The last 20 years of mobile learning and the grand challenge in global learning 

The concept of “mobile learning” (m-learning) started to appear in research literature in the early 2000’s. The first mLearn conference was organized in 2002. I have done mobile learning related research for 20 years. In 1998, we released the Future Learning Environment (FLE) that was already designed to be usable with mobile devices that feature a web browser. At that time, we were really excited with the possibilities presented by new devices like the Nokia Communicator series (1996 +) and some years later with what the Nokia Internet tablet (2005 +) presented.

A big part of the Future Learning Environment (FLE) vision was to allow students to conduct progressive inquiry everywhere, in a museum, in the forest, everywhere. The idea that children will get out of the school building and move with their devices to study the world and its wonders, with their peers, was a central part of the FLE design vision. Today we see this kind of contextual inquiry happening in some scale. My favourite platforms enabling contextual learning are Seppo.io, LifeLearn and Funzi. Check them out.

Another research and design principle of the FLE, perhaps even more important than the mobile use case, was the ambition to create tools which would be pedagogically sound. We strive to design tools based on pedagogical theories and research, and in this way contribute to meaningful learning. These two principles, pedagogically soundness and mobility,  have been kept in all our later mobile learning research projects.

In 2006, we were excited about the fast growth in access to mobile phones in the global south. The devices were usually basic: for making phone calls and sending and receiving text messages. Nevertheless, we wanted to explore could these basic mobile phone functionalities be used also for searching reliable and educational content,  could they be used to share knowledge with others in different ways? To study these issues, we developed a MobilED –audio wiki service. MobilED audio wiki worked as follows: Users could search for the meaning of a term by sending an SMS-message to the MobilED server, the server then called back the user and a speech synthesizer will read the article found in the wiki (e.g. in Wikipedia). When listening the article, a user could also dictate audio annotations to specific sections. If the term searched was not found in the wiki at all, then the user could contribute a new article by dictating it to the system. The possibility to contribute was very limited, however the contextual access to reliable information was there. Today the access to Wikipedia is offered widely via a variety of Android and iOS Apps.

In the last couple of years, in our research group’s mobile learning research we have focused on enhancing learners’ possibilities to reflect and to learn self-regulated learning practices. TeamUp and Reflex are example of the prototypes we have been designing to research some of these issues. These web apps, designed primary for tablets, are still online and can be used. Another good, and fast way, to get to know them is to read the following research article (it is open access):

Leinonen, T., Keune, A., Veermans, M., & Toikkanen, T. (2016). Mobile apps for reflection in learning: A design research in K‐12 education</a>. British Journal of Educational Technology47(1), 184-202.

A complete list of the latest mobile prototypes that belong to the category of helping students to reflect and to self-regulate, are described in this last blog post in our research group’s website. Just scroll down to the section “prototypes”.

Through this work, in the last 20 years we have aimed to help students to behave like experts — whatever digital device they happen to have in front of them, from basic mobile phones, to smart phones, tablets and computers. Someone could claim that it is irrelevant what device people use. I strongly disagree. Some devices are better for production of information and common knowledge, when some others are designed for acquisition of information and for sharing personal information. Current smart phones seem to be, unfortunately, only better for the later.

Today, 70% of the world youth is online, mostly with their smart phones. The number of mobile-broadband subscriptions globally is now over 50%. These means that half of the world population goes online through a mobile device.

With the growth of access to Internet, via smart phones, there is also new global challenges spreading: fake news, alternative facts, disinformation, ignorance . . . . at the same time we are also in the middle of changes in the future or work-life. Some research claims that close to 50% of employment is at risk of disappearing as a result of  computerization and automatization.

A future with masses of unemployed people, that are easily misled by disinformation, doesn’t sound like a very peaceful future. Something should be done.

Today, the grand challenge in global learning is our ability to provide scientific, rational and critical thinking skills for all.

I believe, this we can be done only with mobile devices. This is why I am still interested in to explore mobile learning phenomena.

And if you are now wondering did mobile learning started 20 years ago in Finland? Of course not. If you ask me, it was in 1977, when Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg introduced the idea of “Personal Dynamic Media”. If you want to read more about this, check out the article The Father Of Mobile Computing Is Not Impressed (still no place to put the pen!)

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