Monday, September 10, 2012

What IS mLearning anyway?

One of the first things to deal with when tackling any topic is quantifying what we are talking about.  Since this is MobiMOOC, one of the key terms that ought to come up in the discussion is what exactly is mobile learning?  This discussion did indeed come up yesterday (see forum here).

Let me just say that mLearning definitions are probably incomplete and they are subject to an ever evolving understanding of what constitutes mobility and learning.  Initial definitions were very hardware-centric and hardware-specific, and chances are the further back you go, the more hardware-centric and specific they are. This is fine because those definitions comes from a point in time when mLearning was the new kid on the block and we probably looked at demonstrable instances of mobile usage, and that happened to be mobile phones and PDAs.

Clive asks some pretty interesting questions (and these are questions that I've heard in the past).

  • If I use my laptop on a bus or train, as I do daily, why is that not mobile learning (I am actually moving)? 
  • If I sit at a PC in an internet cafe in a foreign city, that is probably mlearning.
  • If I use my tablet, most usually somewhere other that at my office desk, why on earth is that not mobile learning?

For what it's worth mobile learning is not just about your location (i.e. how mobile you are).  If that were the case, we could claim that mobile learning is anywhere you can take a book and a notebook to. Thus, by this logic we've had mobile learning for ages, and that's the end of that :-).  However this is not the case.  Just because you can take your laptop to your neighborhood café and work on your LMS-based course there, doesn't mean you are doing mLearning.  You are indeed mobile, and you are learning, but you aren't mLearning.

Several key factors are important (at least for me, based on the literature I've read on mLearning) and those include:
  • A device that is always with you.  For some people it's their phone, for others it's their MP3 player, and for others it's their iPad.  I, for example, take my phone 99.99% of the time anywhere I go.  I take my iPad with me 80% of the places I go.
  • mLearning is also NOT about replicating what currently exists in eLearning on desktops (neither Web-based training of Computer-based training).  I had a good friend of mine (and instructional designer) claim that we can't teach about mLearning until Flash runs on the iPad and everyone has iPads.  This is just wrong thinking. With different devices come different affordances, and you play to the strengths of the device, as relating to the environment that the device is used in and the content that needs to be learned.  Remember, not all learning can or should be mLearning.
  • mLearning isn't about content-learner interaction.  mLearning is about the interaction of the environment, the learner, the content and the social connections (either physical or virtual). Things such as QR codes, augmented reality, mobile enabled LMS and Social Networks (from the software side) and cameras, NFC readers, wifi and 3G access capability and other hardware offer opportunities on mobile devices that one can't get with a laptop (but could presumably get with a tablet).

Finally, the sticky point: tablets. Are they part of mLearning or not?  My colleague Rebecca has posted an interesting post over at her blog on Tablet Learning (good read! :-) ). I would have to say that the jury is out on this.  Tablets (Kindle Fire, Nexus 8 and iPad for example) do offer many of the same affordances as smartphones that run the same OS as they do, but are they part of mLearning?  As far as my own usage goes, I would say yes - because I do take my iPad with me 80% of the time.  For other people the answer may be "no" because they just don't take their tablet with them at all.

Interesting discussion!  What do you think?
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