Theories for Mobile Learning

Current Theories Impacting Mobile Learning

by Mark Sivy

In 1999, the US National Research Council research efforts led to the conclusion that effective learning processes are:

  • Learner-centered, building on the skills and knowledge of students, enabling them to reason from their own experience;
  • Knowledge-centered, using a curriculum based on a sound foundation of validated knowledge that is taught efficiently through the creative use of concepts and methods;
  • Assessment-centered, ensuring instruction that matches the ability of the learners and offering diagnosis and formative guidance that builds on success; and
  • Community-centered, placing learners within a mutually supportive community, sharing knowledge and supporting less capable students.


Mobile Learning Characteristics

In today’s mobile environment, these “centricities” can be addressed by ensuring that learning blends being:

  • Personalized
  • Ubiquitous
  • Distributed
  • Validated
  • On-demand
  • Networked (social)
  • Informal
  • Lifelong

This translates into the notion that the development of mobile learning content and selection of technology be focused by the needs, flexibilities, and desires of the learner.

Situated Learning

Some Theories

Given this framework, there are several current theories that can be applied or adapted to the production of mobile learning. The focus here is to present a selection of these that provide a solid footing in the design and delivery of mobile learning:

  • Personal Constructivism – learning is an active process in which learners construct new idea or concepts based on their experience and knowledge.
  • Situated Learning – a process of unintentional and situated learning through activity, context, and social participation.
  • Social Constructivism – a form of constructivist learning in social settings where learning takes place within a group setting through observation and collaboration.
  • Problem-based Learning – interactively developed problem-solving skills that coincide with the on-demand acquisition of needed skills and knowledge.

Reflection Point – “With Knowledge on Demand, it’s easy for agents to access tools they can use to stay sharp professionally.”    ~ Karen Barone

National Research Council. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


Pedagogy for Mobile Learning

Pedagogical Framework for Mobile Learning

by Mark Sivy

mobile learningIn searching for research-based information on developing mobile learning that coincided with my existing mobile learning beliefs and practices, I came across a very good article that has been done by Yeonjeong Park (2011) at Virginia Tech. She presents a framework that places existing mobile learning studies into four categories, which I’d like to share with you:

Type 1

High transactional distance and socialized mobile learning activity

  • Compared to a traditional setting, learners have a large communication and psychological separation (transactional distance) from the instructor
  • Learners work, communicate and collaborate between themselves
  • Content and activity guidance is received through mobile channels
  • Most learning activity occurs between learners

Smartphone learningType 2

High transactional distance and individualized mobile learning activity

  • Same separation from the instructor as Type 1
  • Individual learners are given concise structure and content
  • Individual learners control their learning process
  • Interactions are primarily between the individual learner and the content

Type 3

Low transactional distance and socialized mobile learning activity

  • Less transactional distance than the previous two types
  • Loosely defined content and structure
  • Learners solve problems with each other in groups
  • Interaction is more focused on social learning and communication

Type 4

Low transactional distance and individualized mobile learning activity

  • Less transactional distance
  • Loosely defined content and structure
  • Individual learners interact directly with instructor
  • Instructor leads and controls learning

A critical takeaway from this very useful information is the concept of transactional distance and its implications. Even though this is commonly associated with online and mobile learning, it also exists within the physical learning space of a classroom, lecture hall or laboratory.

Mobile Learning 1Given the four types of mobile learning that Ms. Park presented, these should each be used as needed depending upon the content and expected learning outcomes. For instance, during the term of a single course that is offered as mobile learning, each type may be used at different times. Mobile learning is much more complex and strategic than simply making course content and instructions available on a smartphone.

“Email, instant messaging, and cell phones give us fabulous communication ability, but because we live and work in our own little worlds, that communication is totally disorganized.”          ~ Marylyn vos Savant

Park, Y. (2011). A pedagogical framework for mobile learning: Categorizing educational applications of mobile technologies into four types. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(2), 78-102.


Mobile Learning Resources

Mobile Learning Resources

By Mark Sivy

Here are links to a few mobile learning resources that I’ve used over the years. I hope they prove to be as useful to you as they were to me.


M-learning or mobile learning is defined as “learning across multiple contexts, through social and content interactions, using personal electronic devices.” A form of e-learning distance education, m-learners can use mobile device educational technology in…


Today over 6 billion people have access to a connected mobile device and for every one person who accesses the internet from a computer two do so from a mobile device. Mobile technology is changing the way we live and…

Mobile Learning Blog

I’ve been writing about QR Codes in education for the last five years, on this blog, as well as in a few published and formal papers. Recently, I have been seeing some buzz around QR Codes in education, and without meaning in any way to…

Mobile Learning Portal

This website, hosted by the Learning Technology Center in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, is designed to be a central point of access to the wide range of research, projects, and other resources related to the use of mobile technologies in learning environments. As it continues to…

mobile learningMobile Learning Handbook

This ADL Mobile Learning Handbook is a compilation of mobile learning resources. It is geared towards instructional designers, developers, project managers, and stakeholders to help them better understand the issues, opportunities, and best practices in mobile learning. It is not…

Tribal is a global thought leader in m-learning. We have been active in mobile empowerment and learning since 2001, working to widen opportunities for learning through the use of mobile technologies. If you are looking for strategic advice and support with mobile pedagogy and technologies, or…

International Association for Mobile Learning

IAmLearn is a membership organization to promote excellence in research, development and application of mobile and contextual learning. It organizes the annual mLearn international conference series and manages the website to collate and disseminate information about new projects, emerging technologies, and…

mLearning Design

Mobile Learning Design

by Mark Sivy

Preparing content and resources for mobile learning requires specialized design practices that address its unique characteristics. Some of these are:

  • smartphoneMust be readily available to access from a growing array of portable digital devices.
  • Addresses immediate personal learning needs.
  • Allows for content retrieval to be self-directed and self-paced.
  • Empowers the learner to take more responsibility for their learning.
  • Facilitates immediate learner collaboration and communication.

The development of mobile learning requires the consideration of multiple points. So for starters, a general recommendation that can be applied at all levels is to Keep It Simple. Overall, the design should be clean, easy to navigate, and ubiquitously functional. Remember mobile learning is NOT about adapting or squeezing entire e-learning courses for delivery to a mobile device, but is more about just-in-time or chunked information. The design and development needs to be originally created for mobile learning, and every learning situation is unique.

Before getting into specifics, here are some overarching considerations to get you thinking:

  • Know the digital devices the learners will be using. What operating systems will be used? Will the content stream through wireless or mobile services? What size screens do the devices have?
  • Know the recipients of the content. Will they be teenagers, young adults, or adults? What languages do they speak? Are they full-time learners or employees? Are there any accessibility considerations?
  • Know your development tools and formats. Will the content be text, audio, or video? What screen orientation will be used? Will Flash or HTML5 be used and how? Are your development technologies supportive of mobile device content?
  • Know the subject matter and how it is best presented. How interactive should it be? What learning theories will be applied? How can it be chunked for mobile learning? What strategies will be used to present and connect the chunks into a course learning sequence?

Now getting down to the nitty gritty, there are several developmental elements that need to be considered. Next you will find these elements and some associated points for each.

The Learner

  • Hold each learning segment to a maximum of 10 minutes.
  • Navigation ButtonsKeep scrolling to a minimum.
  • Try to avoid external links, but notify the learners if you use them.
  • If you quiz, keep questions and responses short.
  • Consider how the learner will input or interact with the device.
  • Involve learners in development and usability testing.

The Technology

  • The interface should be simple and intuitive.
  • Try to use formats that are cross-compatible with multiple devices.
  • If a specific device will be used (i.e., iPad or Chromebook), then research and design accordingly.
  • Be considerate of bandwidth limitations.
  • Optimize audio and video files or files that will be downloaded.

VisualsThe Visual Design

  • Use a white background
  • Keep the visuals and font clean and simple
  • Use images instead of descriptive text when possible
  • Don’t use text in images
  • Apply bold and strong visuals
  • Keep font no less than 12pt
  • Use large, well-place buttons

The Content Design

  • Mobile Visual DesignKeep text focused, relevant, and minimalistic.
  • Be creative.
  • Apply appropriate learning theories and guidelines.
  • Use an agile learning development process combined with an instructional systems design approach such as ADDIE.
  • Have developers and learners preview the design.

Reflection Point – “One training event is not sufficient for people to transfer learning to new situations. If you are seeking strong retention and learning transfer, people need distributed learning and performance support.” ~ Connie Malamed

Mobile Learning Benefits and Challenges

Mobile Learning – Here Are Some Benefits and Challenges to Consider

by Mark Sivy

Mobile learning is not intended or expected to be THE answer to current issues surrounding education. It must also be remembered that mobile learning is a subset of e-Learning and it is synonymous online learning (see my previous post titled Introducing Mobile Learning). Beyond a formal definition of mobile learning, think of it essentially as on-demand, in-the-moment learning through social and information connections made using mobile digital devices such as smartphones and tablets. It is NOT simply online learning on a mobile device. An example would be a gardener-intern using a smartphone to identify an unknown plant parasite and find the most current information about natural means of pest control. From my perspective, mobile learning allows us to address memory lapses, fill knowledge gaps, or support a more formal learning which is or had occurred in a traditional or online learning scenario.





Some benefits of mobile learning are that it can:

  • Occur on readily available, easy-to-carry portable devices.
  • Fit into personal needs more easily and quickly than traditional or online learning.
  • Be self-directed and self-paced, thus allowing learners the opportunity to speed up, slow down, and review content at an individual pace or as needed.
  • Improve self-esteem and self-efficacy.
  • Decrease training costs.
  • Empower the learner to take more responsibility for their learning.
  • Accommodate personal preferences.
  • Can be learner-centered by diversifying learning activities.
  • Allow learners to overcome geographic barriers.
  • Compensate for personal restrictions, challenges, or limitations.
  • Facilitate immediate learner collaboration and communication.
  • Be used to create peer community and support which enhance learning.
  • Allow for broader learning opportunities and course options at a lower cost to the learner.
  • Enable global awareness, community, networking and resources.
  • Provide tools which allow for tracking, analyzing, reporting, and improving instruction and learning.

On the other side, some challenges of mobile learning are:

  • There is a problem developing learning content and programs across multiple operating systems, screen sizes, and device capabilities
  • Learners who procrastinate or are poorly self-motivated be disadvantaged and less likely to succeed.
  • Non-verbal communication such as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact will typically be missing.
  • Addressing policies, procedures, compliance requirements, technology application updates, and business updates.
  • Barriers can exist initially for learners due to the need for new skills which are associated with using technologies and new ways of learning.
  • It is more difficult to interact or communicate with individuals who tend to be unresponsive.
  • Learners may miss face-to-face social contact and interaction, can feel isolated, or may need in-person instructor-learner interaction.
  • Subject matter experts or instructors may not always be available on demand.
  • Slow or unreliable network or wireless connections can present issues and frustration.
  • It often requires a difficult change in attitudes and beliefs by leaders, learners, instructors, and instructional designers.
  • There is a reduction in opportunities to develop oral communication skills and other social dynamics.

Reflection Point – “Instructional designers need to run, not walk, away from classroom-thinking and get to the point of providing short, quick business focused learning points that are easily accessible when and where our learners need them. This means leveraging new technologies to deliver non-traditional instruction.” ~ Karl Kapp



Mobile Learning Basis

Mobile Learning Basis – Internet Growth

by Mark Sivy

Keeping in mind that mobile learning is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance through various contexts and interactions by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological and educational processes and resources, it is dependent upon the Internet. In this post, I’ll discuss the impact of the Internet on online learning in general. Mobile learning is a subset of online learning, which will be discussed in my next post.

The use of the Internet for purposes of communication and information has experienced rapid growth during the past two decades. The 2013 Pew Internet Use Survey results show that over 86% of all adults (18+ years of age) in the United States are connected to the Internet, whereas in 1995 it was 14%. The Miniwatts Marketing Group maintains global Internet usage statistics, which indicated in June 2012 that over 34% of the global population were connected to the Internet and that this indicated a 566% increase since 2000.

Internet UseThe point made by this Internet usage information is that the path is for the broad use of the Internet as a conduit for mobile learning is widening. In a 2012 global Internet user survey by the Internet Society, 98% of the participants agreed that the Internet is essential for access to education and knowledge.

World Internet Penetration 2012Evidence indicates that the use of the Internet for education is steadily increasing and has seen the fastest growth in higher education. An August 2011 Pew Research Center survey, The Digital Revolution and Higher Education, found that 77% of colleges and 89% of four-year universities of offer online courses. Also reflecting this growth in online courses is a Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group report, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2013, which found that over 7.1 million higher education students (33.5%) took at least one online course in the Fall 2013 term. In terms of fully online higher education institutions, the Online Education Database organization currently contains reviews of over 1847 higher education schools in the US that offer online courses.

Mobile learningIn the K-12 setting, there has also been a rapid increase in the use of online courses and resources. There is an increasing emphasis on online and blended courses and online learning systems, such as found in the National Education Technology Plan, released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010. A Project Tomorrow survey report, Learning in the 21st Century: 2011 Trends Update, found that three times as many high school students and twice as many middle school students are learning online as compared to the original 2007 report. It was also noted that in 2011, 27% of all high school students took at least on class online. In Project Tomorrow’s 2013 Trends in Online Learning Virtual, Blended and Flipped Classrooms, it is reported that 43% of US school districts offer access to online courses. In iNACOL’s 2013 Fast Facts About Online Learning states that five states – Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, Virginia, and Michigan – require online learning for students in the public schools. According to the Evergreen Education Group’s 2013 Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning Report, 26 states have state-led virtual schools, 24 states have blended schools, 30 states have fully online schools, and the number of private online learning options is increasing.

Online learning is also playing an important role in the multi-billion dollar corporate training industry as seen in articles such as one at Forbes and another at CNBC. These articles and others indicate the robust adoption of online learning as an active component of corporate training and development efforts. An infographic at the e-Learning Industry website claims that in 2013, 77% of American corporations were using online learning. Global Industry Analysts, Inc. projects that by 2015, education and corporate e-learning will be a US$107 billion industry.

Mobile learning is a variation of online learning which takes into account both the benefits and limitations of mobile devices, typically a tablet or smartphone. Even though the concept of mobile learning (or m-learning as it is often called) has become one of the latest buzzwords in academic and corporate settings, it’s been around for many years with its roots set in scientific visions of the future and science fiction. Today’s perspective of mobile learning is based upon the growing availability of broadband Internet access and the proliferation of Wi-Fi and mobile services such as 3G and 4G.

mobile device

Image courtesy of

Reflection Point – “The next big killer application on the Internet is going to be education.” ~John Chambers

Introducing Mobile Learning

Introducing Mobile Learning

by Mark Sivy

mobile learningAn agreed upon definition for mobile learning is as elusive as those for many other contemporary terms such as e-learning, virtual learning, and web-based learning. For purposes of orientation to mobile learning, I decided to build upon the 2008 Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) description of educational technology. So mobile learning can be comprehensively explained as:

“The study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance through various contexts and interactions by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological and educational processes and resources.”

From this rudimentary definition, one can see that mobile learning incorporates complex relationships between multiple factors. Some keywords in this definition are:

  • Study – having knowledge of learning theory and research that are associated with the use of educational technologies.
  • Various Contexts and Interactions – these can provide abundant learning opportunities, but also present many of the unknowns, barriers and issues that can arise.
  • Ethical Practice – increasing the likelihood of attaining intended learning outcomes by being responsible, maintaining a respect for of learner abilities and progress, applying appropriate methodologies, and using principled intentionality when innovating.
  • Appropriate Technological and Educational Processes and Resources – even with a valid need guiding the selection of technology and instructional methodology, the combined implementation can sometimes result in instructional complications and learning issues if the overall strategies are not well-planned.

mobile learningMobile learning is playing an increasingly important role in the learning process by providing the means for convenient learning using a broad range of mobile devices (e.g. laptops, tablets, and smartphones) at a time and location of the learner’s choice. Mobile learning can provide personalized learning advantages to younger learners and can facilitate many aspects of the flipped classroom. When offering learning opportunities for adults, mobile learning provides such advantages as access to on-demand content, self-directed learning, and the individualized incorporation of new knowledge with existing experience.

mobile learning21st Century Learning ideals are facilitated by mobile learning. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has been at the forefront of providing a basis for the remodeling and modernization of instruction, learning and curriculum. Regardless of whether learners are K-12, higher education, or adults, the Partnership’s renowned publication, P21 Framework Definitions document, provides a list of skills that mobile learning can leverage and enhance. These include innovation, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, digital literacy, working in diverse teams, productivity, leadership and managing one’s own learning.

Instructional needs, the ability to facilitate intended learning, and learner access to mobile devices should guide the implementation of mobile learning strategies. Properly trained IT staff are needed for the installation, maintenance, and administration of back-end systems. Talent development is necessary to prepare instructors to produce learning through positive and engaging experiences. Finally, mobile learners need understandable guidelines and readily available support.

Reflection Point: I absolutely think we need to give people access to material where and when they need it. It’s imperative to have a mobile learning strategy and that’s even more important with emerging generations. But I’ll add that when I talk to my peers who are in global companies, nobody has one. ~Karl-Heinz Oehler



Association for Educational Communications and Technology (2008). Definition. In A. Januszewski and M. Molenda (Eds.), Educational Technology: A definition with commentary. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.