December 17, 2017

The context of mobile learning


 We recently made a commitment internally to mobile learning at Praxis Language. I guess I'll be talking a lot about it in the future. Here are some thoughts for today.

One type of context

In the past, schools provided the physical context for most learning - the setting (or shell) that surrounded the learner (classrooms, teachers, textbooks.) Mobile learning, by contrast, lacks a unifying physical context. It can occur uninterrupted across times, locations, and settings: from office, to car, to meeting, to airport, for example.

An effective mobile learning system must, therefore, seek to create portable 'islands' of context for the learner. One way to do that is by embedding context in discrete, reusable, learning objects. You can see here some examples of situated, stand-alone lessons with an audio (circa 12 mins) text, and reinforcement. The content is embedded in the target language and augmented through sound effects, and other elements to give it a sense of concreteness.

The modularity of the learning objects means they can be selected at will, according to individual preference from a very sizable online database - over 1,000 lesson in the case of ChinesePod. I think it is notable that the user can group individual learning objects into sets (of whatever lengths she chooses) on the basis of vocabulary, topics, or other things. In this sense, the learner can create the broader context (travel, business, culture, grammar, etc) for herself, based on her true reasons for study.

A second type of context 

There is a second type of context in mobile learning. This lies, not in the physical surroundings, but in the intangible ones: the relationships, and social ties that emerge through learner interaction. Unlike the learning objects, this type of context cannot be pre-planned. Instead, it follows from discussion within the community of practice. Again, the learner should be free to choose where and when to engage in discussion within the community.


Choice is the lifeblood of a mobile learning system. The learning needs to happen wherever and whenever the learner has the time and inclination. Those islands of context, the learning objects, need to be designed for choice, but also for the environment in which they are consumed. A broad selection of short lessons is, therefore, almost certainly more manageable and appealing than, say, a pre-programmed, linear course of 65 hours. (Why would anyone do a course by mobile means, when there are more convenient ways?) Because of the desultory nature of physical movement, the mobile learner needs choice and flexibility.

The most successful learning happens when the learner is on control of her own learning projects. Mobile learning success isn't just a matter of just choosing the lessons. It invovles the learner creating the broader context of her own learning and moulding the system around her own needs. This is the idea behind the PLS and this is what infroms our notions of mobile learning going forward.

 Ken Carroll

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  1. Michael says:


    My brain almost rusted shut without your posts to lubricate things. Thanks for two posts in quick succession.

    I think the choice of how to use mobile devices to learn will to some extent be based on our social styles especially when you are seeking to prepare people linguistically to face social situations (there is more than one way to analyze social styles but I use the Analytical-Driver-Amiable-Expressive framework).

    In terms of learning, Analyticals, for example, tend to need framework and preparation. In other words a mobile lesson would be something useful in preparing them for an experience rather than something they would use during the experience itself.

    It seems at times that you are suggesting that mobile content will be consumed in the context of a near real-time experience. I am sure that will be true for some but, for others, mobile learning will still be just another way to prepare for a future experience.

    If such is the case then for THESE KIND OF PEOPLE mobile learning will share more in common with location constrained learning (schools, homes) than it will be different.

    Do you know of any research that talks about mobile learning in terms of social styles especially insofar as social styles can be correlated with our need for advance, task preparation?

    This might appeal to all styles but I think analyticals might gravitate to this kind of format:

    Five days preparation:
    Lesson: Here is what you might hear in your setting.

    One day preparation:
    Lesson: Here is what you might want to say.

    10 minute preparation:
    Lesson: Review these phrases

    In looking through this it occurs to me that timing is a key factor. Am I barking up the wrong tree on this?

  2. Ken Carroll says:


    I think you’re actually barking up a very fruitful tree. Learning isn’t always done in preparation for a specific activity. However, if it is done for some meaningful activity, it is going to stick better than learning to no apparent purpose, and certainly better than learning only because you have to take a test. It’s also more rewarding.

    Clearly, too, plugging memory over the right time sequences will make retention much more effective. We spend a lot of time working this through the podcast lessons – how many repetitions per 10 min block? This is also relevant for longer time periods.

    I don’t think that most mobile learning will not be done in near real time. There are different types of learning activities – some are purely practical while others have broader educational objectives – a sense of personal development, or enlightenment, whatever. As long as the activity is meaningful to the learner on one level or the other, I think that even learning something well in advance of using it can be rewarding and useful.


  3. standuke says:


    I’m fascinated by ChinesePod not only as a user/customer but also in terms of thinking about the educational possibilities in other fields. For instance, there is a lot of language acquisition in science, and I think there could be much to be gained from providing students the opportunity to listen to how people ‘really’ talk about science, as opposed to limiting their exposure to only classroom/textbook science.

    In science as well as in conversational language there are some prerequisites that make natural markers for context. As I see it these prerequisites provide context above and beyond ‘learning objects’ (lessons) and social context. For instance in Chinese a learner needs to learn tones (first, I would say) and characters (later, probably, but not too much later). From what I see, if anything is missing from the ChinesePod experience it is these (pre)requisite learning markers—perhaps a deliberate omission to avoid imposing a ‘linear paradigm’ on the students? I only have the ‘basic’ subscription so I may be missing something…

    I think learners, especially newbies, could be provided this type of context in the form of ‘case studies’ describing the experiences of various types of learners/users. ‘Here’s what so-and-so did, here’s how long it took, here’s what his/her motivations were, etc. etc.’

    Another contextual cue could be provided by creating a ‘canon’ of grammar points and key vocabulary that are likely to be repeated each three months/year/whatever… Again, even as students are free to explore it might be helpful to provide them with a sort of syllabus (for the rest of us??) that helps them organize and prioritize lessons.

  4. Carroll Ken says:


    Excellent observations, as usual. I agree that something like our aporoach could work for pretty much any subject. If learning is a conversation, and i think it is, then having access to practitioners doing (modelling, demonstrating) the object of study and actually talking about that is good. (Joinin in the discussion then, is even better.) Stephen Downes gave an example recently of a physicist doing physics and sharing his throughts as he does experiments, as better than just having kids reading from dull, lifeless textbooks in the abstract.

    I think you also have tremendous ideas here in terms of case studies and even the dreaded ‘canon’. If that’s what people want, then perhaps we should give it to them.

    Please keep those ideas coming!


  5. Charlie says:


    I agree that any person who is in control and already has the initial motivation necessary will learn efficiently, whether that’s through mobile means or not.

    However, I have a feeling the average person isn’t that motivated, and given that choice is certainly something the average consumer has these days, learning via mobile phone or anything else that’s gone mobile these days (everything), is going to appeal to only the most driven and efficient professionals out there.

    It may seem like a natural progression, but I think it’s still a few years off from being a comfortable learning environment for the average person. Hopefully I’m wrong, for your company’s sake anyway.

  6. Michael says:


    I would have to disagree. I think that mobile learning will tend to help people who are less organized and less able to plan their time. If I can study at my convenience all I need to do is insure that I have some free time everyday. I don’t, in the case of computers, need to be at a fixed place every day. The need to plan your study drops to the lowest denominator- do I, regardless of where I am, have some free time every day.

    No longer will students be able to complain they don’t have time. Mobile learning renders obsolete the “I don’t have time argument” for not studying.

    Following this line of reasoning I would love to create a course of study along the lines of– “5 minutes on the loo every day and you can learn Chinese in 5 years using our personalized program. Praxis stands for Mobile Learning in the moments when it is possible to do more than one thing well.”

    Notice that, as an American, I have chosen to use the rather more delicate British English version of you-know-what.

  7. Charlie says:

    I did indeed notice, sell out. 😉

    Call my cynical, but regardless of how convenient it becomes, there will always be excuses. However, for the driven few, it’ll the perfect opportunity to learn when they would normally feel they didn’t have the time or ability.

  8. auntie68 says:

    Hi Ken. I know that my dogged requests for “grammar” over at CPOD have probably made me very unpopular with your team, but the fine discussion here on the “dreaded canon” has given me some ideas for framing my arguments in a better way.
    So may I please have your ear on this again?
    I think that the dreaded “canon” doesn’t necessarily have to be dreaded. It’s probably wrong to assume that somebody who prefers a bit more structure is pedantic or dogmatic.
    I think that if you could include very simple “grammar notes” in the pdf for every lesson, just enough for users to confirm what they thought they heard Jenny say, a lot of your users would suddenly find an extra gear in their “mental stick shift”. The kind of gear that would be really nice to have when you are on a good highway, in a powerful car, with no traffic cops in sight.
    You do have a Grammar Guide, but the benefit to linking grammar to specific lessons is that it keeps the dreaded canon linked to the context in which it was learned.
    To me, that seems more intuitive, somehow. The beauty of “grammar notes” is that your team doesn’t have to labour over writing a definitive or encyclopaedic explanation. Because they only have to write enough to make sure the point is understood, and make it stick. Henning’s “intermediate grammar notes” are simply superb in this regard, even though they’re so succinct.
    And sometimes, a slightly deeper explanation, which can’t fit into the podcast itself, will make it easier for the student to absorb and internalize the point being taught. And for Praxis’ Indo-European languages, being able to see a conjugation table (or parts thereof) is sometimes the quickest way to see a pattern and reach that “Ahh!!!” moment.
    Looking at your users’ posts over at CPOD, FPOD and IPOD, I get the sense that totally non-linear language learning poses a particular challenge. I’d describe this challenge as “not knowing what you don’t know”.
    So unless your teachers are in the Comments threads all day long (like changye and me or michele,) as the students experiment, this very important “output” side of learning can become dysfunctional.
    I guess the question is whether it is good to depend too much on very intelligent and motivated learners (like “kylep” or “light487” or “calkins”) to ask the right questions so that important grammar points can be ventilated.
    Speaking only for myself, with a good linear method I can get a sense of achievement and progress as the blank spaces in my knowledge are filled up. There is also a sense of calm rhythm, included in some people’s “terms” of language learning, which comes from knowing that some transient difficulty is probably due to one being (temporarily) in a “blank space”, rather than due to any deficiencies in language-learning ability.

    Another way to make the dreaded “canon” less dreaded, is to consider covering some of the more difficult grammar points in a serialized form. That is, over a few lessons which are meant to be studied as a series. At the moment, your CPOD series are hugely popular, but they are only linked by the storyline and characters. I think that a “Conquer 是 。。。的”series with Zhangliang and Lili”series might be popular…
    One very useful feature of linear learning, which is difficult to harness in a totally non-linear system is: Spiral learning. I am one of those users following the CPOD lessons as they come out , and past lessons in order of publication, and I am happy to detect quite a lot of “spiral learning” being worked into the more recent lessons by your wonderful team. Thanks so much for that!
    Ken, thank you for putting up with this super-long post. I’m sorry to hijack your thread in this way, and thank you sincerely for this “air-time”.

  9. standuke says:

    Thanks to auntie68 for fleshing out this topic of imposing structure on non-linear learning. Believe it or not I think this issue also has significance in the realm of motivation for less-dedicated students. I’m sure many students appreciate the beauty of non-linear exploring and learning, but they still need to think in terms of academic credits. ChinesePod could significantly enhance it’s value proposition for those students if it were to link CPod lessons to grammar points/vocabulary found in a standard Chinese course syllabus. And, as Auntie68 and I pointed out, there are some of us using ChinesePod now who want/need some extra structure just because that’s what we want. I never thought to complain about it because it is so easy to buy a textbook and ‘follow along’ while utilizing the ChinesePod resources. However, if ChinesePod published it’s own 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th ‘semester’ vocabulary lists or developed a more comprehensive online grammar resource I’m sure it would benefit many students taking (or trying to pass out of) university courses.

    Really, at the rate ChinesePod is generating lessons it seems like the next logical step is to become a place for ambitious high school/college students to go to prep for, or pass out of (expensive) introductory language courses at the university level. I have the feeling ChinesePod is close to being able to lay claim to being ‘better than college’, but it would help if students were provided with an academic framework to allow them to apply what they learn to accumulating college credits. College credits are, after all, the elephant in the room when one talks about ‘context’ and learning (mobile or otherwise). It might make be necessary to create a separate ‘channel’ or ‘group’ for grade-grubbers so the current look and feel of ChinesePod isn’t degraded by ‘linear’ people who are just thinking in terms of ‘how do I pass the next test?’, but it still would make sense to make a place for them.

  10. auntie68 says:

    Standuke, thanks.

    Ken, I’ve been looking at the architecture of the CPOD site since my post, and I wish to propose a simple fix for the “not knowing what you don’t know”-aspect of non-linear learning:

    I’ve noticed that the titles of the QingWens — as well as the lessons themselves, of course — are packed with excellent information about key features of Chinese grammar and syntax.

    Do you see some value in providing a very simple list of all the QW titles somewhere? Just the titles, all in one page. Really, the simplest kind of menu. At the moment, a user would have to click through six pages merely to see what the QWs have covered.

    It is very likely that all of the students described by standuke above, who are studying Chinese for school credit, are dealing with exactly the kinds of issues addressed by your QW. Ken, I’m willing to bet that all they need to see is a complete list of the QW titles, in order to be hooked. Thanks!

  11. Michael says:


    All it would take is for just ONE American college to give credit for a package of Chinesepod lessons with the requisite testing to convince a whole slew of other colleges to eventually jump on board, especially if a Uni. could make some money by affixing their stamp of approval to the package.

    Sure there one be a need for some “linear” follow through, but that would be easy to piece together. The people at C-POD have been working with a “deep” syllabus for some time now.

    For me the interesting question isn’t how but why. The “how” of piecing together and publishing a college course can’t be a high barrier at this point.

    I feel one interesting question with classroom teaching is does C-Pod do strong blended learning or stick chiefly with on-line transmission? If strong blended learning is offered, is the course material provided to outside teachers or do they keep it all in-house?

    I see some real I.P. management issues here and the brilliant thing about the present model is that they can thrive using an open source, massive content model. Go linear and you diminish the need for a huge database of content.

    This leads me to wonder, are open source models incompatible with linear, fixed approaches?

  12. auntie68 says:

    Hello Michael. I am optimistic that “open source models” don’t have to be incompatible with linear, fixed approaches.

    For example, surely it is possible to have a modular kind of linear learning, where some modules do not consist of a single podcast or lesson, but are actually modules made up of a handful of serialized lessons which build upon each other in a useful, fun and intelligent way.

    I like solutions which are simple and intuitive! And to be honest, I don’t think it would be a bad thing if the huge database of content were to be — lovingly and gently –given some new street signs here and there.

    In theory, having nearly 300 Newbie lessons to choose from sounds perfect for learning “on your terms”. But how easy or intuitive is it to make a truly individual and self-directed selection from the menu, when you’d have to click through dozens of pages simply to know what’s on the menu? Especially if the user may not be that familiar with the subject he is trying to study. I guess that is the IP challenge… but it’s also about understanding human intuition.

    The Glossary helps, but it is like expecting a diner in the restaurant to tell the waiter what he wants. I like the kind of restaurant where the menu is written so well that the diner is severely tempted by many things but can tell what he or she will like, without being too overwhelmed. Thanks again for the air-time.

  13. Michael says:

    Auntie Sue,

    It isn’t that “they” can’t do it. They can.

    It isn’t that they have completely ignored demorganization because they haven’t. Structure is embedded quite deep in the form of control on complexity.

    Certainly there is a concern that when you authorize a set linear path you might end up subtly devaluing the shows that aren’t along the path.

    But more to the point, once a set path is established you lose a lot of flexibility to the system you create. Having flexibility making it possible to innovate.

    And with a plan you attract all sorts of criticism. Right now C-pod is bullet proof. They can be all things to all people.

    Very clever! Why upset the apple cart with a clear path?

    But you are right, at some point in the future they will need to create some paths.

    Why? Because knowledgable people will demand and that they make the best use of their study time. Language is not completely chaotic. It has order and there are slower and faster ways through the order. In the end, in the name of efficiency, I suspect some paths will appear.

  14. John says:


    We’re very much aware of the concerns you raise and the possible ways to solve the problems created for some users by a lack of formal structure. This isn’t an issue we plan to ignore forever (nor can we afford to). In fact, we’re already working on the solution.

    As Standuke says, when you’re modular, you can always overlay structure, but you can’t go the other way. So we have certainly not backed ourselves into a corner or anything like that.

    The plan, which was initiated approximately 2 years ago, is to link every lesson to discrete grammar points in the grammar guide. Once we complete this, we will have an immensely powerful relational database covering our lesson content and grammar points. That will allow us to do all kinds of very interesting things (and grammar points in PDFs are among the simplest).

    Our biggest problem is that we’ve been slow to realize this vision, but we have definitely not given up, nor have we lost the opportunity to do it.

  15. auntie68 says:

    Thanks John. I don’t have any doubts that you guys have been on it, or that you will be able to swing it.

    My last word here on this subject (I promise!) is that I hope that any structure which you may overlay eventually will be nicely flexible and fluid and intuitive (even fuzzy), which reflects so much of what users love about CPOD/ Praxis. Thank you so much…

  16. Michael says:

    Ah, John what you describe is a grammar-based syllabus.

    Did you consider a lexically organized syllabus or a mix of the two?

    Do you intend to publish a syllabus after you finish?


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