Skip to content Skip to navigation

Mobile Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 


The article below looks at experiments underway in the Stanford

Learning Laboratory to investigate the potential of portable

electronic devices to increase learning efficiency and effectiveness.


[] a Stanford University

Publication edited by Eleanor Brown [].

See further information at the end of this posting.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Good Practice in Tenure Evaluation

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


------------------ 1,235 words ------------------


Speaking of Computers

Issue 55--January 8, 2001

by the Board of Trustees

of the Leland Stanford Junior University


Cell phones, Palm Pilots, wireless Web - they help us check email,

trade stocks and stay in touch - but can they help us learn? Can we,

should we, try to fill

in gaps of daily time with learning opportunities?

Last summer, the Stanford Learning Lab (SLL) developed a few rough

prototypes for mobile learning. The SLL staff chose foreign language

study as the

content area, hypothesizing that mobile devices could help provide

sorely needed opportunities for review, listening and speaking

practice in a safe,

authentic, personalized and on-demand environment.

The prototypes developed let users practice new words, take a quiz,

access word and phrase translations, work with a live coach, and save

vocabulary to a notebook - all in an integrated voice/data

environment. The intent this summer was not yet to support an actual

Stanford course, but instead to begin exploring recent technologies

and fundamental human cognitive challenges involved i learning


The SLL's vision was to fill in gaps of time -- to create a bubble of

learning that you carry with you, but may only access for periods of

30 seconds or 10 minutes at a time. Being mobile correlates with

highly fragmented attention, and the challenge was to better

understand what kind of learning can happen in those fragmented

pieces of time.

Three User Modes and Technology Tests

SLL staff conducted three discrete technology explorations and

informal tests on several language learners of varying skill, with

the following general results:

Text Quiz: vocabulary quizzes over mobile phone-based wireless Web.

Pros - convenient small question chunks to test knowledge during

opportunistic bits of time.

Cons - small screen is difficult to focus on while outdoors; small bits of

text do not provide an immersive enough experience for learning new


Live Coach: live-voice coaching sessions over mobile telephones.

Pros - speaking with an expert is ideal for language practice.

Cons - comprehension can be difficult over the phone; time with real-live

coaches is difficult to scale.

Interactive Audio: automated voice-controlled vocabulary and quiz

sessions over mobile telephones

Pros - audio experience can coincide with other activities (driving,

walking, waiting, etc.) instead of replacing those activities; automated

system offers potential for scalable, personalized, database driven

listening and speaking practice.

Cons - voice recognition technology, flaky and expensive mobile phone

connections, and audio interface design complexities are just some of the

potentially show-stopping technology challenges.

Automated Audio: General Responses and Guidelines for Design

While initial test results were mixed, SLL continues to be intrigued

by the potential for interactive audio to provide a scalable, rich,

and flexible language learning environment. A summary of their user

test findings and suggestions for future development follows.

Mobile Learning is a Highly Fragmented Experience:

Learning can be hard work. It requires concentration and reflection.

However, being on-the-go (driving, riding a train, sitting in a cafe,

walking down the

street) is fraught with distractions. Users are in situations that

place intermittent, unpredictable, yet critically important demands

on their attention. Where does this leave the mobile learner? With a

highly distracted, highly fragmented experience. The learning

application must be designed with this in mind.

Probably the most dangerous distracted and fragmented experience is

learning while driving. Here are some typical responses from our test

users about

using the Spanish voice application while driving:

Review (vs. introduce) concepts: "Let me practice things I'm familiar

with instead of forcing my brain to digest brand new things."

Familiar and forgiving interactivity: "Because my attention is

divided, I can't pay attention to complicated instructions about how

particular exercises

work. Stick with simple and familiar interaction modes like quizzes

and make transitions between interaction modes obvious."

Minimize interactivity: "I don't want to feel pressured by the system

to interact. I want to feel free to fade out if I need to and then

re-engage where

I left off - that's why language tapes are good."

Modular learning chunks: "I may have 30 seconds, 10 minutes, or a

mystery piece of time from now until my next big distraction. Give me

discrete chunks to work with so I can feel accomplished no matter how

long I have."

Personalized interaction: "Let me personalize the experience to my

learning styles, my state of mind, my point in the learning process,

my degree of

distraction. Let me specify things like whether I want a quiz or a

lecture, instruction or immersion practice, audio only or audio

combined with text

on my PDA."

Learning is a Personal and Emotional Process:

Feeling shy about speaking your new foreign language, even with your

teacher? Afraid you'll accidentally insult someone, or that they'll

laugh at you?

Learning is a sensitive process and language learning especially

requires opportunities to practice in an emotionally safe and

supportive environment.

The SLL's current interface is friendly, congratulates you when you

get something right, and encourages you to try again when you don't.

In a previous

version they experimented with an interface driven by a sassy,

demanding 12 year old. Responses from their test users were mixed.

Some felt challenged

and more engaged while others felt pressured and insulted. Based on

these responses, the SLL decided to find something more neutral, or

give users a

choice of feedback personality types.

User Frustration Wrecks Trust and Decreases Learning:

Poor cellular connections and environmental noises can cause

imperfect voice recognition and therefore failed menu navigation and

incorrect responses to

learning interactions (such as quizzes). User observations indicate

that repeated voice recognition misunderstandings impact users in

interesting ways: on the

surface, frustration and a reluctance to continue the lesson; on a

perhaps less conscious level, a perception of the system as stupid or

uncaring and therefore

not an effective, trustful way to learn.

Also, not all misunderstandings are created equal. Users were more

forgiving when the system made an incorrect response to their

attempted Spanish than

when it made an incorrect response to a simple navigation command like "back".

Did It Work?

This first attempt at supporting language learning over mobile phones

was not perfect. While voice interface design and creating studio

quality audio are not

easy, these can be remedied with a more professional development

process and budget than SLL had available last summer. What about the


fundamental question of learning over the phone and in a mobile

environment? Is the technology far enough along? Can a threshold of

usability be

reached, even though it's not perfect? Yes, and no.

With care and attention some parts of the learning process can be

supported. SLL's testing showed that simply having access to the

application anytime,

anywhere increased daily attention to learning Spanish and boosted

motivation. However, highly fragmented attention and bleeding edge

technology can

result in an environment too frustrating for learning. The Learning

Lab's advice is to keep it simple. Focus on those parts of the

learning process most

suited to audio, most suited to small chunks of time, and most suited

to a highly distractable learner. Allow learners to personalize their

experience - from

personality to interaction mode - to match their own learning styles

and situational needs.

What's Next?

Much work is still to be done in defining paradigms for effective

learning in a mobile environment. Many thinks to the extended

Learning Lab team for

their inspired contributions in getting this far. If you'd like more

information on this project, please contact Melissa Regan, Assistant

Director for Global

Learning Partnerships at the Stanford Learning Lab at

---------------------------------------------------------------------- -----

Published quarterly by the Academic Computing group of Stanford

University Libraries and Academic Information Resources (SUL/AIR). To


send email to

? 2001 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior

University. Articles may be re-printed if the publication is

acknowledged. No right is granted to quote from or use any

material herein for purposes of promoting any product or service.