Lifelong-learning support by m-learning
example scenarios

By Andreas Holzinger, Alexander Nischelwitzer, Matthias Meisenberger / November 2005

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It is often emphasized, that the main advantage of e-learning is independence of both location and time. However, in traditional e-learning the minimum requirement is still a personal computer (PC)—consequently an absolute independence in location is not provided. These independencies are still not fulfilled with the use of notebooks because a real independency in location depends on the rapid advancement and affordability of the necessary technology. This problem could be solved by using highly mobile and available devices Such as mobile phones. For example, the market saturation of mobile phones in Austria is currently at a level of 81 percent and the numbers are still increasing. Since the majority of students at both secondary schools and universities have a mobile phone at hand most of the time, mobile learning (m-learning) could be an important instrument for assisting learning in future.

"Successful technologies are those that are in harmony with end-users' needs."
   —Ben Shneiderman (2002)


Learning is a fundamental cognitive process of mental and social change over an entire lifetime [4, 3, 5]. Today, the organization of learning is changing, especially in secondary schools and universities. However, in this context, new technologies offer the opportunity for pupils and students to communicate and interact with multi-medial learning resources and simulated environments [10]. Consequently, technology can enhance motivation, which is a vital aspect of learning [8], deliver information when needed, and encourage to solve problems and satisfy curiosity [23, 24]. Most of all, new technologies also offer the possibility to scaffold learners through an extended process of capturing and organizing situated activities.

To date, the use of computers in education has mostly been focused on enhancing learning in formal settings, typically in the traditional classroom or computer lab [16]. However, learning does not only take place within such formal learning settings! The use of mobile devices could expand learning possibilities and solve the problem of being tied to a particular location.

Generally, the combination of e-learning and mobile computing is called mobile learning (m-learning) and promises the access to applications that support learning anywhere, anytime [26]. However, most of the proposed examples in the past uses handheld computers or laptops and are mainly supporting adults in the workplace—people who know what they want. Subsequently, m-learning has become an attractive target application area for corporate mobile devices. However, meanwhile hardware is considered as a solved problem; innovative, affordable and usable software remains still the greatest challenge.

Norris & Soloway argue that handhelds should support project-based learning in context, that is, using the handheld as an integral part of a learning activity; most of all: ongoing assessment and possible feedback [19].

Converse to the approach of using handhelds or personal digital assistants (PDAs), we propose in this paper the support of pupils at scondary schools and universities by use of mobile phones: Whereas mobile devices including PDAs, handhelds or small laptops are relatively expensive and consequently lack availability especially amongst pupils—the core advantage of mobile phones is the high availability of such devices. The market penetration of mobile phones in Austria is currently at a level of 81 percent and the numbers are still increasing [28]. It can be emphasized that the majority of the population in general and the younger in particular have a mobile phone available, which they have at hand most of the time.

Considering this fact, m-learning can be an important instrument for lifelong learning, which is for example, a central aim of the European Union [7], thus a challenge for research and development in the area of mobile computing.

Applications for Learning on Mobile Phones

There are various differences between application development for the Web and for mobile phones. Generally four main differences to consider [20] are:

  • the mobile phone itself
  • network accessibility
  • the end-user
  • context of use

All mobile phones have a relatively small display size. In addition to limitations in processing power, memory, and bandwidth, there are serious constraints on their input possibilities [12]. During testing of different mobile phones we encountered the following restrictions for application development:

  • limited processing power and memory resource
  • variety of screen sizes
  • low resolution of the displays
  • broad range of input possibilities
  • high diversity of operating systems

Particularly the first two restrictions lead unquestionably to the conclusion that not every standard mobile phone is suitable for an m-learning application.

However, more and more of the mobile phones available to date are in fact smartphones, which are a combination of PDAs and mobile phones (see Figure 1). To realize a platform-independent application, which can be used on a variety of different operating systems for smartphones, a standardized development environment is necessary, for example the Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME). Almost every mobile phone to date is Java-enabled, subsequently it is capable of executing a J2ME application. J2ME is platform-independent and makes the creation of mobile, Web-based applications possible. With the use of additional libraries multimedia-based applications can be implemented, which vary from producer to producer but the basic rule is: The newer the Smartphone, the more J2ME libraries are supported.

Our Demonstrator: The Mobile Learning Engine (MLE)

The Mobile Learning Engine (MLE) is a multimedia-based application for mobile phones [14]. The MLE can be downloaded from for free. First experiences and feedback from end-users are indeed very good: After a few minutes the majority of end-users can handle the MLE intuitively, without instructions. Most of the end-users were especially impressed by the features of the interactive questions and the multimedia-based content in the learning objects.

The MLE has been developed by using the Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) and runs on a broad variety of mobile phones. Its platform-independency enables the handling of:

  • different operating systems (Symbian OS, Microsoft MS Pocket PC, Palm OS, etc.)
  • a variety of different screen resolutions
  • different input possibilities (keypad, keyboard or pointer device)

Features realized include:

  • formatted continues text
  • integration of images within text, hyperlinks and elements with specific actions
  • audio and video bars for playback (also streaming from a server is possible)
  • interactive questions and intelligent help, which includes: checkbox questions (single choice, multiple choice)
  • order questions
  • inserting characters questions (text match and numbers match)
  • graphical order questions
  • graphical marking questions—marking of certain regions (hot spots) within a picture (see Figure 2).

Possible M-learning Scenarios

The available mobile technology can enhance the shift from pure instructor centered classroom teaching to constructivist learner centered educational settings [17, 13]-away from the classroom; for example in outside learning environments, e.g. biology in the field (meadow and forest, pond and reed, etc.), physics in the laboratory or in the real world, history in the museum, etc.

Consequently the proper use of such devices offers enormous possibilities for the application in a constructivist learning setting. Didactical and pedagogical approaches to achieve such constructivist settings include explorative learning, scaffolding, and situated learning. However, fundamental to all of these approaches is problem-solving.


Active problem-solving is central for constructivist learning [18, 9, 10]. Within cognitive science, problem-solving is synonymous with learning and viewed as the manipulation of problematic situations, comprising the appraisal of the problem, creation of a problem space, the selection of goals, and the deployment and monitoring of cognitive structures to reach those goals [27, 18, 15].

Exploratory Learning

In exploratory learning, the end-users (learners) investigate a system on their own, often in pursuit of a goal.

Exploratory learning [3] is a constructivist instructional approach, wherein the learners are encouraged to explore and to experiment by themselves often in pursuit of a goal [22]. This approach is in opposition to working through precisely sequenced learning material in behaviorist style [6, 21].

Exploratory learning is not unguided browsing; it is considered most appropriate for training problem-solving skills. Due to the fact that mobile phones are excellent communication devices, the opportunity for co-discovery learning is also at hand: Learners can co-operate in a manner which supports co-operative problem solving. This is, on the one hand, motivating for the learners, on the other hand a means of expanding their learning resources. The learners receive additional sources of scaffolding since they gain by the competencies of the other group members. It is generally known that sometimes members of the peer-group are better able to explain material to colleagues than experts.

Situated Learning

The principle of situated learning is a combination of cognitivistic and constructivistic approaches. The specific learning situation plays a central role during the knowledge construction process.

During a situated learning setting, the mental representation of a concept occurs not in an abstract or isolated form but in connection with the social and material context of a specific learning situation [2, 1]. Although the term situation is not exactly defined, situation encompasses aspects of the physical, social and cultural environment including the communication with peers during the learning process. Recent research on human learning challenges the separation of what is learned from how and where it is learned. The circumstances in which knowledge is developed and deployed are not separable from or ancillary to learning. In the approach of situated learning the circumstances are an integral part of what is learned, consequently all learning is more or less situated [2].

Conclusion and Future Outlook

In this article we proposed the use of mobile phones as a possible support for the organizational changes of learning at secondary schools and universities and introduced the mobile learning engine (MLE). We reported about some experiences with the design, development and the use of the MLE application and proposed some didactical scenarios based on constructivist approaches including explorative learning, scaffolding and situated learning.

While we are convinced that mobile phones can provide the necessary support for the organizational changes of learning, it remains to be seen whether the pedagogical benefits sufficiently convincing. However, the phenomenal growth of mobile computing, (European Information Technology Observatory [11])—whereby a parallel growth of user sophistication has failed to take place—will increase the need for future research, especially in the area of human-computer interaction (HCI) and media psychology with the focus on adaptive and sensitive interfaces and adapted content.


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F1Figure 1. Some of the mobile phones we tested

F1Figure 2. Screenshots from the MLE; learning objects viewed on the Nokia 6600 smartphone


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