M-learning – The e-learning trend

Following on from the ancient stone and chisel, last century’s slate and today’s tablet PC, mobile learning is now revolutionising learning and is the topic at universities, schools and at education fairs all over the world. But what differentiates m-learning from conventional e-learning? And how do students apply it?

If the projections of the U.S. telecommunications company Cisco Systems are right, by 2018 there will be nearly 1.4 mobile devices for each person on earth. This adds up to over ten million devices. And they are obviously not just used for pleasure, but more and more frequently, for learning.

Learning on the move is one way to sum up the meaning of mobile learning, or m-learning. Tales Tomaz from Brazil writes: ‘I took the entire course entitled Deutsch – Warum nicht? offered by Deutsche Welle – on the way to the University of São Paulo, where I’m working on my doctorate at the moment. I live in a city 200 kilometres from São Paulo and I take the bus to São Paulo every week to study there’.

But mobile learning means much more than being flexible and independent of a location or time if you want to expand your knowledge. A big plus for students is the interaction with the instructors and with fellow students. More interaction also means getting feedback on performance or answers to individual questions quickly and easily. The infinite number of mobile apps tailored to the various requirements are particularly advantageous.

Mobile learning at the University of Kassel

Students at the University of Kassel like m-learning. They have tested the use of tablet PCs in the project Mobile Learning since 2010. At the University of Kassel, the first German university to use the devices for teaching, the students borrow the handheld devices free of charge. One instructor has developed a computer program specifically for his business information technology lecture. The students can follow the lecture at home or on the road, since it is recorded as a video. The participants can ask the instructor questions online – anonymously. That’s particularly helpful when the lecture hall is crowded and no one is brave enough to ask questions.

A special feature is the ‘panic button’ located as an app on the tablet screen. If the ‘emergency calls’ start adding up because the subject matter is too difficult or the pace too quick, the professor can react immediately and can decelerate the speed of the lecture. The students can also use the devices for follow-up, since there are exercises stored on the tablets. All of these configurations were performed by the University of Kassel.

Difference between m-learning and e-learning

Of course, students can also learn on stationary computers. But the advantages of M-learning are obvious: Besides laptops, smartphones and tablet PCs are particularly easy to use on the road. For mobile learning technologies, some technical prerequisites are different than for conventional e-learning methods. For instance, the screen is usually smaller and audio and video technology is integrated. This makes it easy for users – like Tales Tomaz – to listen to audio sequences from language courses when they are away from home.

Alumnus Fedor Smirnov explains: ‘Mobile learning includes a broad variety of methods – ranging from listening to German texts or lessons to using special software on tablet PCs/mobile phones. At the moment I listen to special texts in German and English while travelling by train.

Mobile learning requires good software

Despite all the euphoria associated with the attractive possibilities offered by mobile learning, without functioning technology and user-friendly software, even the best mobile end devices do not help. Smirnov sums up the situation as follows: ‘This kind of learning method is technology dependent ... [and is] expensive in the underdeveloped countries or regions (like South America), where many people have fewer possibilities to access them’. This view is shared by Koffi Béhira François Djéa from Côte d’Ivoire: He feels that while the support associated with m-learning offers many advantages, ‘as a drawback, I find that this method does not work if the mobile fails’.

The Humboldt University in Berlin, which has a multimedia teaching and learning centre, has used Moodle since 2003. Moodle is a learning platform and is also referred to as a web-based learning management system (LMS). Moodle is open source. Platform users can present content and create tasks and exercises. Moodle also offers evaluation aids and allows students and their learning progress to be monitored and dates and deadlines to be administered. The communication tools supporting the collaboration and individual support are also very important.

Here is another example: The University of Hohenheim employs ILIAS for its mobile teaching, an open-source software also used by many other universities. With ILIAS, professors can use live surveys to ask their students about the current lecture and get answers immediately.

M-learning: Added value through apps and QR code

The design of the m-learning apps is especially versatile and user-friendly. The University of Hagen, a distance university, developed a free app for the subject of educational theory and media pedagogy called moBiwi kompakt that sends basic knowledge to the smartphones of students enrolled in the Bachelor’s programme for educational sciences. There are over 50 cards with questions and answers for mobile learning that students can supplement with their own cards.

QR codes are also increasingly popular. One example is the University of Trier’s project ‘more’. The learning platform is suitable for both PCs, tablets and smartphones. Its primary aim is to support learning with electronic exercises. If you use a mobile device, the exercise can be captured via a QR code. In this way, exercises on a smartphone can reinforce course content.

Mobile learning in developing countries

UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has also been concerned with m-learning for years. The UNESCO Mobile Learning Week took place in February 2014. One of the topics addressed during the week was how mobile communication technologies can improve access to education. Research studies and interesting projects on the topic are already underway. Organisations such as the Mobiles for Education Alliance are actively involved in creating access to affordable mobile applications, especially in developing countries.

Urs Gröhbiel and Christopher Pimmer from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) have joined forces with the development organisation World Vision to test the use of tablets at a school in Zimbabwe. At the school, pupils work with apps from the areas of geography, chemistry, physics and maths. Gröhbiel himself was surprised at how well both the teachers and the pupils accepted the mobile technologies. He sees a great deal of potential for individual and shared learning for mobile applications.

M-learning is therefore a trend in the area of e-learning that needs to be taken seriously and it will be more and more refined in future. As Martin Ebner of Graz Technical University puts it, ‘The future is mobile’.

Community discussion on m-learning

What do you think about mobile learning? Will it replace traditional classroom learning someday? Are the efforts needed to implement mobile applications even worth it? How do you personally use the universities’ mobile offers? Or is the constant availability of information more of a burden for you? Would you perhaps prefer not to communicate and learn nonstop? Join the discussion forum about e-learning and m-learning in the ‘Digitale Gesellschaft – Digital Society’ group!


Author: Sigrid Born

December 2014

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6 January 2016

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19 December 2015

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M.Kashif Baig
25 January 2015

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