Today I came across an interesting posting in a mobile learning forum on XING. The thread started with the question "When did mobile learning really start?". There was already a posting that claimed that Nokia started the mobile learning idea in 2001. I thought, "wait! 2001 is too late" and started some digging in my references. What I found there was interesting and enlightening.
To answer the first question we need to understand that mobile learning is NOT about mobile devices.
Mobile learning is about emphasizing aspects of mobility in an educational concept. Besides mobility this includes situatedness, context dependency, the location of a learning environment etc.
So when did mobile learning really start. My little research puts the date around 1997. About a year later I had a very enlightening and inspiring discussion with Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway in Berlin. Back then they presented their early solutions from HI-CE for "handheld learning". The core difference to other handhald learning solutions of that time was that they discussed classroom applications that emphasised the mobility of the learners for making the applications valuable. Rather than "handheld devices for learning" they changed the view to "supporting learning on the go with handheld devices".
To embrace the difference one has to recall that until around 1997 handheld devices for learning were mostly of the kind of the Little Professor - some were more sophisticated some less. Basically these solutions were relatively small solutions of portable learning systems. With this respect they were very similar to books as the learning content was not affected by the mobility of the learners. Until 1997 mobile and handheld devices were technological extensions of the learning anytime and anywhere metaphore. The HI-CE stuff broke with this perspective. Suddenly learning was dependend on social interactions,movements, locations, and annotations. Instead of enforcing the right time and the right place, the new solutions were empowering learners to create and enrich their spatial learning environments with the new technology.
My quick research brought another interesting aspect to my attention. In 1998 Rainer Oppermann and Marcus Specht published a concept for a nomadic museum guide. This paper discusses explicitly the application for learning support. The interesting aspect of this paper is that it outlines the first application of Augmented Reality for Learning. This gets clearer with the followup publications from 1999 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
Therefore, the tipping point when solutions for learning changed towards what we now know as "mobile learning", was around 1997.