Defining, Discussing and Evaluating Mobile Learning: the moving finger writes and having writ . . . .


Since the start of the current millennium, experience and expertise in the development and delivery of mobile learning have blossomed and a community of practice has evolved that is distinct from the established communities of 'tethered' e-Learning. This community is currently visible mainly through dedicated international conference series, of which MLEARN is the most prestigious, rather than through any dedicated journals. So far, these forms of development and delivery have focussed on short-term small-scale pilots and trials in the developed countries of Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim, and there is a taxonomy emerging from these pilots and trials that suggests tacit and pragmatic conceptualisations of mobile learning.

What has, however, developed less confidently within this community is any theoretical conceptualisation of mobile learning and with it any evaluation methodologies specifically aligned to the unique attributes of mobile learning.

Some advocates of mobile learning attempt to define and conceptualise it in terms of devices and technologies; other advocates define and conceptualise it in terms of the mobility of learners and the mobility of learning, and in terms of the learners’ experience of learning with mobile devices.

The role of theory is, perhaps, a contested topic in a community that encompasses philosophical affiliations from empiricists to post-structuralists, each with different expectations about the scope and legitimacy of theory in their work. The mobile learning community may nevertheless need the authority and credibility of some conceptual base.

Such a base would provide the starting point for evaluation methodologies grounded in the unique attributes of mobile learning. Attempts to develop the conceptualisations and evaluation of mobile learning, however, must recognise that mobile learning is essentially personal, contextual, and situated; this means it is 'noisy' and this is problematic both for definition and for evaluation.

Furthermore, defining mobile learning can emphasise those unique attributes that position it within informal learning, rather than formal. These attributes place much mobile learning at odds with formal learning with its cohorts, courses, semesters, assessments, and campuses, and with its monitoring and evaluation regimes. This raises concerns for the nature of any large-scale and sustained deployment and the extent to which the unique attributes of mobile learning may be lost or compromised.

Looking at mobile learning in a wider context, we have to recognise that mobile, personal, and wireless devices are now radically transforming societal notions of discourse and knowledge, and are responsible for new forms of art, employment, language, commerce, deprivation, and crime, as well as learning. With increased popular access to information and knowledge anywhere, anytime, the role of education, perhaps especially formal education, is challenged and the relationships between education, society, and technology are now more dynamic than ever.

The paper explores and articulates these issues and the connections between them specifically in the context of the wider and sustained development of mobile learning.

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