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Mobile phones for learning: The world in your pocket

Globe in pocket
Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile

The statistics are striking. There are 5.44 billion mobile phone users in the world, which means that 68% of the world’s population has one. 92.3% use their phone to go online at least some of the time, and mobile phones now account for more than 56.9% of our online time.

This is according to Datareportals Digital around the world report 2023. It means that pretty much everyone in the West will have a mobile, as will most people studying over the age of ten. I say ten because a recent BBC report stated that in the UK smartphone ownership rises from 44% at age 9 to 91% by the age of 11.

This means we have access to the world in our pocket and, as a consequence, the world's knowledge.


Speech marks

“Mobile phones are misnamed. They should be called gateways to human knowledge.


Mobile phones and learning

We might have access to the world's knowledge, but having knowledge is not the same as learning. To solve this conundrum we need to start thinking of the mobile phone as a domain, a place to go when you want to learn, and less as somewhere that simply stores knowledge.

As an analogy, if a book is knowledge, the library is the domain. But as a learning domain, the mobile phone has limitations. In particular, in terms of screen size, the implication is that learning has to be designed to be effective on a small screen.

But aren’t mobile phones bad?

Before exploring how we might improve the way we use mobile phones for learning, we should probably address some of the concerns many have about them. They can become addictive which perhaps, unsurprisingly, has been proven to result in lower grades. In addition, they are a distraction, this study concluded that there was “a significant negative relationship between total time spent using smartphones and academic performance”.

However, the researchers went on to say that having a mobile in class was not in itself the problem, it’s how and when it was used. The learning loss is more a result of us not being wired to multi-task, and whilst we may think we can check a message on our phone and pay attention, we can’t.


Speech marks

“Smartphone is definitely smarter than us to be able to keep us addicted to it.”


This brings us to one of those often-quoted statements, that technology is neither good nor evil, it's how people choose to use it. Also, I’m talking here not so much about a mobile device used in and around the classroom, but very much outside of it. Even to the extent where there is no classroom and studying is completely remote and online.

Mobile first learning

Luke Wroblewski, who is now a Product Director at Google, came up with the idea of mobile-first in 2009. The concept is simple, you should design for the mobile platform first and then scale the experience for use elsewhere. It has led to a whole series of instructional design ideas:

Keep content short and focused (micro-learning). We have seen the concept of chunking before, and it is implicit that if you want content that is short and focused it has to be chunked. The idea is that keeping each segment short allows the learner to complete some of the lessons in just a few minutes as well as reducing cognitive load.

Design for the small screen. The content layout, graphics, and text should all be imagined in terms of what they will look like on a mobile device.

Build in social features. Mobile is dominant in the social space, and very few people use anything other than a mobile to communicate with friends. Think Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram. Any learning domain should certainly include a space where learners can share ideas and keep in touch.

Gamification/Game Mechanics. One of the problems with online learning is maintaining engagement, but games and gamification, the use of points, badges and leader boards are excellent in terms of holding attention and were made for mobile devices.

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR & AR). In the last three or four years, VR and AR have found their way onto mobile devices and into the wider online learning space. Although VR works best with a headset, AR is a good fit with mobile, allowing us to view the real world through a mobile screen whilst the technology augments what we see, bringing in new information and ideas. Examples would include Pokémon but more recently IKEA has developed IKEA Place, where you can overlay pictures of furniture into your own home. In education, you can look directly inside the human body to learn more about anatomy.

Learning in the flow of learning

“You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.” Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist, and educator.

Lessons for learners

A mobile phone is an amazing technology. It’s effectively a wearable device that you take everywhere. It makes it possible to access huge amounts of knowledge that, if structured properly, can be a very effective way to learn. There are also so many different ways in which this knowledge can be consumed in addition to a full course. For example, podcasts, videos, specific apps such as Duolingo, short tests, and quizzes. However, not everything works well on a mobile phone. Reading large amounts of text on a small screen is difficult, takes more time, is not especially engaging and there is some evidence to prove it lowers reading comprehension.

Your mobile can be used to learn outside of the classroom ultimately because it makes learning both convenient and accessible. But one word of warning, don’t forget who's in control.

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