M-Learning via the iPhone 4 – some approaches and technologies

Last time, I investigated mobile learning (m-learning) in the context of its parent domain e-learning and I outlined some types and characteristics of devices that enable the delivery of m-learning to users. In this post, I will look at the some of the learning theories that support learning distribution by this channel.

Now read on…

In their 2004 paper Literature Review in Mobile Technologies and Learning (Naismith, Lonsdale,  Sharples &  Vavoula), consider the importance of taking an approach to m-learning that

moves away from the dominant view of mobile learning as an isolated activity to explore mobile learning as a rich, collaborative and conversational experience, whether in classrooms, homes or the streets of a city. …how we might draw on existing theories of learning to help us evaluate the most relevant applications of mobile technologies.


Table 1. Applying Learning Theories to M-Learning (after Naismith et al, 2004)

Learning TheoryActivity TypeDescription
BehavioristActivities that promote learning as a change in learners’ observable actionsIn the behaviorist paradigm, learning is thought to be best facilitated through the reinforcement of an association between a particular stimulus and a response.

Applying this to educational technology, computer-aided learning is the presentation of a problem (stimulus) followed by the contribution on the part of the learner of the solution (response). Feedback from the system then provides reinforcement.

ConstructivistActivities in which learners actively construct new ideas or concepts based on both their previous and current knowledgeIn the constructivist approach, learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based on both their current and past knowledge. Learners are encouraged to be active constructors of knowledge, with mobile devices now embedding them in a realistic context at the same time as offering access to supporting tools.

The most compelling examples of the implementation of constructivist principles with mobile technologies come from a brand of learning experience termed ‘participatory simulations’, where the learners themselves act out key parts in an immersive recreation of a dynamic system.

SituatedActivities that promote learning within an authentic context and cultureSituated learning posits that learning can be enhanced by ensuring that it takes place in an authentic context. Mobile devices are especially well suited to context-aware applications simply because they are available in different contexts, and so can draw on those contexts to enhance the learning activity.

The museum and gallery sector has been on the forefront of context-aware mobile computing by providing additional information about exhibits and displays based on the visitor’s location within them.

CollaborativeActivities that promote learning through social interactionCollaborative learning has sprung out from research on Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Learning (CSCW/L) and is based on the role of social interactions in the process of learning.

Many new approaches to thinking about learning developed in the 1990s, most of which are rooted in Vygotsky’s socio-cultural psychology (Vygotsky 1978), including activity theory.

Though not traditionally linked with collaborative learning, another theory that is particularly relevant to our consideration of collaboration using mobile devices is conversation theory (Pask 1976), which describes learning in terms of conversations between different systems of knowledge.

Mobile devices can support Mobile Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (MCSCL) by providing another means of coordination without attempting to replace any human-human interactions, as compared to say, online discussion boards which substitute for face-to-face discussions (Zurita et al 2003; Cortez et al 2004; Zurita and Nussbaum 2004).

Informal and non-formalActivities that support learning outside a dedicated learning environment and formal curriculumResearch on informal and lifelong
learning recognizes that learning happens all of the time and is influenced both by our environment and the particular situations we are faced with. Informal learning may be intentional, for example, through intensive, significant and deliberate learning ‘projects’ (Tough 1971), or it may be accidental, by acquiring information through conversations, TV and newspapers, observing the world or even experiencing an accident or embarrassing situation.

Such a broad view of learning takes it outside the classroom and, by default, embeds learning in everyday life, thus emphasizing the value of mobile technologies in supporting it.

Learning and teaching supportActivities that assist in the coordination of learners and resources for learning activitiesEducation as a process relies on a great deal of coordination of learners and resources. Mobile devices can be used by teachers 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.

As yet there is no comprehensive ‘grand theory of mobile learning’ – nor do I expect that there will be any time soon. As I move forward through this series of posts, one of the areas I will consider is integrating pedagogy for the use of mobile devices that in a number of areas. In much the same way as we have many categories of devices, we will discover that there are many ways to integrate learning on mobile devices using a number of instructional designs, developmental approaches and delivery models. I support the view that  one of the great strengths of m-learning (and indeed e-learning) is it’s facility to transcend traditional learning environments like the classroom or training center, and to combine different elements in ways that are appropriate to the learning activities to be supported.




Cortez, C., Nussbaum, M., Santelices, R,. Rodríguez, P., Zurita, G., Correa, M. and Cautivo, R. (2004) Teaching science with mobile computer supported collaborative learning (MCSCL). Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Wireless and Mobile Technologies in Education. JungLi, Taiwan: IEEE Computer Society, 67-74

Naismith, L., Lonsdale, P., Vavoula, G. and Sharples, M.  (2004) Literature Review in Mobile Technologies and Learning. NESTA Futurelab Series, Report 11. [Internet] Available from: http://www.futurelab.org.uk/research/lit_reviews.htm Accessed 15 February 2009.

Pask, AGS (1976) Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevier

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society. Edited by Cole, M. John-Steiner, V. Scribner, Souberman, E. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

Zurita, G, Nussbaum, M and Sharples, M. (2003) Encouraging face-to-face collaborative learning through the use of hand-held computers in the classroom. Proceedings of Mobile HCI 2003, Udine, Italy: Springer-Verlag, 193-208

Zurita, G., Nussbaum, M (2004) Computer supported collaborative learning using wirelessly interconnected hand-held computers. Computers & Education, 42(3): 289-314