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Mobile Learning: An Introduction

Mobile learning has received a lot of attention in recent years as a growing segment of the educational and instructional technology field. But what is mobile learning? EDUCAUSE provides one broad definition to get us started: "Mobile learning, or m-learning, can be any educational interaction delivered through mobile technology and accessed at a student's convenience from any location." 

You may have heard of projects at your institution related to making course content, textbooks, and resource materials available to you via your phone or tablet computer. These initiatives seek to extend the reach of your online programs beyond your home computer. Mobile learning initiatives also seek to leverage the devices you are already carrying with you and using to access other web-based information away from home.

A key part of the EDUACUSE definition of mobile learning is that it does not specifically mention iPhones or iPads. The kinds of devices used to access mobile learning platforms and materials include iPhones and iPads as well as a wide variety of mobile phones, tablets, netbooks, and e-readers. The Pew Research Center is studying how we use this mobile technology. A 2011 report revealed that 85% of adults in the United States own cell phones. A recent study by the Student Monitor reported that 54% of higher education students own a smartphone. The numbers continue to increase as we own multiple mobile devices and use them to carry out a more diverse list of work, personal, and educational tasks as we go through the day. 

Mobile Learning in Higher Education

A number of institutions are embracing the opportunity to make courses accessible through mobile devices. Through these efforts they are finding both benefits and challenges to share with others who are considering similar initiatives. A few examples are listed below.

Abiline Christian University (ACU) – Connected Initiative

ACU is studying the use of mobile technology with a vision of enhanced collaboration and communication in mind. Their 2009-2010 report describes successful projects, such as creating a mobile version of the school newspaper, student use of mobile devices to contribute to class discussions and record audio and video for class assignments.

University of Phoenix (UOP) – PhoenixMobile

UOP recently launched its own app called PhoenixMobile. The app is free and allows students to access online course materials with a mobile device, in addition to their online learning management system portal. Going between mobile device and home computer allows students more flexibility and a synched experience.

Purdue University – DoubleTake Studio 

This system of mobile learning applications allows students to create videos, connect with classmates, conduct backchannel communication, ask questions in class, and monitor their overall progress all by way of mobile technology. These applications have also been developed to work with other, existing university technologies such as the learning management system.


  • Leveraging extreme portability – Mobile technologies are even easier and more convenient to carry around than laptop computers. And many students already own cell phones and other mobile technologies for work or personal uses.
  • Using mobile apps – This kind of development makes use of cloud computing and allows students t to reach out from their mobile devices to access software and file storage without having to buy copies of software or store large amounts of data on the mobile devices themselves.
  • Encouraging interaction – The combination of portability and well-designed mobile applications creates an environment that encourages online students to interact with the course content, as well as with classmates and instructors.


  • Managing process – Making the decision to add or move to mobile learning options across a school or program means a change in process for everyone involved, including students, faculty, and administrators. The transition needs to be well planned and coordinated before development begins.
  • Managing costs – Will students provide their own mobile devices or will institutions provide them? Either way there are costs involved for both hardware and Internet access. Last year an estimate of $2.2 million was published as the cost associated with providing iPads for 3,000 students.
  • Consuming vs. Creating – One of the most prevalent critiques of the iPad is that it is more useful for consuming content than creating content. For example, could you imagine typing a paper on a tablet or with a cell phone? Students, faculty, and administrators are also often used to using software packages such as Microsoft Office, that don't translate readily to mobile devices. Mobile technologies may be more effective for specific uses and learning goals.

Apps for Mobile Learning

Educational technology bloggers are already creating lists of the best mobile apps for education. Here are a few you might want to explore for their potential to help you study, stay organized, and access reference materials, no matter your school or program.

  • – A quick access dictionary.
  • Dropbox – File storage in the cloud that allows you to access your files anywhere.
  • Evernote – To capture your notes in a variety of ways including photo and voice.
  • Noterize – Make notes on a PDF or PowerPoint file.
  • Penultimate – Take handwritten notes (or make sketches) using a stylus.

The Future of Mobile Learning

The 2011 Horizon Report, an annual publication by EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium, identified mobile technology and eBooks as two "emerging technologies that will have significant impact on higher education" within the next year.

Students are increasingly interested in using mobile technology in education. A recent study by the Pearson Foundation reported that students not only want to own tablet devices, but also perceive that they will contribute positively to their learning process. The portability is a big factor – mobile technology makes it convenient to engage in learning activities anywhere.

Watch for new developments as colleges and universities adopt mobile learning initiatives and adapt existing curriculum for mobile delivery. What are your thoughts on mobile learning? Share your past experiences and preferences for the future.