An mLearning Toolset for Leveraging Learning Theory

David Parsons and Kathryn MacCallum

Introduction: Learning Theory from Socrates to Socrative

Theories about how effective teaching and learning takes place have been discussed for a very long time. The common structures of formal education, the lecture, the tutorial and the workshop, have been around at least as long as Socrates and the didactic plays, but it wasn’t until public formal education began to become internationally widespread in the 19th century that the ground was laid for more recent developments in learning theory. As societies began to invest significant parts of their finances into education, they were increasingly interested in knowing how that investment might translate into socially beneficial outcomes. Academics, practitioners and researchers have thus been engaging with the mysteries of teaching and learning from myriad perspectives as educational structures, societies and economies have continued to evolve and constantly pose new questions about what we learn, why we learn, and how we learn. When mobile technologies are integrated into the theoretical mix, these questions become even more complex and challenging for educators to address.

Learning theories abound

One might ask why so many different learning theories have been developed over the last hundred years or so, and to what extent these are simply shaped by fashion rather than the actualities of learning. One answer to this question is the idea that as society develops and evolves it requires new learning theories to explain how learning best takes place in the given contemporary context (Harasim, 2012). Thus the industrial age gave us behavioural theories, the scientific age gave us cognitive theories, a more child-focused age gave us constructivist theories, a more social age gave us social learning theories, and a more divergent, interactive society gave us situated and distributed theories. Finally, an Internet connected age gives us new theories of connectivist digital teaching and learning. Does this mean, then, that these earlier learning theories become obsolete? Generally not. Instead, what these theories give us is layers of interpretation that join together what goes on inside the mind, what goes on in the learner’s social context and what happens in the interaction between these two. Often these theories weave together and build upon each other. As society becomes more complex and connected, more aspects of teaching and learning need to be taken into account. Of course, there is an element of fashion in learning theory. Learning styles, for example, seem to have been a once fashionable theory that is no longer accepted by many (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008), while early behavioral psychologists might have problems getting their studies through a contemporary ethics committee. For example, Piaget used his own children as data, Ebbinghaus used only himself, and Watson frightened a small child with a rat. Reactionary attitudes are also evident from some authors (e.g. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006) who choose to champion narrow instructivist principles based on simple cognitive models. Nevertheless, many different theories have stood the test of time, and in this resource we focus on six that we believe are highly relevant and often discussed in the context of mobile learning activities; behaviourism, constructivism, experiential learning, situated learning, communities of practice and connectivism.

From theories to metatheories

With the legacy of past theorising in research we are left with a range of choices about how we choose to think about how learning takes place and therefore how we might design learning experiences. How, then, can we choose the most appropriate learning theory or select an appropriate theoretical frame? This is, of course, not a new question and various people have put forward what might be called meta-theories; that is, frameworks for teaching and learning that acknowledge the multiplicity of theory that might apply to a given context. Examples of this would include activity theory (Peña-Ayala, Sossa & Méndez, 2014) and the conversational framework (Laurillard, 2013), both of which acknowledge the role of other theories as being components of these approaches. Labelling these as meta-theories (theories about theories) recognises that seeing how different theories can complement each other is an important feature of putting theory into practice. We take a similar approach in this chapter. We are not attempting to create any new theories, but we do adopt our own meta-theory, which draws from the works of many others and is primarily designed to be used as a practical tool for thinking about mobile learning activity design rather than any deeply analytical theoretical exploration.

The title of this introduction, ‘from Socrates to Socrative’, is intended to encapsulate the journey from the foundations of learning theory with the Socratic method to today’s mobile learning tools, with Socrative (https://www.socrative.com) as an online student interaction tool being a typical example of how mobile technology enables new approaches to teaching and learning that were never before possible. Our challenge as educators is to consider how such radical changes in what can be done to foster learning can lead to changes in our own practice, supported by pedagogical perspectives and validated by established learning theories.

The components of this chapter

This e-chapter is centred around the provision of some resources that are intended to be useful to educators interested in the evaluation and/or creation of mobile learning activities. We begin with a summary of the six Learning Theories for Mobile Learning that we subsequently use for the other material; behaviourism, constructivism, experiential learning, situated learning, communities of practice and connectivism. We then provide an introduction to the resources we have developed to help apply these learning theories to mobile activity design.

One of the main resources is a set of rubrics based on the six learning theories mentioned above and intended to help educators evaluate the theoretical underpinnings of mobile learning activities. This set of rubrics is somewhat traditional in that it is non-interactive and does not combine together features of different learning theories. We see this as primarily useful as an evaluation tool, which is simple to apply and gives direct feedback on how an existing mobile learning activity might operationalise specific theories.

The other main resource is an interactive software tool called the Mobile Learning Activity Analyser, written in a combination of HTML5 and JavaScript, enabling it to run easily on both mobile devices and larger screens. This tool provides a more integrated and interactive way of thinking about the role of learning theory in mobile learning, and we see this as being more useful as part of an iterative design process. Feedback from the tool can be used to guide an evolving mobile learning activity design. These resources are supported by some multimedia materials that explain how the tools can be used.

We provide three examples of how these tools can be applied. There are two examples of applying the rubrics to existing mobile learning activities and one example of applying the mobile learning analyser to the evolving design of a new mobile learning activity. The first example of using the rubric is augmenting the real world with mobile technology, an analysis of the well-known Ambient Wood project, while the second applies the rubric to mobile language learning within a personal learning environment using the Busuu language app (an earlier version of this analysis appeared in MacCallum & Parsons, 2016). The final example describes the process of using the analyser tool to refine the initial design of a mobile learning activity.