Five central psychological challenges facing effective mobile learning

boy with ipad

A while ago, a very good friend and former colleague of mine, Fiona Seymour, popped around my classroom to have a chat with a group of year 8 students about how they felt the use of the iPad had impacted their learning since its adoption in our school. Some interesting facts emerged from the discussion which referred to some cognitive and metacognitive challenges that learners face when using the iPad or any other mobile device for learning.

Interestingly, in a very informative article that Fiona shared with me a few months later, two Scottish researchers from The University of West Scotland, Dr. Melody Terras and Dr Judith Ramsay address the very same challenges that my students mentioned, recommending that education providers take them into account when adopting mobile learning as the main or one of the main modes of delivery of the curriculum.

As a fan and assiduous user of mobile technology in the classroom I found this article a true ‘eye-opener’ as it not only confirmed some of the concerns I had about mobile learning but also triggered an ongoing process of reflection on their possible implications for teaching and on what I could do in my daily practice to address those concerns.

I believe than at an exciting time where ICT integration in the classroom is a reality in most developed countries every educator must be aware of these psychological challenges and endeavour to address them consistently and systematically in their teaching.

The five psychological challenges

Terras and Ramsay (2012) (at ) identify the following crucial challenges of mobile learning:

  1. The context-dependent nature of memory

As I have already discussed in a previous blog (“Words in the mind – how vocabulary is stored and organized in the brain”), memory is context-dependent. In other words, the context in which we create a memory will enhance our chances to recall that memory later. Thus, for instance, if I am learning a set of new vocabulary in my classroom, whilst sitting next to my friend Joe and facing my teacher, who is wearing a bright red flowery shirt, the classroom, my friend Joe, my teacher and her shirt will enhance my chances to recall that vocabulary in the future. Memory is also state-dependent. In other words, individuals are more likely to effectively recall a memory when he/she in the same emotional, motivational or physiological state in which he/she was when he/she encoded that memory.

As Terras and Ramsay point out, research shows that the retrieval of recently learnt material is highly affected by the influence of context. These findings have huge implications for mobile learning, as mobility, the fact that the learner may be using the iPad or phone to study in different environments, may disrupt the support of the context as a cue for retrieval of the target information. Thus, for instance, a student who used the iPad to learn new vocabulary for a test in his room, may then be revising it in the car or school bus on the way to school,then, once in school, may be going through it again in the library or in the canteen; each change of environment being different, the context-related retrieval cues will be missing, with a possible negative impact on recall.

Hence, the main learning-enhancement advantage of mobile devices, i.e. the fact that one can carry them with oneself wherever one likes, has the potential to disrupt learning. What can teachers do to address this issue? Terras and Ramsay do not make any pedagogical suggestions. My take on this is that, like one should do with any learning tool, teachers have the ethical imperative to forge healthy learning habits; this entails (a) raising learner awareness of this issue and of how it can affect learning and (b) modelling effective memory strategies which may effectively compensate for the lack of context-based cues; for example, students may be taught that, on learning new vocabulary whilst reading a French text on the iPad, they can creatively associate them with images and L1 words through the so-called ‘Keyword technique’, index cards and other menmonics or by using Apps like ‘Poplet’ or ‘Padlet’ to store and organize it semantically during or after reading the text. The association created through these two approaches would function as powerful retrieval cues at recall.

  1. Human resources are finite

As I have often reiterated in my posts, one of the greatest ‘enemies’ of learning, if not the greatest, is divided attention caused by cognitive overload on Working Memory (e.g. processing inefficiency) or interference (e.g. being distracted by an another stimulus whilst trying to learn). As many of my students have pointed out over the years, mobile devices can generate a lot of distraction, mainly coming from notifications from Facebook, Instagram and e-mail. Terras and Ramsay report a study by Cicso investigating the ability of social media to distract students. The study revealed that UK students are ‘most distracted by social media’. Another sort of distraction that Terras and Ramsay do not consider, but that I notice day in day out in my school and surrounding areas, is that mobile devices allow for students to study whilst socializing (e.g. they sit around in groups each working on their iPad). This was less likely to happen with PCs and laptops. In sum, as Terras and Ramsay (2012: 824) advocate,

Mobile learners may need to be more skilled at inhibiting responses to extraneous stimuli. In particular, they may need to develop superior attentional control in order to be effective learners in environment that are not primarily designed for learning. Noisy and changing environments and the potential distractions posed by social media may place significant additional demands upon the learner’s auditory and visual attention.

As they also point out, one important harm that interruption causes to learning occurs at the level of prospective memory. Prospective memory supports the intended execution of future tasks and may be time-based (e.g. remembering to check an essay once more first thing in the morning the next day before handing it) or event-based (e.g. remembering to arrange ideas in a logical sequence when planning an essay). Disruption seems to have a particularly harmful effect on prospective rather than retrospective memory, especially on the stages of prospective memory involving execution and evaluation.

Divided attention can stem from the environment but also from the mobile medium itself. As Terras and Ramsay point out, research evidences that face-to-face communication always outshines mediated communication as the latter is usually less rich and more ambiguous. Mobile devices, websites and apps pose more cognitive challenges, especially for less able and flexible learners who may experience processing overload whilst accessing and/or manipulating it.

Another important harmful effect was highlighted by myself in a previous post on the SAMR model (“Of SAMR and Samritans…”) and refers to another powerful source of divided attention: the cognitive load posed on Working Memory by the ‘mechanics’ involved in the creation of a digital artifact. Often teachers involve students in tasks which require them to operate simultaneously on two levels: on the one hand they are required to generate, elaborate and organize ideas related to a given task’s brief, on the other they are required to convey the resulting intellectual product of that process through digital media (e.g. smashing apps). If teachers are not careful, the demands posed by such modus operandi can easily cause cognitive overload and impede learning.

Sources of cognitive overload must be anticipated and addressed in the planning of any activity in which digital media are integrated with MFL learning.

  1. Distributed cognition and situated learning

By this, Terras and Ramsay refer to the new phenomenon created by the Web, whereby learning contexts which in the past where very distant from one another are becoming increasingly interconnected via mobile social networking. Thus, mobile learners construct their comprehension of the world and knowledge through cognitive interaction with a much greater and more culturally diverse range of contextual sources of information than non-mobile learners. This has obviously the potential to greatly enhance learning. However, the challenge resides in the fact that not all individuals, nor all external input, will be of value for the learning process. Hence, mobile learners need to be ‘taught’ how to discern who and what on the web is relevant to their learning and reliable as a source. As Terras and Ramsay put it:

Learners will have to cope with an extra layer of complexity in their learning ecology: mobile social learning increases the density of the distributed cognitive network. So, although learners may benefit from this increase in the distributed and situated nature of their cognitive ecology, the challenge is to use their digital literacy skills in addition to more generic cognitive skills in order to screen out redundant or irrelevant input to their learning

Education providers, in my opinion, need to invest much more than they usually do in structured learner training programs aimed at raising learner awareness of this challenge, whilst modelling effective approaches to a safe, discerning and cognitive-/time-efficient use of web sources. Such programs should be implemented, in my view, concurrently and as extensively and intensively as digital literacy programs are – which, as research suggest, rarely happens.

In the MFL classroom this is an important issue across several dimensions of learning. Firstly, mobile MFL learners are more likely to be tempted to use online translators and must be warned about the dangers of their use. Secondly, they need to become more discerning as to the cultural or political bias of the target language sources they interact with. Thirdly, they must be able to grasp the differences in terms of register, between different types of text genres (e.g. how writing a facebook feed differs from writing a blog or journal article). Fourthly, plagiarism is highly encouraged by the mobile social networking culture where information is recycled at high speed with little regard for intellectual property.

  1. Metacognition is essential for mobile learning

This is undoubtedly the most important challenge. Mobile learners must possess the ‘psychological infrastructure, as Terras and Ramsay put it, to support mobile learning. In other words, they need to develop metacognitive skills to be able to cope with all the above mentioned challenges. They need to develop strategies in order to best prevent the already discussed sources of cognitive load and external distractions from interfering with their learning and to generally effectively self-manage the learning process; this is particularly important if we aim to develop truly competent autonomous learners. The development of mobile learners’ web-related metacognitive competence should start concurrently with the very early stages of mobile learning.

  1. Individual differences matter

Although Terras and Ramsay consider this as a different point to the previous one, I believe the two are  very closely related. What the authors mean here is that students need to understand how technology best suits their personality, age, gender, learning preferences, personal set of skills, aptitudes and attitudes. Teachers often take it for granted that mobile learners, simply because (in their daily life) spend hours on mobile devices will know how to use them for learning. Being able to use mobile apps, social and learning platforms in a way that best suits one’s own personality attributes, skills and academic goals is not easy – it is a complex skill to acquire. How many teachers, I wonder, have the know-how to effectively impart on their mobile learners training in this kind of competence? This implies that professional development in this area ought to be focused on by education providers so as to equip teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills to address this crucial aspect of learners’ metacognition.

I would add a sixth psychological challenge to the five that Terras and Ramsay have identified: Depth of processing. Young mobile learners are exposed in the social media (e.g  Facebook and Twitter) to an overload of information, much of which is ‘fast’, ‘sloganised’ (forgive my ‘neologism’, here) and tend to be ‘sensationalistic’ and ‘eye-catching’ in nature. This ‘high-impact’ / ‘high speed’ culture has created a mindset amongst youngsters which encourages a superficial approach to information and cognition. This mindset, in my view, engenders shallow processing and the skin-deep acquisition of facts and notions unsupported by substance and/or reliable and referenced evidence. The challenge is for teachers to engage students, through mobile learning, in deeper processing of facts, notions and ideas. It is no easy challenge in a fast-paced society like ours, where the digital world creates on a daily basis such a wide and divergent pool of information and entertainment opportunities. We need to always bear in mind, as educators, that it is depth of processing that, after all, creates effective learning.

In conclusion, mobile learning has an enormous potential for the enhancement of MFL learning and of learning in general. This potential, however, has to be effectively harnessed and channelled. Education providers have to be aware of the 5 challenges pointed out by Terras and Ramsay as they are central to the construction of our learners’ cognition and may affect learning. In a highly interconnected world where social networking dictates a fast-paced, scarcely regulated and rich flood of information, the 21st century mobile learners need to be trained effectively to become competent autonomous learners versed not just in digital literacy but, more importantly, in generic life-long skills which enable them to analyze, synthesise and evaluate judiciously, productively and safely the masses of information available online.


4 thoughts on “Five central psychological challenges facing effective mobile learning

  1. Very interesting article Gianfranco. The default attitude of many young people towards learning within this rich environment so full of distractions was summarized by my daughter who is now 31 and a designer who says you don’t need to learn anything because it’s everthing is there at your fingertips-I think you demonstrate the importance of tackling that lazy-minded approach to learning a language (or anything) very well; needless to say, to my eternal regret my eldest daughter is not a good linguist though my younger one is trying to revitalise her French in the car with Michel Thomas. She is therefore going to be ok talking to car-dashboards!

    In terms of context, for things like essay writing, I think it’s very important that students use pen and paper as much as possible as this is the context in which they will write their exams-teachers on CPD sessions I have run report a very signficant drop in performance from computer produced essays to written ones. Of course there are other things going on there, like access to spelling and grammar checking-maybe mobile devices will eventually make producing exam responses electronically a reality for all-after all, how many authors write their novels in school exercise books like the great Alistair Maclean.

    Liked by 1 person

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