Digital Teaching In Higher Education

Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment

A book by Tom Worthington MEd, FACS CP

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Mobile Learning

  1. The benefits and challenges of m-learning
  2. Mobile Learning and Distance Education

The benefits and challenges of m-learning


This paper first investigates what mobile learning (m-leaning) is, the benefits and challenges of adopting it and provides some Australian examples for remote indigenous communities. M-learning suffers from a lack of a clear definition as to what it is: from any use of mobile device to any non-place specific learning. Also there are the inflated hopes expected of any technology newly applied to education. There is research into what m-learning is and results of its use for millions of students over the last five years. This paper concludes by suggesting m-learning is particularlyapplicable for students in developing counties with limited infrastructure and in remote parts of developing nations. In particular m-learning techniques might help solve a current problem for outback students using the Australian NBN Interim Satellite system.

What is m-Learning?

Clearly the experience of interacting with a mobile device on a bus is different to using a desktop computer at home. Does this change the nature of the learning: should the content and activities be different? A student may read notes and reply to a forum question (which requires a short answer) from a mobile device. But will the student try to prepare a 4,000 word essay on the bus? Should the assessment tasks be broken into smaller components to suit this environment? Should we tell the student how many hours of "desktop" time they will need to complete the course (as opposed to palmtop time)?

At its most literal, Palalas (2010), points out that mobile technologies are portable: hardware which can be carried and with wireless networking. Earlier definitions tend to focus more on the hardware and latter ones about the educational process (being personal and customized). The general principles of Palalas (2010) remain current, but specific technology mentioned, particularly PDAs and "mini-computers" is obsolete.

M-learning in Developing Nations

Ally and Tsinakos (p. 1, 2014) argues that "... it is important that standards for mobile learning be set so that high-quality mobile learning materials are developed and learning materials can be shared among educational organizations". However, developing nations have fewer resources for education and training, as a result timely low cost materials may be preferred to high quality. It may be tempting to require sharing among organizations, but this may lessen the incentive for development of material: why produce any materials if you can get them from someone else?

A search of Google Scholar for papers with the words:' "personal digital assistant" pda education training' shows a significant number of papers up to ten years ago:

To Year












Search of Google Scholar for papers,
with the words:' "personal digital assistant" pda education training'.

The definitions of m-learning Crompton (2014) offer do acknowledge that devices such as the Palm were being discussed for leaning in 2000. Some of the definitions refer to wireless communication, but most just refer to hand-held devices. Curiously, this "mobile" definition could be applied to an ordinary paper textbook. Crompton (p. 8, 2014) proposes m-Learning "be defined as: learning across multiple contexts, through social and content interactions, using personal electronic devices". However, this would exclude learning which does not involve social interaction and, by implication standalone devices. In particular this would exclude providing education modules for developing nations where there is limited broadband access. This would exclude the entries in the Global Learning XPRIZE, including OATSEA Foundation's Teachervirus (discussed later).

Crompton's (2014) broad-brush approach to m-learning contrasts with Brown, Hruska, Johnson and Poltrack (2014), who focus on the specifics of standards for m-Learning. However, the authors refer to HTML as a "de facto Web standard", when HTML is a series of well defined and supported de jure standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and ratified by national and international standards bodies. The use of standards is particularly important for mobile devices, which cannot be as easily updated as desktop computers.

Yeonjeong (p.28, 2014) uses the definition "Mobile learning refers to the use of mobile or wireless devices for the purpose of learning while on the move.". This circular definition, defining a mobile learning as learning with a mobile device, is not particularity useful. Like many definitions, " wireless" (presumably wireless telecommunications) is seen to be key to mobile learning. Yeonjeong (p. 38,2014) identifies four types of m-learning:

  1. high transactional distance socialised mLearning;
  2. high transactional distance individualised mLearning;
  3. low transactional distance socialised mLearning; and
  4. low transactional distance individualised

All of these include the word "distance", although there is no reason given as to why m-learning need be limited to distance education. Mobile devices could be used in, or near, the classroom (such as on the bus on the way to class).

Removing the repeated words from Yeonjeong's for types, and reversing the order, to the more logical low to high, produces a two dimensional matrix:

Transactional Level

Social Learning Level

Individualized (with instructor, or receive tightly structured content)

Socialized (group learning)

(less psychological and communication
space with the instructor)

4 MOOCs?

3 MOOCs with group work?

psychological and communication space with instructor)

2 Individual Projects and Research with a Mentor/supervisor??

1 Traditional small e-learning course (as in the MEd)

Transaction and Social level of e-learning (after Yeonjeong, 2014)

This two dimensional space could be used to position types of m-learning.

McGreal (p. 49, 2014) makes the point that 'Wireless technologies through the use of the Internet on new and more powerful networks are providing expanded access to learning opportunities in remote regions and in poorer barrios that were never linked to the "wired" world. ("barrios is used in the USA to denote a poorer area of a city). McGreal (p. 54, 2014) goes on to argue that "... for mLearning applications, OER are essential". However, there is now a large market for "Apps", including educational Apps. Private for-profit education companies, some offshoots of academic publishers, have long sold computer based educational materials. Many of the MOOC consortia are also variations on a "Fremium" business model: with the student given a free taster, to get them hooked on the full for-a-fee course. It is likely that there will be a mix of open and closed resources used for m-learning.

Specht (p. 62, 2014) discusses contextualized m-learning, using Ambient Information ChannEls (AICHE) model:

  1. Mobile interface design: optimal use of a small screen.

  2. Mobile legacy access: Adapting existing content and LMS to a small screen.

  3. Contextualised learning support: Changing the content and functions based on where the phone is and therefore what the user is likely to be doing and so want information about.

  4. Seamless and cross-context support: Allowing the user to go from device to device, while using the same content and functions. As an example the user might do some work on a desktop computer and then continue on a mobile device on the bus.

Specht (p. 64, 2014) describes AICHE as using a "simple metaphor of information channels that are ambient all around us". The device tunes into what is most relevant to the user, depending on where they are and what they are trying to do. AICHE is described as having four layers: Sensor, Aggregation,

Control, and Indicator, with the components: Sensors, Channels, Artefacts, and Control structures. Sensor information, such as relation, Location, time, environment and ID can be aggregated. For example, a smartphone might aggregate the GPS coordinates and time into "The user is a student in chem101, at the lecture theater and the lecture is about to start, so I will show them the topic page". Specht (p. 68, 2014) describes this as "Synchronisation of different entities and their contextual information". It could also be seen as "Framing" information to a larger context.

Some of Specht (p. 69, 2014)'s suggestions do not appear new or radical, as an example, "Time-Based Notification for Reflection Support" has students sent a daily message and asked to reflect on their learning. This does not seem so different to the messages students are regularly sent via an LMS. In this case the author points out that only the time of day is used. But pushing such a message to a mobile device might be less useful than waiting for the student to collect it. Unless the device can tell when the student will be receptive to reflection (for example, by detecting they are not driving a car) then the student is likely to ignore the message or respond with a cursory reply. In contrast if the student needs to consciously decide to log into the LMS to collect messages, they presumably will be at a time and place when they are able to undertake learning.

Stead (p. 100, 2014) suggests m-learning can be used for "stolen moments" and "just in time" training. The author mentions the Mobile Learning Environment project (MoLE) project, which Ferrer, Hodges and Bonnardel (2013) describe as "an international experiment about mobile learning environment which provided learning resources and tools for personnel in disaster or emergency situations." This looks like it was a worthwhile initiative but one which was not sustained, which tends to happen more for mobile projects than other e-learning, perhaps due to the rapidly changing technology rendering work obsolete quickly. Stead (2014) goes on to discuss other "dilemmas for mobile developers", with decisions having top be made over web versus app use, which app platform to support and if apps should function off-line.

Ferran-Ferrer, Domingo, Prieto-Blazquez, Corcoles, Sancho-Vinuesa and Santanach (2014) discuss the use of m-learning as a complement to e-leaning at the "Open University of Catalonia (UoC) in the "mUOC" project. This was to facilitate the use of mobile devices, but their a survey showed that 94% of students owned a laptop, 76% a tablet and 45% an e-reader (with no mention of smaller mobile devices). Given that almost all university students have a laptop, it might be useful to have a strategy for the use of a smartphone or tablet to complement the laptop, rather than have strategies which make exclusive use of the more mobile device

That students just use their phones for everything is just one myth of mlearning.

Mobile Learning Myths. Parsons (2014) lists their top five mobile learning myths:

  1. Mobile Learning Is "Anytime, Anyplace" Learning: The author makes the point m-learning can be context specific. This might be better called "Here and Now" learning.

  2. Mobile Learning Is "Just In Time" Learning.

  3. Mobile Learning Is Learning While Mobile: The author makes the point that it is ubiquity, not mobility, that is important.

  4. Mobile Learning Is an Extension of eLearning: Parsons (2014) argues that m-learning can be more than just e-learning ported to a mobile device. However, many of the uses promoted for m-learning appear to be contrived or to suggest that somehow just giving the student a mobile device some how empowers them (discussed later with reference to the OLPC).

  5. Mobile Learning Is an Extension of Distance Learning: Parsons (2014) makes the point that m-learning is not just a form of distance learning. Perhaps time educators stopped worrying about the campus/distance divide. Any university course developed today, even for use on a campus, is likely to make use of some on-line resources which will be available off-campus.

Peters (p. 116, 2009) in work for the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (a consortium of government vocational learning providers) proposes a "just enough, just in time, just for me" model of flexible learning.

Wishart (2009) follows a similar vocational approach, reporting on a study of the use of mobile devices by trainee teachers on school placements. Thirteen science teachers and six trainee teachers were given PDAs. These appear to have been relatively advanced models for the time, with cameras and Internet access. But their GPRS modems would be limited to about 35 kbps, well below today's wireless "broadband" and participants only had a monthly allocation of 6MB of data (less than one hundredth of today's cheapest plans). Interestingly, even with these primitive devices the teachers were accessing a Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

After five months only half of Wishart's participants were still using the PDAs. Two used desktop computers instead, using USB memory sticks for portability. Two had not tried the PDAs. One could not read the small screen and one found the stylus unusable (this was before sensitive touch-screens were available). Those teachers who were using the PDAs, used them for making notes in meetings and lesson observations, Calendar Scheduling, photos and videos, researching on the Internet. In contrast the PDAs were not used at all for communication with the trainees.

Of the six trainee teachers in Wishart (2009), only two were still using them after six months. The author concludes "... reflections on their teaching experience with their tutors via a blog was not successful in that trainees in this study preferred not to use it" (Wishart, p. 273, 2009). The researchers point out that this was more because the trainee could not see why they should share their reflections on-line, rather than problems with the hardware. Many of the problems with hardware have been addressed by today's smartphones and tablet computers.

Developing nations have fewer resources for education and training. Learning may offer a way to deliver low cost materials ins a timely way. Learning can include social interactions, but the option of a relatively modest upgrade of paper-based distance education should not be ignored, especially where there is limited broadband access for more advanced techniques. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides well defined and supported standards which can be used for mobile devices. Learning may be in part be provided using OER. However, "Fremium" and full for-fee business models may be more viable. Today's smartphones and tablet computers solve many of the problems which limited previous attempts at m-learning, but courses still need to be designed with the learner in mind.

Is Mobility Needed for Mobile Learning?

One obvious application of m-learning is where the student does not have fixed computer and telecommunications infrastructure. An example is Philip Townsend's suggestion for connecting trainee teachers together in remote indigenous communities (Townsend, 2014). The students do not necessarily have one fixed home and may be moving between multiple campsites.

Some m-learning applications are really "mobile" or location based. Cochrane and Bateman (p. 145, 2010s discuss Geo-tagging, which would be more difficult without a GPS enabled smartphone. Many instances of m-learning appear to not be about advantages of mobile learning, but just that the student only has a mobile device, so that is pressed into use for learning. Brown and Mbati (2015)'s text quizzes on basic phones is an example of this. Given a choice and educational designer would not use a tiny text-only screen and numeric keyboard for quizzes. But given a choice between using the phone the student has, or having nothing at all, the phone is pressed into service.

Mobile Devices as Low Cost Education Devices

The mobility of a device may be incidental to its value for learning. The $15M Global Learning XPRIZE has as its aim to provide basic literacy and numeracy using technology (XPRIZE Foundation, 2015):

"The Global Learning XPRIZE challenges teams from around the world to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 18 months. Once the 18-month field-testing phase concludes, the prize purse will be objectively awarded to the team that generates the best international standardized test scores within the group of participating children. Our goal is an empowered generation that will positively impact their communities, countries and the world."

Of the 198 Xprize teams, thirteen are from Canada and six from Australia. One team, Hotspot School is the "OATSEA Foundation is from the Canberra region. For their "Hotspot School they propose a small, solar powered Rasberry PI based server which will distribute educational content to smartphones. The use of smartphones is envisaged as these are low cost rugged devices which students can be expected to be able to afford (or their families will already have). The smartphone has a battery and so is independent of main power supply (and can be charged periodically from a solar panel or shared village supply).

Are Laptops Mobile Devices?

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project XO computer was intended to promote learning through small computers in developing countries. These devices, while described as "laptops" (Figure 1) would fit the m-leaning definition, as they were designed to be small enough for primary school children to hold and included educational software. The units had a screen which folded over the keyboard to make an ebook.

McGreal (2014) claims that the MIT one laptop per child (OLPC) initiative opened up the market for low cost mobile devices. However, full-scale production of the "OLPC only started in late 2007, at around the same time as the commercial "ASUS Eee PC 700 Series. As a readily available low cost device which was widley discussed at the time, the Eee PC probably had more influence on the real world than the OLPC (which was hailed in academia but was not widely adopted). This illustrates the need to balance the potential educational benefits of bespoke education hardware or software against the low cost and wide viably of widely used products.

M-learning Barriers

Shonola and Joy (p. 3330, 2014) in a study of barriers to M-learning in Nigeria, suggest the curriculum be suitable for on-line delivery and take into account the "cognitive and social skills of the students rather than being a mere communication medium". The authors also suggest training the teaching staff in use of the technology, not only to provide the needed skill, but also bring about a chnage in attitude. Perhaps most importantly, Shonola and Joy (p. 3330, 2014) caution against an over-reliance on mobile devices in the students, suggesting m-learning should supplement, not replace, classroom attendance.

Rikala, Hiltunen and Vesisenaho (2014), interviewed primary and secondary school teachers in Central Finland about their readiness to adopt m-learning. The researchers found barriers to m-learning to be the same as for other computer use: a lack of confidence, competence and access to resources, with resources, professional development and support being suggested to overcome these.

Rikala, Hiltunen and Vesisenaho (2014), point out that teachers may need help with a different pedagogy applied with the new technology. I have attended many training courses which explained the details of how to work some educational software, but not why to use it.

Du (2015), surveyed users of the Blackboard App. Disadvantages found included the limited Functionality. as compared with the desktop version (no class calendar or grade book), Usability problems with the small screen, Reliability of the app on a range of mobile devices, Security on a device carried around. However, real barrier may be that the mobile application is seen to be an inferior version of an existing desktop application and so suffer in the comparison (only half the students in the study had tried the Blackboard App).

Perhaps the greatest barrier to m-learning are over-hyped and under-delivering products. Lopez, Cerezo, Menendez, and Ballesteros (2015) describe using a mobile device for helping tourism guides pass an examination. I had imagined this would involve a location based application, which would tell candidates about a tourist attraction and then quiz them on it. However, as described, the application has no mobile features: it does allow collaboration, where students make up question for others to be tested on, but this is just e-learning on a mobile device.

Benefits and Challenges

The OLPC Project provides the largest and most well researched deployment of mobile learning undertaken. Several million OLPC computers were distributed in several nations. Little educational benefit was apparent in the studies into their use. Beuermann, Cristia, Cueto, Malamud and Cruz-Aguayo (2015) carried out a randomized trial of the OLPC in Peru and found no improvement in academic achievement or cognitive skills for students with the computers.

James (2015) found that the cost of implementing the OLPC in Peru and Rwanda would cause an acute imbalance in their national education budgets. They suggested it would be preferable to invest in teachers, not hardware. Townsend's (2014) approach of providing training for teachers via mobile devices might be a reasonable first step, before providing M-leaning direct to the student.

One often cited reason for the use of m-learning is to overcome a lack of conventional resources for education or for locations where conventional education cannot access. Wuyungaowa (2015) describes the use of the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat for undergraduate university students to practice their English. Students used text chat to practice written communication and audio messages for spoken English. A survey of students showed that most students were worried that the audio messages would use up too much of their mobile phone data use. This placed students who did not have access to free WiFi at a disadvantage.

It should be noted that the disadvantaged group to be helped with m-learning need not be in a developed nation. In Australia 50% of the young people in detention are aboriginal, even though they make up only 5% of the youth population (Spiranovic, Clare, Bartels, Clare & Clare, 2015). It should be noted that for many of these students English is a second language. Basic literacy and vocationally related education might be provided through m-learning.

M-learning can be used to make up for a lack of conventional resources and locations where conventional education cannot be provided. However, mobile devices on their own do not necessarily improve learning, pedagogy needs to also be considered.

M-learning and Pedagogy

Brown and Mbati (2015) suggest m-Learning has supports Social Constructivism and other emerging pedagogy:

  1. Administrative Support and Motivational Messages Through SMS
  2. Quizzes on Very Basic Phones
  3. Audio-Visual Affordances
  4. Location Awareness and GPS
  5. Contextual and Situated Learning
  6. Augmented Reality and Immersive Presence
  7. Integrating Formal and Informal Learning
  8. Personal Publishing and Sharing

Cochrane and Bateman (p. 145, 2010) present much the same information in a table, mapping affordances to pedagogy, with an emphasis on situated and collaborative Learning. Hoven and Palalas (2011), take a similar approach, situating mobile language learning within an existing Ecological Constructivist approach. With the constructivist the students create content using mobile devices, rather than just act as passive consumers.

M-Learning Examples

Implementing the Australian Technologies Curriculum for Schools

The "Foundation to Year 10 Australian Curriculum: Technologies" was "endorsed on Friday 18 September 2015 by all Australian State and Territory Ministers for Education for use in schools (Education Council, 2015). A new technology curriculum is an obvious area for the use of technology for learning and Intel, with the help of Macquarie University have developed a "Teacher's guide for the use of small Arduino battery powered computers (Boyd, Burfoot, Green, & Howe, 2015). The Arduino uses similar technology to a mobile phone, but allows the student direct physical access to the hardware and a sense of control by being able to program it (rather than the technology controlling them).

Coding exercises. Australian company "Grok Learning has developed one hour coding exercises for supporting the Australian curriculum. These are designed for an iPad, although also available on a desktop web browser. The exercises use "turtle graphics" for drawing. The two versions of the exercises used: one with a "visual programming language (Blockly) and one using the programming language Python. The programming environment used is similar to "Snap!" used for UC Berkeley's "Beauty and Joy of Computing" ("Harvey, 2012). The use of turtle graphics for teaching extends much further back, at least to the mid 1970s ("Solomon & Papert, 1976). It is interesting to see that it has taken more than 40 years for the hardware to catch up with teaching ideas.

Grok's implementation is only a few weeks old and they were still making some improvements. Overall the exercises worked well for teaching programming fundamentals. However, these exercises would only be useful where the student was able to obtain help from a human tutor, such as in a classroom. On its own, for the distance education student, the exercises would be very frustrating. The exercises do not exploit any of the mobility features of the iPad, just using it as a web interface. It would be possible to exploit the iPad's sensors to make it a more active part of the exercise.

M-learning for Remote Indigenous Communities. As discussed previously, Townsend (2014) proposes the use of mobile devices for teacher education in remote Australian indigenous communities. These communities lack a fixed telecommunications and education infrastructure. The Australian government's "National Broadband Network" (NBN) involved more than $30B on fiber optic and hybrid cable to households in the city, fixed terrestrial wireless in regional areas and satellite broadband in remote areas. As well as providing direct consumer home and school satellite links, the NBN satellite will be used to provide mobile phone coverage, including Internet access in remote indigenous communities. Just as such mobile access has allowed developing nations to skip the step of terrestrial commutations, the same should be possible for remote Australian communities. This aspect of the NBN has not been noted by other educational researchers. Radoll (2015) discussed the possible role of the NBN in the classroom for indigenous students, but does not mention mobile learning, or its role outside the formal classroom.

Use of Audio for M-Learning

Venkataraman and Prabhakar (2014) describe the use of audio via mobile phones for Indian farmers and "Townsend (2014) for trainee teachers in remote Australian indigenous communities. In addition to providing a mode of communication suited to the user, audio has lower bandwidth requirements than video and so is more suited to remote and less affluent students.

Live-to-air, recorded or synthesized speech could also be used by urban students when they are walking or in a vehicle (although two way speech may be hazardous while driving). Audio podcasts of educational content can be provided as an alternative to text, both for those with a disability and for use more generally. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL), makes papers available in MP3 as well as HTML, EPUB and formats. The MP3 file is generated using a text to speech system, keeping production cost low and also the file size. As an example, the paper by Young and Hung, (2014) on mobile education in China is a 39 minute 9.3 Mbyte audio file. While this is larger than the text versions (2.2 Mbytes HTML, 941 Kbytes of PDF and 736 Kbytes of EPUB), is several hundred times smaller than even at low resolution video encoding rate of 1 Mbps.

Reflow Text for M-learning

The EPUB papers in IRRODL should be suitable for display on a mobile device (using an EPUB reader). However, a check with the Google Mobile Page Speed Insights Test indicates that the could be modified to improve the display of the web version of the documents.

Academic papers were not designed for display on mobile devices, but can be adapted. A responsive web page design which removed the large image and sidebar from IRRODL would allow the paper's metadata (title, authors and abstract) to be displayed.

Combating the Scroll of Death. The limited space available on a mobile device might provide a useful discipline for e-learning design. Courses implemented with the Moodle Learning Management system suffer from what is referred to as the "Scroll of Death", where the content consists of one very long web page. If the course designer is has to fit everything on a small mobile screen, they will be forced to only include what is necessary and select a logical ordering and grouping to present the material in. This should aid all students, even those using larger desktop displays, as they will not be presented with unnecessary and poorly arranged material.

Australian Rural Data Drought

An issue in the national press in Australia this week is the availability of bandwidth for education. The first of two satellites (the first named "Sky Muster"), costing the government $500M each, has been launched to supply broadband to remote communities. But already there is worry the system will become quickly overloaded. The government had considered adding third satellite, but a 2014 review determined it would not be used to capacity. Two satellites will provide 135 Gbps down and 40 Gbps up, shared by about 200,000 ground-stations (Gregory, 2015).

The current interim satellite system has become overloaded, with each customer reduced from 100 gigabytes (GB) a month to 45 GB and them to 20 GB. As a news item points out (Courtney, 2015) this has to be shared by all students at one location. So five students on a remote cattle station only get 9 GB each. This has now become a national political issue, with a "Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia" (BIRRR) Facebook campaign.

The Australian Government estimates that "... a typical distance education student will download 15 to 20 gigabytes (GB) of data in a month" (Fletcher, 2015). However, the research this estimate is based on does not appear to have been published.

The bandwidth issue for satellite users also applies to mobile devices using mobile networks. Some satellite users will be using a mobile device for access, with the signal relayed from the satellite ground station to a mobile device, using WiFi or a mobile phone base station.

It is suggested that providing efficiently encoded educational materials and services might suit both mobile and satellite users. Rather than have three versions of the interface and content: for desktop, satellite and mobile users, it should be possible to use the one for all. An additional benefit of this may be that satellite users may be more forgiving of compromises brought about by limited bandwidth, if they believe this was done to provide mobile access.

Where bandwidth is limited or access intermittent, technical means, such as caching, can be used to reduce dependence on the network. Also the educational material can be designed to reduce dependence on the network. As an example, a classic distance education design can be used. With this the student receives a package of materials at the start of a course (traditionally a "reading brick" but now an e-book, or SCORM package). This provides all the materials the student needs for an entire semester. The course materials also include a study plan for the student to work through. The student completes exercises and sends in their work for assessment.

This Distance Education approach did not have a high completion rate in the days of paper mail. But with e-learning the student can be sent short nudges to help them work. These short postings from a human tutor (or from automated reminders programmed into the course) need only be a few hundred characters of text. Along with text based forums, this makes the student feel involved with the course at minimal bandwidth cost. A layered approach could be applied to course design, where, if more bandwidth is available, students can have live to air audio or video discussions.


This paper investigated what mobile learning is the, benefits and challenges of adopting it and provided some Australian examples. Broad definitions of m-learning being any form of non-place specific learning are of little practical value. A better definition is that m-learning is the application of educational techniques through wearable, hand held and portable electronic devices, usually with wireless telecommunications. Special provision of mobile devices to students are unlikely to be a cost effective use of education resources. M-leaning may be of benefit for marginalized groups in remote parts of developed nations and in developing nations. However, just providing mobile devices to students does not help with learning, this has to be part of an educational program. M-learning is an adaption of e-learning and can be successfully applied using techniques adopted from distance education. M-learning is best applied in addition to other forms of education. It is suggested that responsive and accessible web design can allow the student to choose the device they use for learning to suit the time and place. It is suggested that conventional e-learning applied to mobile formats could be used to cope with the limited bandwidth available on the Australian NBN Interim Satellite system.


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Mobile Learning and Distance Education


This paper investigates the use of mobile learning (m-learning) for programs and workplace learning. My area of work concerns teaching ICT students in Australian postgraduate programs leading to professional certification. Such courses are increasingly delivered via blended and e-learning, using tools such as Moodle. However, one aspect of such programs which has limited support from on-line tools and remains an educational and administrative problem is the workplace experience component required for professional certification of graduates. This paper considers the question as to if m-learning can help with workplace learning.

M-learning in the Literature: The Latest Technological Determinism?

Before considering m-learning, a brief overview of previous technology applied to education may be of use. There is a level of technological determinism built into the naming of forms of distance education, and confusion between the use of technology for distance and classroom use, in the literature. Proposals for what eventually became the UK Open University were described as a "televarsity" and "University of the Air" in the planning phase (Briggs, pp. 494-568, 1995). The Open University of China (Chinese: 国家开放大学 and the English website for OUC is was formed from the "China Central Radio and TV University" or "CCRTVU" (Guri-Rosenblit, p. 115, 2014). The Internet has replaced radio and TV for the delivery of many courses. Guri-Rosenblit (p. 109, 2014) point to the confusion today, with "... a common misleading tenancy to refer to online education as a synonym for distance education". These examples place the technology used (broadcast television and radio) prominently in the description of the form of education. Is m-learning just the latest example of this?

M-learning at Australian Universities

A search for "mobile learning" at Australian university web sites (with domain names ending in ""), returned 7,000 results. A similar number of documents were returned with a search for "mLearning" at Australian universities. However, the abbreviation appears to be used by education academics when discussing theory, whereas the term "mobile learning" is used when addressing students. An example of the former is the "mLearning: New Technologies, New Pedagogiesproject" at University of Wollongong (Herrington, Mantei, Herrington, Olney & Ferry, 2008). The project initially set out to investigate mobile phones, PDAs, and iPods (mp3 players), but within the lifetime of the project, mobile phones and PDAs merged to become smartphones. Since 2008 the mp3 player has also been subsumed by the smartphone. It may be that discussion of "m-learning" will be rendered irrelevant if this trend continues, with laptop computers replaced by tablet computers with optional keyboards and desktop PCs by flat screens which can be synced to a mobile device.

Herrington, Mantei, Herrington, Olney & Ferry (2008) set out to answer four questions concerning m-learning:

These questions are as relevant in today as they were in 2008. However, the affordances of mobile devices should be expanded to include the wireless networks, which make the devices so useful. Previous strategies for e-learning assumed that the student had access at home to a computer connected to the Internet, many m-learning strategies assume not only the mobile device but ubiquitous wireless access. Ubiquitous access is important for situated learning, that is learning in the environment the learning is about, this is perhaps the most obvious pedagogical principle facilitated by mobile devices for authentic learning.

Herrington, Mantei, Herrington, Olney & Ferry (2008) cite Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula and Sharples (2004) summation theories applied to m-learning:

  1. Behaviourist: At its most basic a mobile device can be used to provide the student with a stimulus and reward them for the appropriate response. Gamificaiton of learning, especially with the popularity of relatively simple computer games as Apps for mobile devices, is where this might be best applied. The "ndive project" by a consortium of Australian and New Zealand university aims to use immersive virtual environments for skill acquisition, assessment, and feedback (Wood, Teräs & Reiners, 2013). Smartphone technology can now be used to provide the display for an immersive environment at a lower cost than using dedicated hardware.

  2. Constructivist: Habel and Stubbs (2014) used mobile phone voting in a law course at University of Adelaide. This was to encourage attendance and engagement in face-to-face lectures. The social constructivist pedagogy was invoked by explicit instructions on how to prepare for the lectures, so the students were ready to participate. Habel and Stubbs (2014) used the VotaPedia system developed by the Australian CSIRO research organization (Maier, p. 44, 2009).

  3. Situated: Townsend (2014) investigated the use of mobile devices by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pre-service teachers living in remote communities. The teachers can use the devices while in the community, and incorporate that in their learning.

  4. Collaborative: Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula and Sharples (p 15, 2004) reference Vygotsky's socio-cultural psychology (Vygotskii & Cole, 1978) however, more immediately relevant to m-learning they go on to mention conversation theory (Pask 1976) and Laurillard (2013) explicitly linking this computer-mediated communication. However, Laurillard does not explore Pask's "concept triples" in detail, which are similar to the "triples" used by the semantic web (Berners-Lee, Handler, & Lassila, p. 5, 2006). This holds out that the prospect that the "conversation" could go beyond natural language and use the semantic web to define formal information structures which could be automatically analyzed for consistency and completeness.

  5. Informal and lifelong: Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula and Sharples (p 3, 2004) define Informal and lifelong learning as "... activities that support learning outside a dedicated learning environment and formal curriculum ...". This form of learning is particularly relevant for working professionals, who are involved in systematic problem-solving day to day.

Acknowledge the History of Distance Education with Mobile Learning

Mobile learning is many things to many people. However, it is suggested that it should be first recognized as a development of e-learning, which in turn is a development of paper-based distance education. Those who fail to recognize this history of DE may be condemned to repeat past mistakes, where post, radio, TV, computers (and perhaps even MOOCs) failed to live up to their early promise to revolutionize education. Technology needs to fit with an approach to learning and an educational context, and it is suggested that one place m-learning could be used is to bridge the gap between the university and the workplace.

Masters Level Coursework Degrees

Kneale (p.1, 2015) points out that there has been limited research in the pedagogy of taught Master's degrees. This is despite these making up 18% of the university students in the UK, 21% in Australia and a very significant 27% of all transnational students in the UK (Kneale, p. 26, 2015). These degrees are referred to as a "Masters Degree (Coursework)" in the Australian nationally regulated system (Australian Qualifications Framework Council, p.2, 2014).

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) specification for the Masters Degree (Coursework) says it "... qualifies individuals who apply an advanced body of knowledge in a range of contexts for professional practice or scholarship and as a pathway for further learning", whereas the Masters Degree (Research) "... qualifies individuals who apply an advanced body of knowledge in a range of contexts for research and scholarship and as a pathway for further learning" (Australian Qualifications Framework Council, p. 6, 2014, emphasis added). The "volume of learning" is stated to be "typically 1 - 2 years" and "... a program of structured learning with some independent research and project work or practice-related learning ..." (Australian Qualifications Framework Council, p. 7, 2014, emphasis added). There is no minimum amount of research or project work specified. However, this may be specified by an external certification body.

A difficulty for courses which cover professional practice is how to provide a suitable learning environment. Ideally, graduate students will already be experienced and employed in the field they are studying. As an example the Australian Computer Society (ACS) Computer Professional Education Program (CPEP) is a postgraduate ICT program requiring the student to be in a "workplace"; Nagarajan and Edwards (2015) characterize this as "... filling the gap between university education and work experience...". However, one of the functions of postgraduate higher education programs is this form of professional education: one method to bridge the education to workplace gap may be mobile learning.

There is no requirement in the AQF specification for students to attend class in person, allowing for the use of on-line learning. However, visa restrictions on transnational students in Australia limit online learning to 25 percent of their program and "... in each compulsory study period each student must be studying at least one unit that is not by distance or online." (Department of Education and Training, 2000). However, programs leading to a professional qualification require the student to undertake their professional practice in a workplace, which will most likely not be on-campus. One innovative use for m-learning could be to meet the on-campus and professional practice requirements simultaneously.

M-learning for the Workplace

McAllister and Nagarajan (p 17, 2015) discuss the use of mobile technologies for clinical training of Allied Health professionals. Occupational Therapists are required to undertake 1,000 hours of clinical practice (McAllister & Nagarajan, p. 6, 2015), supervised and assessed by a qualified practitioner. McAllister and Nagarajan (p 17, 2015) focus on "tele-supervision," that is using the technology to provide a remote supervisor. However, the approach taken with the Student Practice Evaluation Form-Revised system (SPEF-R) developed at the University of Queensland, is to support the on-site supervisor, remotely (Rodger, Turpin, Copley, Coleman, Chien, Caine, & Brown, 2014).

SPEF-R was originally a paper-based system, then converted to a web-based on-line service. What has not yet been reported in the literature is that the SPEF-R system was further developed in 2013, with a mobile compatible web interface, for use with tablet computers in a clinical setting (the author was a member of the steering committee for this project). SPEF-R provides a example of the progression from paper-based distance education, through desktop computer on-line learning through to mobile learning. This approach, of the evolution of tools, along with the approach of providing the supervisor in the workplace with mobile support, is one which it is suggested could be applied more widely and specifically to taught masters requiring workplace experience.

M-leaning using Existing E-Learning Tools

  1. The SPEF-R, developed at the University of Queensland (Rodger, Turpin, Copley, Coleman, Chien, Caine, & Brown, 2014), used bespoke computer programming and custom mobile compatible user interface. The cost of this development was affordable, as the cost could be spread over the twelve Australian universities which used the system for supervision of off-campus students. The cost of such a bespoke development would be hard to justify for the typical university masters program, with only a few hundred students. However, Learning Management Systems, such as Moodle, now provide a "responsive" web interface and App, which could be used to communicate with students and supervisors off campus using mobile devices, without the need for custom software development, thus lowering the cost.

Responsive web design and Apps

  1. Responsive web design provides an alternative to "Apps", as well as complementing their development. Responsive design uses the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) formatting functions of the web to detect the size of the device the user has and adjust the display accordingly. The automatic adjustment of the display is enhanced by the use of accessible design for users with a disability, particularly the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (World Wide Web Consortium, 2008).

  2. "App" (an abbreviation for "application" program), is a term which predates the smartphone (Holwerda, 2011). Today's Apps are associated with mobile device environments, particularly as Apple iOS, Google Android and were originally for smartphones. However, the App developer cannot assume that the program is running on a small smartphone screen, as smartphones are increasing in size and tablet computers are becoming hybrid notebook computers. The App developer will therefore need to apply similar responsive design as the web developer (and Apps can use the same web formats).

  3. Both responsive web pages and Apps can function without an Internet connection. Blackburn (2015) recently demonstrated a web-based "Electronic Exam" which can be built using standard web coding and implementing "client-side (not requiring connectivity to a server)".

  4. There have been rapid advances in the design of responsive web interfaces in the last few years. Young and Hung (2014) state that "In the Moodle-based system, when users can access the content via a mobile device, the information is the same as on the desktop but with small unreadable text". However, Bollens, Pollack, Rocchio, Tirpak, Eleanor & Matthew (2014) suggest a responsive design works well enough, so course designers should use it by default in a mobile friendly web strategy.

  5. A strategy of using mobile interfaces to existing learning tools will also ease the transition from desktop systems. Hu, Lei, Li, Iseli-Chan, Siu and Chu (p. 5, 2015) report that students with two or more years experience with Moodle were less likely to try the mobile version, than those with less experience. Also, students who considered themselves as having limited IT competency used the mobile version more. Both these groups of students need to be catered for. Fernandes, Rodrigues, Duarte, Hijón-Neira, and Carriço (p.5, 2014) found that a responsive design provided for a more accessible mobile interface. However, the desktop-mobile transition, even with responsive design is not without problems, as Marenkov, Robal, and Kalja (2015) note, if the desktop and mobile interfaces look too different the user becomes confused.

M-learning for a Formal Lifelong Learning Campus Experience, Off-campus

It is important to keep in mind that it is pedagogy which is intended to be implemented with mobile devices, rather than technical details of a computer system. The most important aspect is situated learning: it must be kept in mind by the educators where the students are and what they are doing in the workplace, as Townsend (2014) discusses for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pre-service teachers using mobile devices in remote communities. Students in a workplace will have numerous calls on their time and the m-learning should seek to be part of their work, rather than be a distraction from it. M-learning can use a collaborative approach and conversation theory (Pask 1976). The mobile device provides a way to link students together in their separate workplaces for mutual support.

M-leaning could also be used to provide formal lifelong learning, in contrast to the to the informal and lifelong learning described by Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula and Sharples (p 3, 2004). The student would be provided with a formal learning environment and a formal curriculum. However, this could be accessed from the workplace. Rather than the approach of having students undertake short intensive programs, the learning could be ongoing.

Pye, Holt, Salzman, Bellucci and Lombardi (p. 8, 2015) found that Australian university students study for four to six hours a week, not the expected eight to ten hours, per course. Rather than attempting to have the students study more, an alternative would be to adjust courses to suit. A workable goal might be to have students study an hour a day, for most of the year. This would allow a student to complete half a full time course load, while only undertaking one course at a time.

Evolve e-learning tools and techniques for workplace m-learning

The question this paper set out to answer is how m-learning could be used for taught masters programs which include workplace learning. The proposed approach is to enhance the existing Learning Management Systems used, particularly, Moodle, with a responsive interface for mobile devices. This system can be used to deliver relatively conventional Distance Education courses to the student's desktop/laptop computer for coursework and their mobile device for situated workplace learning. The same interfaces can be used to provide the student's workplace supervisor with advice and assistance in carrying out educational tasks and assessment in the workplace. As the student will have an on-site educational supervisor, the student's workplace can be also considered a place of learning and so not subject to regulatory restrictions on the use of "online" learning.


This paper investigated the use of mobile learning (m-learning) for taught masters programs. M-leaning is a development of e-learning, which was built on the foundation of paper-based distance education. This evolutionary approach could be applied to the supervision of ICT students in Australian postgraduate programs leading to professional certification. Students could undertake part, or all, of their education in the workplace, supervised face-to-face by professionals, with remote support from the university. This could overcome the visa restrictions on transnational students, which would otherwise limit their use of e-learning. By using a combination of work-place supervisors and m-learning, to make the learning experience personal, immediate and intimate, students could have an off-campus, campus experience. As well as improving the quality of education by situating it in the workplace, this will provide access to education which would be otherwise denied due to regulations concerning the use of online learning.


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About the book: Digital Teaching In Higher Education

Higher Education is a global industry, driving a new technological, industrial revolution. However, it is important to remember education is about teachers helping students learn. This work is a collection of short essays exploring how to use digital technology to provide a form of teaching which will meet social and economic goals, and make use of technology, while still having a place for the academic as a teacher. Drawing on work undertaken for a Masters of Education in Distance Education, this book charts one future for Higher Education, including instructional design, planning and management, catering for international students, using Open Education Resources and Mobile Learning. E-learning designer and computer professional, Tom Worthington MEd FACS CP, uses as a case study his award-winning course in ICT Sustainability and the design of a new innovation and entrepreneurship course.

Edition Notice

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2017

Cover pictographs ebook, talk, issues and approved, by Carlos Sarmento from the Noun Project (CC BY 3.0 US).

First Printing: 2017

TomW Communications Pty Ltd., PO Box 13, Belconnen ACT 2617, Australia

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Worthington, Tom, 1957- author.
Digital teaching in higher education : designing e-learning for
international students of technology, innovation
and the environment / Tom Worthington.

ISBN: 9781326947859 (Hardback)
ISBN: 9781326939922 (Paperback)
ISBN: 9781326938826 (ePub eBook)
ISBN: 9781326967963 (PDF eBook)
Amazon Kindle eBook (No ISBN).

Education, Higher--Effect of technological innovations on.
Education, Higher--Computer-assisted instruction.
Educational technology--Social aspects.
Education, Higher--Electronic information resources.
Instructional systems--Design.

A web version of this book is available free on-line, under at Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license at