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Posted by on Dec 16, 2012

Mobile Learning, Non-Linearity, Meaning-Making

Tools of Mobile Transformation

Tools of Mobile Transformation

I have been reading and rereading material for my thesis and this reading generally falls into the following categories

  • Community of Practice (theory)
  • Multimodality (theory)
  • Mobile Learning (theory and application

I won’t rehash the purpose of the thesis itself, but generally the reading I do for it falls into these categories. So it is with a sort of muted glee that I devour readings that seem to intersect a bit between these three. One such reading is

It is well worth a look if you are interested on the emerging theory beginning to emerge around mobile learning. And yes it is five years old (and no I wasn’t living in a cave all those years). Over the last few years, I have felt rather than been able to articulate that mobile learning has a theoretical foundation that is askew from elearning or traditional classroom learning. It is not just about the technology, but the technology cannot be removed from the equation. It is not about the location per se, but it is highly contextualized learning. It is not even necessarily about motion (although I believe that is next), but mobility. This reading, despite being from five years ago, has helped me articulate much of the ‘uniqueness’ of mobile learning and allowed me to begin to define mobile learning in the positive (as opposed to saying it isn’t this or that). It has helped me to identify certain variables that might distinguish it from other modes of learning.

The first chapter, “Thinking about the ‘m’ in m-learning” by Gunther Kress and Norbert Pachler, was articulate and that stimulated my thinking towards defining the mlearning environment, the distinct mlearning artefacts and variables, and the flow of mlearning itself. It is well worth a read. I selected a few passages that I wanted to flesh out a bit and provided those below.

I should note that both Kress and Pachler are at the Institute of Education at the University of London where I am pursuing a doctorate, but neither are my supervisor nor have I met either of them. It is just a happy accident that I started to gravitate towards Multimodality as a theoretical framework for mlearning and Kress just happened to invent the theory (and write about its application to mlearning here). The reasons that drew me to the Institute of Education originally (over three years ago when I first started organizing applications) have long since evolved (and some have disappeared altogether), but this link between theory and expertise has emerged again in regards to mlearning (my supervisor), digital media and practice (my other supervisor), multimodality (Kress).  All three of these are at the Institute of Education; I lucked out there.

I digress. Back to the text.

Mobile as Transformation of Space to Learning Space

The development of devices for ‘mobile learning’ relies on the existence of a habitus of mobility, provisionality, fluidity, etc. That which is ‘mobile’ is not knowledge or information, but is the individual’s habitus: whether I am out in the countryside, in my bed, or in a classroom is, relatively speaking, beside the point. What is not beside the point is the ability to bring things into conjunction which might previously have been relatively difficult to join. An instance of this might be data-logging. I take a device with me somewhere. On the device forms of information can be recorded (or it may be (pre-) specialised to the recording / coding of information).

I record the information in the manner enabled by the device. The site where I have gone has been turned from ‘a field’ or ‘a meadow’ into a science classroom. I have taken my (budding) habitus as scientist into the field together with a device that conveniently enables me to ‘log’ information. When I left the school to go to the meadow or when I return to school, say, I have in fact not left a site of learning: I have turned the environment in which I am, whatever it may be and wherever I may be, into a site of learning. (Kress, Pachler, 2007, p.28)

I like this notion of ‘bringing things into conjunction which might have previously have been relatively difficult to join”; it speaks to the technological intervention, but it doesn’t dictate the learning entirely. Data is collected, recorded, transmitted via the mobile technology, and these processes are certainly greatly influenced by the technology itself. However, it is the process of transformation that encapsulates the learning. The meaning is transformed and repositioned across different modes. I record the audio, transform that into text, reconstruct or supplement it as a representative image. I present meaning through these variables simultaneously, thus emphasizing composition over linearity. This is the stuff of multimodality. Transforming meaning across different modes, engaging with design, with composition.

Yet it wasn’t the only transformation that Kress and Pachler were referring to. They refer to the ‘habitus’, the situated locale of the individual. Yet the locale doesn’t define the learning per se as the process of mobile learning transforms the habitus into a learning space. Tools, content, and community are reconstructed to allow for meaning-making. Turning the environment in which we happen to find ourselves into an environment for learning. Mobile technology assists in bringing these elements into conjunction, an organizing agent in this process. But it is really about the transformation. From space to learning space. From noise to meaning. And with a sharp eye for composition, for presenting variables to demonstrate meaning. For removing linearity as the yardstick of all meaning (a byproduct of de-emphasizing the supremacy of text).

Mashing a Lower East Side tenement with a working family: possible use case for augmented reality


Non-linear (non-chronological) meaning-making. Then and now presented simultaneously.

Learner as Creator and Non-Linearity

Much of the chapter discusses the learner as creator, which is a view that has gained popularity in response to the participatory culture o the internet. Different metaphors abound, including learner as curator, both of themselves and of meaning, a metaphor which reinforces non-linearity.  Mobile also stresses this non-linearity, this simultaneous rather linear presentation of meaning. Kress and Pachler provide a nice definition that speaks to the learning potential of non-linearity.

nonlinearity: hyperlinking, i.e. the ability to break up sequential ordering of information / pages / screens and allow lateral connections intra- and intertextually, between related as well as unrelated documents / artefacts, allows for unprecedented levels of interconnectedness and possible synergies.

My emphasis is on this capacity to “allow lateral connections” and “interconnectedness and possible synergies” as that represents an expanded view of what learning looks like in these spaces. If mobile affords non-linearity, even privileges it, then it stands to reason that meaning making in this environment would be multimodal (images, video, audio, even text). It is representation afforded by the technology and it is representation that isn’t inherently linear. So all we need now is a theory for making sense of this process of making sense. Or to put it another way, a theory of understanding what we mean when we use audio as opposed to text as opposed to video, etc.

multimodality: digital technologies allow content to be presented using diverse range of systems of representation and a combination of different semiotic means of meaning-making. Digital video, for example, allows learners to create representations of themselves and the way they see and interact with the world, for example in the form of narratives or documentaries that are not based on traditional notions of textuality.


Rock art as metaphor for meaning making in mlearning. Draw, remove, repeat. A palimpsest.

Perpetual Development, Mobility, and Palimpsests

These different means of meaning-making “are continually under development, and therefore always unfinished; their development follows evolutionary, iterative, palimpsestic paths.” I desperately wanted to include that last quote to make sure I was able to use ‘palimpsestic‘ in a sentence. So we construct texts in this mobile medium, channeled through these transformations and these different modes of meaning, and understand that all knowledge is iterative and perpetually constructed. That is the mobile learning I recognize. An iterative process of react and response to present interactions using tools at our disposal. Kress and Pachler refer to this through our traditional reliance on text as the medium of meaning:

From the perspective of ‘mobility’ we might say that the former world was immobile – at least relatively speaking – while the present world has become highly mobile. Here mobility resides in respect to who produces knowledge and how. The move from reading to design is a move from a world in which the text is an authoritative source of knowledge to one
in which the text is treated as a resource, available for the reader’s production of knowledge.

From one perspective, a text had traditionally been a settled and coherent projection / account of knowledge about a framed aspect of the world, produced by the figure of the author. Contemporary forms of text, by contrast, are dynamic, fluid, and above all, contingent; they are ever more frequently multiply authored, with ‘shared’ / distributed power and consequently provisional. In their form they realise contemporary forms of social organisation: of distributed resources, distributed information, distributed power, distributed across life-worlds organised as life-style. The new social arrangements find their realisation in new genres we mentioned above: blogs, wikis, and so on. A world of stability has given way to a world of fluidity; a world of the power of the author has given way to a world of collaborative text-making; and a world of canonicity – whether of knowledge or of text – has given way to a world of provisionality. (26)

Much has been said in the past about the traditional supremacy of text and how different modes/media are beginning to loosen that stranglehold that text has over the presentation of meaning. I just like how Kress and Pachler seem to infer that this experimentation with new media is inherent in the the convergence of technology and purpose. Mobile, for lack of a better way to say it, wants to be multimodal and non-linear. Applying a textual, linear style of constructing meaning through mobile technology is possible, but pointless. It allows for non-linearity and multimodal presentation so explore the learning potential in that transformation. Like I said, well worth the read.

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