EXPLORING MOBILE AFFORDANCES IN THE DIGITAL
David Parsons1, Herbert Thomas2 and Jocelyn Wishart3
The Mind Lab by Unitec
1 Auckland, 1023, New Zealand
2Christchurch, 8011, New Zealand
3Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1JA, UK.
This article reports on a survey of teachers undertaking a postgraduate applied practice certificate in digital and
collaborative learning. The survey was intended to capture how mobile learning was currently being used by the teachers
both on the course and in their own classrooms. The objective was to investigate to what extent mobile learning was
being used by our teachers, and which particular mobile learning activities were, or were not, being integrated into
teaching and learning in their own classrooms. We also wanted to explore how interested the teachers might be in seeing
new mobile learning activities embedded within the course. Our results suggested that teachers and their students are
frequently engaged in activities that utilize mobile learning affordances, but that these activities focus on simple,
supplementary activities such as taking photographs and making videos. However, our results also indicate that there was
significant interest among our teachers to explore more sophisticated mobile learning activities such as outdoor discovery
activities. One conclusion we might draw from this study is that, despite many years of research into mobile learning and
how it can be used both inside and outside the classroom, teachers need to be explicitly guided and supported to adopt
these approaches in their schools. The feedback from this survey will be used to help to develop the course curriculum to
integrate new elements of mobile learning.
Mobile learning, affordance, learner activity, curriculum, context of use
In the early years of mobile learning, the distinction between mobile devices and other types of digital tool
was quite clear. The physical differences in size, weight and features between mobile phones and PDAs on
the one hand, and desktop and laptop computers on the other, were significant. Both Quinn (2000) and
Traxler (2005) provided early definitions of mobile learning that explicitly focused on mobile devices as core
components of such a definition. However, we now inhabit a world where digital devices of all sizes and
intents present a ubiquitous environment of potential learning tools. As Wu et al. (2012) note, while past
research tended to focus on mobile phones and PDAs, there is an increasing range of devices being utilised
for mobile learning. The huge uptake of touch screen tablet-sized devices in the 2010s (Pope & Neumayr,
2010) has blurred the boundary between the mobile and the static device. A tablet on the desktop with an
attached keyboard mimics the traditional style of static computer, while the same device can immediately
switch to a tool for mobility, with GPS, camera, sensors and so on. As Mockus et al (2011) noted from
learning analytics, tablets are increasingly being used to connect to material designed for mobile access. The
potential for mobility continues to increase, for example a GoPro proves new perspectives for creativity
(Stodd, 2013) while drones are already being used for teaching and learning (Briggs & Patterson, 2015.)
In addition to the expanding notion of what might be viewed as a mobile device, current definitions of
mobile learning incorporate notions of mobility that include: a realization of the illusory nature of traditional
classroom-bounded practices that are based on an assumption of the stability of the learning context
(Kukulsa-Hulme et al., 2009); the view that learners are always on the move and that learning is both
informal and, at times, vicarious (Brown et al., 2010); and, that mobile learning has unique features that
enable place-sensitive information, amongst other things (Raudaskoski, 2003.)
2. MOBILE LEARNING AFFORDANCES
Gibson (as cited in Bruce, Green & Georgeson, 2003) developed the theory of affordances, which says that
the affordances of the environment are potential actions and interactions that the environment offers. The
concept of affordance therefore emphasizes usage over form factor. Naismith et al, (2004) noted that mobile
technologies can be broadly categorized on the two dimensions of personal vs. shared (with an implicit
impact of collaborative activity) and portable vs. static (whether a device that can be used in a mobile context
is, in fact being used in a static context.) The importance of these distinctions is that they have more to do
with the way a device is used than the features of the device itself.
Table 1 shows a set of mobile affordances taken from the literature, with detail provided under three
general concepts of affordance; the physical features of the device, the context of use and the activities of the
learner. The sources of these concepts are further explored below.
Table 1. Mobile affordances, features, contexts and activities.
Physical features of
the device Context of use Activities of the Learner
(Naismith et al, 2004)
Physical form factor
For movement during
learning activities Any of those below
(Orr, 2010) Data recording /
To gather, manage or
store information Taking Photos
Recording Videos, Notes &
(Liang et al., 2005) Connected to data
networks For communication
and/or collaboration Coordinating distributed,
Interaction with the interface
(Lai et al., 2007) Applications, tools
and presentation To visualise and
present digital content
Reading QR codes
Hosting virtual reality
Contextual, active learning
(So, Kim & Looi, 2008) Context awareness For active learning
interacting with a
Using sensors (e.g.
(Tan and So, 2015) Pervasive in the
environment To support learning
outside the classroom Using GPS mapping
Orr (2010) outline the main affordances of mobile learning. Using a device that is small enough to be
easily carried means that not only can learning material be downloaded to the device in a ubiquitous fashion,
but data can be gathered in a similar manner, and more quickly than using traditional methods.
Communication facilities allow material to be posted / broadcast immediately and, overall, the unique value
proposition of the mobile device is that it can be used in situations where there is no digital alternative. Liang
et al. (2005) focus specifically on communication affordances, listing six different types of communication
affordance that may be relevant to mobile learning; response collecting, posting, pushing, controlling,
file-exchanging and instant-messaging. Lai et al. (2007) remind us that a learning affordance is the
relationship between the properties of an object and the characteristics of its user. They also point out that
mobile devices use new forms of user interface. Thus a mobile user affordance is based on the way that the
user chooses to interact with the tool. So, Kim & Looi (2008) emphasize the mobile affordances of
portability, connectivity and context-sensitivity, while also highlighting the ability of mobile devices to
enable seamless, active learning. Tan and So (2015) emphasize not the affordances of the device but those of
complex) real world environment of an outdoor mobile learning activity leads to greater learning challenges
and opportunities than the controlled environment of the classroom. Interestingly, their study was based on
the use of laptops in a learning activity based on gathering and analyzing data from the outdoor environment,
stressing that the affordance is embedded in the nature of the activity, not the device itself. From these
various perspectives we can see that mobile learning affordances are based on a three way relationship
between the device features, the environment, and the way that the learner interacts with both of these. Thus
in a study of affordance we need to gather data on the physical features of the device being exploited, the
physical context in which it is used and the activities of the individual learner in relation to these two factors.
3. RESEARCH CONTEXT
This paper takes as its context a 32 week part time post graduate certificate course in digital and collaborative
learning, offered to qualified teachers with at least three years of teaching experience. The course is broad
ranging, covering multiple aspects of pedagogy, leadership and innovation, but an essential thread of the
course is that it supports applied practice in the use of digital tools for teaching and learning. Many of these
tools are cloud-based, Web 2.0 systems best used through desktop or laptop computers. We find that in many
cases the larger form factor of the laptop screen and the fine control of the mouse rather than the touch screen
is better for activities such as movie editing, coding, creating cartoons, building infographics, designing for
3D printing etc. than smaller tablets or mobile device screens. Further, some of the software we use does not
support mobile versions on all platforms, or we find that the mobile versions of these applications lack some
features. Nevertheless, the mobile component of digital teaching and learning is one that we would be remiss
to ignore or undervalue. We know that mobile learning provides opportunities for contextualized, interactive,
collaborative, pervasive learning that cannot be fully addressed by static computer based activities. Many
researchers have previously demonstrated the breadth of imagination and discovery that can be embedded
into learning activities supported by mobile devices, including mixed reality (Winter & Pemberton, 2011,)
historical narrative (Dugstad Wake & Baggetun, 2009,) science fiction (Dunleavy, Dede & Mitchell, 2009,)
geolocated augmented reality (FitzGerald et al., 2013,) simulation (Colella, 2000,) environmental exploration
(Klopfer & Squire, 2008,) applied mathematics (Tangney et al., 2010) and situated enquiry (Sharples et al.,
Despite these potentials, we were conscious of the fact that the current digital component of our course
curriculum was not directly addressing any explicit aspects of mobile learning, and given its potential
benefits we wanted to consider the introduction of further mobile learning coverage into the course. We
therefore undertook this study to help us redesign the curriculum to integrate the use and awareness of mobile
learning features and benefits. Given the blurring of boundaries between devices used for static and mobile
learning activities, we focus here not on device type but on affordances, i.e. we were interested in devices
being used for what may be categorized as mobile learning activities rather than worrying about whether a
It should be noted that the current classroom activities were not actually devoid of mobile affordances,
indeed some are used very regularly, albeit informally (there are no formal mobile learning activities.) Using
mobile devices to take photos or videos is a typical classroom activity. These devices are also occasionally
used for reading QR codes and Aurasma trigger images. These are, however, just support activities for other
learning experiences. The photos and videos are uploaded to social media, the QR codes and Aurasma trigger
images used to access other media, but there is a lack of integrated mobile learning activity or creativity.
The chosen research participants for this study were both the alumni of the course and those currently
enrolled. From the alumni, we hoped to gain insights from their retrospective reflections on their experience
of the course, and perhaps also the new experience gained in their classrooms after graduation. From the
currently enrolled teachers, we hoped to gain some insights into what their hopes and expectations of the
course might be, since we would be in a position to perhaps modify the course content accordingly to
enhance their experience. In order to do this, our first step was to explore to what extent teachers in the
course (1) were already using mobile affordances in teaching and learning and (2) what ideas and interests
they might have regarding the introduction of new mobile learning course components. Our research
attending the postgraduate course, and alumni of the course ir own students in the
RQ1: To what extent do teachers currently utilize mobile affordances in the postgraduate course?
RQ2: To what extent do students currently utilize mobile affordances in the classroom?
RQ3: How can mobile affordances be better integrated into the postgraduate course?
To address these questions, we developed an online survey which we distributed through our learning
management system and also through the Google+ communities of the course cohorts. This was the best
channel available to us to reach not only the currently enrolled students but also the alumni, who were no
longer engaged with our learning management system. There are several of these online communities; one
for each current cohort, plus another for alumni. Responses were entirely voluntary and anonymous.
We had 72 valid responses to the survey, primarily from those students who were currently enrolled on the
course (57 responses) with 15 responses from our alumni. In order to gain some idea of the range of devices
being used in the classrooms of our respondents, we asked them what proportion of their total digital activity
they spent working with students using each of four types of device; desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone.
The results showed that all of these tools were being regularly used for various tasks in the classroom, which
would suggest that teachers and students are regularly shifting between devices depending on the affordances
of those devices for different teaching and learning tasks. However we noted that those devices that more
easily support mobile affordances (tablets at 30% and smartphones at 13%) were being used slightly less
often overall than those tools that do not easily support mobile affordances (desktops at 19% and laptops at
5.1 Mobile Affordances in the Postgraduate Course and in the Classroom
To address research questions 1 and 2, asking to what extent both teachers and their students currently utilize
mobile affordances in their respective learning spaces, we developed a series of survey questions based on
the activities of the learner identified in Table 1. These activities were; taking photos, making videos, sound
recording, using QR codes, using augmented reality, using virtual reality, using sensors, using location
sensing and collaborative messaging. The results are shown in Figure 1. The activities of taking photos and
making videos were extensively used by both teachers and their students, as reported by more than 50 of the
72 participants. Sound recording was the only activity that was used more by school students (40) than their
teachers (34). Collaborative messaging was well used by the teachers (47), less so by their students (32). The
other categories show relatively small uptake by both teachers and students, though it is notable that in all the
other cases the teachers were currently using the other affordances more than the students. The use of QR
codes is an exception, where there was an equal level of usage (18). Overall, portability (Naismith et al,
2004), data gathering (Orr, 2010) and communication (Liang et al., 2005) provided most usage of mobile
affordances in the survey. In contrast, the affordances of interaction with the interface (Lai et al., 2007),
contextual, active learning (So, Kim & Looi, 2008) and learning in an outdoor environment (Tan and So,
2015) were rarely used by either the teachers or their students.
Given that the set of learner activities in the survey was taken from an extensive literature review, we
hoped that it was comprehensive. However, in case we had excluded any important activities, we asked
respondents if there were any mobile learning activities from their own practice that we had missed. We only
received seven responses to this question, suggesting that our list of activities was largely complete. Most of
these could in fact be seen as refinements of the suggested categories. For example, texting and Skyping were
mentioned, both of which would come under the heading of collaborative messaging. However, stop motion
movie making was also mentioned, which to some extent relates to taking photos, recording sound and video,
but is a separate creative activity that crosses several of the original activity boundaries.
Figure 1. Use of mobile affordances in the learning spaces of the teachers and their students
Quite a few examples were given of mobile devices being used to access online applications and social
media; Google+, iTunesU, Pinterest etc. Perhaps this suggests that the most obvious affordance of mobility,
being able to access online resources anytime anywhere, might usefully have been explicitly included in the
list of activities as the portability affordance from Table 1. Robotics was also mentioned by two respondents,
as was 3D printing. Certainly mobile devices can be used with programmable robots, for example the Lego
Mindstorms app, and there are now several mobile apps available for controlling 3D printers. These
responses suggest that an additional affordance, that of the mobile control of other devices, should be
considered. This type of affordance is likely to become increasingly important as the Internet of Things
continues to develop and expand.
5.2 Mobile App Usage
In order to capture practice in more detail, we also asked the teachers to list any mobile apps that they used in
the classroom. There was a wide range of tools mentioned, many of which had niche application, such as
Maori language learning, playing the guitar and sketching, and were only mentioned by one or two
respondents. More generic tools, which were used more widely, included various Google apps such as
Google Docs, Google Earth and Google Classroom (15), several social media apps such as Twitter, Facebook
and Pinterest (15), photo/video/movie apps (12), synchronous communication tools (5) and quiz apps (7).
We also asked the teachers to list any mobile apps that their students used in the classroom. Whilst there
usage, for example Google apps and movie editing, there was a
broader range of apps being used by the students. Many of these were used for creating work for sharing or
assessments. Specialist mobile apps included Hopscotch (for coding), Gamefroot (for game creation), maths
apps such as Mathletics, Explain Everything for presentations, reading and writing apps such as Chatterpix,
among a range of others. However it was unclear to what extent this rich range of applications was
encompassing any of the affordances of mobile learning beyond portability.
5.3 Indoor/Outdoor uses of Mobile Activities and Affordances
The use of mobile apps amongst teachers compared to the use of mobile apps amongst students provides
some initial insight into differences. Equally intriguing are differences between teacher and student uses of
indoor and outdoor mobile activities. These differences, captured in Figure 2, are apparent in a comparison,
acher versus student uses
in both environments.
The most striking difference, overall, relates to indoor versus outdoor use of mobile activities and
affordances. In all of the identified activities, from taking photographs to on-task, collaborative messaging,
indoor activities enjoy roughly 10% to 50% more engagement than outdoor activities. Nevertheless, elicited
responses from teachers (a summary of which is provided in Figure 3) regarding the improvement of the
mobile curriculum foreground the desire for curriculum content specifically targeting the design and
implementation of outdoor mobile learning activities.
The second noticeable difference, though less striking, is the fact that student use of mobile activities and
affordances outstrips teacher use of mobile activities and affordances on the course in a number of identified
fields, such as recording sounds and making use of sensors. In this respect, the design of an additional mobile
component needs to be informed by a good understanding of mobile affordances already embedded in school
classroom practices. Furthermore, should this disparity in usage encourage us to reflect on ways in which
specific app-related hands-on skills are acquired during the course of the programme?
Figure 2. Indoor and outdoor use of mobile activities and affordances
5.4 Better Integration of Mobile Affordances into the Course
Since one of the main motivations for this research (research question 3) was to seek to improve our
curriculum coverage of mobile learning, we asked the teachers which suggested mobile activities they would
like to see covered in the course. All of the suggestions gained some interest but the outdoor learning
activities were the most popular option (Figure 3.) If combined with GPS, which is used for many outdoor
mobile learning activities, this would prove to be a popular addition to the course, and is therefore the most
likely innovation that we will pilot at the next available opportunity. However, given that the other options
also revealed interest, we will also consider whether some of these other activities might also be covered.
These results suggest that there is genuine interest in mobile learning activities in the teacher community that
we are not currently addressing.
Figure 3. Mobile learning activities suggested for inclusion on the course
6. SUMMARY AND FUTURE WORK
This investigation has provided some evidence in support of both teacher and student use of mobile activities
and affordances in the classroom and beyond. One contribution of the work is that we have identified two
affordances of mobility that have not been explicitly highlighted in previous works, namely multimedia
creativity and the control of other devices. One of the most important limitations of this investigation,
however, is its inability to shed light on the extent to which the existing curriculum, whether experienced or
anticipated, has influenced teacher responses to survey questions. In the process, the following questions for
further research have been raised:
(1) If teachers are keen to engage in outdoor mobile learning activities, are there other systemic or
context-specific influences that significantly impede engagement in outdoor mobile learning activities and, if
this is the case, what might these impediments be?
(2) In this respect, the design of an additional mobile component needs to be informed by a good
understanding of mobile affordances already embedded in school classroom practices.
(3) Furthermore, should the disparity between teacher and student use of particular mobile affordances,
such as the recording of video and sound, influence the design of proposed mobile component of the
The investigation does provide sufficient impetus for redevelopment of the mobile curriculum to include,
most importantly, a focus on the design and implementation of outdoor mobile learning activities, and,
possibly, selected additional activities identified by teachers as being desirable, such as physical mobile
indoor learning activities and the use of digital device sensors. Given that organizing and managing outdoor
mobile learning activities during formal classroom sessions presents some challenges (e.g. inclement
weather), a further area for development may be flipped classroom activities, where students undertake
outdoor data gathering activities in their own time and then bring the photos, notes, graphs etc. into class to
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