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Posted by on Apr 29, 2013

Defining mLearning: Mobility of Material and Mind

Canary Wharf, London, UK

A view from my walk in London this morning. I think best on these walks and take notes (via audio) as I walk.

I was revisiting some of the Literature Review sections of my thesis and found the section dedicated to contextualizing the discussion on mobile learning to be lacking. This was not a sudden epiphany on my part but rather an apt suggestion from my supervisors (well played, you two). Either way, I had originally intended not to labor too long over a definition of mobile learning as I felt some of that is still emerging and some of that, frankly, is a tired train of thought. We do need to define the boundaries of what we are observing and analyzing, but we need to do so holistically away from the confines of technological determinism (mlearning=learning through mobile technology), or as an extension of elearning, or the anytime/anyplace rhetoric (although these are all valid to some degree). I find myself longing for a broader definition that sees mobility as both a material and cognitive application. So here is the definition as I see it, one that embraces the mobility of mind and material. I will post something later today that builds on this based on a larger context of Saljo’s coming to know. I cut parts of the following as I didn’t think it necessary to rehash too much of the other definitions of mobile learning, although more of that is in the actual thesis. Curious to hear what people think on this.

Mobile Learning Defined: Mobility of Material and Mind

The definitions of mobile learning are almost as numerous as the mobile devices they are looking to represent contextually, but a brief presentation of a few will help establish a working definition of mobile learning that will be employed throughout this thesis. Before plunging headlong into these evolving definitions, we must be clear that these definitions are evolving with the experimentation and variability of the use of mobile technology for learning. It is an evolving process of coming to know for the research community as well as the community being researched. Earlier definitions of mobile learning were generally technologically-oriented or deterministic (Kukulska-Hulme et al. (2005), or even positioning mobile learning as an extension of e-learning (Quinn, 2000 & Traxler, 2005). These proved insufficient for the evolving context and practices of mobile learning as they emphasized the technology or the location and not the fluid social practices emerging from these contexts (Roschelle, 2003).

A more useful definition of mobile learning for this thesis is presented by Sharples (2007); in this definition, mobile learning is positioned as “the private and public processes of coming to know through exploration and conversation across multiple contexts, amongst people and interactive technologies.” It is this movement through multiple contexts that the mobility of mobile learning emerges. As Sharples et al suggest, “we learn across time, by revisiting knowledge that was gained earlier in a different context, and more broadly, through ideas and strategies gained in early years…we move from topic to topic, managing a range of personal learning projects, rather than following a single curriculum” (2007). In this definition, the mobility in mobile learning can be both material and cognitive.

This cognitive mobility is encapsulated in Kress and Pachler’s (2007) notion of habitus. Habitus refers to the “the life world of the individual framed both as challenge and as an environment and a potential resource for learning” (2007). In viewing learning through habitus, every space has the potential to be a learning space when viewed appropriately. Within this transformation of space to learning space, we witness the mobility in mobile learning. In other words,”that which is mobile is not knowledge or information, but the learner’s habitus” (2007). I would qualify this statement by stating that which is mobile is not exclusively information or knowledge, but also the learner’s habitus, context, and modes of engagement, technologically or otherwise.

Kress & Pachler would argue that habitus is being transformed constantly and therefore has left the learner “constantly mobile, which does not refer, necessarily, to a physical mobility at all but to a constant expectancy, a state of contingency, of incompletion, of moving toward completion, of waiting to be met and ‘made full’. The answer to ‘who is mobile?’ is therefore ‘everyone who inhabits the new habitus’”. Mobile learning, when defined as a learning state of expectation, contingency, and approaching (but never reaching) completion, is useful for exploring the material and cognitive movements through context that this thesis attempts to do. This positions mobile technology as a tool in the larger process of coming to know across multiple contexts. It provides a foundation from which to observe engagement and interaction across mobile spaces and how that mobile activity is then siphoned back into other learning spaces. It is a fluid process of engagement across multiple contexts, some being materially and all being cognitively mobile. Without this broader definition of mobile learning, it would be difficult for this thesis to establish how meaning is made in the Humanities in South Korea across the contexts of (mobile) technology, disciplinary activity, formal/informal spaces, and individualized and socialized interaction. This thesis works under the assumption that the mobility in mobile learning is both a cognitive and material state of being.


Kress, G. & Pachler, N. (Eds) (2007).  Mobile Learning: Towards a Research Agenda (2007). WLE Centre, Occasional Papers in Work-based Learning 1.

Kukulska-Hulme, A., Evans, D. and Traxler, J. (2005), Landscape study in wireless and mobile learning in the post-16 sector. JISC Technology and Standards Watch. Retrieved April 24, 2013 from

Sharples, M., Milrad, M., Sánchez, I. A., & Vavoula, G. (2007). Mobile learning: Small devices, big issues, in ‘Technology Enhanced Learning: Principles and Products’.

Here/There on East Egg, Long Island, New York from Michael Gallagher on Vimeo.



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