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Smartphones and Learning Theories

Smartphones and Learning Theories

In 2018 the number of smartphone users in the United States is estimated at 224 million. With a U.S. population of about 325 million (2017), this means that unless you’re under 5 years old, chances are you own a smartphone! Mobile devices are everywhere – in schools, restaurants, corporations – we carry them everywhere we go and use them for pretty much everything we do.

We cook with them,
exercise with them,
write with them,
get our news through them,
get directions from them,
play games on them,
read books on them,
shop with them,
communicate with them in any number of ways (sometimes even as a telephone!),
and we learn with them.

The pedagogical benefits of smartphones as a tool for learning should at least be considered whenever solving for a learning solution. This is because mobile learning can be supported as an effective learning platform by the most popular learning paradigms around: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Just think about some of the situations below!


Just-in Time Learning:

When was the last time you were in a restaurant and looked up some strange ingredient in a dish you were interested in, wondering what it was before you ordered the dish? Or you were reading a book on your phone and looked up the definition of a word, an event that was mentioned, or a place you wanted to learn more about? Or maybe you’re shopping for a new TV in an electronics store and grab your phone to look up the reviews on a particular model. We already use our smartphones as Just-in Time Learning devices in lots of ways all the time! When designing a learning solution, ask yourself if information could be provided on a smartphone that could support your learners while they’re on-the-job or in a situation where the learning in a given environment or situation might relate to the content being delivered.

Reinforced Learning:

On a trip to Mexico last year I wanted to brush up on my Spanish before we went so I downloaded an app called Duolingo. The great thing about this language learning app is that it lets me know when I’ve missed something and gives me feedback so I don’t likely miss it again, and if I do really well I also get some exciting happy graphics and sometimes even a colorful badge! This is called Reinforced Learning, and its use is pervasive in many mobile apps these days. When used strategically, it helps a learner continue to be engaged in the learning rather than getting discouraged and quitting. It also helps us bring what we’ve learned into our long term memory rather than just quickly disappearing from our short term memory.

Self-Paced Learning:

When we find ourselves waiting for an appointment, sitting through commercials during our favorite TV show, or waiting for a friend in a restaurant, the first thing most of us do is pull out our smartphone to keep ourselves busy. Self-Paced learning is about allowing learners to direct their own learning, to access content when they want and where they want, and to proceed at their own pace for the amount of time they have available. Even just making your content available so learners can access it from their smartphone is a good start!


Cognitive Load Theory – Chunking:

One aspect described in Self-Paced Learning is in fact related to Cognitive Load Theory and the concept of Chunking. Mobile learning encourages instructors to break content up into manageable chunks of information. These smaller units are easier for the human brain to remember and to process. So, the flexibility of a smartphone to fill in the gaps of our free moments of time is supported by two learning theories at once. If you already make your content available so learners can access it on their smartphones, remember to chunk it for better brain processing.


Location-Based Learning:

The location-sensors (GPS) of smartphones have become more and more useful for us over the years. We no longer have to tell our devices in which city to look for something when we do a search; most

CodeRunner is a roleplay game where you’re a government agent on a mission using real world locations (using the GPS) and interacting with other players.

apps on our smartphones automatically relate our search to our location, just assuming this will be helpful for us. Maps (Google, iOS, etc.) are obvious apps that do this, and Waze is a popular app that helps us navigate away from road traffic, but there are apps that support our experience in other environments. For example, imagine you’re in a museum; an app might point out relevant information about a painting or give you the period’s history for the room you’re in. There are also hiking and nature apps that not only help us navigate but allow us to quickly find relevant information based on our location, from tree to bird identification, to even learning the local constellations at night! So, it’s important to stop and consider if the benefits of Location-Based Learning on a mobile device might support your learners and help you meet your learning goals.

Discovery Learning:

The last example of using a smartphone in a museum or along a hike can also be supported by Discovery Learning. This is where a learner is encouraged to discover facts and make connections for themselves. If you provide a learner with access to information relevant to their learning in a way that lets them explore the content in a non-linear fashion, they are then building and creating their own knowledge. Many believe this is in fact one of the best ways we learn.

Collaborative Learning:

One thing the Internet has certainly given modern society is a community of learning. When we purposefully leverage this ability, and encourage learners to learn together, to share ideas and connections and have conversations, we’re tapping into the theory of Collaborative Learning. As a designer I have experience to know intimately the benefits of collaborative learning, of allowing many individuals to bring their different perspectives and life experiences to the table, helping each other grow and expand their own ideals. Collaboration isn’t always easy, but the rewards are enormous for everyone. Smartphones and their constant connection over wireless makes them a ready means to foster collaboration in a learning situation.

The above learning theories are only a handful of those theories that can support a mobile learning experience. If we take time to consider how our smartphones are already being used by a given learning theory, we can probably begin to think creatively to identify ways we can give our learners more opportunities for learning on their smartphone.

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