Presentation “Critical perspective on mobile learning” held at MLCB

On March 21, 2011 I held my presentation “A critical perspective on mobile learning: Results of a heuristic analysis of the scientific process and a hermeneutic analysis of mobile learning practice” at the “Mobile learning: Crossing boundaries in convergent environments” conference in Bremen (conference website).



A Critical Perspective on Mobile Learning: Results…



The following abstract was published in
Rummler, Klaus; Seipold, Judith; Lübcke, Eileen; Pachler, Norbert; Attwell, Graham (eds.): Mobile learning:
Crossing boundaries in convergent environments. Book of abstracts. 21-22 March 2011, Bremen, Germany. ISSN 1753-3385
which is available for download at


Judith Seipold

A critical perspective on mobile learning: Results of a heuristic analysis of the scientific process and a hermeneutic analysis of mobile learning practice

Educational and pedagogic research on mobile learning is about ten years old. Over this time the scientific process can be split into three phases, which reach from (1) research on practice via (2) the application of existing learning theories to (3) the generation of new theoretical and conceptual frameworks for mobile learning. With a view to the different lines of development within these phases it becomes evident that there are e.g. attempts not only to understand what mobile learning is, but also to demand changes in the educational system. The latter refers not least to a process of democratisation of learners and learning that is about to take place.
Focussing on mobile learning practice, ambiguities and contradictions in the use of mobile devices in learning contexts appear. They stand in contrast to what research on mobile learning suggests, e.g. ad-hoc use of mobile devices, collaborative learning, the crossing of conceptual and local contexts etc. On the other hand, practice also suggests the power of learners being able to create new learning spaces and concepts as well as implementing multimedia and multiple modes into school learning that replace the written text as dominant mode for learning.
The paper will outline the scientific processes of the mobile learning field with a focus on the educational and pedagogic developments in mobile learning taking place in the UK and in Germany. The results deriving from this heuristic and hermeneutic analysis will be reflected critically in order to reveal ‘pseudo’ changes and ‘success stories’ in the use of mobile devices for learning, as well as the potential of such a discussion.

mobile learning, theory, practice, scientific process, analysis, qualitative heuristics, objective hermeneutic, dialectics of practice

1. Structure of the scientific process of the educational and pedagogic research on mobile learning
The development of the scientific mobile learning discussion in the UK over the recent years resulted in the autonomy of the discipline in the educational and pedagogic field.
Referring to categories of a qualitative heuristic method, the process can be described in terms of social and cultural contexts of the mobile learning discussion (i.e. related disciplines such as sociology and e-learning), the social practices constituting the mobile learning discussion (i.e. lines of argumentation, concepts, definitions), and the developing process characterising the mobile learning discussion. The latter consists of three phases each of which is characterised by lines of development. Whilst the phases are structured by time, the lines of development can be seen as characterising the respective chronological phases. In addition, the lines of development are describable as approaches and fields of research that are persisting independent of time.
Phase 1: Explorative, technology-centred and practical implementation: Phase one can be described as explorative. Mobile devices were installed in educational settings in order to see how mobile technologies allow for changes in teaching and learning processes. The discussion was very much technology driven.
Phase 2: Application of existing theories and conceptual frameworks: The second phase focuses on the application of existing theories and conceptual frameworks such as Activity Theory (Engeström, 2001, 2005) and the Conversational Framework (Laurillard, 2007), as well as on personal (Green, Facer, Rudd, Dillon, & Humphreys, 2005), collaborative and situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) with the aim to explore dynamic processes around formal and informal learning and knowledge building.
Phase 3: Building of theories and conceptual frameworks: The third and most recent phase is structured by attempts to build theories and conceptual frameworks, e.g. the socio-cultural ecology of mobile learning (Pachler, Bachmair, & Cook, 2010) or the “Theory of mobile learning” (Sharples, Taylor & Vavoula, 2010). Now, the learner is seen as standing at the centre of his/her learning processes. Against the background of the construction of theoretical and conceptual frameworks, the role of the devices is becoming less important. Instead, the social/societal framework and the learners’ expertise, agency and cultural practices are gaining importance. Mobility is no longer defined through the devices, but through the learners’ abilities to act flexible in ever changing and self-constructed learning contexts.

2. The dialectics of mobile learning practice
The analysis of mobile learning practices in school contexts was realised according to categories that were developed against the background of the socio-cultural ecology of mobile learning (Pachler, Bachmair & Cook, 2010). Focusing on the actual use of mobile technologies and convergent media it became evident that learning with mobile devices does not necessarily foster ad-hoc, collaborative, personalised, self-directed and innovative learning. In most cases, the teaching design is pre-structuring the use of the devices and thus limits in consequence the potentials inherent in the use of mobile technologies for learning. Here, mobile learning appears as old wine in new bottles. In case teachers are providing spaces to learners to act according to their expertises, interests, agency and cultural practices, innovative use of the devices and the generation of contexts by learners can be discovered. Here, user-generated contexts are a fruitful concept to frame mobile learning and to approach the design, the use and the analysis of mobile learning.

3. Methodology: qualitative heuristics and objective hermeneutic

The scientific process of the mobile learning discussion was carried out by using a qualitative heuristic method (see e.g. Kleining & Witt, 2000; Krotz, 2005). This ‘discovering’ method means that the analysis intends to bring aspects to the foreground that are inherent in the discussion. By referring to key components of this method, the following aspects were considered in order to allow for the caption of this phenomenon: the development process, social practices relevant for establishing the discussion, the contexts in which the field was raising and the meanings deriving from the development process.
As for the analysis of mobile learning practices, a hermeneutic analysis was undertaken. Hermeneutics is an interpretative method, which means that the scientist interprets phenomena according to his or her research questions, the theoretical background he or she is using and his or her ‘preferred reading patterns’.
Together, the heuristic and the hermeneutic analysis of the mobile learning field allow for conclusions that are able to describe and understand the field according to its structure, elements, development lines and their relation to each other as well as for tendencies and contradictions. The aim is to not only to be able to characterise the field, but also to point to discrepancies and thus aspects that need to be considered for further research and the development of the mobile learning field.

4. Results: Mobile Learning is governed by political demands, contradictions in practices and innovative potentials
From this perspective mobile learning is not only about learning but also – and more generally – about politics and the need to understand the school system, learning and the roles of teachers and learners in the context of current changes of mass communication and society. However, having a look at the mobile learning practice, there are several issues that are standing in contradiction with what research and theory development suggest. In fact, a lot of ‘pseudo’-opening is taking place which makes mobile learning often appear as old wine in new bottles. This applies for example to features of mobile devices such as the ad-hoc access to and distribution of information, to the teaching design that can reduce learners’ activities with mobile devices to behaviouristic learning instead of supporting constructivist learning, or to situated learning that can become gathering of information through the use of convergent media such as platforms. Besides, and this is part of the dialectics of mobile learning, there are real enhancements and innovations taking place in the use of mobile devices which are on the one hand achievements of the learners themselves, and which might on the other hand result from what is described as “pseudo-opening” above. Former are related to the use of modes of representation as well as the learners’ creativity. Also, learners revise existing structures, connect them and established new ones in order to create their own convergent learning spaces and “learner-generated contexts” (see e.g. Cook, 2010). Latter provide structures for equal access of information and discursive engagement in learning materials.

Cook, J. (2010). Mobile Learner Generated Contexts. Research on the Internalization of the World of Cultural Products. In B. Bachmair (Ed.), Medienbildung in neuen Kulturräumen. Die deutschsprachige und britische Diskussion (pp. 113–125). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133–156.

Engeström, Y. (2005). Knotworking to Create Collaborative Intentionality Capital in Fluid Organizational Fields. Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams, (11), 307–336. Retrieved from

Green, H., Facer, K., Rudd, T., Dillon, P., & Humphreys, P. (2005). Personalisation and Digital Technologies (Futurelab Report).

Kleining, G., & Witt, H. (2000). Qualitativ-heuristische Forschung als Entdeckungsmethodologie für Psychologie und Sozialwissenschaften: Die Wiederentdeckung der Methode der Introspektion als Beispiel. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung, 1(1). Retrieved from

Krotz, F. (2005). Neue Theorien entwickeln: Eine Einführung in die Grounded Theory, die Heuristische Sozialforschung und die Ethnographie anhand von Beispielen aus der Kommunikationsforschung. Köln: Herbert von Halem Verlag. Retrieved from

Laurillard, D. (2007). Pedagogical forms for mobile learning: framing research question. In N. Pachler (Ed.), Occasional Papers in Work-based Learning: Vol. 1. Mobile learning – towards a research agenda (pp. 153–175). London: WLE Centre. Retrieved from

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspect. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pachler, N., Bachmair, B., & Cook, J. (2010). Mobile learning: structures, agency, practices. New York: Springer.

Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2010). A Theory of Learning for the Mobile Age. Learning through Conversation and Exploration Across Contexts. In B. Bachmair (Ed.), Medienbildung in neuen Kulturräumen. Die deutschsprachige und britische Diskussion (pp. 87–99). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.