Mobile Technologies and Mobile Learning


Ryan Valconi

Ryan Valconi (
University of Ontario Institute of Technology


The rapid worldwide adoption of mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets has become increasingly pervasive in the educational landscape and has impacted the way that learners access, share and interact with information. Mobile devices have allowed learners to access course content, complete assignments, receive instruction and connect with their peers regardless of geographic location. This portability has dramatically shifted how both instructors and students view and engage in the learning process. As the concept of mobile learning has strong roots in theories of social-constructivism, connectivism, activity theory and communities of practice, mobile learning has evolved into an online learning environment that enables learners to connect with information in new ways to enable deeper learning.

This chapter examines mobile learning’s evolution into an asynchronous and blended learning environment. Such environments afford the learner the opportunity to connect with course information at a time and place that is conducive to their schedule. Additionally, this asynchronous component allows instructors to explore self-pacing options in their courses because of the student’s uninterrupted access to course content through their devices. Moreover, this chapter explores the applications of mobile technologies and examine the impact of mobile learning on students around the globe. Specifically, this chapter will provide a brief analysis of the role of mobile technology in creating a barrier-free educational climate that can connect rural, poor and isolated communities through mobile devices and game-based learning practices.

Keywords: mobile learning, mobile technology, blended learning, education


Mobile devices and Internet access have become increasingly ubiquitous, as an estimated 94 percent of 15 to 34-year old Canadians own a smartphone (Behar, 2017). Moreover, as digital technologies continue to become increasingly pervasive in modern society, there is a growing need to dynamically adjust the way that educational content is delivered, accessed and assessed (Miller, Martineau, & Clark, 2000).

Fortunately, the continual shift towards embracing mobile learning as a supplement – or an alternative – to conventional brick-and-mortar learning is in full effect. At its core, mobile learning assumes that learning can happen anytime and anywhere (Ally & Prieto-Blazquez, 2014). Mobile learning is rooted in the idea that learning should transcend both space and time constraints by allowing learners to access content asynchronously and independent of their location (Crescente & Lee, 2011).

The advent of innovative mobile technologies that can provide instantaneous access to information has greatly facilitated the shift towards integrating mobile technology in contemporary learning practices. The rapid improvements to learning management systems, the increase in video-recording software options with embedded assessment features and the general hardware improvements to mobile devices have all played integral roles in accelerating the trend towards mobile learning (Goksu & Atici, 2013). Goksu and Atici suggest that the dramatic improvements to educational software, in conjunction with the falling cost of entry level electronics required for online access, has led to a generation of learners who can now access course materials, surf the Internet or communicate with classmates to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. The ability to connect with content and peers in a manner that is not governed by geography has the potential to expose learners to a wide variety of both information and people who can facilitate deep learning transfer.

Background Information

Before analyzing the applications and future of mobile learning and mobile technologies, it is important to highlight the core principles of mobile learning and frame mobile learning within the context of relevant theoretical frameworks.

Core Characteristics of Mobile Learning

To better define mobile learning, it is helpful to provide characteristics of mobile learning that differentiate it from other learning activities. This subsection will provide three principles of mobile learning that are paramount in understanding what constitutes effective mobile learning.

Mobile learning occurs outside of the classroom. Lenz (2015) determined that 80% of learning happens outside a classroom, with most of this learning occurring at home. If instructors can embrace the idea that students do not need to receive direct instruction within a classroom setting for learning to transpire, a larger focus can be placed on developing the tools needed to create learning environments that better cater to the needs of individual students. Tools like Edmodo (n.d.) and Google Classroom (n.d.) provide instructors the support to offer opportunities for their learners to engage in blended learning in an asynchronous environment – a major benefit to those learners who struggle to fit time for classes into their schedules (Picciano, 2006).

Instructors must be cognizant of the ubiquitous use of technology. Although the fact that 72% of Canadians own mobile phones can hide the technological disparity that exists globally, it demonstrates a strong trend towards ownership of multiple devices in many North American homes (Sharples et al., 2005). The exponential increase in ownership of technological devices is a trend that is only projected to become more pronounced in coming years, as 2.87 billion people are expected to own smartphones by 2020 (“Smartphone users worldwide”, 2018). Information like this is incredibly valuable to instructors as they can begin to structure their classrooms knowing that most students will have a device, access to a device at home or immediate access at a nearby location. This shift in technology ownership may lead to more classrooms being set in a fully online environment or more instructors adopting a flipped classroom model to carry out instruction (Schaffhauser, 2016).

Mobile learning environments are often social-constructivist in nature. A major advantage of mobile learning is its inherent ability to promote the development of learning as an active process through a group or community (Kim, 2000). However, mobile learning should not be treated as an alternative to best teaching practices. Instead, it is best viewed as a tool to be used as a supplement to proper pedagogical instruction – regardless of whether that takes place in-person or in an online environment. To be effective, mobile learning must put knowledge, the learner, assessment and the learning community at the centre of its foundation (Sharples et al., 2005). An increasing number of tools like EdPuzzle (n.d.) and PlayPosit (n.d.) have implemented evidence of these four pillars of learning in their software by including features related to assessment, feedback and content delivery in their applications. When paired with learning management software, tools like these provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in mobile learning.

Relevant Theoretical Frameworks

When evaluating the affordances of mobile learning within the context of relevant frameworks, mobile learning demonstrates its adaptability and applicability in a wide array of educational settings and environments. This subsection will analyze the effectiveness of mobile learning by examining it within the context of theories of connectivism, communities of practice and activity theory.

Connectivism. Connectivism is founded in the idea that knowledge does not reside entirely within a learner, but rather is stored within a learner’s network of information, normally consisting of things like databases, social networks, organizations and other people (Siemans, 2005). Each of these individual nodes in a learner’s network is a dynamic entity that is constantly updating their own knowledge base using information derived from their own individual set of networks. As such, connectivism focuses on defining knowledge more as a product of the summative knowledge of nodes of a network and how much information one can readily access, rather than the knowledge that resides in an individual learner (Kropf, 2013). By cultivating a classroom climate that encourages positive and professional discourse between members, the transfer of this knowledge between nodes in the network can become a major part of the learning process. Mobile technologies have recognized the need for communication between members, with many learning management systems directly embedding discussion boards, chat and email applications directly into their software (Aleksic-Maslac, Magzan & Juric, 2009).

Activity Theory. In education, activity theory involves actors (the students and teachers) interacting with artefacts as they learn (Wheeler, 2018). These artefacts can be divided into two distinct categories: internal tools and external tools. Wheeler suggests that external tools can consist of things like whiteboards, books and technology, while internal tools are things such as plans and cognitive maps that can be leveraged to achieve the learning goals of students and teachers. In an educational setting, activity theory assumes that learning activities are influenced by factors including social conventions, social patterns, the division of labour and context (Yamazumi, 2006).

From the perspective of activity theory, it is necessary to interpret technology’s role in education by analyzing more than simply processes and context. To fully understand its impact, one must investigate how technology mediates changes in the entire system of learning, including student ability to control their learning, the outcome and the development of the community of learning (Murphy, 2013). Considering technology’s integration into the learning landscape, there is a growing need for instructors to develop competencies in the technological domain in order to make effective use of technology within the context of mediating tools, rules, community influences, and the division of labor defined by the educational system (Jackson & Zieger, 2012).

Communities of Practice. Wenger (1998) identify a community of practice (CoP) as a group of people who share a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Defined by members’ abilities to engage in joint activities and discussions, communicate information and build a shared repository of resources, materials, experiences and tools to facilitate the transfer of learning in other members, a CoP can develop into a vibrant environment for learning to transpire. Mobile technology and learning is heavily dependent on the development of a strong CoP to ensure that learning is impactful in an online environment (Wang & Ma, 2017). By encouraging discourse and establishing a positive climate, instructors can focus on fostering educational connections between students that allow them to collaboratively explore solutions to difficult problems. As many online learning technologies now embed some sort of communication feature between the users of their software (Aleksic-Maslac et al., 2009), communication between members of a CoP has become increasingly seamless and can lead to a greater transfer of learning.


The widespread adoption of mobile technologies and mobile learning has resulted in a wide array of applications that feature prominently in 21st century education. This section highlights three applications of mobile learning.

Blended Learning and Online Education

One of the key applications of mobile learning is its ability to create a space for blended learning and fully-online programs. In a blended learning environment, online learning is combined with traditional face-to-face methods and requires the physical interaction of a student and teacher (Friesen, 2012). Primarily, the online learning component is delivered in a learning management system that provides affordances such as discussion boards, calendars, quizzes and content browsers (“Blended Learning”, 2013), while the face-to-face instruction occurs in a traditional classroom setting. Lectures, content, assessment and feedback are completed online with students often communicating with one another through instructor mediated discussion boards or social media platforms.

Though the implications of blended learning for rural and distance education will be discussed in subsequent subsections, the other major benefit of this affordance is the ability to transform education into an asynchronous experience. Asynchronous learning involves students accessing coursework through online forums and learning management software, ideally moving through the course at their own pace (Yamagata-Lynch, 2014). This flexibility provides the advantage of additional time for metacognition, reflective study and communication with peers when compared to synchronous learning environments (Hrastinski, 2008).

Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning (GBL) is the idea of incorporating educational content or learning materials into video games with the goal of engaging users (Kiili, 2005). Though GBL has been around for over twenty years, widespread mobile technology has contributed to the recent push to make game-based learning an integral component of instructional practice (Sung & Hwang, 2013). As many GBL platforms can be operated on mobile devices, the usefulness of incorporating GBL into course design continues to grow as studies continue to promote the effectiveness of GBL on improving student engagement, motivation and success (Technavio, 2018).

For instance, a study examining the effectiveness of GBL as a substitute for direct instruction found that students using mobile games showed much higher levels of engagement and knowledge gain than those that used regular instruction (Huzizenga, Admiraal, Akerman & Dam, 2009). Though still in its relative infancy, the potential for GBL to emerge as a realistic supplement to traditional teaching practices is growing with increased access to continuously improving technology.

Learning in Poor, Rural and Isolated Areas

Mobile learning can provide improved quality of education to students living in poor, rural and isolated areas by increasing their access to experiential learning practices and connecting them with richer instruction globally (Chen, 2018). Even in Canada, 11.5 million dollars has been invested in satellite technologies to improve access to broadband in rural and remote areas (Sasseville, 2018). Though students in these communities may not have immediate access to adequate instruction or the resources necessary to implement rich learning experiences in a physical sense, their ability to access the Internet can reduce the digital divide by affording them similar opportunities that students from more affluent and connected communities receive.

For instance, a small school in Northwestern China has begun using technology to connect with other rural schools across China. In these communities, schools – sometimes with as little as three students –  can now share both resources and teachers with other connected schools. Before the Chinese government committed to affording rural areas sufficient Internet access and devices to narrow the education gap, students in these communities were taught every subject by a single teacher (Chen, 2018). However, using mobile technology, students can now synchronously or asynchronously access lessons taught by specialists from another school in a shared classroom of hundreds of students, connect with peers from different communities and work collaboratively with other students on rich tasks (Soo, 2018).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Mobile learning and mobile technologies have already begun to make a major impact on the educational landscape. With access to electronic devices and mobile technologies becoming increasingly widespread, the ability for mobile learning to become a centrepiece of the future of education is emerging as a real possibility. Mobile learning has evolved into a mechanism to support both blended and online learning environments, while simultaneously increasing access to resources, instruction and rich learning opportunities.

Mobile learning affords the opportunity for learners to engage in the learning process in both a synchronous and asynchronous climate and has helped engage a new generation of learners using game-based learning practices. Through embedding learning opportunities directly into games that students can play on the go, students are connected to potentially perpetual learning using their devices. This incessant access has also helped connect students in rural, poor and isolated communities by affording them the opportunity to engage with other students in an online learning environment. Using the Internet, students in these areas can connect with resources and content that they otherwise would not have had access to.

Ultimately, however, the landscape of education is in the midst of a dramatic shift towards developing a partnership with technology to supplement learning, there are many communities that lag behind technological adoption rates of their contemporaries due to their inability to provide the requisite technology and Internet access needed to engage in mobile learning. Many extremely poor and isolated communities around the globe struggle to provide sufficient technology for their students to use and lack the infrastructure to provide affordable Internet (Norris, 2001). Though it is currently estimated that approximately 60% of the world currently has access to the Internet, entities like the Federal Communications Commission and Facebook are seeking to bridge the digital divide by providing broadband expansion to underserviced countries (Cox, 2018).

Providing internet access and suitable technologies are the first step in delivering an equitable educational experience globally. With mobile learning continuing to emerge as a fundamental piece in education moving forward, it is vital to connect as many students as possible with the necessary technologies to make mobile learning a possibility. Through government initiatives, private organizations and donations, students around the world are slowly beginning to enjoy the affordances that mobile learning offers and are able to experience meaningful ways of incorporating technology into their learning experiences.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 Copyright © 2018 by Ryan Valconi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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