While reading the articles about mobile learning, I have remembered the following idea, taken from an assessment of ADTED542:

Formal and non-formal learning settings (schools, for instance) may improve not a little if they incorporate processes taken from self-directed and informal learning (Merriam et al., 2006). This can also be understood like bringing daily life contexts and real situations into the classroom. Formal learning can ignore informal learning no more.

Then, I recalled another quote, written by my peer Ming Ma in her blog:

Mobile learning is personalized, learner-centered, situated, collaborative, ubiquitous, and contextual.

At this point, I want to add a third element, which actually is rather an axiom. Let us posit that “informal” should be added to Ming’s quote: mobile learning is informal. It suits to MOBILearn project: “The focus of the project was to develop and support learning outside the classroom” (Kukulska-Hulme et al. 2009, p. 4). Formal learning is said not to be within the scope for MOBIlearn (p. 5).

I’m suggesting that mobile devices fit quite well with informal learning. It may be so due to the immense variety of applications and features that they have. On the other hand, informal learning may make a decisive contribution to formal settings, like schools. We may conclude that, in a personalized, learner-centered and collaborative class, like those designed with constructivist frameworks, the mobile device may be decisive.

Nonetheless, the student has to be engaged enough, by literate enough, and be mature enough, to make an effective use of the device. In fact, it’s the student who brings informal learning practices -mobile use- into class -if allowed. Using the words of Warschauer & Matuchniak, s/he must be capable of making a interest-driven use, instead of friendship-driven; s/he has to geek out and not just mess around (2010).

However, reducing mobile learning to informal settings is not justified. Projects like HandLer, Learning2Go or Nintendogs are good examples of mobile devices used in formal education (Kukulska-Hulme et al. 2009).

Let us distinguish between formal and informal use of mobile technology. One major difference can be highlighted between both approaches:

  • Mobile devices fit well in informal learning because of their wide range of possibilities, as said before. It’s the student who decide when and how s/he needs the device. Its use is mainly informal: unrestricted and student-driven.
  • When they are applied to formal education, the use and applications are tightly planned and determined. Consequently, the student is more likely to follow the instructions. The use of the device is formal: restricted and teacher-driven.
    An example of formal use is iPads classes. The operation of the devices is restricted and controlled by the teacher, who also decide what applications can be used.

Despite that difference, in both cases, the device becomes a learning tool or mind tool irremplazable, since its characteristics are necessary given the way the learner does, works, and learns. It’s true -especially- when applying data collection, location-aware and collaborative. Patten concluded that those applications “try to create new learning opportunities which would not be possible without (mobile) technology” (as cited in Pachler et. al, 2010).

The concern about inappropriate use of mobiles, extensively analyzed by Yardi and Bruckman (2012), should not be forgotten. It includes a wide range of issues, like excessive time devoted to games or social networks, or the risk due to delinquent users, or the access to undesirable content.

Somehow, effective use of mobile devices must be assured. The goal is responsibility (Yardi and Bruckman, 2012). It means self-regulation instead of external control. Thus, the learner will be likely to make an effective use of the technology everywhere and anytime, despite being formal use or informal use, as it has been called above.

In conclusion, mobile devices can be a great tool for learning if the student makes an effective use of it. If the learner can avoid the misuse of such tools, then s/he can benefit from informal learning practices, outside the school as well as inside. Effective use can be fostered by a tightly planned utilization of handheld devices, more likely to happen in formal education. If effective use is assured and the devices are perceived as learning tools, then we have a unique opportunity for leading learning to ways more appropriate for our current century.


  • Yardi, S., & Bruckman, A. (2012). Income, race, and class: exploring socioeconomic differences in family technology use. In Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3041-3050). ACM.
  • Pachler, N., et al. (2010). Mobile devices as resources for learning.
  • Kukulska-Hulme, A., et al. (2009). Innovation in mobile learning.
  • Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2006). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Warschauer, M., & Matuchniak, T. (2010). New technology and digital worlds: Analyzing evidence of equity in access, use, and outcomes. Review of Research in Education, 34(1), 179-225.
What uses of mobile technologies lead students to learn?

2 thoughts on “What uses of mobile technologies lead students to learn?

  • May 31, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Hi Jose –

    I liked your post – especially when you said:

    “the student has to be engaged enough, be literate enough, and be mature enough, to make an effective use of the device.”

    You also referred to the student “geeking out” not just “messing around” with technology. I love this!

    This concept is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. As a third grade teacher, many of my students come to class with basic technology literacy. About 75% have access to a mobile devices at home and know the basics. However, a big part of using technology with this age group is teaching them the difference between “playing” with these devices and utilizing them a part of their learning experience. These 8-9 year olds are definitely engaged enough – but lack some of the maturity needed to use devices effectively. Many times, students find inappropriate content online and get so distracted – whispering to each other, and of course… coming to telling me – that they forget what they are doing in the first place. Our class has had many conversations about ignoring things that are inappropriate and keeping focused on their task. This is of course, in addition to trying to teach them basic technology literacy (using a browser, effective searching, typing skills, etc.) at the same time. I am interested in implementing a LMS in my classroom next year – but realize how much time and effort it is going to take ahead of time – teaching these literacy skills in addition to navigating the system itself. Luckily, though, once my kiddos “get it” the results are usually amazing!


  • June 1, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    “Somehow, effective use of mobile devices must be assured. The goal is responsibility (Yardi and Bruckman, 2012). It means self-regulation instead of external control. Thus, the learner will be likely to make an effective use of the technology everywhere and anytime, despite being formal use or informal use, as it has been called above.” This paragraph was very powerful. I think both mobile and informal learning are difficult to define – they certainly do not fit into a nice, little box. As you suggest, I think we need to be careful not to make generalizations about it. Informal learning is certainly facilitated by mobile learning, but mobile learning is not strictly informal learning.

    In response to Lindsey’s comment, I think the power of geeking out and messing around comes from the fact that learning isn’t always the goal or intention. In this interest-driven activity, the learning is hard to distinguish from the playing. While I agree that people should be aware of the difference between playing and utilizing them as part of their learning experience, the beauty of it all is when there is no difference between the two!

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