Viewpoint: mLearning and Today’s Schooling


Written by: Zane L. Berge, Ph.D.

Over the past two decades, mobile devices have transformed not only the way we communicate, but also the social and business landscapes generally. It is difficult to pick up an educational journal or read a blog on education without reading something about mobile devices. There are many case studies described mobile technology used for educational purposes. From elementary grades to graduate school, these cases strike a similar note: they demonstrate a possible transformation in education compared with the business-as-usual-schooling experience. Let me hasten to add that many educational technology projects have been tried over the past three-quarters of a century, but very few have shown the systematic or cultural changes necessary to be considered sustained efforts.

Shifting gears for a moment, historically, one of the roots of the current mobile learning phenomenon, in its broadest sense, is distance education. In their book, Moore and Kearsley (2012) define distance education and go on to point out a problem with the terminology commonly used in the field. Many people use the term distance learning or now elearning,synonymously with the term distance education. But there is a clear distinction: what students do at a distance is distance learning; distance education is the context provided to them by their teachers within many different flavors of educational establishments. The terms are not synonymous.

I contend there is a disconnection with the potential of using mobile devices for schooling. In the case of mlearning, the common usage is probably much more accurate than if we were to say mobile education. The use of mobile devices that is so prevalent in transforming communication, business, and society is also transforming everyone’s learning, but not schooling. Why? Mobile devices are most useful for performance support or for solving just-in-time problems, in context, that are driven by personal curiosity or need. Does that sound much like schooling?  Education is, for the most part, built on the notions of just-in-case knowledge acquisition, that is driven by standardized curriculum for a classroom full of students (i.e., not individualized situations nor motivated tasks driven by personal curiosity).

My sense is that, as time moves on, the mobile devices we have (phones and tablets of all shapes and sizes) and that will be developed will become more widespread throughout the world, so affecting everyone’s learning very significantly. Yet, unless the core structures and philosophies driving schooling change, mlearning will be just one more of the long list of educational, technological innovation that failed to help our schools. Formal schooling will continue on its path to total irrelevancy with regard to learning; while actual learning will take place more and more in the world outside of school.

Dr. Berge is a Professor of Education at UMBC. His chief research interests are related to distance education and online learning. He is a prolific and widely published author of books and journal articles on these topics.