Six Learning Theories for Mobile Learning

Before introducing the resources that were developed, we first provide a brief overview of each of the six learning theories that we have chosen to integrate into the chapter and the associated toolkit. In each case, we have only provided a very brief summary of each of these theories, and a passing mention of some of the major theorists. For each theory we have given some suggestions as to how it might be applied to mobile learning activities.


Illustrative Quote

“The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”(Skinner, cited in Sobel, 1990)


Behaviourism is the oldest of learning theories. Mergel (1998) traces it back to Aristotle, who noted associations being made between events such as lightning and thunder. However, it was John Watson who actually coined the term ‘behaviorism’ in 1913. Conditioning of behaviour by external interactions is an important part of behaviourist theory. In Pavlov’s classical conditioning, stimulus leads to response, while in Skinner’s instrumental conditioning, behaviour leads to reinforcement (Olsen & Hergenhahn, 2013). While such approaches might seem somewhat mechanistic, the concepts of rapid feedback embodied within them are important in helping learners to work at their own pace. The idea of positive reinforcement was outlined by Thorndike, who emphasised how ‘satisfaction’ could reinforce positive behaviours (Tapp, 1969), while Skinner (cited in Sobel, 1990) noted that the ideal of behaviorism is to change the environment to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone. Thalheimer (2013) describes how reinforcement of learning is related to Ebbinghaus’ spacing effect, where learning is greater when studying is spread out over time.

Some Well-known Theorists: Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, Edward Thorndike, B.F. Skinner

Key Features of Behaviourism

Key features Explanation
1.An emphasis on producing observable and measurable outcomes in students Learners should be told the explicit outcomes of the learning so that they can set expectations and can judge for themselves whether or not they have achieved the outcome of the lesson.
2. Testing learners to determine whether or not they have achieved the learning outcomes Testing and assessment should be integrated into the learning sequence to check the learner’s achievement level and to provide appropriate feedback. This can also include pre-assessment of students to determine where instruction should begin.
3. Appropriate sequencing of learning materials to promote learning Learning materials must be sequenced appropriately to promote learning. The sequencing could take the form of simple to complex, known to unknown, or knowledge to application. There should be an emphasis on mastering early steps before progressing to more complex levels of performance.
4. Providing feedback to learners so they can monitor how they are doing and take corrective action if required Learners must be provided with feedback so that they can monitor how they are doing and respond to that feedback to change their learning behaviour.
5. Providing reinforcement to positively impact performance (e.g. tangible rewards, informative feedback.) Use of reinforcement to impact performance. This can take the form of tangible rewards and informative feedback. It may occur in a repeated process, with the reinforcement shaping the response until it is correctly executed.

Sources: Ertmer & Newby (1993), Ally (2004).

Behaviorism in Mobile Learning Activities

Behaviorist principles are commonly seen in mobile learning tools that enable quizzes, in-class polling, discussion, and question and answer, as well as for sequenced skills-based learning such as mobile assisted language learning. Reinforcement through immediate feedback is a core feature of these types of tools. Gamification can be used for positive reinforcement.


Illustrative Quote

“The principle goal of education… should be creating men and women who are creative, inventive, and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.” (Piaget, 1988)


Behaviourism might seem to be a rather passive process for the learner, simply responding to external stimuli. However, in the early 20th century a number of theorists looked at various ways that learners are able to construct their own knowledge. Constructivist theory asserts that learners actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality, and link new information to prior knowledge. Frederic Bartlett first referred to the constructive nature of memory in 1932. Dewey (1933) stressed the value of outdoor education and hands-on, experiential learning, while Vygotsky (1978) emphasized the social role of learning, with the help of ‘more knowledgeable others’ (which might these days include digital sources) in the zone of proximal development. Other theorists also looked at the learner’s interaction with their environment, for example Piaget, who stated that knowledge was built, not transferred (von Glaserfeld, 1982), and Bruner (1961), who believed that educational environments should provide the opportunity for discovery learning. These theorists are generally referred to as constructivists, since they focus on the learner being able to construct their own knowledge, though the term encompasses a number of different approaches. Dougiamas (1998) provides an overview of several types of constructivism in the literature. One more recent variation is constructionism, developed by Piaget’s student Seymour Papert, and focused on the physical construction of artefacts (‘learning by doing’) as a key component of constructing knowledge (Papert & Harel, 1991). Another varIant is social constructivism, which builds on ‘social construction’ (Berger & Luckmann,1966), around which debates are often philosophically dense. It has often been linked with technology enhanced learning and has affinity with some aspects of Communities of Practice (covered later).

Some Well-known Theorists:  Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Jerome Bruner

Key Features of Constructivism

Key features Explanation
1. Learning should be an active and meaningful process Keeping learners active doing meaningful activities results in high-level processing, which facilitates the creation of personalized meaning. Asking learners to apply the information in a practical situation is an active process, and facilitates personal interpretation and relevance.
2. Learners should construct their own knowledge rather than accepting that given by the instructor Knowledge construction is facilitated by good interactive instruction, since the students have to take the initiative to learn and to interact with other students and the instructor, and because the learning agenda is controlled by the student.
3. Collaborative and cooperative learning should be encouraged to facilitate constructivist learning Working with other learners gives learners real-life experience of working in a group, and allows them to use their metacognitive skills. Learners will also be able to use the strengths of other learners, and to learn from others.
4. Learners should be given control of the learning process and time and opportunity to reflect There should be a form of guided discovery where learners are allowed to make decision on learning goals, but with some guidance from the instructor. Learners should be given time and opportunity to reflect. When learning, students need the time to reflect and internalize the information.
5. Learning should be interactive to promote higher-level learning and social presence, and to help develop personal meaning Learning is the development of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes as the learner interacts with information and the environment. Interaction is also critical to creating a sense of presence and a sense of community for online learners, and to promoting transformational learning. Learning should be made meaningful for learners. The learning materials should include examples that relate to students, so that they can make sense of the information. Assignments and projects should allow learners to choose meaningful activities to help them apply and personalize the information.

Source: Ally (2004)

Constructivism in Mobile Learning Activities

Mobile devices offer many opportunities for working with physical or conceptual materials to construct new artefacts and knowledge, such as tools for recording, mixing and disseminating various types of multimedia content. Mobile constructivist activities might include taking photos, recording videos and/or sound, editing and combining these artefacts with other media, using mobile tools to create social media content or coding mobile apps.

Experiential learning

Illustrative Quote

“The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984, p.41)


Experiential learning is developed from many other learning theories, in particular Dewey’s work on experience which emphasised that we do not learn from the experience itself, but from reflecting upon it (Beard & Wilson, 2013). The key aspect of this theory is that knowledge is created through the transformation of experience (Kolb & Kolb, 2009). Beard and Wilson (2013) state that  experiential learning joins many other learning theories together into a unified whole and that the experience of the learner interacting with the external environment provides the most coherent theory of learning. A key concept in experiential learning is that there is some kind of cycle of concrete experience. There are various models for this, often based on 4 stages, for example Kolb’s experiencing/noticing – interpreting/reflecting – generalising / judging – applying / testing, and the Shewart/Deming cycle of plan, do, reflect, act. Wilson (2012) notes that the experiences of learning can be both formal and informal.

Some Well-known Theorists: John Dewey, David Kolb, Kurt Lewin

Key Features of Experiential Learning

Key features Explanation
1. Experience is the foundation for learning Experiential learning is spiral-like where students can learn from experience over and over again, so that experience reinforces and conceptualises learning.
2. Learning is the transformation of experience into knowledge, skill, attitudes, values and emotions Learning is a process of transforming our experiences and internalising them to form our  knowledge, skill, attitudes, values and emotions. Learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out the students’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested and integrated with new, more refined ideas.
3. Reflection is the means of transforming experience The continued reflection upon earlier experiences is needed in order to add to and transform our experiences into deeper understanding and reinforce them into learning.
4. Learning takes place through a cycle of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation A learner goes through all phases in the learning process –  experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting – in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences.
5. Knowledge is created through the transformation of experience This theory overlaps and intersects with constructivist theories of learning whereby social knowledge is created and recreated in the personal knowledge of the learner. Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience.

Source: Kolb & Kolb (2009), Conole, Dyke, Oliver & Seale (2004).

Experiential Learning in Mobile Learning Activities

The portable, always-on nature of mobile devices means that they can be used to capture and curate experiences and materials for later reflection, and transformation of experience into knowledge. Devices can be used to gather evidence from an experience and subsequently to communicate, analyse and visualise the knowledge gained from that evidence. Mobile devices can provide a range of experimental tools (e.g. environment, location and orientation sensors) and related analytical applications.

Situated Cognition

Illustrative Quote

“The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is now argued, is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition… Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity.”  (Brown, Collins & Duguid,1989, p.32 )


Situated cognition, who’s best known theorist is John Seely Brown, focuses on how knowledge is embedded in the activity, context, and culture in which it was learned (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). Learning is social and not isolated. Rather, people learn while interacting with each other through shared activities and through language as they discuss, share knowledge, and problem-solve during these tasks (a form of socio-cultural learning). The concept of situated cognition resonates well with experiential learning, but goes further to stress the integral nature of the situation in which the learning activity takes place, where the situation itself co-produces knowledge through activity (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). We might also see some links with situated learning and distributed cognition (Henning, 2004).

Some Well-known Theorists: John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, Paul Duguid

Key Features of Situated Cognition

Key features Explanation
1. Providing authentic contexts and activities that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real-life The context needs to be all embracing, to provide the purpose and motivation for learning, and to provide a sustained and complex learning environment that can be explored at length.
2. Providing access to expert performances and the modelling of processes Authentic learning environments provide access to such expert thinking and performances, allowing students to observe the task before it is attempted and to access the modelling of processes.
3. Supporting collaborative construction of knowledge Opportunities are provided for students to work in small groups or pairs. Such an arrangement allows students to ‘put their heads together’ on problems, and to fully articulate their progress as they go about the task.
4. Providing coaching and scaffolding at critical times The role of the teacher is one of coaching and scaffolding – observing students, modelling, providing resources, offering hints and reminders, providing feedback, and so on – rather than a didactic one
5. Promoting reflection to enable abstractions to be formed Students are required to reflect upon a broad base of knowledge to solve problems, and to predict, hypothesise, and experiment to produce a solution

Source: Herrington & Oliver (1995)

Situated Cognition in Mobile Learning Activities

The value of mobile devices in relation to situated cognition is that their portability enables them to be taken into different contexts. Expert performances and models of processes can be taken into the context of use, for example for just-in-time training for technical tasks. Learning activities can take place outside the classroom and across multiple spaces. Mobile device features such as location awareness, communication tools and sensors can be very valuable in applying knowledge to real life situations. Mobile tools can enhance the learning potentials of a given situation by providing tools to explore environments such as augmented reality and audio tours. Situations can also be simulated by using virtual reality tools.

Communities of Practice

Illustrative Quote

“Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour…who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, 2000).


Salomon and Perkins (1998) in exploring social learning, asserted that social systems can engage in learning as much as individuals. The importance of learning with others is central to a community of practice (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner, 2016), which similarly emphasizes context and culture but also regards the authentic domain of the learning community as important. A community of practice is the simplest social unit that has the characteristics of a social learning system (Wenger, 2000). A process of social learning occurs when people who have a common interest in a subject or area collaborate over an extended period of time, sharing ideas and strategies, determine solutions, and build innovations. Learning can be, and often is, an incidental outcome that accompanies these social processes (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner, 2016).

Some Well-known Theorists: C.S.Pierce, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger

Key Features of Communities of Practice

Key features Explanation
1. ‘Practice’ is the unifying feature of the community Members of a CoP interact in the community to negotiate a joint enterprise, which defines significance, shapes practices, and develops into community standards of practice.
2. Member relationships are grounded in information exchange and knowledge creation Mutual engagement describes relationships that are grounded in mutual interest, not just information exchange, networking, or interaction. Communities of practice support engagement in part by facilitating members to share their histories, of what they have done and what they have been
3. Membership ranges from novices to old timers (diversity) Through legitimate peripheral participation, novices learn from mentors, and then eventually participate fully in the CoP. The experts and novices undertake various roles to communicate, contribute to and initiate ideas and joint projects.
4. Learning is shared, and may also occur effectively at the boundaries/ peripheries of the community Learning also occurs at the boundaries, when learners may not be fully participating directly in a specific activity, but nevertheless participate on the periphery
5. Learning can be, and often is, an incidental outcome that accompanies these social processes Members interact and engage mutually with one another; sharing ideas and stories, not necessarily when engaged in work. By this mutual engagement, knowledge is shared and enacted.

Source: Lai, Pratt, Anderson & Stigter (2006)

Communities of Practice in Mobile Learning Activities

A community of practice is a social learning system, which can usefully be supported by mobile devices. The rich set of messaging and social media tools that are available on mobile devices provide a range of options for learners in any context to collaborate and learn with their community.


Illustrative Quote

“Learning… can reside outside of ourselves… is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.” (Siemens, 2004, para 21)


While most learning theories are grounded in 20th century thinking, in the 21st century we have seen the rise of new theories such as connectivism (Armatas, Spratt & Vincent, 2013), which has been proposed as ‘a learning theory for the digital age.’ The concept of connectivism is based on the idea that Internet technologies have created new opportunities for people to learn and share information across networks. Learners develop knowledge through peer networks and online, and these connections are more important than our current state of knowing (Siemens, 2004). Unlike other learning theories, connectivism does not address transferring, making  or building knowledge. Rather, it is about how we grow or develop ourselves and our society in connected ways (Downes, 2012). Another perspective of connectivism is that rather than thinking about how technology influences learning, we should think about how learning influences technology, since social changes are greater than those occurring within technology (Kizito, 2016).

Some Well-known Theorists: George Siemens, Stephen Downes

Key features of Connectivism

Key features Explanation
1. A stimulating and motivating learning activity that asks of and allows for learners to create artefacts in personal networks linked to other social networks Learners should be able to cognitively interact and engage to create or modify artefacts, and engage deeply with others while reflecting on these artefacts.
2. A technologically- supported environment that supports meaningful dialogue and collaboration The learner uses technological tools such as blogs, wikis and social networks to participate in learning. These tools engage with others to share and support learning.
3. Learners use diverse information sources offline and online, formal and informal Learners learn how to navigate the networking terrain by identifying the right resource nodes (people or information).
4. Leveraging skills that are transferable across media, platforms and tools to expand students’ learning networks In a connectivist learning context, each learner should be assisted by a facilitator, peers, experts, and non-human support mechanisms to create and maintain a personal learning network (PLN) immersed in other networks.
5. Developing a dynamic, technology-based knowledge community and learning network wherein students critically evaluate and synthesize concepts, opinions and perspectives Learner–content and learner–group interactions occur at a deeper level. The technological, social and conceptual grid is tightened as learners aggregate, make decisions, reflect, and build a coherent understanding of information collaboratively.

Source: Kizito (2016)

Connectivism in Mobile Learning Activities

Connectivist learners will share and communicate dynamic knowledge creation through networked interaction with machines and other people. The communication tools in mobile devices, coupled with the resources available through Internet connectivity, make connectivism an important theory for mobile learning. Mobile technology can help to provide the scaffolding for connectivist learning (Ozan & Kesim, 2013) and provide the channels for interacting with dynamic sources of data. From a connectivist perspective, the process of going through a mobile learning experience  is more important than any content that may happen to be learned in the process.


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IAmLearning: Mobilizing and Supporting Educator Practice Copyright © 2017 by International Association for Mobile Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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