Is there value in defining mobile learning and classifying mobile devices?


While writing our Mobile Learning Cookbook, I tweeted that…


This simple statement served as a catalyst for debate of sorts that extended to Facebook and then back to Twitter.

Andy Black jabbed at me a bit saying mobile learning has been around for a long time and that wearable integrated tech is the next wave. (There’s almost always a snark.)

Yup, mobile learning has been around a long time but in reality, mobile learning hasn't been implemented at the majority of organizations hence my discussion. (I don’t disagree that wearable integrated tech is here now and probably in the future for many organizations.)

Geordie Guy suggested that mobile means ‘able to be moved’ and what I was talking about is more portable.


Geordie suggested I get in touch with John Traxler about definitions and classifications. I was already connected to John so I sat down at my ball and chain (laptop), and I reached out to him. He preferred to have a conversation on my Facebook wall. I’ve summarized it here in an interview-like format which included Dave Ferguson and Aape Pohjavirta.

Me: Do you classify devices as portable or mobile? What are your definitions?

Dave: I think the usage is shifting a bit. "Device" used to be a slightly techno word for "thing." A pacemaker, for instance, is a medical device.

I wish that here in the US the term "mobile" had caught on, instead of "cell," for phones, but it didn't, and I'm not going to try and change people's minds.

I'd say define your terms at the outset and people will follow. If I were pontificating (which I'm not; can't find my special hat), I'd say that a mobile device fits into a pocket (cell phone, smartphone) while a portable device fits into your hand or your carry-on (tablet). But that'd be only if I were making a distinction between the two. I haven't seen an actual iPad mini, or whatever it's called, so I don't know how that works out sizewise.

Let's face it; some of this is the 5.25 – 3.5 inch floppy debate (remember them?), which was won by the CD, yet another storage device now in its sunset years. Or months.

John: Devices and technology as the core of definitions is a blind alley. What used to matter was the mobility of learners and learning. Now what matters is whether learning is credible, authentic and aligned to societies, communities and cultures for whom mobility and connectedness are taken-for-granted, not-worth-mentioning.

Dave: I get John's blind-alley point, though I think it's very situational. People in different kinds of jobs may not be able to access particular types of information (whether formal training, take-on-your-own-time stuff, job aids).

If you're on the road a lot, fewer employers are going to condone using a device while driving. If you're in a public-facing job, interactions with peers and customers as well as limits on how much crap you can have in the workspace may hinder your ability to access what some AVP dreamed up after spending too much time with vendors.

Not that you need to be reminded of this, Janet, but your READERS may: none of this stuff makes learning happen. For fifty years we've struggled against the myth that instruction means learning, that courses mean learning, that testing means learning, that digitized content means learning. So the real question for devices, or anything else that's intended to help support improved performance in the workplace (the main reason employers tolerate anything called "learning" or "training" in the first place) is "How is this going to help that happen?"

Even then, it's a never-ending battle against the "they-had-to-look-it-up" crowd.

Me: I found a 2005 definition of mobile learning from you John. At that time you said mobile learning was “…any education provision where the sole or dominant technologies are handheld or palmtop devices.”

John: 2005 was quite a while ago.

Me: It’s helpful to look back at some early definition just to see how far the conversation has progressed.

John: The phrase 'mobile learning' portrays it as a version of learning, the mobile version. It ignores the transformative effect of mobility on the nature of learning and of learners and on the wider society; it might be easier to see not as the mobile bit of learning but the learning bit of mobile and mobile is the defining characteristic of our societies. 'Mobile learning' seems too often preoccupied with enhancing the existing curriculum for the existing institutions and their professionals and maybe extending the reach of the existing education system.

Me: I like that…mobile as a defining characteristic of our societies. Spot on too with the preoccupation.

John: I think in some ways Dave is saying that cultures is not coherent or consistent and fragmented by attitude, ownership, experience of digital technology and individuals are quite happy to hold mutually exclusive and irreconcilable points of view; once we mention jobs we mention differentials in socio-economic power. My friend Aape Pohjavirta always has thoughts about these issues!

John: Maybe obliquely I'm saying education and/ or technology are not ethically or politically benign or even neutral thus mobile learning won't be either.

Aape: This discussion is interesting and should probably happen face-2-face but here a couple of comments:

– I am thinking of starting to use the term connected learning = you log in to any content on any connected device and voilà – you have accessed your personal curriculum, the system giving you access to everything you need to continue learning here and now, recognizing the device, network etc. and giving you an optimized user experience for your specific environment.

– As John rightly says, the advancements in mobile technologies have made "everything technically possible" thus moving the focus to the question of how to deliver actual learning to users of those connected devices. But there are not just one type of users – if you use your connected device as an "interactive textbook" in a classroom setting that usage is completely different from the usage patterns of the "lonely, mobile learners" who access the courses alone with no teacher / trainer present.

When we started creating the mobile media in 2003 we noticed that mobile is used "when you happen have the time" and only for a short period of time. This would mean that the mobile curriculum needs to consist of small pieces (5-8 minutes) of learning material including theory, examples & exercises. In addition to this the social aspects & a possibility for mentor-access would also be good to have – and some sort of a gamification too.

I think that this should be an easy thing to formulate to corporations, one big challenge though is that there is a very very very limited number of service & technology providers who can produce stuff that actually works across the majority of devices at reasonable costs.

John: I think implicitly I was also saying that the affordances of mobile technologies change our epistemology… what we know, how we know it, how we come to know, what we help others know, how we assess the worth and credibility of the known, what it is valuable to know for aesthetic, economic, cultural and any other reasons and who decides the worth of knowing…

Aape: John, very much so and also moving from for "Just In Case" to "Just In Time" learning – very complex, very complex.

John: Thanks Aape. Very coincidentally I just read an editorial saying, Epistemology deals with questions of what knowledge is, what counts as knowledge, the sources of knowledge, the different kinds of knowledge, and what we can know, or the boundaries of knowledge (Wiersma and Jurs 2009). And I should have added the impact of mobile technologies on existing epistemologies, which are a central and defining characteristic of each and every culture, sub-culture and counter-culture.

john aape

John: BTW I guess in the sense I’m meaning it, each corporation & company as well as every community, caste and culture have their own ever-evolving epistemology.

My conclusion:

  • Classifying what is and what is not a mobile device is not very useful.
  • The ultimate goal of mobile learning may be to deliver on the promise to ‘make learning happen’ through credible, authentic and aligned content.
  • Mobile learning is transformative because it impacts existing epistemologies.
  • Mobile learning is a characteristic not a version.

What say you?


Andy Black has been writing about technology futures since (at least) 2005. At one time he was technology research manager at Becta.

Australia’s Geordie Guy has been writing for years about privacy, censorship, copyright and technology.

John Traxler is Professor of Mobile Learning, Director of the International Association for Mobile Learning and author of Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers

Dave Ferguson is an experienced, straight-talking and well-round learning professional specializing in solving on-the-job performance problems.

Aape Pohjavirta has worked 25 years in digital media, 15 in mobile and invented the mobile magazine (=app) in 2003. He’s a technology visionary & evangelist with a strong-ish belief in science & research with a conviction that anything good now is preferred to waiting for perfect forever.

Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

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