mobile learning

All learning technologies have a set of affordances that makes some actions possible while limiting others. Essentially, an affordance is a quality or feature of an object, or of an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action. For example, the handles on a teacup allow it to be lifted without burning one’s hand. This is a key affordance of a teacup. The speakers on a home theatre system allow us to hear high-fidelity sound. This is a key affordance of those speakers.

If we look at three different learning technologies—a physical classroom, self-paced e-learning, and mobile learning—we can immediately see that the actions of both teachers and learners are enabled, shaped, and also limited, by the features of each of these technologies.

Table 1 shows some of the differences (and similarities) among these three learning technologies.

Physical/Virtual Class

Self-Paced E-Learning

Mobile Learning

Teacher has control.

Software has control.

Learner has control.

Learner is immobile.

Learner is immobile.

Learner is mobile.

Learner is NOT in context.

Learner is NOT in context.

Learner is usually in context.

Information is presented, and learning is facilitated.

Information is interactive and can be repeated.

Information is pulled as needed or pushed as required.

Books and papers are the main external source of information.

Television, computers, and monitors are the main external sources of information.

Social networking and databases in the cloud are the main external sources of information.

Table 1. Comparison of Three Learning Technologies

Several writers have pointed out that when a new technology is introduced, the first impulse that many of us have is to apply the same methods and content we have been using to the new technology. As Marshall McLuhan noted in his book, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future” (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967).

In the case of mobile learning, this tendency is reflected in the early applications for mobile learning, which included traditional instructional uses such as:

  • the delivery of courses, lectures, video, and notes
  • the use of devices as personal organizers by both students and instructors
  • the provision of assessments on mobile devices, especially multiple-choice questions
  • attempts to make mobile device terminals for collecting data for learning management systems.

All of these uses of mobile technology are based on a 250-year-old classroom instruction methodology. To do things differently, we need to understand the unique affordances of mobile devices.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense’s ADL group issued a report on their MoTIF Project that included an inventory of the capabilities of mobile devices—a similar concept to affordances. If we broaden the concept of capabilities to include features of mobile environments and look for additional features of mobile devices, at least 25 possible affordances of mobile devices become apparent.

This article addresses three of these affordances.


Virtually all mobile devices have a built-in clock that can be used for telling the time (converted to any time zone), and also can be used as a timing device for events or recordings.

Clocks are integral to the provision of alerts, alarms, and triggers, all of which can be used in the development of educational activities. Content and activities can be altered, allowed, or disallowed based on this vital aspect of use context.

And, of course, mobile devices can be used for teaching time.

Input/Output Peripherals


If we think of smartphones and tablets as small computers, then it makes sense that a number of mobile peripherals can be added to them for increased functionality.

Small peripherals that can be added include card readers, tiny printers, miniature speakers, micro projectors, and small scanners—both 2D and 3D.

While learning uses for these peripherals have yet to be developed, it is important to think about them when planning new and innovative uses for mobile learning. How could you connect existing sensors, tools, and other work aids to your mobile devices to better inform your workers?


Text and multimedia messaging have been built into mobile phones almost from the beginning. Short message service (SMS)—also known as texting—is very close to a universal medium for receiving questions from users and sending immediate responses.

This is used in a number of ways for teaching, including:

  • homework support from schools and universities
  • post-hospitalization care for patients who have been discharged
  • alerts to students on campus
  • informational support for pregnant women and new mothers.

Messaging in the form of chat applications and social media is also playing an increasing role in learning and development.

In addition to our complete list of 25 affordances, I’m sure there are other affordances of mobile devices and environments that can be identified and discussed in terms of their usefulness in learning and development. The future will also bring new functionality that we haven’t even thought about to the mobile world. As technology evolves and costs to bring advanced features and sensors to devices decrease, hardware will gain functionality that is currently impossible.

If we combine two or more of these affordances, new possibilities will emerge. As instructional designers, it is important that we understand these various possibilities, and all their combinations, before embarking on the design and development of mobile learning experiences.

Learning is complex, and the design of effective learning materials requires an understanding of objectives, the capabilities of the technologies and environments we are in, and the kinds of learning activities that both motivate and teach in a way that is engaging and memorable.

To learn more, join us for the ASTD Mobile Learning Certificate program, being held in Atlanta on September 22-23, 2014, and San Francisco on October 21-22, 2014.

This blog post is excerpted from Mastering Mobile Learning: Tips and Techniques for Success, co-published by Wiley and ASTD. This excerpt has been adapted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, copyright © 2014.