Week 3: How important is “context” in terms of learning, specifically mobile learning?

First, it’s probably best to start with an understanding of the meaning of context when it comes to learning.


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Bransford et al (2006) looked at links among implicit learning and the brain, informal learning, and formal learning and their impact on effective learning (p. 210, and Figure 10.1 here). During this process, a key critical factor emerged, and that’s context. The authors indicated that there are two types of contexts: (1) setting-based, and (2) activities-based in the form of participation and type of interaction (p. 219).


The impact of context in terms of setting was displayed in the case of Leon where the place “can have decisive impact on the kinds of performance displayed by research subjects to research scientists” (p. 218). Leon displayed “striking difference” in his responses to questions when the context (conversational scene) was at school and at his room at home.


The impact of context in terms of activities was displayed in the case of how adults in everyday situations used mathematics (Jean Lave, The Adult Math Project). Bransford et al (2006) indicated however that “it remains an open question to ask in what ways school-based learning substantively transfers to non-school life in both occupational and every day contexts” (p. 216).


Much of the cases above were based on how context would influence formal and informal learning and how they would impact each other. The conclusion from these studies showed that formal and informal learning depended on “forms of knowledge and practice under consideration and depending on the research participants” (p. 219).


Researches see that focus on context “as a theoretical construct” has merged the learning that’s happening in formal- and in informal-based environments and that they work in continuum to support learning. This supports the figure 10.1 shown earlier. (For the purposes of this blog, I’m not discussing implicit learning, but suffice to say that research has proven that it has educational impact as in language learning and learning about people that play an “important role across the life span, starting very early in life”, Bransford et al (2006), p. 211.)


So what then defines learning when informal and formal settings are less distinct? Bransford et al (2006) indicated research done by Stevens, 2000a, 2000b where I believe it laid down an important definition of learning in context in different environments: “[i]f we set aside the firm distinction between ‘informal’ and ‘formal,’ the foundational issue becomes the structuring properties of contexts for learning and development…[and how it] points to … how people learn and develop as they make transitions across contexts” (p. 221).


So how does this knowledge or theory transfer to mobile learning?


Sharples, M., Arnedillo-Sanchez, I., Milrad, M., & Vavoula, G. (2009) looked at mobile learning as “the processes of coming to know through conversations across multiple contexts amongst people and personal interactive technologies… and how portable and ubiquitous technologies can support effective conversations for learning” (p. 233). Again here, in terms of learning, context takes on a key important role, even beyond technology itself. The authors reinforced the idea that learning is a continuous and cumulative process involving connections amongst a variety of learning experiences across formal and informal learning contexts. Mobile learning definitely supports learning where contexts flow “across locations, time, topics and technologies” (p. 235).


Sharples, M., Arnedillo-Sanchez, I., Milrad, M., & Vavoula, G. (2009) reiterated further that “[c]ontext is a central construct of mobile learning. It is continually created by people in interaction with other people, with their surroundings and with everyday tools. Traditional classroom learning is founded on a illusion of stability of context, by setting up a fixed location with common resources, a single teacher, and an agreed curriculum which allows a semblance of common ground to be maintained from day to day. But if these are removed, a fundamental challenge is how to form islands of temporarily stable context to enable meaning making from the flow of everyday activity” (p. 236). In this kind of environment, mobile learning which is characterized by mobility in physical, conceptual and social space, technology, and dispersed over time (p. 235) will provide the opportunity for a rich and effective learning experience.


Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 2.03.36 PMIn conclusion, research compiled and articulated by Bransford et al (2006) and Sharples, M., Arnedillo-Sanchez, I., Milrad, M., & Vavoula, G. (2009) brought up the importance of context in learning, in the implicit, informal and formal learning and the implications of context on mobile learning. How all the authors define context is also compatible, and as illustrated here, the central theme being how context provides a common framework of an environment where participants learn seamlessly and continuously and develop connections with the world around them. To put in practice, isn’t it always best to start with the goal/objective of the unit by putting in context why students are learning the subject matter, putting in consideration where they are, what media are being used, who they are (elementary, middle- / high-school children, adults, professionals, etc), and what their background that they are bringing in with them.


Definitely a powerful and important concept for education in the 21st century!



  • Bransford, J., Vye, N., Stevens, R., Kuhl, P., Schwartz, D., Bell, P., … Sabelli, N. (2006). Learning theories and education: Toward a decade of synergy. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 209–244). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Elerbaum Associates.
  • Sharples, M., Arnedillo-Sanchez, I., Milrad, M., & Vavoula, G. (2009). Mobile learning: Small devices, big issues. In N. Balacheff, S. Ludvigsen, T. Jong, A. Lazonder, & S. Barnes (Eds.), Technology-enhanced learning (pp. 233-249). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-9827-7

3 thoughts on “Week 3: How important is “context” in terms of learning, specifically mobile learning?

  1. Paige

    Context is such an important aspect to think about with learning. I was amazed at the interview with Leon and the differences in his responses to questions based on being in school and being at home with a friend. I think that is concerning that he was so nonverbal when being interviewed in school. Why is that? How would that interview have changed if he was interviewed at school with a friend? Aside from context, I also think that the social and collaborative aspect can really make a difference. In the Bransford et al. (2006) article, the authors state, “Informal learning researchers note how groups where people know one another function differently group groups of relative strangers. Experimental research has shown that collaboration can lead to better problem solving and learning than individual work” (p227). Although I realize that students can take tests in groups – I think this quote and the articles we have read reiterate how through conversation and collaboration people can really internalize and grow their learning. Bransford et al. (2006) discuss how group learning situations really allow people to discuss, share, critique and listen to one another (p228). They state, “Group learning situations, capitalizing on collective knowledge is both a social and a cognitive endeavor” (p228). I think both contexts as well as social interaction (in both formal and informal learning) are two important factors that are essential to consider. As Sharples et al. (2009) state, “We come to a characterization of mobile learning as the processes (personal and public) of coming to know through exploration and conversation across multiple contexts, amongst people, and interactive technologies” (p237). As educators, figuring out how to design mobile learning activities that allow students to connect their learning throughout their everyday lives – both in and out of school and through interaction and conversation – is not an easy task to implement, let alone assess.

    Additionally, your reiteration of the idea that “learning is a continuous and cumulative process involving connections amongst a variety of learning experiences” is so important. Learning really is continuous and cumulative. It doesn’t start and end when the bell rings to start and end a class. The more we can help students make these connections, the better off they will be as learners. To think that in the Bradford et al (2006) article they state, “79% of a child’s waking activities, during the school-age years, are spent in nonschool pursuits – interacting with family and friends, playing games, consuming commercial media, and so on (NRC, 2000)”….that’s unbelievable! We have to build that bridge across learning environments and make learning relevant, meaningful, and effective for all. Mobile technology is just one means, a powerful one, that can facilitate this.


  2. Kristie McGarry

    Your post did a great job of contextualizing the readings in terms of mobile learning and context. I appreciate your pointing out that learning is a continuum, rather than discrete, and how context relates to that. You also mentioned the ‘stability of context’: how to form islands of temporarily stable context to enable meaning making from the flow of everyday activity. I have thought about this in context of the student-led, interest driven, constructivist approach that much of teaching with mobile learning emphasizes; I have asked myself how to contextualize what students are doing in terms of curriculum and learning objectives that are teacher driven, even while the learning is student led

    1. Tony J.

      I agree with Kristie. You did a fantastic job of pulling all of this week’s information together. Your post was very well written.

      In order to provide context for students, it is imperative to understand their backgrounds. I agree with you that it is always best to share why the students are learning what they are learning and provide the information on how it is all going to come together. However, depending on the content, some students simply don’t care. Knowing their interests really helps in trying to make the content relatable to them thus providing context for their world as well as for the curriculum.


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