready to Go Mobile?. In C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2007 (pp. 273-280). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved February 17, 2009 from the ED/ITLib Database.
  • Gay, G. (2009). Context-Aware mobile computing: Affordances of space, social awareness, and social influence. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics, 2(1), 1-62. UBC: Online Access.
  • Gerth, B. (2003). Mobile Computing: Experiences and Issues. In D. Lassner & C. McNaught (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2003 (pp. 2580-2583). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved February 17, 2009 from the ED/ITLib Database.
  • Koole, M. 2006. Framework for the rational analysis of mobile education (FRAME): A model for evaluating mobile learning devices. Thesis, Centre for Distance Education, Athabasca University.
  • Kroski, E. (2008). On the move with the mobile Web: Libraries and mobile technologies. Library Technology Reports, 44(5), 1-48.
  • Maniar, N. (2007). M-learning to teach university students. In C. Montgomerie & J. Seale (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2007 (pp. 881-887). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved February 17, 2009 from the ED/ITLib Database.
  • Pachler, N., Bachmair, B., Cook, J., & Kress, G. R. (2010). Mobile learning : Structures, agency, practices (illustrated ed.). New York: Springer. UBC: Online Access, ISBN: 978-1441905840.
  • Patten, B., I. Arnedillo Sanchez, and B. Tangney. 2006. Designing collaborative, constructionist and contextual applications for handheld devices. Computers & Education 46 (3):294-308.
  • Trifonova, A. & Ronchetti, M. (2005). Hoarding Content in an M-Learning System. In P. Kommers & G. Richards (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2005 (pp. 4786-4794). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved February 17, 2009 from the ED/ITLib Database.
  • Traxler, J. (2009). Current State of Mobile Learning. In Ally, M. (Ed.) Mobile Learning: Transforming the Delivery of Education and Training. Edmonton: AU Press (pp. 9-24).
  • Wakkary, R., Muise, K., Tanenbaum, K., Hatala, M. & Kornfeld, L. (2004). Situating Approaches to Museum Guides for Families and Groups. In International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Retrieved February 18, 2009

Further Reading

External Links