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The use of mobile devices for learning and the importance of context

May 4th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The next in what will, I suspect, be a series of short posts from the Mature project meeting in Barcelona. Last year, the project reviewers asked us to develop more challenging social and technical scenarios for our work around using Information and Computer Technology to support knowledge development and maturing in organisations. As a response to this we started looking at the use of mobile devices for Organisational and Personal Learning Environments.

One key affordance of mobile devices, a number of us felt, was the ability to capture context in learning and knowledge development. Yet exploring and extending our understanding of the nature of context has proved challenging. In terms of mobile applications, the best developed aspect of context is location. Through GPS mobile devices are location aware. This has led to the development of context push services providing information dependent on geographical location. Users are also able to contribute data, for instance reviews of restaurants or services based on location. And GPS has facilitated the development of applications, such as On the Road, which allow users to generate personal stories including multi media, based on their location.

How importance is the context of location for learning. In some cases it obvi9usly is. Mobile devices can be used in museums for example, to provide information about exhibits. John Cook and Carl Smith have experimented with location aware learning tours, for instance for archaeological students visiting a Cistercian Abbey in Yorkshire.

But, in much of our (academic) learning location is not a key context factor. Indeed, one of the attractions of mobile devices is that learning can take place anywhere at any time. However location is important for much work based learning. E-Learning works well for vocational and occupational learning for tasks that involve the use of a computer. In this case we are using a computer to learn about computer based work tasks. Practice and learning are brought together. In other cases it may be possible to simulate work based environments through a computer. But for many work based activities a computer is not involved. In this situation, the use of a computer for learning only takes place away from the actual practice. Mobile devices have the potential to be used in proximity to practice. Furthermore, the ease of use of multi media allows the recording of learning and practice without the intervention of a keyboard. it allows us to ‘show’ and model practice, in ways which are not possible through print media. Thus mobile devices have the ability to capture the context of practice and extents Technology Enhanced Learning into the daily practice of the workplace. In so doing, we can overcome the unsatisfactory separation between formal learning and informal learning. The formal can become informal through practice and the informal, formal through reflection on that practice.

One Response to “The use of mobile devices for learning and the importance of context”

  1. fred garnett says:

    Hi Graham, I think it is time to move on from a location-based view of context to engage with the cultural dimension and the distributed cognition of available actors (more able partners?) in those spaces. Good discussion of broader, and deeper, views of what context means in the first chapter of Redesigning Learning Contexts;
    A debate on how we might now conceptalise context would useful; see Drew Whitworth and my forthcoming “Learner-Generated Digital Libraries” Happy to email
    Plus the Augmented Context for Developmented Framework you reference seems like a less articulated version of Rose Luckin’s development of Vygotsky’s ZPD into the Ecology of Resources using “more able partners” which we have been using as the basis for Learner-Generated Contexts work for some years; see slides 9-12 here for example;
    Good questions posed about learning trails and multiple contexts of learning, however, which certainly need answering if we are to make post-institutional (liquid) learning work.

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