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Posted by on Apr 30, 2013

mLearning: Coming to Know & Context

Door in Tunis, Tunisia.

A door in Tunisia. This isn’t directly related to the post but it is blue and I like blue things.

This post builds on yesterday’s post about defining mobile learning as both a material and mental mobility via the vantage point of habitus. This is another section of my thesis that precedes the defining mobile learning part that I posted about yesterday. This tries to position mobile learning as the use of a tool to make meaning, this coming to know process. This use of tools (in this case, mobile technology) has a cyclical effect. The tools help the learner create meaning and understanding, the understanding in turn effects the context in which the activity is taking place, the context in turn ripples throughout the disciplinary practice (in my case, the Humanities), and transforms community. This transformed community then cycles back to the tool (mobile technology or anything else, really) with newer ideas of how it can be used to push further. An important takeaway is that mobile technology follows an established tradition in every community of using tools for making meaning. Another critical takeaway is that context is not an independent environment; it emerges from the interaction that takes place within it. I find it hard to believe one can separate the activity from the context and be left with anything at all, but I am open to contradiction on that one.  Apologies for the writing being kind of Literature Review-y, ie a bit stunted.

Focus: Coming to Know

My thesis explicitly attempts to link mobile activity amongst graduate students in the Humanities in higher education in South Korea to a larger process of coming to know, a process whereby meaning is constructed through the use and mastery of a number of different tools, technological, intellectual, and physical (Saljo, 1999). Mobile activity in this context is related to making meaning in the larger context of Humanities activity, both formal and informal. It is less concerned with formalized outputs or assessment, but rather with the processes being mediated by mobile technology that generate meaning for the Humanities learner. One such example is composition, how composing (in text, media, dialogue, etc.) in mobile technology generates meaning. However, mobile learning as such represents one space, process, or tool in a larger environment of context (which includes sociocultural communication, technology, formalized practice, and informal modes of communication, etc.). Therefore, this Literature Review is designed to introduce elements of that larger environment of context in terms of pedagogy and process (u-learning, elearning, smart learning, disciplinary practice), organizations (universities, research organizations), modes of communication (informal and formal), and artifacts and tools (mobile applications, environments) that in aggregation form a larger environment of content, of coming to know.

Changing Practice

Within this context and these fluid oscillations between states of knowing and coming to know, it is important to foreground the understanding that learning occurs in and subsequently produces context in a fluid cycle (Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G., 2007). This produced context routinely evolves disciplinary practice as made evident in this thesis in terms of the multimodal works being produced in mobile technology in higher education in Korea. The process of creating new understanding in the Humanities irrevocably evolves the practices in the Humanities that helped generate that understanding. This is a fluid, dynamic landscape of learning and one that presupposes change. Change in practice, in context, in the use of tools, mobile or otherwise.

Changes in context are given considerable attention in this thesis. This research presupposes that disciplinary activity in the Humanities mediated through mobile technology is a constant series of oscillations between informal and formal learning, between learning with high and low transactional distance (Park, 2011) and with highly socialized and isolated pockets of activity. These oscillations are reflected in seamless learning (Looi et al, 2009 & Sharples, 2006), which can be defined as learning across a continuum of contexts mediated through a range of technologies. Seamless learning assumes that learning takes place “through individual learning in private learning spaces, collaborative learning in public learning spaces, and cognitive artefacts created across time and physical or virtual spaces mediated by technology within a context” (2009). We have evidence of these aspects of seamless learning in mobile technology supporting Humanities activity in South Korea which will be discussed later in this thesis, but it is important to remember that seamless learning emphasizes a continuum of meaning-making across contexts and traditional dichotomies of informal and formal, public and private, individual and social.

Mobile technology in particular encapsulates that continuum by allowing for constant shifts between informal and formal states of learning. This thesis presupposes that mobile learning when viewed broadly is inherently seamless, especially as it applies to disciplinary activity. A discussion started in a face to face classroom is carried on through social media, learning artifacts are created through mobile media, and knowledge is disseminated back through the learning community through mobile technology. Much of these mobile ’spaces, social media et al, are informal environments which have been appropriated for formal disciplinary use. Formal discussions around disciplinary content are brought to these informal spaces, discussed, socially negotiated, reflected, assembled, and disseminated. Learners engage through social activities and disengage to participate in individual ones. These discussions, compositions, and content are learning resources, “online data and information, teacher-created materials, student artefacts, students’ online interaction” that are circulated through the community in an evolving process of coming to know (Wong, 2012). These resources interact with and are interacted on by learners in a process of coming to know; they, along with the learners, evolve as they are understood and made use of to create meaning in a specific context, a context mediated and partially constructed through mobile technology. This continuum of activity is mediated through mobile technology and represents a process of coming to know in a disciplinary context.

Mobile technology also foregrounds the understanding that context and practice are irrevocably linked. Practice, disciplinary or otherwise, assumes the manipulation of context for meaning. Context, in turn, assumes a level of engagement with it (what is context if nothing is actually happening there?). So, contextuality “is a relational property that holds between objects and activities” and is specific to a particular activity being performed by the individual or the learning community (Dourish, 2004). Context becomes an interactional rather than a representational issue (2004), one that assumes an active process of meaning-making occurring in a dynamic environment. Disciplinary activity mediated through mobile technology encapsulates these hallmarks of interactional context; it has dialogue, composition, mediation, dissemination, review, reflection, the learning resources of disciplinary activity. More importantly, context, according to Dourish, emerges (or ‘arises’) from activity; it is “actively produced, maintained and enacted in the course of the activity at hand” (2004). This thesis is drafted presupposing this to be true, that disciplinary activity in the Humanities in South Korea generates the context in which the activity takes place and that this activity is governed by community practice. In short, that learning in mobile technology in the Humanities is an interactional rather than a representational issue.


Dourish, P. (2004). What we talk about when we talk about context. Personal and ubiquitous computing, 8(1), 19-30.

Looi, C. K., Seow, P., Zhang, B., So, H. J., Chen, W., & Wong, L. H. (2010). Leveraging mobile technology for sustainable seamless learning: a research agenda. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(2), 154-169.

Park, Y. (2011). A pedagogical framework for mobile learning: Categorizing educational applications of mobile technologies into four types. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(2), 78-102.

Saljo, R. (1999), chapter: Learning as the use of tools. Littleton, K., & Light, P. (Eds.). (1999). Learning with computers: Analysing productive interaction. Psychology Press.

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

Wong, L. H. (2012). A learner‐centric view of mobile seamless learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(1), E19-E23.

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