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Mobile Learning in Distributed Universities: Themes emerging from a recent Festival of Creative Learning event and the case for mobile

By Michael Gallagher and James Lamb, Centre for Research in Digital Education, Moray House School of Education

Mobile learning flowers

James Lamb and I, both of the Centre for Research in Digital Education at Moray House, ran a Festival of Creative Learning workshop in February 2018. This exercise had two purposes: to make the case for mobile learning as pedagogy while at the same time raising questions about the way we conceptualise ‘campus’ and ‘university’ within increasingly digital learning environments. We wanted to do both of these with members of the University of Edinburgh community (students, teachers, learning technologists, researchers) wherever they might be: at the office, on one of the University campuses, or at their homes. Through our mobile devices, we discussed, collected data, responded to our environments and each other, and had a mobile discussion around the future of the university.

Mobile technology and Inclusion

Many universities are designing large segments of the world’s population out of higher education largely through their use of information and communication technology (ICT): Africa, which has mobile penetration of 82% and internet penetration of only 34%; Asia-Pacific with mobile penetration at near 100% and internet penetration at 48% (We Are Social, 2018). Computer home ownership is rare throughout most of the world; broadband connectivity even less so. Mobile is and will remain the ICT of first, and in some cases only, use.

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Well-provisioned universities default to broadband and desktop/laptop friendly learning management systems (LMS) like Learn or Moodle; to videos that are particularly resource consuming, and we default to these largely out of legacy and convenience. However, with more and more universities expanding their digital education provisions and with more and more boundaries between campuses, between domestic and international cohorts being blurred, perhaps it is time to take a critical look at the ICT of greatest penetration world wide and consider what part of our teaching and learning cannot be represented in mobile technology? What parts of teacher training, of dialogue and discourse, of academic research and writing cannot at least be supported through mobile technology? Not as much as one might think.

Towards that end, the event drew largely from previous research with teachers in Helsinki exploring field practices in urban centres through mobile technology (Gallagher & Ihanainen 2016) and as a means of approaching open learning through aesthetic literacy, defined as as a means of making meaning in open spaces through alignment and attunement (Gallagher and Ihanainen 2015).  Further research in London explored walking ethnographies (Lamb, Gallagher and Knox 2018) and we drew methodologically from multimodal approaches to exploring place at the University of Edinburgh (Bayne, Gallagher and Lamb 2014).

As with a previous mLearning event in Bremen, we used the mobile messaging application Telegram. Just as in Bremen, this choice was largely predicated on an attempt to establish some security and some sense of privacy (a point explored in past research in Gallagher 2017). We used Telegram as the activity space, and livestreamed James and I from 50 George Square using a mobile phone directly to YouTube Live, then embedded that livestream link into Telegram. The only cost accrued was the promotional material for the event itself.

The group could see and hear us discussing their responses and media. We executed a learning design that was scripted; participants engaged in that learning design, and then instructional time was spent openly discussing the learning itself as it was unfolding. It presented one unified, if at times chaotic, feedback loop.

Themes emerging from the event

These themes emerged from the activity and not from a rigorous review of the data generated therein; all of them have some potential use for teachers, particularly those looking to engage with ICT more in their teaching.

  • mobile learning image1Bounded and boundless places exist: through mobile pedagogy the classroom can simultaneously encompass a walk through the snow, a commuter journey, a view across the hills and a window onto the street: we are not bound to desks or enclosed between walls
  • Learning and teaching is performative: within increasingly networked learning environments the university is differently performed across a range of spaces and contexts
  • Scale and activity need to be managed: we kept the group open in terms of the number of participants and it peaked at 24. If this were a distributed field activity, for example, this would matter less as the group becomes more an inventory of data collected and then discussion around the data is minimal in the field itself. If this were a study group, it still works as the overall discussion can be referenced asynchronously. As a synchronous discussion-oriented event (perhaps something to complement a formal curriculum), based on our experience this would need to be managed.
  • Scale and activity can be managed: It is indeed possible to run multiple, largely identical, simultaneous learning events across several groups (the groups speak to each other and not the larger group; they are largely unaware that there are other groups at all) using some SMS gateway like TextIt. A teacher could divide the participants into groups and have the instructor feed into these groups individually. Feedback is group driven and groups are small enough that this feedback can be meaningfully engaged with.
  • Accessible multimodal learning: the combination of smartphone and a messaging service list Telegram provides imaginative and effective ways of connecting learners and supporting richly multimodal dialogue
  • Context collapses: this is a pronounced issue with mobile and social media, but it needn’t be a negative one. Communities are intertwined in these mobile spaces where the only distinctions between them are navigational (the app logo and the name of the thread on the messaging service, for example). Within this Telegram group, worlds collided and contexts collapsed. We were reminded of Davis & Jurgensen’s (2014) ideas around context collusion, an intentional collapsing of contexts, and context collision: an unintentional collapsing of contexts. Some of this was collusion and some were collisions; both impact the learning.

This activity represented an accessible method for teaching with ICT, particularly an ICT that is far less exclusionary than desktop based technology. There are variables to manage, contexts to identify, and appropriate assessment and feedback methods to consider but ultimately it presents an engaging method for teaching with ICT across a range of disciplines.


Bayne, S.; Gallagher, M.S. & Lamb, J. (2014). Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education,67(5), 569-583. Retrieved from

Davis, J. L., & Jurgenson, N. (2014). Context collapse: theorizing context collusions and collisions. Information, Communication & Society17(4), 476-485.

Gallagher, M. S. (2017). Mobile learning in an age of surveillance: the urban subversive as pedagogical position. Continuum, 31(2): 177-188.

Gallagher, M. & Ihanainen, P. (2016). Field Activity and the Pedagogy of Simultaneity to Support Mobile Learning in the Open. In Research, Boundaries and Policy in Networked Learning. S. Bayne, M. de Laat, T. Ryberg, & C. Sinclair (Eds.). New York: Springer.

Gallagher, M. & Ihanainen, P. (2015). Aesthetic literacy: observable phenomena and pedagogical applications for (mobile) lifelong learning. European Journal of Open, Distance, and E-Learning, 2014(1).

Lamb, J.; Gallagher, M.; & Knox, J. (2018 forthcoming). On an excursion through EC1: multimodality, ethnography and urban walking. Qualitative Research.

We are Social (2018). Global Digital Report 2018. Available at:


Dr Michael Gallagher is a member of the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to mobile for development (M4D). His research focus is on mobility, mobile learning, and digital education to support teaching and learning in the humanities in higher education, particularly in the Asia Pacific and sub-Saharan African regions.

Get in touch withDr Michael Gallagher at

James Lamb is an ESRC-funded PhD student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. His PhD is investigating how assessment practice in the Humanities is affected by the pedagogic and societal shift towards the digital. He is interested in the changing nature of authorship within digital contexts, alongside the possibilities of digital multimodal assessment in courses and programmes that have tended to depend on the authority of language. He teaches on the Education and Digital Cultures and Assessment, Learning Digital Education courses, both within the MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a co-author of the Manifesto for Teaching Online.