Author version /pre-print. Accepted for publication in Interactive Learning
Mobile learning as boundary crossing. An alternative route to
Institute for Information Systems, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern
Switzerland, Basel, Switzerland
University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland FHNW
learning.lab / Institute for Information Systems, Peter Merian-Strasse 86 4002 Basel -
T +41 61 279 18 49
Christoph Pimmer is senior researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences and
Arts Northwestern Switzerland FHNW. His interests include the use of digital media for
learning and cooperation as well as the generation and sharing of knowledge in the workplace.
Christoph has developed a particular interest in researching learning and learners in
Mobile learning as boundary crossing. An alternative route to
This paper examines digital and mobile learning that goes beyond bounded
communities and closed domains. While recent work from the field of mobile
learning has emphasised the importance of learning across "contexts", little
analytical attention has been paid to the underlying dynamics of this
phenomenon. To illuminate this, the four learning mechanisms of identification,
coordination, reflection and transformation from the framework of boundary
crossing are linked with mobile learning practices. It is argued that mobile
phones and specifically mobile social media serve as boundary crossing tools:
tools that are used by learners to generate multimodal representations that
reflect their experiences and identities, and to share them across their digital
and non-digital social networks. The four learning mechanisms are facilitated by
the learners' engagement with more heterogeneous and peripheral spaces of
their social networks in ways not previously possible.
Keywords: boundary; mobile learning; ubiquitous learning; social media; social
network sites; informal learning
To illuminate the role of digital and mobile technology for learning beyond bounded
communities and closed domains such as the classroom, I proceed as follows: I begin
by introducing the meaning of "learning across contexts" for the field of mobile
learning as well as the framework of boundary crossing. In the second part, I link
mobile learning practices to four central learning mechanisms of this framework.
Drawing on this analysis, I then establish the notion of mobile technology, and
specifically mobile social media, as boundary crossing tools. Since mobile technology
has been used to facilitate learning across (more) diverse and more peripheral network
spaces, I tie my arguments to the concepts of social capital and weak ties. Finally, I
discuss the role of boundary crossing in the light of socioeconomic transformations,
crises and weakening educational structures. The underlying rationale of this work is to
bring alternative perspectives into the field of technology-enhanced learning; a
domain that tends to conceptualize and analyse learning from technology
deterministic viewpoints (Selwyn, 2012) and has primarily focused on activities in
bounded spaces, such as the classroom (Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009).
Mobile Learning as learning across contexts
The meaning of learning and contexts has been stressed specifically in recent mobile
learning research, an increasingly popular strand of the technology-enhanced learning
literature. Learning with mobile devices is tied to fundamentally shifting characteristics
of knowing and learning as remarked by Traxler and Lally (in this volume), because it
provides a wide spectrum of learners (and users) with the opportunities to create,
convey, share and collect messages, ideas, and experiences specific to as well as across
different settings. The field of mobile learning has even considered the crossing of
contexts as one of its constitutional characteristics. Following the definition of Sharples
et al. (2007), mobile learning is conceived as "the processes of coming to know …
across multiple contexts among people and personal interactive technologies".
Drawing on this definition, The London Mobile Learning Group (2010) stresses the
dynamic nature of contexts by defining mobile learning as operating "in, and across,
new and ever changing contexts and learning spaces". Also Wali et al. (2008) see the
core of mobile learning as what they define as context-crossing, referring to a change
of physical and/or social setting. This mobility across physical and social spaces is also
proposed by Kukulska-Hulme et al. (2010) to be central to mobile learning. In addition,
they base their conception of mobile learning on the mobility of technology (tools and
resources carried around), on mobility in conceptual spaces (different topics and
themes that compete for a learner's attention), and on learning that is dispersed over
time. Kukulska-Hulme et al. (2010) view context as an overarching concept of these
different mobilities. There are a number of further works that tie together notions of
context and mobile learning. However, what many of these have in common is that
relatively little attention is paid to the underlying mechanisms of cross-contextual
learning, i.e. to the question how the bridging and merging of context(s) actually
facilitates and contributes to learning.
(Mobile) Learning by crossing socio-cultural boundaries
By connecting mobile learning with the theoretical work centred on the notion of
boundary crossing I intend to further illuminate this aspect. Recently, Akkerman and
Bakker (2011) have summarized and conceptualized the rich and increasingly popular
literature of learning by crossing "boundaries". They understand boundaries not in a
geographical sense but as sociocultural differences that result in discontinuities in
action and interaction. Drawing on Suchman (1994), they consider boundary crossing
as a person’s transitions and interactions across sites that differ in terms of socio-
cultural characteristics. Another related concept is that of boundary objects. Boundary
objects are abstract or concrete artefacts (for example teaching portfolios and school
grades) that do the crossing by fulfilling a bridging function (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011;
Accordingly, while context is viewed as a broad and manifold construct, the
theoretical framework of boundary crossing can be specifically helpful in
understanding how mobile learning helps to bridge "contexts" in terms of linking
diverse socio-cultural worlds. In the literature on mobile phones and mobile learning
surprisingly little explicit reference has been made to this theoretical strand. As one of
the few exceptions, Attwell et al. (2009) suggest that the use of the mobile technology
allows the development of boundary objects to transcend the physical and virtual
worlds. They view them as suitable to interlink academic and formal knowledge with
informal, work process knowledge. Beddall-Hill and Raper (2010) investigated the role
of PDAs as boundary objects on field trips in a master curriculum. Their analysis
revealed that the devices did not display the features of a boundary object as defined
by Star (Star, 1989, 2010). Nevertheless they played a constitutive role in the learning
Implicitly, however, writers from different disciplines such as education,
communication, politics and sociology point to the properties of mobile media to
bridge socio-cultural boundaries. With regard to education, Lewin & Luckin (2010)
describe, for example, that mobile tablet devices contributed to develop parental
engagement, tying together more closely the different socio-cultural spaces of school
and home in the UK. The tablet interfaces allowed parents to review what the child
had done with the tablet inside and outside school and send/receive a message to the
teacher. In a very different project in Indonesia in which midwives were equipped with
mobile phones, it was observed that, over time, relationships and learning between
different professional communities improved. Concretely, mobile phones enabled
doctors and midwives to work together more closely in patient-related problems. One
doctor spoke of: "Midwives who call me … because they are having difficulty handling
a patient … " The respondent further points to the improved relationships between
these professional groups, concluding that today "we are meant to be partners." (Chib,
2010). These newly established inter-professional conversations are highly interesting
from a learning perspective, although this this has not been examined specifically in
this study. With regard to the political dimension, Wasserman (2011) foregrounds that,
in Africa, mobile phones allow people to "transgress cultural and social borders and
hierarchies in the way they refashion identities and create informal economies and
communicative networks". He emphasises that mobile and social media are used to
create new spaces and alternative ways of engaging with the state and with politics,
for example by sharing political rumours, gossip and jokes. Looking through
sociological lenses, Geser (2004) conceives the cell phone as a technology with highly
generalized integrative functions. While technology tend to accentuate differences, for
example, a motorcycle with regard to gender, he emphasizes that since cell phones are
adopted relatively independently of education and family background, they can bridge
at least some gaps between different social classes. However, he rightly acknowledges
that, since mobile phones can be used differently in any sphere, they may also widen
social and cultural divergences.
Boundary mechanism in mobile learning
To better understand how the crossing of context can facilitate learning, I draw on the
four main boundary mechanisms of identification, coordination, reflection and
transformation recently discerned by Akkerman & Bakker (2011).
"(a) identification, which is about coming to know what the diverse practices are
about in relation to one another; (b) coordination, which is about creating
cooperative and routinized exchanges between practices; (c) reflection, which is
about expanding one’s perspectives on the practices; and, (d) transformation,
which is about collaboration and codevelopment of (new) practices" (Akkerman &
While their work provides interesting approaches to understanding learning that takes
places at boundaries, they pay little attention to affordances offered by digital mobile
technologies. Accordingly, I connect these mechanisms with socio-cognitive and socio-
cultural mobile learning practices. In so doing, I take examples from the extant
literature as well as from a range of my/our own studies from the field of health and
medical education. Health care is an particularly appropriate area for consideration
since effective medical services require a number of different boundaries to be
bridged: for example, interaction between and within different professions (Barr,
Koppel, Reeves, & Hammick, 2005; Pimmer, Pachler, Nierle, & Genewein, 2012),
between patients and professionals, novices and experts, and among people drawing
from different cultural and linguistic resources (Bezemer, Cope, Kress, & Kneebone,
The mechanism of identification describes how boundary crossing results in
questioning one's core identity which, in turn, leads to a renewed sense-making of
different practices and the reconstruction of identities (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011).
Examples in the mobile learning literature show how the use of social mobile media to
cross socio-cultural boundaries is related explicitly and implicitly to the negotiation and
re-construction of professional identities: in a previous study I observed, for example,
how medical students use their mobiles to access virtual professional communities
with thousands of students and practitioners from across different nations and
cultures (Pimmer, Linxen, & Gröhbiel, 2012). In this mobile social networking space,
users explicitly announced and "negotiated" their identity as medical practitioners in
the light of questions such as "proud to be in this profession, what about you?",
cartoons or jokes that related to the professional self-concept of doctors. They
projected, re-constructed and also questioned their own professional identity against
messages from cartoons/jokes (mostly from Western cultures) and against the identity
revealed in the comments of the other users mostly from across different Asian
Another study from New Zealand illustrates how bakery apprentices used
mobile phones to document important work achievements in the form of photos,
videos, voice recordings and text fragments. These represented evidence of their
growing and maturing skills as bakers. They shared these representations that related
to their maturing professional identity on various social network sites (SNS) with other
apprentices, their employers and teachers as well as friends and family (Chan, 2011).
The opportunity to showcase their work to wider communities was relevant for the
motivation to create these portfolios. In this study, the apprentices used mobile social
media to cross boundaries between their work and private spaces in ways not possible
before. In addition, the practice enhanced and re-enforced apprentices’ self-
recognition and self-acceptance of their vocational identity development (Chan, 2011).
The second learning mechanism is coordination. With this mechanism centrality is
placed on the means, such as mediating artefacts, and procedures that enable efficient
cooperation in distributed work. While identification means negotiating and re-
constructing identities through boundary crossing, the central aspect of coordination is
overcoming boundaries and providing continuity in the movement across different
socio-cultural sites (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). In a number of studies conducted in
Swiss hospitals (Pimmer, Pachler, et al., 2012) , I observed how representations in the
form of photographs on mobile phones can take a mediating role in the learners' work-
trajectories across departmental and intra-disciplinary boundaries. The following
extract reflects a situation in what is known as the "morning report" - a daily meeting
in which doctors from a team, in this case hand surgeons, meet in order to discuss
recent patient cases and to decide on further treatment. In this example a resident in
the role of an on-call-doctor describes how the mobile phone supports the discussion
and coordination of patient cases that were treated beforehand in another
A standard situation with respect to cases from the emergency department is:
"I've seen this one [patient] in the emergency department. Here is the
photograph" […] Some simply have a smartphone with them. It is placed on the
table and passed around. […]. If there is a picture […] on the smartphone, it is
passed around in a circle, […] all the way to the head physician, so he can see it.
[…] The picture is looked at briefly and commented on. (resident)
Generally speaking, on-call doctors are typical "boundary brokers", supporting the
different hospital departments to coordinate their work. The example shows how, in
the words of Akkerman and Bakker (2011), phone-based images enhance the
communicative connection between the diverse departments. These representations
also help to translate the experiences of the on-call doctor and enable him to make a
smoother and more fluent transition across departments, i.e. in this case across non-
digital social spaces. In medical and clinical settings there are many artefacts such as
displays or whiteboards, computers or gestures that provide representations which act
as meditators of information and knowledge between different individuals and groups
(Cohen, Blatter, Almeida, Shortliffe, & Patel, 2006; Pimmer, Pachler, & Genewein,
2013; Xiao, 2005). In these settings, mobile technology is of specific value as its
portability and multi-media capturing features allow the ad-hoc generation and space-
independent sharing of representations, supporting the coordination of work that is
highly distributed in socio-cultural, disciplinary and physical settings.
In addition, this example illustrates that these re-contextualized representations also
mediate experiences between actors with different levels of expertise. The on-call
doctor is a resident, thus having relatively little medical experience compared to the
head physician. While his ability to use the medical terminology to precisely describe
more complex medical patterns is still limited, s/he is supported in his verbal
"translation" efforts by the image.
Crossing socio-cultural spaces can also facilitate mechanisms of reflection, i.e. make
explicit differences between practices and learning something new about own and
others’ practices (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). The use of mobile technology can
stimulate reflection which is closely linked to sharing and discussing of work-based
experiences in further, formal and informal contexts - in the sense of reflection on-
action" (Schön, 1983, 1987). For example, in a current project
(https://blogs.fhnw.ch/m4healtheducation/), nurses in South Africa reported
documenting and sharing images across work and school contexts for reflective
practice by means of mobile phones:
When we are together [in university settings], we share and discuss the photo;
some things [conditions] we learn in school take a long time to see [in practices
settings]. So, when you witness this condition, and you are not together with your
colleagues, you take this picture, [by means of the mobile…] then you look at the
picture and, [later] discuss on it, if it corresponds with what we have learned.
The example shows how the mobile phone-based multimodal representations are
used to contrast and reflect on the perspectives and practices between relatively
formal school settings and informal learning in the workplace. This does not happen in
a non-recurring and linear way, but allows for iterative learning cycles between formal
and informal contexts. In this project, we also found examples of nurses who had
formed "mobile Facebook" groups in school and subsequently reported and contrasted
different practices of how they treated patients, thus extending their perspectives by
learning something new about their own and their colleagues' practices. As the nurses
had specialised in different professional areas, problem-solving and reflection in this
group benefited from the interdisciplinary knowledge brought together by the diverse
actors (Pimmer et al., 2014). In the literature a number of studies show how reflective
practice that results from bridging diverse, formal and informal learning spaces is
facilitated by the use of mobile media: for example, one study confirmed the
effectiveness of a system that allowed school teachers to send daily questions to the
mobile phones of their apprentice students - who were distributed across different
work settings. These were prompts to provoke reflection like "I have felt myself
needed today", or "I have learned new things today". The feedback of the apprentices
was collected, analysed and used to illustrate practice experience back in formal
school settings (Mettiäinen & Karjalainen, 2011; Pirttiaho, Holm, Paalanen, &
These practices do not only allow for a comparison and critical reflection of
learning across different socio-cultural sites, but they can also lead to a broader set of
perspectives and support the new construction of identities, as emphasized by
Akkerman and Bakker (2011). This has been demonstrated by a study in which foreign
language students tape-recorded authentic situations in which they practiced
speaking. Later in the classroom the students jointly listened to and reflected on the
recordings. In so doing, mobile technology was used by learners in the crossing of
boundaries between informal, familiar and personal spaces and the more formal and
authoritative settings of the classroom (Calic & Neijmann, 2010). At the beginning, the
bridging of these very different social spaces challenged the participants. Listening to
their own voice and bringing personal, intimate recordings into formal settings made
them feel uneasy and aware of their insecure sense of the self (in the target language).
Over time, through the continued boundary crossing and adherent reflection on own
and their peers' practices (documented in the form of audio-recordings), the students
revisited their self-perception and gained a new identity as foreign language speakers,
i.e. a new sense of who they were in the target language.
The fourth learning mechanism discerned is that of transformation, i.e., the profound
change of practices or the creation of new ones by means of boundary crossing.
Viewed in this way, in many of the aforementioned cases the appropriation of mobile
technology has already resulted in new boundary crossing practices, i.e. in novel ways
to reach different social worlds in a situation of learning and problem-solving. For
instance, the example of the Facebook site that entailed identification mechanisms
(Pimmer, Linxen, et al., 2012) represents a completely new form of engagement in
novel spaces created itself by the learners' boundary crossing. Akkermann & Bakker
(2011) conceive transformation to be triggered by the "confrontation with some lack
or problem that forces the intersecting worlds to seriously reconsider their current
practices and the interrelations". Considering mobile learning cases, I would argue
that, at the beginning, it is not exclusively a problem that causes transformation. In
addition, a new technological artefact can also offer affordances for communication
and learning practices (across and within) boundaries, which then leads to new
tensions; an observation that relates to the notion of transformation suggested by Y.
Engeström (2001): a system (e.g. a classroom community) that adopts a new element
(e.g., mobile phones) from the outside experiences structural tensions and
contradictions, as rules collide with the new practices. Contradictions can lead to
innovative approaches to changing the activity and to re-contextualizing it in the socio-
cultural environment. This appears to be particularly true when we consider how
practices from informal and leisure time contexts start to transcend more formal
learning spaces such as the classroom or work contexts.
For example, in one study in Nepal we observed how conflicting practices from
inside and outside the classroom resulted in the co-development of a new practice
over time. While students were using mobile phones to document images in their
leisure time, this was initially prohibited in the classroom. However, after a while, the
students were allowed to use their phones for documentation, but only after teaching
(Pimmer, Linxen, Gröhbiel, Jha, & Burg, 2013). This example allows for three
interesting observations. Firstly, the practice involves boundary crossing: photographs
from the classroom and work-based placements were further shared in the students'
study communities (an informal learning context) - as one student exemplifies: “This is
the [medical] case I have seen.” […] We proudly show it to the others." (Pimmer,
Linxen, et al., 2013). Second, the practice itself is crossing the boundary between the
private and education spaces: the practices of taking photographs has been created in
the users' private spheres and has been carried by the learners as "boundary brokers"
into new, more formal educational contexts. This has met with resistance from
historically grown systems and causes confrontation. For example, faculty and
teachers were generally concerned about the use of mobile phones during placements
and in the classroom. In addition, the adoption of mobile media also impacted on
underlying cultural models of hierarchy and teaching - challenging teachers and
education institutions in their function as gatekeepers of knowledge. Third, the
practice was not simply copied from one site into another. Instead, negotiations
between students and teachers resulted in the creation of a new, in-between practice,
i.e. a practice which was re-contextualized in the new environment (students allowed
to document after teaching).
Boundary crossing in a wider context
Drawing on the analysis from the previous sections I establish in the following the
notion of mobile phones as boundary crossing tools. In addition, I discuss my
arguments in the light of other sociological concepts and societal and educational
Mobile (social) media as boundary crossing tools
I argue that mobile phones can be perceived as boundary crossing tools since they are
used by learners in their trajectories across their digital and non-digital social
networks. As the examples have shown, this is specifically facilitated by the generation
of multimodal representations (i.e., text, audio, photographs) in one and their sharing
in further social network spaces by means of mobile phones. This pattern relates to
the notion of stigmergy, as used by Yrjö Engeström (2009) in his work on wildfire
activities such as skateboarding or birding. Stigmeries, such as a set of videos created
and shared by skateboarders, are not only traces of experience (and identities) but can
represent the very social glue of these loosely coupled communities and enable subtle
coordination in them.
The affordances of mobile technology in terms of boundary crossing are even
more evident when we consider the convergence of mobile and social media, i.e. when
the capacities of mobile phones and social software are merged: this means that the
portability, communication and multimedia capturing functions of mobile phones are
combined with the networking functions of social software. This development is also
interesting in the light of a broad evolutionary perspective: Geser (2004) describes the
significance of the mobile phone to lie in empowering people to engage in
communication, which is at the same time free from the constraints of physical
proximity and spatial immobility. While these affordances respond to deeply ingrained
and universal social needs, one of the main limitations is that traditional phone
conversations are limited to bilateral interactions. This is a constraint that, according
to Geser (2004), still requires space-dependent interactions for supporting multilateral
interaction fields, as well as more tightly integrated and physically bound collectivities
like communities and organizations. However, the convergence of mobile and social
media at least partly overcomes this restriction by allowing for more complex
multilateral and networked engagement of people who are on the move, i.e. physically
distant and away from stable dwelling settlements.
Mobile learning as boundary crossing manifests itself in the form of cognitive
learning processes (such as reasoning and reflecting), socio-cognitive learning and
communication practices (such as joint problem solving and collaborating), and,
importantly, in terms of socio-cultural forms of learning by participation, the
transformation of practices and identity formation in communities of practice: the
examples have shown how the learners' engagement throughout different social
spaces re-construct identities and support the new development of identities, such as
the identity as foreign language speakers. Identity formation is of specific relevance as
it is both a result and at the same time an enabler of learning across boundaries:
putting it in the words of Wenger, "Identity is the vehicle that carries our experiences
from context to context" (Wenger, 1998).
I prefer the notion of boundary crossing tools over that of boundary objects.
This emphasises their active use and stresses the agency of the learner, i.e. their
capacity to act on the world by appropriating mobile technologies as cultural resources
(as also proposed by Pachler, Bachmair, et al. (2010). Boundary crossing tools are also
different to boundary objects, as coined by Star (Star, 1989, 2010). She characterizes
the role of boundary objects as a set of arrangements that resides between two social
worlds or groups and allows them to cooperate without consensus. I argue that this
account is too narrow to fully explore the affordances offered by mobile technology
for boundary crossing. I foreground a perspective according to which mobile phones
are used by learners in their boundary-crossing between different socio-cultural sites,
with and without consensus. In addition, the concept of "tools" cannot be confounded
with "objects" in the sense of the "object-orientedness of action", as used in activity
theory, for example by Y. Engeström (2001).
I also suggest viewing mobile phones as tools that are used by learners to
navigate across networks (instead of social groups) following the terms of Wellman
and Geser (Geser, 2004; Wellman, 1999, 2001): networks in the sense of decentralized
social spaces constructed by each individual according to his or her personal capacities
and needs, and constantly reshaped by social interactions. Similar to a digital Social
Network Site (SNS) there is no centre, but each individual represents the hub of his
own self-created and personal(ised) network. This is in contrast to groups in the sense
of neatly confined supra-individual collectivities shared identically by many members.
Learning across heterogeneous and peripheral social networks
As I've discussed in the previous sections, boundary crossing by mobile phones
involves the learning mechanisms of identification, coordination, reflection and
transformation. We have seen that a range of different boundaries can be crossed by
means of mobile technology: between professions, between 'novices' and 'experts',
throughout diverse cultural/geographical spaces, and across formal learning spaces,
such as the classroom, and more informal learning settings, such as the workplace.
When mobile (social) media is used by learners in their trajectories across different
socio-cultural sites, these spaces are connected more tightly. This crossing can be
linked to the notion of "bridging social capital" as coined by Putnam (2002): social
networks that bring together people from diverse backgrounds (more closely). The
affordances of mobile phones and social networking technology to bridge social capital
and to scaffold equity of access to cultural resources have been already foregrounded
by Cook, Pachler, and Bachmair (2013). Supporting this argument, empirical studies
show that digital technology and specifically social network sites such as Facebook
favour the bridging of social capital (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Tomai et al.,
2010): for example, Facebook enabled students to interact with peers from different
cultures and nations (Jiang & de Bruijn, 2013).
Bridging social capital is similar to boundary crossing as defined by Akkerman
and Bakker (2011), who focus on the intersection of different socio-cultural settings.
However, in view of mobile learning, I would like to offer a slightly extended view of
boundary crossing. We can also observe that, in addition to the focus on differences,
mobile phones can also help to reach peripheral social spaces, and thereby tighten
one's social networks. These are spaces made up of social actors who are not
necessarily very different, but out of the learners' daily reach: loose and infrequent
connections - unless linked by means of a mobile phone. In this respect, Geser (2004)
stresses the capacity of mobile phones for the enlargement of peripheral relationships
and for the strengthening of weak social ties. Weak ties are, broadly speaking, loose
and less tightly involved social connections which are usually activated only under
specific circumstances (Granovetter, 1973, 1983). Supporting these arguments, Ahmad
and Orion (2010) described that, in a company, the use of mobile phones (compared
to desktop computers) facilitated the communication of individuals with their weak
ties. These were 2nd or 3rd level contacts from the same company, who were
nevertheless outside the usual day-to-day interactions. This is important as the
strengthening of weak ties, or the transformation of latent into weak ties, provides
individuals as well as organisations with more information, the latest ideas, and also
learning opportunities (as opposed to strong ties, i.e. frequent connections such as
close friends and family).
Boundary crossing, TEL and contemporary developments
Boundary crossing, social capital and weak ties are not only important on individual or
organisational levels, but also from a broader societal perspective. Social capital is
deemed to be specifically valuable in the context of crises, as stressed by Woolcock
and Narayan (2000).
"Intuitively, then, the basic idea of “social capital” is that one’s family, friends, and
associates constitute an important asset, one that can be called upon in a crisis,
enjoyed for its own sake, and/or leveraged for material gain."
They further emphasize that communities with a diverse stock of social networks and
civic associations will be in a stronger position to confront poverty and vulnerability,
resolve disputes, and/or take advantage of new opportunities (Woolcock & Narayan,
2000). Of similar societal importance is the existence of weak ties, as stressed by
Granovetter (1983). He argues that, from a macro-perspective, social systems with
limited weak ties are likely to become fragmented and incoherent, since innovation
and new ideas hardly transcend segregated subgroups. It is interesting to note that the
rise of mobile phones and the intensive use of social networking sites coincide with
times of economic turmoil and crisis in high income countries. For example, the
populations in many European countries are threatened by unemployment and
poverty and lack confidence in formal societal structures (Red Cross Report, 2013). At
the same time, the value of formal education is eroding. Even higher education is no
longer a "safety net" against unemployment (Livanos & Núñez, 2012). Against this
background Pachler, Cook, and Bachmair (2010) foreground that today's societies
which are characterized by individualized risks and a process of on-going
individualization (Beck, 1992) require and support new characteristics of agency;
agency, as I would argue, that can make use of the affordances provided by mobile
technology to strengthen and spin one's social web across more heterogeneous and
more peripheral spaces. For example, referring again to Granovetter (1983), it has
been observed that individuals who cross boundaries in that they expand their
peripheral network of weak ties have more job opportunities since they receive job
information also from distant spaces of their networks (Granovetter, 1983).
Not only individual learners but also educational institutions are facing increasing
pressures and risks from wider social and economic developments while moving out of
the established frontiers of public service metiers into what Traxler and Lally (in this
volume) label as "competitive industrialisation of Higher Education". That is, higher
education institutions that are becoming increasingly "competitive, marketised,
specialised and privatised". This development is also characterized as massification of
higher education, a phenomenon tied to the diversification and specification of as well
as to the increased control over academic tasks (Musselin, 2007). These dynamics also
shape, and are shaped by the use of (educational) technologies by these institutions. In
this respect, the "first generation of industrialised learning" (using the terms of Traxler
and Lalley) has supported the standardized production of educational goods. Drawing
on the arguments of Musselin (2007), technology was adopted in a way that has
started to transform lecturing from "handiwork" of an individual teacher to the
creation and delivery of more generic and products, i.e. "harmonized" curricula.
Lecturing shifted from personal activities that are carried out by one teacher to a more
specialised and standardized exercise involving the expertise of producers, tutors and
technological experts. The "second generation of industrialised learning" represents
now a further shift marked by mass customization, i.e., the flexible design and delivery
of mass educational services tailored to the demands of individual learners. It can be
noticed, however, that higher education institutions still tend to cultivate closed
spaces and are struggling to connect with the habitus of their "clients" that has
evolved in their life worlds. That is, the manifold ways how users experience increased
ownership, personalisation and ubiquitous connectivity of personal mobile devices
which they use to weave and extend their social webs across previously established
boundaries. These practices are widely unmediated and unimagined by education and
work institutions. For example, according to a recent review of Manca and Ranieri
(2013), Social Network Sites are incorporated in contemporary educational settings
rather as "fenced spaces" (i.e., with closed boundaries) in ways that do not integrate
the different and heterogeneous sources that are potentially available in networked
environments. Another, often neglected aspect to be considered is the fact that most
of the recent Network Sites are commercial in nature. Their main purpose is not to
produce societal or educational benefits but to generate revenue through marketising
their users' personal information. This orientation is resulting in properties and
practices that do not necessarily foster critical debate but conviviality and uniformity
(Friesen & Lowe, 2012). Thus, a key question that remains to be answered is how
education institutions can connect with these new learning and boundary crossing
practices without adhering to the globalising corporatism and shallow consumerism.
To conclude, I wish to re-emphasise the role of mobile technology, and specifically
mobile social media, as boundary crossing tools that can be tied to the learning
mechanisms of identification, coordination reflection and transformation. This is
specifically facilitated by the capacities of mobile phones to generate multimodal
representations that reflect the learners' experiences and identities, and to share them
across their digital and non-digital social networks. I argue that the learning
mechanisms are not only enabled by the heterogeneity that results from socio-cultural
differences of different network spaces. In addition, learners use their mobiles as a
means to strengthening peripheral network relations in ways not previously possible.
The affordances of mobile phones for boundary crossing appear to be of specific
relevance in times of socioeconomic transformations with weakening educational
Of course, the scope of this paper has permitted only limited engagement and
allows no definitive conclusion regarding the complex and multi-faceted phenomena
at hand. However, I hope that my arguments have offered broadened perspectives
and new trails for future exploration. On a general level, I encourage future research to
pay more attention to the capacities of mobile networking technologies to enable
learning beyond closed digital spaces. The need for more research on boundary
crossing is specifically evident considering the fact that most of the mobile learning
research is concentrated on the use of mobile technology within higher education
(Hwang & Tsai, 2011; Wu et al., 2012). In the future we may address questions such as:
are there more boundary crossing mechanisms that the ones borrowed from the
framework of Akkerman and Bakker (2011)? It also needs to be analysed whether and
how formal educational institutions can and should connect with these dynamics.
Importantly, I've focused on the affordances of mobile technology to enable learning
by crossing boundaries. It needs to be acknowledged that digital and mobile
technology can maintain or even widen pre-existing boundaries (see for example Rice
& Katz, 2003). And, an increase in online social networking activities does not per se
result in a broadening and more heterogenic public discourse: conversely, a recent
study points to the view that users are less willing to share potentially conflicting and
controversial issues via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter than they
were in person (Hampton et al., 2014). Accordingly, future work may not only
concentrate on the dynamics that increase and lower the permeability of boundaries
but also consider how boundary crossing contributes to a more or less immersive and
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