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I was just in the process of submitting my upgrading document to officially transition to a PhD student at the Institute of Education and realized that some of what I was writing for my thesis might have broader appeal so I am posting a bit of it here. If you have read any literature on mobile learning, you know that defining mobile learning has become something of an obsession. It is natural enough to want to define one’s terms ahead of a weighty academic work, but we researchers in the mobile learning field are still trying to position mobile learning in some larger system, some broader aggregation of context. Which is all well and good as it speaks to the volatility and, subsequently, verdant potential of the field. However, I still find some of these definitions leaning towards the technologically deterministic, even after a decade of research. Well I drafted a bit on my take on mobile learning for my thesis and my upgrading paper and am providing that below. It emphasizes a larger mobility (sort of leaning towards Urry’s work on mobility-reference following the writing) of transformation of mindset, of space, of perception, all of that.

In some ways, it might be begging the question a bit as it sets up my research design (and research questions), but I think it has some application for those of us who want to think a bit broader about what mobile learning is.

Defining Mobile Learning

We must be clear that mobile learning is consistently evolving. 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 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 (2007) 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”. 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). 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’” (2007). 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 a mobile context for disciplinary participation and understanding. 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. This thesis works under the assumption that the mobility in mobile learning is both a cognitive and material state of being.

In summation, mobile learning as defined in this thesis will assume the following:

  • Learning that occurs across multiple contexts, amongst people and interactive technologies (Sharples et al, 2007).
  • Learning that encapsulates public and private processes (2007) and high and low states of transactional distance (Park, 2011); activity will flux between individualized and socialized states of activity with oscillations towards and away from the university as ‘center’ of learning.
  • Learning that is mobile in both material (physical) and cognitive form; the transformation of habitus makes visible the mobility of cognitive activity (Kress & Pachler, 2007).
  • Learners that “artfully engage with their surroundings to create impromptu sites of learning” (Sharples et al, 2007); these sites of learning relate to Kress & Pachler’s transformation of habitus.

With this working definition of mobile learning, this thesis attempts to broaden the range of technology employed by learners to make meaning in mobile scenarios. Technology that can be employed for mobile learning can be technology that assists in the completion of tasks (Task Model as proposed by Taylor et al, 2006), or that provides evidence of communication & dialogue or that makes evident disciplinary engagement (through composition, for example). Technology that assists the learner in transforming their habitus into a learning space is willfully appropriated as mobile for the purposes of this thesis. As such, this would include laptops as well as the more traditionally mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones, SMS phones, MP3 players, and GPS devices. While this does not traditionally conform to the earlier, more technologically-focused definitions of mobile learning (Kukulska-Hulme et al., 2005; Quinn, 2000; Traxler, 2005), it does align itself with the use of technology as a tool in the process of coming to know (Saljo, 1999) and as a means of transforming habitus into mobility of material and cognitive processes (Kress & Pachler, 2007).


  • Dourish, P. (2004). What we talk about when we talk about context. Personal and ubiquitous computing, 8(1), 19-30.
  • 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 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearninginnovation/landscape.aspx.
  • Pachler, N; Seipold, J.; & Bachmair (2012). Mobile Learning: Some Considerations. Retrieved April 10, 2013 from http://www.mymobileproject.eu/IMG/pdf/Handbook_Considerations.pdf.
  • Pachler, N. (2007). Mobile learning: towards a research agenda. Retrieved April 10, 2013 from http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/5402/1/mobilelearning_pachler_2007.pdf.
  • 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.
  • Quinn, C. (2000), ‘mlearning: Mobile, wireless, in your pocket learning’. Learning in the new economy e-magazine. Retrieved April 25, 2013 fromhttp://www.linezine.com/2.1/features/cqmmwiyp.html.
  • 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., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2007). A theory of learning for the mobile age. In R. Andrews & C. Haythornthwaite (Eds.), The Sage handbook of elearning research (pp.221-47). London: Sage.
  • Tolmie, A. (2001). Examining learning in relation to the contexts of use of ICT. Journal of computer assisted learning, 17(3): 235-241.
  • Traxler, J. (2005). Mobile Learning-it’s here but what is it? Interactions, 9(1).
  • Vavoula, G. & Sharples, M. (2009) Meeting the Challenges in Evaluating Mobile Learning: a 3-level Evaluation Framework. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 1(2): 54-75.
  • Urry, John (2002) ‘Mobility and Proximity’, Sociology 36(2): 255–74.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

3 thoughts on “Defining mobile learning: my take”
    1. Thanks for that, Geoff. Means quite a lot coming from you. The further I go along with this research, the more I am convinced that cognitive transformation, mobility has to be a part of it over a strictly tech-centric definition. Thanks again!

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