Mobile devices support the social context of learning

January 1st, 2016

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Findings from Research and Evaluation 

An early complaint about the use of mobile devices in informal settings was that the highly-engaging nature of interaction with mobiles led to a “heads-down effect” which could lead to visitors ignoring the physical (e.g.,  Walter, 1996) and social contexts (Exploratorium, 2005) of their informal learning experience. In several studies visitors reported feeling isolated from their companions while using mobile devices in informal learning settings (e.g., Bellotti et al., 2002; Hsi, 2003), but some of this may have been because the mobile applications were not explicitly designed to support learners within a social context.

It should be noted that the wireless communication capabilities of mobile devices allow us to extend the definition of the social context for learning beyond face-to-face interactions. The social context can include remote, asynchronous interactions, as when visitors “tag” items in a museum (e.g., Cosley et al., 2009), as well as remote, synchronous interactions, as when learners are made aware of their companions’ locations and activities elsewhere in the informal learning setting. This can happen via a variety of means, either by “listening in” to the audio guide experienced by their companions (e.g., Aoki et al., 2002), viewing their companions’ locations on a mobile map and/or talking to one another via headsets while playing a shared game (Laurillau & Paternò, 2004)(Schroyen et al., 2008)(Yatani et al., 2004).

It is unclear if these remote, synchronous interactions are superior or even equivalent to face-to-face interactions when supporting social learning processes, however – at least one museum-based game that called for companions to engage in parallel investigations found that some visitors preferred to stay together as a group, moving from place to place together (Klopfer et al., 2005). Rather than splitting groups of visitors up and predicating their mobile interactions on covering a range of physical locations, other design paradigms use mobiles to support face-to-face interactions around a shared physical location. When used as “opportunistic user interfaces,” mobile devices can “scale up” an interactive exhibit to support multiple simultaneous users, giving each learner individual access while the group’s actions are aggregated in a shared context like a large display (Dini, Paternò, & Santoro, 2007)(Lyons, 2009). When framed as a game, however, it is possible for a competitive dynamic to emerge that might discourage certain types of learners from participating (Lyons, 2009). One way to encourage more collaborative play is to assign special roles to players (e.g., Klopfer et al., 2005), so that the learners within a group depend on one another’s special abilities to complete tasks. Apart from facilitating game-like face-to-face interactions, mobile devices could be used to scaffold other types of social interactions, such as parent-child conversations (Hope et al., 2009); (Lyons, Becker, & Roberts, 2010), or companion discussions about a shared narrative (e.g.,Callaway et al., 2011).


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