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At a time when distance learning has become urgent, it is important to understand the educational effects of using mobile learning. From what is known to date, the application of psychological theories to the educational use of these devices contributes to promote learning efficiency. Based on the most recent research in this field, five of these contributions are systematised.

Learning with mobile devices generally refers to the use of personal electronic devices (including phones and tablets) for learning in multiple contexts and in interaction with the media, teachers, peers, experts, or the global community.1,2 This interaction can be conducted in person, or online, synchronously or asynchronously. Scientific research seeks to understand the role of mobile devices in the learning process and how human and context factors influence this process.1,3,4,5 At a time when it became urgent to ensure distance learning and learners do not always have a computer to study with, it is even more important to understand the effects of mobile learning, whose diversity and versatility can minimise the material constraints faced by some learners. 

Studies in this field have focused mainly on the analysis of individual experience in the use of technologies, focusing on aspects such as user satisfaction or the usability of tools. On the other hand, there has been little exploration of the cognitive and educational effects of the use of technologies, especially outside the classroom.7 In this sense, the knowledge accumulated by psychological theories of learning becomes even more important for an integrated approach to this issue, and allows the advancement of a set of proposals to enhance learning with mobile devices.1,2

How to promote learning with mobile devices? 

1) Ensure the knowledge and training of students to use technological resources 

Although the use of mobile devices by children and teenagers is increasingly widespread, it is dominated by playful and social purposes, to the detriment of educational purposes 9 In this regard, research points to the need to check pupils' capacity for the productive use of technological resources (applications, platforms, programmes), and the teacher should offer specific support to this end, whenever necessary.1 This is particularly important in view of the fact that any difficulties in using the tools themselves lead to cognitive overload (i.e. increased mental effort), which impairs learning.8

2) Clarify expectations and foster self-efficacy

Some studies highlight the need to gauge learners' expectations of learning with mobile devices, since, contrary to what is sometimes thought, students tend to prefer predominantly passive learning environments that refer to tasks of low involvement and autonomy. In contrast, learning under conditions of greater autonomy and cognitive effort is usually accompanied by a perception of insecurity. It is therefore important to provide students with initial information about the potential and expected effects of using mobile devices, and to check their perceptions over time. Measures such as these prevent the lowering of pupils' expectations of self-efficacy and the possible impairment of learning.6

3) Monitoring the quality of learning

The assessment of the effectiveness of learning through mobile devices cannot be restricted to monitoring behavioural aspects, such as completing tasks or staying online. This information is not a reliable indicator of learning as it does not guarantee cognitive involvement and investment in school tasks.5 Furthermore, research points to a trend of students' lack of knowledge of effective self-study strategies and inadequate use of proven effective strategies.10 Coupled with the novelty and scarcity of educational research on mobile devices, this methodology needs to be accompanied by objective measures to measure the quality and depth of learning.2,5 Exercises and strategies based on retrieval practice, which encourage students to retrieve and evaluate acquired knowledge, are an example of this. This process not only promotes academic achievement, but also informs the teacher about the effects and effectiveness of the instructional practices adopted.2,5

4) Promoting the use of effective learning strategies 

The quality of the learning process is significantly dependent on the type of cognitive strategies followed by students. In this sense, the design of learning activities and resources with mobile devices will benefit from the integration of strategies with proven effectiveness in promoting learning. As an example, a recent study4 with secondary school students, which tested the effects of an educational application to support English language learning, highlighted the benefits of incorporating retrieval practice in the design of learning tasks. It is a strategy in the field of Cognitive Psychology that is based on the consolidation of learning through the training of remembering the material learned, and which proves effective in multiple contents and levels of schooling.

Generative design is another cognitive strategy that can contribute to the acquisition and transfer of knowledge through the production of drawings from the reading of a text (narrative or scientific). The adoption of this strategy has proved useful in promoting the conceptualisation of abstract knowledge in subjects such as the natural sciences.11 In a recent study12 with 74 students in the 5th and 6th years of schooling, the principles of generative design were incorporated into the design of an application for learning mathematics with the support of mobile devices (in this case, tablets). The students were randomly divided between an experimental group (which learned with the support of the tablet application) and a control group (which learned with the support of handwritten exercises) for learning symmetries, angles, areas, and perimeters, and they were subsequently tested. The learning results were globally positive and did not show significant differences between the groups. What this and other studies indicate so far is that learning with mobile devices can complement or mimic some of the activities developed in the classroom, and that cognitive strategies of general application play a decisive role in educational outcomes.

5) Monitoring and promoting metacognitive skills

A final aspect which is key to the use of mobile devices concerns the role of metacognitive capabilities, and in particular the self-regulation of learning. The educational use of a device that serves multiple, often playful, purposes simultaneously brings additional challenges to those already posed by the use of the Internet. 

The risk of distraction and superficial analysis of information during the use of digital technologies is now recognised and problematised.1,4,13 For this reason, the use of mobile devices should be accompanied by the promotion of self-regulatory capacities. These can be supported by the functions and characteristics of the devices and applications themselves (which may include aids for behavioural and cognitive self-monitoring in relation to the task) and/or monitored and supported by teachers. In any case, it is possible to measure and promote adherence to individual educational objectives and permanence in learning tasks

Among other strategies, the following stand out:

  1. promoting the planning, organisation and monitoring of one's own learning (this may include making progress records, or identifying sources of distraction and behavioural strategies for responding to distractibility);
  2. socially shared regulation, which involves making learning objectives public and working together to achieve individual and group objectives (in the case of a group of colleagues or class); and
  3. monitoring and information (feedback) by the teacher regarding the quality of student interaction with online learning content and performance in proposed activities. 

All these processes of monitoring and informing the student (and the class) contribute to self-regulation in the sense that they enable personal progress to be assessed, gaps to be identified, individual patterns of action to be analysed and reflected upon, and strategies for successful learning to be decided upon in a supported manner.1,14

In summary, the available research is not yet sufficient to allow generalisations on the benefits, limitations and (dis)benefits of learning with mobile devices. Moreover, most research focuses on the use of these devices in the classroom or as a complement to it, and studies on the effects of this methodology on distance learning are even rarer.4,5,7,12 In this sense, the use of psychological theories and principles with proven educational validity is an essential complement to the use of mobile devices. This is because, regardless of the means, pedagogical effectiveness benefits from the implementation of strategies that foster self-regulation and learning efficiency.1,2,4,5



Main reference
1 Bernacki, M. L., Crompton, H., & Greene, J. A., «Towards convergence of mobile and psychological theories of learning», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 60, 2020.

Other references
2 Bernacki, M. L., Greene, J.A., & Crompton, H., «Mobile technology, learning, and achievement: Advances in understanding and measuring the role of mobile technology in education», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 60, 2020, 101827.

3 Cowen, P., & Butler, R., «Using activity theory to problematize the role of the teacher during mobile learning», SAGE Open, 2013, pp. 1–13.

4 Epp, C. D., & Phirangee, K., «Exploring mobile tool integration: Design activities carefully or students may not learn», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 59, 2019.

5 Mayer, R. E., «Where Is the Learning in Mobile Technologies for Learning?», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 2020, pp. 101824.

6 Deslauriers, L., McCarty, S., Miller, K., Callaghan, & Kestin, G., «Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom», Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 2019, pp. 19251–19257.

7 Crompton, H., Burke, D., Gregory, K. H., «The use of mobile learning in PK-12 education: A systematic review», Computers & Education, 110, 2017, pp. 51-63.

8 Chu, H. C., «Potential negative effects of mobile learning on students' learning achievement and cognitive load – A format assessment perspective», Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 17(1), 2014, pp. 332-344.

9 Chassiakos, Y. L. R., Radesky, J., Christakis, D., Moreno, M. A., & Cross, C., «Children and adolescents and digital media», Pediatrics, 138(5), 2016, e20162593.

10 Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., e McDaniel, M. A, «Five popular study strategies: their pitfalls and optimal implementations», Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(3), 2018, pp. 390-407.

11 Schmeck, A., Mayer, R. E., Opfermann, M., Pfeiffer, V. & Leutner, D., «Drawing pictures during learning from scientific text: testing the generative drawing effect and the prognostic drawing effect», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39 (4), 2014, pp. 275-286.

12 Fabian, K., & Topping, K. J., «Putting “mobile” into mathematics: Results of a randomised controlled trial», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 59, 2019, 101783.

13 Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., and Salmerón, L., «Don’t throw away your printed books: a meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension», Educational Research Review, 25, 2018, pp. 23-38.

14 Vanderhoven E., Schellens T., Valcke M., «Changing Unsafe Behaviour on Social Network Sites. Collaborative Learning vs. Individual Reflection», In: Walrave M., Ponnet K., Vanderhoven E., Haers J., Segaert B. (eds), Youth 2.0: Social Media and Adolescence, Springer, Cham, 2016, pp. 211-226.


Célia Oliveira

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