The importance of context

Whilst context has always been an important factor in TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning) it is of central importance with mobile learning. As Wingkvist and Ericsson (2010) note, “if the context is not understood well enough, the mobile learning system will not survive beyond the scope of the initiative and the project’s enddate.” 

Contexts, however, are not static but fluid and dynamic with important repercussions for both formal and informal learning experiences. In this section we shall look at how contexts have, and are continuing to change, ways in which those contexts can be conceptualised, and (most importantly) how institutions and learners can take advantage of various contexts for learning.

Changing contexts

As revealed by JISC research, the social context in which learning takes place has also changed, and in ways that were not foreseen in the early part of the 21st century. Learners are increasingly dependent on technology to help them fit learning into their complex, demanding lives. Ownership of personal technologies – from computers to mobile devices – is now pervasive, and use of the internet, including Web 2.0 technologies, is commonplace."

JISC (2009)

The growth of personal mobile technological devices has been staggering. 91% of the UK adult population own or use a mobile phone (Ofcom, 2011) with the overall number of mobile devices exceeding the total population. Indeed, Ofcom has characterised the UK as a nation addicted to smartphones. Whilst such devices were available previously, the move from analogue to digital and the subsequent dramatic drop in price has led to an explosion in adoption. It is now extremely unusual for someone not to carry a mobile device of some kind.


This context of having a device available for personal use at any time changes things significantly for learning and teaching. Indeed, “mobile, personal, and wireless devices are now radically transforming societal notions of discourse and knowledge”. They are “responsible for new forms of art, employment, language, commerce, deprivation, and crime, as well as learning” (Traxler, 2007, p.10). The evolution of such devices, from simple voice and SMS text messaging functionality to ‘smartphone’ functionality with high-speed internet access has meant that “the main barriers to developing... new modes of mobile learning are not technical but social” (Sharples, 2010, p.4).

Whereas, previously, knowledge was physically present in places such as libraries with institutions having very formal lines of communication, the growth in use of mobile devices and social networking has changed this dramatically. With a lowered barrier to social interaction and knowledge through technology, students are able to self-organise as well as access relevant information more quickly and efficiently than ever before.


Understanding context

Context can be defined as “the formal or informal setting in which a situation occurs; it can include many aspects or dimensions, such as environment, social activity, goals or tasks of groups and individuals; time (year/month/day).

Brown (2010)

Context is a word that is used informally in a variety of ways. Within mobile learning it is used extensively and is, perhaps, most helpfully explained by reference to a diagram, derived from the work of Lonsdale (2004) and Sharples (2010). 


Prof. Mike Sharples compares context to an ever-playing movie, “a continually unfolding interaction between people, settings, technologies and other artefacts” (Sharples, 2010). The following ‘context hierarchy’ may be useful in understanding how the different constituent elements interact:



The outer circle constitutes the wider Context, which Lonsdale, et al. (2004) call the “interaction over time between people, settings, technologies and artefacts”. This is followed by the middle circle (the ‘Context State’) comprising “elements from the learning and setting at one particular point in time, space or goal sequence.” Finally, the inner circle (‘Context Substate’) is made up of “elements from the learner and setting that are relevant to the current focus of learning and desired level of context awareness.”

Whereas some elements of ‘context’ are reasonably static, there are more rapidly-changing elements - those which Lonsdale, et al. term ‘Context Substate’. These can change from learning experience to learning experience and therefore fluctuate even over the period of a module or semester. Wrapped around that comes the ‘Context State’ which may be an academic department or faculty, and finally the ‘Context’ may be the wider university or college. Learners and staff operate across these contexts.

As Glahn, et al. (2010) point out, mobile learning allows both a high degree of personalisation as well as enabling a much more social method of learning. It therefore, rather uniquely, allows for learning within and across contexts.

Taking advantage of contexts for learning

“The user interfaces and the speed at which the interactions are performed have to be really well-tuned... Quite often [learners] will be in a social situation... or just need to be getting somewhere quickly."

Tim Fernando,
University of Oxford

As Tim Fernando explains (see video to the right), with mobile learning the various out-of-classroom contexts mean that the speed at which communications take place or knowledge is accessed is all-important. Whereas traditional TEL interactions involve a significant period of time usually in one pre-booked space, mobile learning interactions are often the inverse of this. Reasonably low-tech and established technologies such as podcasts and pervasive instant message conversations mean that learning can take place “just in time, just enough and just for me” (Rosenberg, 2001).

One way in which modern mobile phones with internet access (‘smartphones’) can be used as part of institutional contexts is demonstrated by Thom Cochrane of Unitec, New Zealand:


Thom Cochrane's mobile learning concept map

(click on image for larger version)


This diagram, reminiscent of Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (see Frameworks for mobile learning) shows how the smartphone, and therefore by implication, the learner, can be placed at the centre of a wider social system that allows interaction with academic staff, mentors and peers. Cochrane (2010) found that "when modeled by their lecturers... students in the projects developed a strong sense of community and integrated the technologies into multiple learning environments." In addition, he found that they were "also critiquing and collaborating with their peers." Mobile learning allowed the learning conversation to be focused on learners rather than teachers as the technologies were more personal and personalised. It is the potential for mobile learning to "bridge pedagogically designed learning contexts, facilitate learner generated contexts, and content... while providing personalisation and ubiquitous social connectedness" that makes it different and "sets it apart" from more traditional learning environments.

This is backed up by the findings of Kenny, et al. who comment that effective mobile learning is “defined by the convergence of the device usability, learner, and social aspects to extend their impact beyond their natural boundaries.” This “affords enhanced collaboration... ready access to information, and a deeper contextualisation of learning” (Kenny, et al., 2009).

It is because of this ability to bridge contexts of learning that Dr. Mike Short (Vice President of public affairs at Telefonica O2 Europe) believes that ‘contextual learning’ may be a better term than mobile learning as “we need different tools for different lessons and different learners”. Using the term ‘contextual learning’ he believes demonstrates that the focus is on a “more personalised context that is not tied to one technology, one network, one device, or one eLibrary.”

For now, however, ‘mobile learning’ is a convenient term to describe enhanced educational experiences in a variety of contexts that use mobile devices.