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When did mobile learning start?

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. 

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Hi Christian, nice question. However, when reading your post, the first thing that came into my mind was the work of Alan Kay, somewhere in the late 1960's: the Dynabook. See: This was a nice example of tablet computers/ipads as we know them know.
See also Mike Sharples, he goes back to 1963:­al-consortium-oct-2007

Anyone else who can find a clear indicator for a date before 1963?

Posted on 11/19/11 12:09 AM.

Hey Rob,

When I ran into the question, I thought of the 1960s as well. However, I found that the early concepts were very abstract and not very specific to mobile learning. So I looked for the point when research focused on technological support of education and learning that are distinguishing mobile learning from other fields in TEL.

The main difference between the work I was referring and the Dynabook and similar projects from back to the 1960s is that the prior projects were of a purely *theoretical* nature. In the late 1990's the discourse started to become relevant for the educational practice with the effect that the application scenarios changed as well.

The relevant literature before the late 1990's considered mobile devices primarily as content delivery platforms. Even Dynabook was designed in that way. From this viewpoint mobile computing smelled like personal desktop computing on small screens. Indeed, the small screen size is still one repeated complaints when it comes to mobile computing for learning although you hardly find this argument in papers that focus on mobile learning.

The closest to the ideas of mobile learning were Weiser's musings on ubiquitous computing. However, Mark Weiser did not focus on learning and his research precedes the applications I mentioned in the post only by roughly a decade.

Posted on 11/23/11 10:48 AM in reply to Rob Koper.