Mobile Learning: No Longer About the Technology, but About the Learning

Let’s start with the blog’s ending:  A transition, quietly but most assuredly, has occurred:

  • Today, in 2016, discussions under the heading "mobile learning" are becoming more about how "all-the-time, everywhere learning" can be supported with "mobile" technology.
  • Yesterday, in 2010, discussions about "mobile learning" were about what technology — what devices, what apps — should be used in the classroom.

The change in what mobile learning means isn’t just academic quibbles; rather, the change in what mobile learning means has huge pedagogical implications.

In 2010, Apple begat the iPad, a 9.7-inch-screened, lightweight, flat, touch-enabled, tablet and it was an overnight commercial success. For adults, with briefcases and big purses, iPads were "mobile" devices.  But, in the classroom, at the end of the period of using the iPads, students put them back into the charging cart — just about what they did with laptops.

But, what differentiated the iPads from the laptops in K-12 was the software: iPads ran "apps" — lightweight, single purpose, typically free, easy to use software — not "applications" — multi-purpose, not typically free, not particularly easy to use, software. And, since the "apps" were native — that is, an app only ran on an iOS device or only ran on an Android device (yes, there were about four or five non-iOS tablets in K-12 classrooms) — the iPad/Android apps weren’t available to the Windows/Mac laptops.

To explore the use of predominantly iPad technology in K-12, sessions on "mobile devices" sprang up at conferences in 2011and 2012. In 2011 and 2012, the Horizon report included a section on "Mobile Devices and Apps."

But — aha! — in 2013 the Horizon report dropped the section on "Mobile Devices and Apps" and included a section on "Mobile Learning."  The transition was beginning! Why 2013? According to a Wall Street Journal article, Chromebooks came onto the scene in 2013 like gangbusters.

  • "Chromebooks’ share of the K-12 market for tablets and laptops exploded from just 1 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2013."

What’s a Chromebook? Like the iPad, it is lightweight, but like a laptop, it has an attached keyboard. Is it a mobile device? It doesn’t matter, Chromebooks are K-12’s new shiny object — and here’s why:

  • In our opinion, a major failing of the iPad in the K-12 classroom was the lack of easy access to "student residue." There was little information available to the teachers after the students played an iPad game, and whatever information there was, it wasn’t easily accessible, e.g., a teacher would need to go to that student’s iPad or visit a website, log in an account, etc. Way too time consuming!
  • In contrast, Google understood that software, specific to K-12, was needed to make the hardware truly usable by teachers. Along with the Chromebooks came Google Apps for Education and the Google Classroom, a CMS (classroom management system). While calling the Google Docs Editor (Google Sheets, etc.) an "app" is, ahem,  stretching the definition of the term "app," the linkage of those "apps" to the Google Drive storage and to its Classroom make it easy for a teacher to access "student residue," i.e., the files the students create (or co-create).

(Yes, in 2016, Apple announced iOS 9.3 that makes it easier for teachers — and IT administrators — to create student accounts on a device, and even patched it quick to run on iPads 2’s — but making student artifacts easy to access? Maybe in the next version …)

So, in 2016, what is "mobile learning" where more than 50 percent of the devices sold into K-12 are laptop-like Chromebooks?

  • At the 2016 ISTE Conference, at sessions as diverse as "Mobile Learning in Teacher Education" and "Mobile Learning Playground," the following devices were permitted to be used: "Laptop: Chromebook, PC, Mac; Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows."

Sounds like the kitchen sink of devices; laptops are now included in "mobile learning" sessions!

Let’s end where we started:  "Mobile learning" is about learning first and foremost, and about accommodating learning wherever and whenever a learner — teacher or student — is engaging in said learning.  Mobile learning recognizes that learning doesn’t just happen in the computer lab full of desktop (or laptop) computers; learning happens all-the-time, everywhere.  Indeed, as we move from 1-to-1 — every student has a computer — to 1-to-many — where every student has multiple computers — having a computer available to support said learning whenever and wherever is now quite possible! 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at