Design Considerations for Integrating Mobile Technology into Informal Science Learning Environments

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


According to the 2014 U.S. Mobile App Report, 60% of digital media time in the U.S. takes place on mobile devices.  This represents an opportunity for the field of informal STEM education to reach children where they are already spending time.

Informal STEM learning settings are notable in that, unlike classrooms, which tend to have relatively homogenous physical elements like desks, chairs, black/whiteboards, they can have a wide variety of physical arrangements, content, and constraints. For example, the physical setting of a hands-on science museum may be very different from the physical setting of a natural science museum, which in turn may be very different from outdoor settings found in a zoo or park.

When designing educational applications for mobile devices, the designer should keep in mind that “the space the [learners] are engaged in during their [learning] activity includes the devices, but is not limited to the space within the screen” (Roschelle & Pea, 2002). A mobile design that might work within one type of informal STEM learning experiences may thus not work very well at all in another, if the “space beyond the screen” is notably different. For example, although mobile devices have been used as interactive guides in zoos (e.g., Hlavacs et al., 2006)(Ohashi, Ogawa, & Arisawa, 2008)(Stahl, 2007), at least one study found that in a hands-on science museum setting, visitors found mobile guides to be an inconvenience (Hsi, 2002), as operating the devices interfered with their ability to manipulate hands-on exhibits.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Mobile Technologies in Museums and Science Centers

Mobile devices offer a wide array of Input-Output (IO) modalities for interacting in physical settings (Jimenez & Lyons, 2011). Beyond the standard mobile guide approach of having users initiate the delivery of audio, video, or textual content via on-screen menus, mobile devices can be used to read QR codes (e.g., Ceipidor et al.,2009)(e.g., O’Hara et al., 2007), support computer-vision-initiated (e.g., Bruns et al, 2007(Wagner, Schmalstieg, & Billinghurst, 2006) or GPS-initiated (e.g.,Facer et al., 2004) Augmented Reality, or respond to location beacons (e.g., Klopfer et al., 2005) via technologies like wifi orBluetooth, among other context-sensitive IO options. Informal educational software designers are just beginning to explore these different mobile IO modalities, so the literature contains more proofs-of-concept than empirical research on learning gains. Nonetheless, these exemplars can be used to illustrate the different ways the physical context of informal learning settings can be kept in mind when designing for mobile learning (Raptis et al., 2005, for a review).

Many mobile guides make use of a lightweight form of situational relevance, delivering additional content to visitors when they are in a specific physical location, as in the Liberty Science Center’s Science Now, Science Everywhere project where visitors dial a special phone number when in front of an exhibit . To the extent that the informational delivery or interaction can be made integral to the location and the goals of the user, however, it can be argued that this location-sensitivity supports situated cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 2000). For example, the Mystery at the Museum game (e.g., Klopfer et al., 2005), which asks visitors to investigate an art theft by gathering virtual clues which accessible only when in specific rooms of the museum, is a variation of the common “treasure hunt” style of activity for which mobile devices are often used in informal learning settings (e.g., Ceipidor et al., 2009)(Yatani et al., 2004)(Yiannoutsou et al., 2009). Because the game has such a strong narrative and because the revealed clues are highly dependent on the actual physical setting, the visitors arguably engage in a deeper form of reasoning (and in turn, learning) than they might with a treasure hunt game that asks visitors to find a random assortment of items.

This continuity of activity across multiple locations is another affordance for learning that mobile devices can provide. For example, in traditional museum exhibit design, there is a tension between using physical layouts that lead visitors through a linear narrative, as this is a good approach for introducing and elaborating on more complex topics; versus providing an open-ended layout that allows visitors to pursue interest-driven explorations, but which as a consequence might lack narrative coherence (Lord & Lord, 2002). Mobile devices offer a potential resolution to this dilemma, by allowing visitors to pursue an interest-driven path though the physical space while providing information that dynamically ties together the exhibits visited (e.g., Abowd et al., 1997)(e.g.,Huang et al., 2007).

Another approach to context-dependent learning is the mobile quiz: perhaps best-suited to school groups, the mobile quiz asks learners to respond to questions that, while dependent on the current physical location, are part of a larger narrative or lesson (e.g.,Laine et al., 2011);(Suzuki et al., 2009). Other tools have been developed for school groups which ask the learners themselves to develop a narrative: Zydeco is a mobile-based inquiry learning tool which tasks school groups to explore museums in order to collect information (e.g., observations, photographs) to answer a driving question (Cahill et al., 2011).

Mobile Technologies to Complement Media Programs

Researchers at Rockman et al have conducted a series of studies of PBS Kids interactive games – for both STEM and other content areas – on multiple devices and in a range of settings. Two recent studies both draw on earlier findings and provide specific guidelines for educational STEM game design. The studies included an examination of whiteboard game use in schools (PBS Kids Transmedia Gaming, 2011) and iPod Touch game use in homes (PBS Kids iPod, 2010). Both studies revealed key elements that affected kids’ engagement and learning.

Basic features of quality and engaging game play include clear objectives and instructions, which should be verbal or spoken for younger children, finite game play, and simple navigation. Kids appreciate humorous elements, but they should be used judiciously. When humor is used as a reward for an incorrect response, it can encourage kids to deliberately get things wrong for a laugh. Touch devices like the whiteboard and the iPod can be particularly good for engaging kids 5 and under whose fine motor skills are not up to the challenge of manipulating a mouse. Both studies found that kids automatically attempt intuitive touch movements, such as drag-and-drop to move an object. This factor can become a challenge if the designers meant for them to tap the screen to move the object, instead. Finally, buttons placed at the top of a whiteboard screen may be out of reach for young children, depending on its placement.

Educational games need to find the balance between fun and challenge for their target users. Prompts and supportive feedback can encourage kids when a task is just out of their current skill level. This feedback can be built into the games, but it can also come from parents or teachers. Timely prompts can keep kids from becoming frustrated and losing interest and can help them reach the next skill level. With respect to classroom use and the whiteboard study, teachers want to have the flexibility to set difficulty levels based on their students’ abilities, and they would like to be able to pause and rewind games for review, to discuss and ask questions and to allow kids to catch up.

Games with multiple levels lead to sustained play and engagement both at home and at school. Parents in the iPod study indicated that their kids’ interest in the apps waned once they completed all tasks or levels. They wanted to be able to access additional content. Within the classroom, teachers found that changing scenery, characters and varied feedback extended student engagement, especially when games were used with the whole group. Elements of competition also increase engagement, whether they occur within the game (character opponent) or between students. Studies also reveal that it can be problematic when there is a mismatch among content, skill level and/or device. For example, one teacher in the whiteboard study pointed out this issue with Sid the Science Kid games:

“A participant with a child going into 2nd grade felt that the Sid the Science Kid games were sufficiently challenging, even though her child was beyond the target age-range for those games—she also felt that the Sid the Science Kid games, (especially those that required a good deal of eye-hand coordination), were too hard for her four-year-old child to play, even though that child was in the target age-group.”

Directions for Future Research 

How can mobile technologies be applied in other informal learning settings, such as afterschool programs, zoos and aquaria, libraries, community programs, and more?


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