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Where is the learning occurring in mobile learning? Applying systems thinking to a messy situation.

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Rebecca Ferguson
15 May 2017

Alice Peasgood

The use of mobile digital devices for learning has been the subject of considerable research. It appears, however, that the investigative lens offered by systems thinking approaches is not widely represented in the literature of mobile learning. In systems thinking, a ‘messy situation’ is one that has complexity and ambiguity. This paper reports upon a theoretical study of the learner-device-environment system and subsystems within it. The environment includes physical, digital and social factors. The core research question is ‘where is the learning occurring?’ Systems maps are used to explore various concepts of the mobile device: as a tool, as a medium (or mediating technology) or as an extension of the learner’s capabilities. The concept of the device as a tool implies that the learner is in control and uses the device’s capabilities to access learning content or to learn in communication with others via the device. Drawing upon the work of Gordon Pask, the question arises as to how the mediating technology may impact upon the learning, and may itself change during the learning process (for example, a digital device employs algorithms which change as the learner uses the device). Building upon Marshall McLuhan’s idea of technology as augmenting human capabilities, the mobile device could be seen as externalising memory, for example. By considering how to define the learning system in each case, this paper examines the interrelationships between the learner, the device and the environment. This analysis provides some insights, and raises further questions, that are relevant to other areas of research in mobile learning.


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