Mobile Learning infokit / Cost-benefit
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The Hawthorne effect is a form of reactivity whereby subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behavior being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they are being studied, not in response to any particular experimental manipulation.


Weighing up the cost/benefit ratio of learning outcomes can be a problematic and tricky business. Whilst quantitative elements can be measured such as the frequency that a resource is accessed by learners, the number of people connecting to wireless access points, or the cost of making available a mobile app, these do not tell the whole story. The qualitative elements of mobile learning, the ways in which learners can interact with resources, tutors and peers, cannot be recorded easily and holistically through the use of numbers. It is important that institutions, whilst paying attention to issues surrounding sustainability issues, value the ‘softer’ benefits that mobile learning affords.


Although any intervention is liable to the Hawthorne effect, one way to measure the success of a mobile learning initiative is to track assessment scores, following this up with a series of focus groups or interviews with learners. However, even this can be problematic. As Vavoula and Sharples comment, "although a learning experience can be a well defined event with a start and a finish, learning is an ongoing, lifelong process of personal transformation." As such, they argue, it "requires longitudinal, historical assessment" (Vavoula & Sharples, 2008, p.4).


Focusing on measures of ‘intrinsic motivation’ through attitudinal surveys can be a reliable predictor of the conditions in place for effective learning. Academics, prompted to focus on students attitudes and satisfaction (particularly in reference to the National Student Survey) are likely to evolve new, more student-centred assessment procedures. Doing so acknowledges  that it is “not possible to determine in advance where the learning may occur, nor how it progresses or what outcomes it produces” (Ibid., p.3).


“I think in the future we’ll concentrate on providing content to the students because... most [students] already have some form of iPhone or BlackBerry anyway.”

Gareth Frith
University of Leeds

Whilst it can be difficult to agree upon how mobile learning should be evaluated (see Evaluation) there is an increasing consensus on one thing: that learners should bring their own devices. This view, often abbreviated to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is backed up with the following rationale:


  • Smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices are expensive
  • Mobile devices become outdated and (are perceived as) ‘obsolete’ more quickly than other equipment used for learning
  • Students are increasingly likely to have a mobile device that contain functionality that can be used for learning

Dave Pickersgill of Sheffield College comments that “'if each student has a mobile phone, each worth £100, this equates to £100,000 worth of hardware available for use on a daily basis in the College.” He believes that “no school or college can afford to ignore the uses and benefits such a large amount of kit” can bring. Prof. Mike Sharples, who has been described as the godfather of mobile learning, agrees, claiming that "there would appear to be no obvious case for institutions to provide students with mobile devices when most already own laptops and smartphones." He points out that institutionally-provided devices would be obsolete within two to three years. Thinking outside of the box, therefore, Sharples suggests that "a strategy could be to progressively replace desktop machines with rooms for student laptops". The money saved could be used, by negotiating with a supplier, to provide discounted equipment on campus, "with the supplier providing free technical support to students."

Just as colleges and universities do not provide students with paper, pens and stationery items but expect them to be used, the time is coming when mobile devices will be another expected part of a student’s toolkit. There are many ways for institutions to facilitate this but it does involve a shift in mindset.



  • Vavoula, G.N. & Sharples, M. (2009) ‘Challenges in Evaluating Mobile Learning’ (in Traxler, J., Riordan, B., Dennett, C. (eds) Proceedings of the mLearn 2008 Conference (School of Computing and Information Technology, University of Wolverhampton, pp. 296-303)


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