Carrie Demmans Epp, Krystle Phirangee, Antoine Després-Bedward, Lingzi Wang


The widespread adoption and acceptance of mobile devices (Hashemi, Azizinezhad, Najafi, & Nesari, 2011) has led to interest in their use for supporting learning (Demmans Epp, McEwen, Campigotto, & Moffatt, 2015; Viberg & Grönlund, 2013). However, some learners need assistance if they are to recognize the value of using mobile tools to support learning (Demouy & Kukulska-Hulme, 2010); possibly, as a result of the perception that smartphones and other advanced mobile technologies are meant for non-academic tasks. Similarly, the absence of mobile technology from most instructor-training programs (Hockly, 2013) means those who control technology use in formal learning environments have not been shown how to use these new tools to effectively support learning processes or outcomes.

Mobile devices and applications (apps) provide mobile, situated-learning opportunities that enable “learners to communicate, analyze problems, and participate in learning activities in a real-world context” (Hagg & Berking, 2015, p. 53). They also increase student motivation and engagement because mobile-learning approaches provide support in locations where other supports (e.g., computers or large textbooks) may not be suitable (Crompton, 2013; Zhang, 2015). This motivation, the situated nature of mobile tools, and the small unused gaps in student schedules can all be harnessed to support and supplement learning (Asabere, 2013; Petit, Lacerda, & Ferreira, 2016). As Stockwell (2010) argues, reducing learning tasks to small segments that accommodate student attention and usage habits is achievable. However, harnessing this opportunity requires a re-imagining of the learning experience from one where deep, integrated tasks are performed to one where smaller tasks can be completed or supported through mobile technologies.

Mobile Learning: Lessons from Early Adopters

This leaves the job of innovating mobile-technology use for learning to those who are comfortable taking risks with their pedagogy or their own learning. These early-adopters of mobile learning have revealed some of the difficulties associated with integrating mobile technologies within formal and informal learning settings, especially if learning, curricular, and pedagogical goals are to be met. Even with the availability of many apps that can be used to meet learning needs (Hagg & Berking, 2015), instructors face a variety of barriers that include a lack of knowledge about how learning can be supported with mobile tools (Zhang, 2015), difficulty finding appropriate tools (Kukulska-Hulme, 2013), and an inability to effectively regulate learning activities (as in Demouy, Jones, Kan, Kukulska-Hulme, & Eardley, 2016; Demmans Epp, 2017).

Lack of Knowledge about Mobile Learning

When trying to employ mobile-learning approaches in classroom environments, various challenges arise because the mobile tool must be effectively integrated into course curricula and pedagogy. In the absence of instructor-training programs that include mobile learning (Hockly, 2013) and sufficient support or guidance, overcoming these and other integration barriers requires resourceful instructors and students. Unfortunately, studies of mobile learning tend to inadequately discuss the challenges associated with integrating mobile tools into classroom settings. As Woodman (2016) argues, a paradigm shift and curriculum design considerations are required if we are to uncover opportunities to effectively integrate mobile learning. Design considerations could include highly practical suggestions, such as providing targeted discussion questions that encourage students to self-reflect or selecting devices and applications that have features with which students are accustomed to interacting (Woodman, 2016).

Difficulty Finding Appropriate Mobile Tools

Even when instructors become more familiar and comfortable with mobile learning, many highlight the technical and infrastructure limitations (Ojo, 2016). These limitations make using mobile tools frustrating but they are not the primary barrier. Finding appropriate mobile tools to complement specific theoretical frameworks and pedagogical approaches is still difficult when the technologies work. A lack of theoretical frameworks for mobile learning (Crompton, 2013; Zhang, 2015), a misalignment between mobile applications and favoured pedagogical approaches (Burston, 2014; Petit et al., 2016), resistance to a shift in paradigm from planned instruction to performance support (Hagg & Berking, 2015; Woodman, 2016), and a lack of familiarity with available tools (Asabere, 2013; Campigotto, McEwen, & Demmans Epp, 2013) all hinder full integration and prevent instructors from knowing how to effectively regulate mobile learning.

Inability to Effectively Regulate Mobile Learning

Instructors’ concern that students will not know how to use mobile devices (Crompton, 2013) is echoed throughout many studies. To address this concern, many instructors have opted to use mobile tools as a complement to classroom learning where students engage in mobile-learning activities outside school (Sweeney, 2013). By doing so, students have the opportunity to participate in and engage with mobile tools for academic purposes. However, the extensive use of mobile-learning activities outside of school settings highlights the lack of tight integration with the curriculum (Sweeney, 2013) and prevents instructors from harnessing mobile learning’s full potential for improving student experiences.

The general guidance provided above is helpful, but instructors have yet to receive clear practical guidance on how to effectively use mobile-learning tools or approaches. To help those who would like to use mobile technologies, we investigated the use of mobile learning by the instructors and students who continually innovate their practices through technology integration and experimentation across a variety of educational and cultural contexts that include primary, secondary, post-secondary, and special-education settings on three continents. The experiences of participating instructors and students detail how they have overcome barriers to the integration of mobile tools in varied learning contexts. These experiences provide a breadth and depth of potential solutions to the common and particular challenges they faced, which should allow those who are new to using mobile technologies in their classrooms to better prepare for the effective use of mobile-learning approaches. This practical approach to studying mobile learning helps to fill the gap between theory and practice that was identified by Petit and colleagues (2016).


This investigation into mobile learning uses data collected during the execution of five separate projects exploring the use of mobile approaches to learning. These projects collected data from a variety of educational and cultural contexts that include primary, secondary, tertiary, and special-education settings on three continents. Data from these studies were amalgamated to detail the barriers participants faced and the manner in which they overcame these barriers.


For each study, participants underwent a formal consent process prior to their involvement. This process followed the procedures of the institutions where the research was conducted. In total, data from 25 students (13 special education, 12 English for academic purposes), 2 special-education instructors, 12 faculty from East Africa, and 6 faculty in China were collected. The Japan data that were used to triangulate findings came from 6 instructors.

Data Collection

Semi-structured individual and group interviews were conducted in English, recorded, and transcribed. Interviews lasted 30 to 60 minutes. These interviews focused on participant perceptions toward mobile learning, technology-enhanced learning, participant learning experiences and processes, and their experiences using technology. All interviews were contextualized by individuals’ learning and cultural environments, which are summarized in Table 3.1 and described below.

Table 3.1

Summary of study contexts

No. Part.

Context Part. Code Instr. Stud. Discipline Level More Information Available In
East-African universities East_Africa 12 Engineering University Després-Bedward (2017)
Chinese university China 6 English University
Special-education schools Special_Ed 2 13 Special Education Primary & Secondary Demmans Epp et al. (2015) & Campigotto et al. (2013)
Adult self-directed students in Canada EAP 12 English University Demmans Epp (2016a,b)
Japanese secondary school Japan 6 English Secondary Demmans Epp (2016b)

East-African universities

Data were used from a study of engineering education at four East-African universities. Interviews and focus groups were used to explore contemporary engineering-education contexts in Africa, survey engineering-education approaches including online and mobile learning strategies and methods, and gain knowledge to devise highly scalable engineering-education approaches suitable to resource-constrained settings, where mobile use is increasing (Poushter & Oates, 2015) and ownership of computers is low (Ampofo et. al, 2014).

Chinese university

Data were used from a study of an English Language and Literature program at a university in China. This project explored faculty perceptions and attitudes towards mobile-learning approaches and investigated the program’s technology-integration needs.

Special-education schools

This study collected data from a five-month deployment of a particular mobile-learning tool within two Canadian, special-education classrooms. All students who were in these courses had been identified as having intellectual or cognitive exceptionalities that require assistance and curricular differentiation. Each classroom was in a different school. Semi-structured interviews investigating instructors’ experiences of integrating the provided tool (i.e., MyVoice) into their curriculum were conducted. One of the instructors also conducted a focus group with his students to collect information about their perceptions of using this mobile-learning tool.

Adult self-directed students in Canada

This study investigated how international post-secondary students in an English for academic purposes program employed mobile tools to support their learning needs. The original study used a single-subject design, where students participated in a semi-structured interview between each study phase. These interviews focused on student learning experiences, technology use, and use of mobile devices or apps.

Japanese secondary school

This design-based research project integrated a specific mobile language-learning tool into an English as a foreign language classroom. It collected information about students’ language abilities and use of the app. Instructor observations of student behaviour and the mobile tool integration process were collected. These observations and subsequent written reflections by the instructors were treated similarly to the interview data from other contexts.

Data Analysis

Using constructive grounded theory (Charmaz, 2010), the challenges faced and the strategies used to overcome these challenges were extracted from the interview and focus group transcripts. A minimum of two researchers coded each transcript. They then met to review their codes and achieve consensus. A semantic, inductive approach to deriving themes was used to avoid biasing the results (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Theme creation emerged from the coding of words and phrases that revealed information related to mobile educational technology.

The identified themes and strategies were then triangulated across locations and participant roles. The identity of the speaker is provided using a code. This code indicates the participants’ context (see Table 1) and numeric identifier. For example, the first instructor interviewed in China is referred to as China_1. The identified themes and strategies were also triangulated with the observational and reflection data that had been collected in Japan. The combination of these varied data sources enabled a deeper understanding of how people have integrated mobile technologies to support learning.


The semi-structured interviews with instructors and students in Africa, Asia, and North America across a variety of educational settings revealed six themes. These themes address the barriers instructors and students faced when using mobile learning, the opportunities they saw, and the strategies they adopted to address these barriers or realize opportunities. These themes include: access opportunities and barriers, technical and material barriers, backup plans to overcome barriers, lacking support for integration and use as a barrier, socio-environmental barriers and opportunities, and opportunities and barriers to supporting cognition and learning processes.

Access Opportunities and Barriers

Many instructors expressed the importance of mobile learning, whether delivered through specific smartphone apps or online resources, because it provided students with another avenue to access course materials, the instructor, and each other. Yet, instructors realized this access could be hindered due to connectivity issues.

Four instructors at East-African universities revealed online learning made it more convenient for students in remote geographical locations to access the course because it is accessible through mobile devices. As one instructor stated,

This is a postgraduate course and the reason it is going online was because of accessibility or having face-to-face contact to the students. …. and these people come to class after work so they should be here at 5:30. So it became very difficult for those in industrial areas to reach classes. (East_Africa_2)

Furthermore, instructors realized posting course material online allowed students to connect with each other and discuss course content beyond the classroom walls whether using desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, or smartphones. As one instructor emphasized, “they have got an online platform in which the students and the lecturers interact” (East_Africa_1).

Similarly, instructors from China emphasized mobile learning made it easier for students to access the material and the instructor. As one instructor stated, “students can upload their assignment, download the notes, and read it anywhere” (China_3). Instructors also emphasized mobile learning played an important role in accessing and bringing together students. Although, it sometimes dictated what was accessed. For example, China_3 stated, “the bandwidth sometimes is not enough. The Internet is not stable here, … I encountered several technology problems in class. Good thing is that I prepared plan B.”

An adult language-student (EAP_10), who was also an instructor in Libya, had experienced similar challenges. He stated not having “good Internet” hindered student interactions with each other. In this case, a technical barrier was hindering access to resources.

Technical and Material Barriers

Students and instructors encountered technical barriers to using mobile learning in all contexts. These barriers occasionally varied from one context to another but were present in at least one form within each cultural and educational context. As might be expected, software bugs, performance issues, and user interface design limitations can occur in any context from special education, “the MyVoice thing that my teacher was syncing didn’t sync onto my device”, and adult student-directed learning, “I tried to touch tag but it didn’t – it just kept spinning” (ESP_3), to post-secondary education where instructors report the “current version always has some technology glitches. The screen is too small for me to read” (China_6). These types of issues were also observed in formal learning environments in Japan, where additional technical support was sought to improve connectivity problems: the number of simultaneous connections to the router had been set to 50, which was too low.

In special-education settings, the challenge of finding an app that could be used on student devices presented an additional challenge. This challenge resulted from student sensory-motor impairments, which prevented some students from using the iOS devices for which the app had been designed. Students also reported that “sometimes the letters can be too small to type”, indicating a limitation of the form factor that could make some learning activities more difficult.

When students were using mobile tools to support their learning needs, they often commented on how the provided materials were in some way limited. As EAP_1 said, “the free dictionary sometimes miss a lot of things” which was confirmed by EAP_2, who said “I think the word is not in the library”. In other cases, the apps lacked appropriate resources in specific areas, such as nutrition: “I used a little but, uh, there’s not much, um, videos in my area” (EAP_7).

The East Africa instructors revealed many technical barriers that disrupted the full adoption of mobile learning. A main barrier included lecture theatres not being ready for mobile learning. As one instructor stated,

I am looking at a situation where … we have a class of 200 students and if we could have a situation where I can teach about 70 students and they are 70 accessing live the teaching online. You know that would be fabulous. I mean the problem we have now – the challenge is our lecture theatre. (East_Africa_2)

Similarly, instructors from China expressed technical barriers were the main reason for their hesitation to fully adopting mobile learning. Many revealed the mobile platform itself was new and had glitches which they were worried would disrupt the flow of their class. As one instructor stated, “the application designer from university needs more talk to our faculties, so that could design a better version” (China_3). Another instructor also emphasized “I think it is not functioning too well. After all, it is the first version.” (China_6)

Overall, both students and instructors experienced various technical barriers, across all learning environments, when adopting mobile learning. These barriers included software bugs, performance issues, and interface design limitations that caused students and instructors to become frustrated with not only the mobile application but also learning through the platform.

Backup Plans to Overcome Barriers

Instructors at East-African universities discussed the importance of having a backup plan when government support for technology-enhanced learning was inadequate. At one East-African university, a new program could not be successfully implemented because the government did not approve the new program plan. As a result, instructors reverted to using an already approved program. As one instructor stated,

We cannot replace the existing one because EBK [the local accrediting body] has an issue … So … we look at the soft or easy options. First engineers who are in the field, we upgrade them to online [including mobile access] … then later on, when maybe EBK now they become a bit more understanding, then this can be scaled down to bachelors. But for the time being we can say they co-exist or supplement.

Similarly, instructors from China acknowledged a need to have a backup plan but for different reasons. Some instructors emphasized the mobile app was not reliable and worried it would interrupt student learning so they ensured they used other tools to supplement the shortcomings of particular mobile apps. As China_4 stated,

I’ve been using Whatsapp to supplement my courses. I have been tinkering with hosting Q&A on Second Life for my classes to supplement and of course “hangout” online with my students. My teaching assistants are very active on Second Life and are helping out.

Like the instructors in China, students in Japan and Canada had apps they would fall back to when their primary app had failed to provide the necessary support or content. As EAP_5 stated, “if I don’t have it in Google Translate, I check in the”. Similarly, the special-education instructors had their students switch to using Google apps when the GPS feature of an app failed during a field trip.

Overall, many of these backup plans involved reverting to familiar strategies and platforms since instructors and students had a positive experience from previous use. More specifically, all participants emphasized the importance of having a backup plan when the mobile application failed to provide the needed support for learning and teaching.

Lacking Support for Integration and Use as a Barrier

Instructors and students both faced challenges integrating mobile tools into the learning process. These challenges came in the form of resource limitations (e.g., money or lack of personnel), policy barriers, a lack of knowledge for how to use mobile tools to support student learning, and a lack of knowledge of device features or how mobile tools work.

Both students and instructors had misconceptions about how tools worked. For example, some post-secondary students were unaware they had to “download the library” (EAP_5) to access additional learning resources or lacked basic techno-literacy: “even the skills of using the computer … They don’t master the skills of using it” (EAP_10). In some cases, students and instructors did not fully realize how they obtained the support tools they were using: “when I changed my phone … Google didn’t really give me back this app”, indicating students need additional support if they are to continue using mobile tools, especially in bring-your-own-device settings.

Students did not always understand how they were meant to use mobile support tools even if they had received instruction in their use. As EAP_8 said, “I was trying to understand what I was supposed to do”, indicating students need additional support. This additional support was seen coming from their peers in the special-education, post-secondary, and Japanese high-school contexts. Alternatively, students need additional support from instructors, which was provided in the environments where tools were integrated into assigned classroom activities. A special-education instructor reported she “wrote down the instructions and showed the students once on the overhead.” A similar approach was used in Japan. However, these instructors and those in special-education settings recommend performing repeated training to help students familiarize themselves with more complicated system features. They also recommended small increases in student autonomy that allow students to acclimatize to mobile learning before assigning more complicated mobile-learning tasks.

Instructors sometimes had difficulty identifying appropriate methods for effectively using mobile tools within their curriculum. They had to “figure out [how to] use it for something tangible” (Special_Ed_2). This barrier was attributed to mobile tools requiring “thinking outside the box… It’s like, letting go some of the control.” In another technology-enhanced learning project, Special_Ed_2 was able to integrate technology by providing appropriate structure and scaffolding to his students while allowing them to complete a creative multi-media project. As he stated,

We do a project where they … recorded their voice for three minutes into a slideshow. So, rather than … write a three-page essay they had a three-minute max to create a slide show, speaking, about their project. They all created that, they needed some structure but they created it.

Generally, participating instructors were only able to identify uses that went beyond mobile tools as a basic support to truly integrated mobile-learning experiences after having used mobile tools in their classrooms for a period of time. As one special-education instructor proposed, he would “probably do more of a community walk and try to integrate some aspects of location. The thing with location lends well to geography” were he to use mobile learning in his classroom in the future.

Instructors admitted it was difficult to use technology to teach the curriculum at times because their limited resources affected how they taught the curriculum and student learning experiences within the program. For example, East_Africa_2 stated,

It’s difficult to do it in the university with the numbers, with minimal finances, with minimal equipment. That’s the only thing I can. I don’t know. We have a traditional British curriculum with challenges for theoretical and then field exposure.

This instructor also expressed a need for support from other countries to learn how they shaped their programs and harnessed digital technology to support the curriculum. He stated “traditional engineering teaching and we need the innovation, the outreach, the new ideas from the developed-world institutions, say civil engineering America society. American, Britain, Canada – we need all this.”

Other instructors expressed frustration with the device and their unfamiliarity with its role in teaching and learning. As China_4 stated,

I just feel the idea of integrating mobile phone into teaching is just a buzzword right now. It is fad. How effective it can really be? … University needs to hire a full service support, organize more workshops to train faculties.

This lack of institutional support speaks to a need for other types of support that can be found in the learning environment.

Socio-environmental Barriers and Opportunities

Instructors from East-African universities stressed the important role the social-environment has in influencing the curriculum and better preparing students for the workforce. More specifically, these instructors argued materials used in the United States are more valuable and complementary to American culture than East-African cultures:

When you start doing it across cultures, I’m telling you. This is interesting. With our students, I’ve run a seminar where they read technical literature – there are a staggering number of sports idioms used … You know the students are reading along while ‘this technology was a home run.’ What does that mean to one of my students? So, the fact that so much of technology is dominated by a particular culture means … the accessibility of that really requires very very strong pedagogy. (East_Africa_4)

Students commented on how their social contexts inhibited or promoted their use of mobile learning. Some would not complete learning activities because it was considered rude, violated someone’s privacy, or it was otherwise inappropriate:

I didn’t feel as comfortable in the subway or sometimes in the classroom. Uh, when my friends are talking sometimes I feel a little bit uncomfortable taking pictures … It feels like uh, I’m interrupting. I’m not paying attention to what they’re saying … feels like a little bit disrespectful. (EAP_7)

Similar to how the socio-environmental context influenced their participation in learning activities, the device itself influenced student willingness to complete stealth activities when in public settings because “it was like using an app so it looked normal” (EAP_3). In formal settings, using the app with headphones allowed students to get as much support as they needed without feeling they were burdening those around them: “my teacher doesn’t have to say it and re-say it to everybody in the class which takes energy sometimes” (Special_Ed).

Instructors in various formal learning environments commented on how integrating mobile tools influenced the social environment of their classrooms. One special-education instructor said

they were a lot more social and comfortable talking to each other … when they were asking each other to do certain things on the devices. So they actually spoke with each other a lot more and were a lot more creative. (Special_Ed_1)

Similar socio-collaborative behaviours were observed in the Japanese classroom when students found their assigned tasks to be difficult. Students would, therefore, help “each other, when one didn’t know how to do something” (Special_Ed_1). In some cases, students helped instructors integrate and use mobile and other technologies in the classroom:

He is always doing stuff like that on his own … He was the guy who came in with the router at the beginning of the year, and he actually allowed me to do a lot of my teaching from my laptop. (Special_Ed_2)

This was only possible because the instructor was willing to let one of his students lead.

Other environmental limitations of using mobile tools in classroom settings were reported. Instructors found their use introduced considerable noise that could be distracting to some. So they “would use dollar store earbuds for them to listen to”, which ensured that those who needed audio support received it without their activities detracting from the classroom environment.

In addition, instructors in China shared their experiences of how mobile learning reshaped the social-environment of their online course when students opted to access course materials through mobiles:

I found it is kinda difficult to create dialogue flow through cell phone. Maybe it is because the format is not correct? I felt the discourse is kinda stopped very quickly … they just use it as a tool to download, read the material, submit the assignment.  (China_3)

This reported barrier also demonstrates an opportunity for the use of mobiles to manage students’ learning activities and processes.

Opportunities and Barriers to Supporting Cognition and Learning Processes

Both students and instructors used mobile applications and devices to support learning by supporting aspects of student metacognition and cognition. Teacher use of mobiles to ensure on-task behaviour in special-education settings involved locking device features so students could not use all device features or add apps. This instructor concern was also present in the Japan study. However, instead of restricting students, instructors monitored their activities during class and would remind students of their foci if they engaged in off-task behaviours.

Student metacognition was supported through various applications that enabled them to monitor their learning activities or that reminded students to complete activities. In the case where alarms or reminders were used, peers also helped to regulate the students’ learning by drawing their attention to the mobile device’s alarm: “sometimes they help me warn, your cell phone is vibrating. It was okay” (EAP_4). However, students would miss these reminders if the device was “in my room and it buzz so I cannot hear” (EAP_1) or because “sometimes [they] forgot” (EAP_4) their devices at home or in their bags. In these cases, the features that had been designed to support student regulation of their learning failed to provide the necessary support. However, the design of these reminder systems allowed students to remember to complete assigned activities without interrupting their current learning tasks, because students knew they could postpone the activity and did not have to change tasks which has high cognitive costs:

usually it takes like 10 minutes to buzz again, … so when I’m finished what I’m doing now and then I can [perform the task] – because I don’t like to stop what I’m doing … I need to focus. (EAP_1)

When trying to support cognition, features such as text-to-speech were used as was the local nature of the mobile device. In special-education contexts, students said the instructor could “do something and show us on the board and … We could see it from our devices.” Students would also use the device “to remember stuff, like sometimes you take pictures sometimes you forgot and you can look in the iPhone and you can see what it is. I can remember it.”

Students across contexts used device and application features to support smaller knowledge retrieval tasks because they were aware of gaps in their knowledge and abilities. For example, EAP_7 would use a tool to check her spelling and then use the app’s history feature to remind herself while saving the time associated with looking the information up again. Another student, EAP_11, would use subtitles to ensure he comprehended oral instructions when watching videos, while a special-education student used text-to-speech to enable him to comprehend written materials.


The above student and instructor experiences provide many specific examples of general classes of barriers. They also highlight strategies that can be used to overcome these barriers or take advantage of mobile learning opportunities. The specific examples are summarized in Table 3.2 and the broader classes of barriers, strategies, and opportunities are further discussed below.

Table 3.2

Summary of Challenges and Strategies.

Challenges Strategies and Opportunities
  • App Limitation: bugs and poor performance
  • App & Device Limitation: user interface not good for all learners
  • App & Device Limitation: keyboard is hard to use
  • Technical Limitation: poor network access
  • Inability to Access Content: desired content is absent/missing
  • Inability to Access Content: noise in the environment
  • Inability to Access Content: low student literacy levels
  • Inadequate Support: teacher training
  • Inadequate Support: environment and technical set up
  • Lacking Knowledge: how to use the device
  • Lacking Knowledge: how to use an app to support learning
  • Policy Barriers: accreditation or other regulations do not allow mobile use for learning
  • Poor Student Self-Regulation: potential for distraction
  • Poor Student Self-Regulation: distraction from peers’ use of audio support
  • Poor Student Self-Regulation: inability to adjust cognitive load
  • Social Barrier: social conventions
  • Preparation: seek opportunities to test apps
  • Preparation: seek learning opportunities
  • Logistics: try to pick apps that work on multiple devices (e.g., tablets, smartphones, or the web) and platforms (e.g., android, iOS)
  • Logistics: plan activities that do not require heavy text entry (use photos or recordings instead)
  • Logistics: arrange technical support for beginning of project
  • Backup Plan: have an alternate/complementary app ready to go
  • Backup Plan: have the version of your lesson plan from before you introduced mobile activities ready to fall back to.
  • Feature Selection: choose apps that support content access through multiple modalities (e.g., text, image, and sound)
  • Logistics: encourage headphone use. Using a single earbud is recommended in classroom settings.
  • Support: have knowledgeable students provide support to you and their peers
  • Support & Logistics: create user manuals and worksheets to support student use
  • Support & Logistics: train students in app use. Repeat that training when new features are being used or they are being used in an unexpected way.
  • Pedagogy: infuse mobile learning opportunities as a supplement where allowed.
  • Logistics: prevent access to unnecessary apps
  • Logistics: monitor student activities and remind them of their task as needed
  • Pedagogy: slowly increase student autonomy
  • Pedagogy: gradually make tasks more open-ended
  • Feature Selection: use reminder and alarm features provided they can be postponed
  • Feature Selection: use push functionality in apps to send content to students so they have a local copy, reducing their cognitive load
  • Pedagogy & Logistics: design activities around the locations they will be conducted. For example, picture taking should not be part of a bacteria sample collection task that takes place in a bathroom.
  • Pedagogy: talk with your students about when and why it may be inappropriate to use certain device or app features.

From the perspective of mobile learning opportunities, many instructors expressed the importance of using mobile learning to provide more access to course content and students. Many studies agree mobile learning allows students to access content and interact with their peers and instructor at any time and from any place (Kukulska-Hulme & Shield, 2008; Richardson & Lenarcic, 2008; Traxler, 2005). Having this access is helpful in fostering collaboration and promoting a joint “collective intelligence” (Levy, 2001, p.11). Despite this, some instructors warned technical barriers could limit this access, motivating them to implement a backup plan to ensure the course moved along. Many of these backup plans involved reverting to familiar strategies and platforms since instructors and students had a positive experience from previous use. More specifically, all participants emphasized the importance of having a backup plan when the mobile application failed to provide the needed support for learning and teaching, which is a strategy we are beginning to see (e.g., Demmans Epp, 2017) as more investigations of mobile learning are happening outside of highly-controlled, laboratory environments.

Both students and instructors expressed the need for more support when integrating and using mobile apps. Not receiving such support interrupts the learning process or prevents mobile integration. Similar to instructor reports from China and East Africa, Quinn (2011) questions university and instructor readiness to use mobile devices and emphasizes students will put pressure on both the faculty and university to provide the necessary supports and infrastructure for mobile devices. From the perspective of instructors, their lacking knowledge of how to integrate mobile technologies influences their intention to integrate mobile learning approaches into their courses (Kaliisa & Picard, 2017). Therefore, it is critical for universities and faculty to ensure their readiness for mobile learning by providing a stable infrastructure and necessary supports. Consistent with this recommendation, Vincent-Layton (2015) suggests designing mobile-learning templates using multiple formats that meet the technical requirements of varied mobile devices. Not providing scaffolds, such as these, could disrupt how aspects of student cognition and learning processes are supported through mobile learning approaches.

From the student perspective, learning processes were managed through the selective use of application and device features that reduced some barriers to mobile learning. These features were selected based on students’ beliefs in their abilities and indicate students were using mobile learning to perform self-regulation (Zimmerman, 1989). Their considered and reflective use of the local support provided by mobile tools served to reduce student cognitive load by bringing support materials closer to them, thus reducing the memory burden associated with learning tasks (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011). The additional support students received from those in their environment or automated reminders further demonstrates how mobile learning can be used to encourage or support co-regulation (Järvelä et al., 2016). Like participating instructors, Woodman (2016) recommends the use of reflective activities to improve the approaches being used. Device and application features were also preferentially used depending on the social and physical context in which students were situated, which speaks to external factors that promote or hinder mobile learning.

Both instructors and students acknowledged and experienced the influence the social-environment has on mobile learning. Many attributed this influence to shaping student interactions with the technology as well as deciding the culture of use with which they are more likely to align. Gikas and Grant (2013) found “students may drive technology integration; however, it is the instructor who must lead effective ways to implement devices in learning. It is not enough to simply provide access” (p. 24). Therefore, it is up to the instructor to address and take into consideration the socio-technical environment when harnessing mobile learning since students can become frustrated when the technologies fail to work as expected. Moreover, taking the socio-environmental factors into account can help address instructor concerns about the potential misuse of mobile devices (Asabere, 2013; Woodman, 2016).

These frustrations and concerns can be due to software bugs, a lack of connectivity, the limitations of the device itself, or its repurposing to support off-task behaviours, such as inappropriate text messaging (Woodman, 2016) or worse yet cheating (Asabere, 2013; Woodman, 2016). Our data confirms Gikas and Grant’s (2013) findings that students became frustrated with the mobile device due to apps not working, the small keyboard making long responses difficult to type, and the difficulty of figuring out how to use specific tools within an app (e.g., doing a poll or using video conferencing). Combining this with connectivity problems can “seriously affect the quality of information services” (Leung & Chan, 2003, p.77). Addressing and being aware of these barriers is necessary for instructors and students to more effectively access mobile learning. Ensuring full access to the mobile application, without any technical barriers, is key in discouraging instructors from adopting their backup plan or abandoning mobile learning altogether.


Mobility (Johnson, Adams, & Cummins, 2012) and openness (Johnson et al., 2013) are key factors needed in education because people want to study at any time, from any place. Salmon (2012) emphasized that as “we move forward, higher education will become increasingly mobile, resulting in students carrying their university ‘in their pockets’” (p.1). Our findings support these key factors of mobile learning and identify various barriers that hinder the full integration of these devices in classrooms. These barriers include insufficient support for mobile-learning approaches and integration; limited access to reliable technology (Crompton, 2013; Woodman, 2016); and socio-environmental factors.

Students and instructors arrive in the classroom with differing levels of ability and comfort using mobile technology. Students may often lead the way, but it is and will remain the responsibility of the instructor to ensure that mobile pedagogical approaches consider the various needs of students. The instructor should support early opportunities for practice with mobile activities, situate mobile-learning tasks in appropriate environmental contexts, and ensure there are backup plans in case the mobile applications do not function well. Identifying and understanding technological barriers and providing comfortable alternatives will allow instructors to integrate mobile applications that support students’ academic needs. Table 2 and the interactive tool that accompanies this chapter will help instructors plan their mobile-learning integration to avoid potential barriers.


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IAmLearning: Mobilizing and Supporting Educator Practice Copyright © 2017 by Carrie Demmans Epp, Krystle Phirangee, Antoine Després-Bedward, Lingzi Wang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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