Understanding #mlearning or #mobile #learning. #edtech

Applying HCI and user context to mobile learning

Mobile learning is many things to many people. What constitutes good mobile learning and how does it differ from other forms of learning? Specifically, the most visible, current definitions of and current research in m-Learning provide overviews of the learning theory informing mobility and focus on device characteristics, but do not focus on how people interact with mobile devices in learning environments[1, 2]. Why would it matter how someone interacts with mobile devices to access learning content?

I do not mind that I have the privilege of reaching 45 years of age. In that time I have seen a significant shift in how people gather information and use technology. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, our major forms of learning were passive. We were members of a society that was dominated by broadcast media. I grew up at a time when we have four TV stations and the information on those stations was controlled and tailored. As a consumer of information, there was very little selection. I joke with my children today that when I was growing up, if the President was giving a speech, the entire country watched the President give that speech; there were no other options.

In addition to limited selection, television, by its nature, is a passive medium. It was not uncommon for us GenXers to learn via things by watching a passive medium. In addition, we sat in class and were exposed to countless hours of lectures similar to watching the nightly news broadcasts. As learners we really had no control over the information being consumed.

Figure 1. A family watches early television

This began to change in the mid 1990s with the invention of the World Wide Web. This may seem insignificant, but the democratization of information has lead to an overabundance news, information, videos and sources. So much so that humans today have far more information than they can ever consume. During this period and through the early part of the 2000s, the television was supplanted by the personal computer as our medium of choice. With this new media something happened for the very first time, we as the learner had complete control over our experience. Even more than that, we could become limited participants in that information via forums and newsgroups.

The result of this new media began to change how how people think. The ubiquitous nature of computing and limitless hypermedia are changing the nature of society and how people think and learn [3, 4]. But although my generation was the first to be exposed to this new media, our learning patterns had already been set. We are still broadcast learner and that is what makes me and others of my ilk happy learners. I typically read the entire article or book. I can sit and listen to a 2 hour lecture. It is how my generation was socialized.

The rise in the use of personal computer as teaching tool lead us to e-Learning and online courses. The first online classes and programs of significance began to show up in the early 2000s. Since their arrival, there has been significant research into the effectiveness of these courses in comparison to the traditional lecture format. But, without getting into that aspect of the story, the main thing to recognize is that content structure on website and e-Learning did not vary significantly from printed material. Because the generation of users that were utilizing this information was broadcast learners, they utilized the technology in that manner. In essence, their learning habits had already been formed before the technology arrived. But today, we have transformed from a society dominated by broadcast media to one that is focused on hyper and interactive media. That change in information access has significantly changed the children of GenXers.

Figure 2. Student using a personal computer and Internet to explore information

The real change did not come until the children of Gen Xers began to explore the Internet with an entirely different technology. The smartphone. Since 2007, mobile smartphone usage has become so widespread that many view access to information as a necessity. People use the devices in unique places and situations. Children today have access to more information in a quicker format than any proceeding generations. People today engage in different social interactions because of smartphones. With my children I see a marked difference in how they consume and use information. They are rarely, if ever, without their smartphone. They engage with information at a significantly higher and more sophisticated ways than I did at their age. They are much more willing to grab pieces and parts of information from various websites, youTube videos and sources to construct their own understanding. Although educator knows of this constructivist approach, the media does have an affect on how they learn. Given technology should continue to design content as if it will be consumed on personal computer?

By my thinking, the answer is no. Today, it is not enough for us as teachers to create a great lesson plan. We now need to consider how that information will be delivered and on what medium. People use smartphones differently than they use personal computers. What should be at the heart of instructional design in mobile learning is understanding user context.  Context is the learner’s patterns-of-usage in an external environment. It is how, where, and for how long a user engages with a mobile device. This is where instructional designers now need to become computer scientist and rely on the field of Human-computer interaction (HCI). HCI is an academic discipline that studies the situation involving people and technology as well as design practices and tools that are used in those situations [5].

There is an inverse relationship between the educational needs of mobile learning and the affordances of how humans interact with mobile computing. Our learning content needs to be structured in such as way as to take advantage of the technology and avoid its deficiencies. What constitutes mobile learning is the intersection of three areas:

  1. The learning theory and instructional designed being use;
  2. The audience and its context for the learning material;
  3. The affordances of mobile human computer interaction.

If one does not understand each of these areas, it is unlikely that you will be able to create an effective mobile learning experience for your students. In a future post I will review these three areas and how each area is important to good mobile learning.



  1. Parsons, D. and H. Ryu. A framework for assessing the quality of mobile learning. in 11th International Conference for Process Improvement Research and Education INSPIRE. 2006. Citeseer.
  2. Traxler, J., Current state of mobile learning. International Review on Research in Open and Distance Learning, 2007. 8(2): p. 10-24.
  3. Tapscott, D., Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. 1998, New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Prensky, M., Digital natives, digital immigrants. On The Horizon, 2001. 9(5): p. 1-10.
  5. Botha, A., D.V. Greunen, and M. Herselman. Mobile human-computer interaction perspective on mobile learning. in 6th Annual International Conference on Computing and ICT Research. 2010. Kampala, Uganda.


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