Modern foreign languages, higher education and mobile learning

Author: Nathalie Ticheler


A review of literature on Modern Foreign Languages and mobile learning at Higher Education Institutions in the United Kingdom, with a particular focus on the importance of the context on students’ learning experience

Modern Foreign Language departments at Higher Education Institutions in the United Kingdom are considered to be in a precarious situation, with declining enrolments on specialist language degree courses, in a context of an ever-increasing diversification of the student population.

At the same time, many universities have launched programmes and developed strategies to expand the use of e-learning and mobile learning within their departments with a view to maximise students’ learning experience.

This paper will define mobile learning in the context of Modern Foreign Languages and will consider the importance of the learning context, based on theories of collaborative learning.

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Table of contents


The precarious situation of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in the United Kingdom (UK), with issues such as the decreasing number of students on specialist language degree courses and the closure of university departments, is reported by numerous organisations such as the Centre of Information for Language Teaching (CILT) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), as well as in the Nuffield Language Inquiry Reports (2003). Kelly and Jones (2003:10) indicate that

“The decline in applications for language degrees has been proceeding at around 4-5% per year since the boom years of the early 1990s.”

“According to official figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, around 71,000 students were taking at least one accredited module in languages in 2001/2002. This represents 4.6% of all students and has declined from 90,000 (6.4%) in 1998/1999.” (Kelly and Jones 2003:12)

The CILT report on Language Trends (2005:1) shows that

“Considerable concern has been expressed in the press about the long-term future of languages in UK schools and universities and about the implications for business.”

Although there is an overall decline of pupils studying languages post-14 and sitting GCSE or Standard Grade examinations, some languages appear to be in a more favourable position, as entries for Japanese examinations at GCSE level increased by 74% between 2001 and 2005 (CILT 2005:2).

Regarding Higher Education, the CILT analysis (2007) of HESA data, based on annual enrolment figures, reveals a decline of 6.2% overall on first degree language courses between 2002-2003 and 2005-2006. In contrast, enrolments for first degrees in Chinese increased by 12% and by 29% for Japanese. Enrolments on Chinese language modules as part of non-language specific degrees increased by 207.1% and for Japanese, there was a 32.6% increase between 2002-2003 and 2005-2006.

Various initiatives have been implemented in an attempt to improve the precarious situation of MFL in the UK. The National Languages Strategy, launched in 2002, has implications at all stages of the education system and extends beyond the classroom, including at international level:

”In the knowledge society of the 21st century, language competence and intercultural understanding are not optional extras, they are an essential part of being a citizen.” (DFES 2002:6)

In 2006, HEFCE began to fund Routes into Languages in order to encourage the take-up of language courses in England. It is led by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS), in a partnership with the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) and the National Centre for Languages (CILT).

In a context of significant evolutions in Higher Education, such as the widening participation of students from non-traditional social and educational backgrounds, together with the necessity to operate within budgetary constraints, e-learning is presented as the ideal answer to current requirements, both at students’ level and at institutional level. Hurd (2002:6) comments on new ways of delivering learning in order to meet the students’ needs:

“Increasing diversity in the student population, through widening participation, new technologies and new, more cost-efficient practices in course production are forcing a re-think of current activity and providing a challenge to all those involved in the design and delivery of learning constantly seek out ways of ensuring that the needs of our language learners are met.”

The economic necessity of ICT-based education is perhaps the most prominent strand of the rhetoric surrounding learning technologies in post-compulsory education. However, the majority of the rhetoric surrounding learning technologies has centred on the individual learners, in particular the empowerment of the individual’s learning experience:

”Until now, learning has tended to be static and fixed. Learners have had to go to a site of learning such as a college or school at specific times E-learning can change all this. Learners can choose what, how and when they learn and learning can now be defined by those choices, rather than by the time available to attend a physical centre of learning.” (DFES 2002:17)

In March 2005, the DFES presented a five-year e-learning strategy Harnessing Technology: Transforming Learning and Children’s services, with implications in all areas of education, from primary schools to universities. ICT is clearly shown as a participational and motivational tool:

“At any stage of learning, ICT could re-engage the unmotivated learner” (DFES 2005:9) and “the new technologies are capable of creating real energy and excitement for all age groups. Used well, they should motivate, personalise and stretch.” (DFES 2005:11)

Some researchers such as Selwyn and Gorard (2003:169) have nevertheless contradicted these views in their analysis of data from the 2002 National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) survey of 5,885 households:

“ICT does not in itself make people any more likely to participate in education and (re)engage with learning […] ICT may be more realistically reapproached by the educational and political communities.”

Mobile learning

“There are currently 1.7 billion mobile phones in use around the world, while the total world population is 6 billion. In the past ten years, the development of mobile phone technology has been unbelievably swift: from analog to digital, and from plain and simple cell phones to the current 3G smart phone which can serve as a mini-computer, telephone, or camera, and transfer data as well as video and audio files.” (Shudong and Higgins 2006:3)

In recent years, mobile learning has attracted a great deal of interest and this has resulted in numerous pilot projects and research papers. An example of this is the review conducted by Cobcroft et al (2006) which concerned over 400 publications on mobile learning including conference papers, reports,reviews and research projects.

Nevertheless, mobile learning currently appears to be a rather fuzzy concept, with a wealth of initiatives related to the use of handheld devices both in and out of the classroom, including for self-study and to supplement taught sessions. There is a need to clarify its definition and scope and, in this paper, mobile learning is described as the use of handheld devices outside the classroom by adult students for learning purposes in Higher Education contexts in the United Kingdom.

For Geddes (2004), m-learning concerns the acquisition of knowledge and skills through the use of mobile technology, irrespective of time and location. Price (2007:33) adopts the same definition, explaining that

“the term “mobile learning” is frequently used to refer to the use of handheld technologies enabling the learner to be on the move, providing anytime anywhere access to learning.”

Winters (2007:7) highlights the relationship between e-learning and formal definitions from European and Government agencies and indicates that

“Technologists place a high emphasis on novelty and the functionality of the devices […] themselves. Some researchers focus on the mobility of the learner. Yet others focus on learning in informal settings, leading to a juxtaposition between mobile learning and formal education.”

However, Walker (2007:6) places a different focus on mobile learning when he says that

“mobile learning may be the buzzword of the day, but the emphasis should be on what people learn as much as how they learn.”

For Sharples (2007:4), mobile learning gives us the opportunity to design learning differently, to create extended learning communities, to provide expertise on demand, and to support a lifetime of learning. Sharples’ views are shared by Walker (2007:5):

“mobile learning is not just about learning using portable devices, but learning across contexts.”

Researchers such as Attewell present the advantages of mobile learning, which seem to concentrate around personalisation of learning, collaborative learning, a greater informality of the learning experience and an enhanced engagement of reluctant learners. For example, Attewell (2005:13) writes that

“Mobile learning is unique in that it allows truly anywhere, anytime, personalised learning. It can be used to enrich, enliven or add variety in conventional lessons or courses.” and also

“Mobile learning helps to remove some of the formality from the learning experience and engages reluctant students.” (Attewell 2005:14)

Kukulska-Hulme, another supporter of mobile learning, insists that mobile learning technologies have ceased to be the preserve of technicians and experts and that teachers and learners have begun to integrate them into their normal daily practice. For her,

“Mobile learning promises to deliver closer integration of language learning with everyday communication needs and cultural experiences.”
(Kukulska-Hulme 2006:119)

Kukulska-Hulme expresses favourable views towards e-learning and mobile learning but some other researchers have adopted diverging opinions in this area, such as Selwyn & Gorard (2003:169) in section 1, as well as Wang & Higgins (2006:4) in section 5.
Therefore, despite being generally presented as being a great solution to today’s requirements, mobile learning can still be considered as an ill-defined concept upon which some researchers have reservations, in particular regarding its efficiency and impact on the learners’ experience. Nevertheless, negative views expressed by researchers should be taken into account as they are relevant to section 4 dedicated to the learning context.

Theoretical framework

Following the definition of mobile learning, it may be appropriate to review what researchers say about mobile learning theories. The theoretical perspective of this paper should be considered in connection with the following section concerning the context in which mobile learning takes place. First of all, Conole (2004:6) recognises the limits of e-learning research but does not expand into mobile learning as such:

“As a young field, e-learning research suffers in a number of respects. Firstly, it is still eclectic in nature, not yet clearly defined and scoped. Secondly, much of the current research is criticized for being too anecdotal, lacking theoretical underpinning. Rigorous research methodologies are needed to ensure valid and meaningful findings.”

Sharples et al (2005:1) are aware of this shortcoming and identify the need to reconceptualise learning in the context of mobile learning and

” to recognise the essential role of mobility and communication in the process of learning, and also to indicate the importance of context in establishing meaning, and the transformative effect of digital networks in supporting virtual communities that transcend barriers of age and culture.”

Winters (2007:7) confirms existing difficulties in the area of mobile learning theory, by explaining that

“mobile learning applications are underpinned by many different theories of learning. While this breath of perspectives is to be welcomed because it leads to many possibilities for development, it poses problems when trying to develop a theory of mobile learning.”

In their review, Naismith et al (2006:6) recognise the importance of mobile technologies and refer to existing learning theories such as behaviourism, constructivism, problem-based learning, situated learning, as well as collaborative learning, and apply them to mobile learning. This may be considered as an effort, albeit limited, in the right direction.

“There is considerable interest from educators and technical developers in exploiting the unique capabilities and characteristics of mobile technologies to enable new and engaging forms of learning. This review explores the use of these mobile technologies for learning, against a backdrop of existing learning theories that have been applied to the use of computers in education.”

The review produced by Naismith et al (2006:1) moves away from the dominant view of mobile learning as an isolated activity to explore mobile learning as a collaborative experience and asks how we might draw on existing theories of learning to help us evaluate the most relevant applications of mobile technologies in education.
Attewell (2005:13) follows the same path to some extent by stating that

 “Mobile learning can be used to encourage both independent and collaborative learning experiences.”

Although mobile learning can still be perceived as an ill-defined concept at this stage, with theories of mobile learning facing the same difficulties, collaborative learning and personalised learning emerge as significant processes, in a context where, for Traxler and Bridges (2004:203),

“Mobile learning is slowly making the transition from small-scale short-term trials to sustainable institutional embedding.”

Owing to the increasing implementation of e-learning and m-learning programmes at Higher Education Institutions, it is considered essential to   investigate the issue of ethics as applied specifically to m-learning research. However, only a limited number of sources treated this particular topic. Traxler and Bridges (2004:203) explain how ethics influence mobile learning and where responsibilities lie:

”The issue of ethics influences mobile learning at two different stages. The first is that evaluating mobile learning trials requires ethical consideration. The second is that any ongoing online activity, including mobile learning, has an ethical dimension and this needs to be identified and explores as mobile learning evolves. In the first instance the responsibility is of the evaluator or researcher for the research participant. In the second, it is of the teacher for the learner.”

In addition, Traxler and Bridges (2004:203) express reservations in this area, where research and evaluation are, according to them, conducted with participants who are still immature and untested.

The importance of the context in mobile learning

In this paper, I take the view that the context plays a major part in the students’ learning experience and that it can contribute greatly to their success. Here, the context will be defined as the situation where learning takes place between the student and the handheld device, away from the classroom, and the tutor-directed activity.
The learning context as defined by Wang (2004) reads as follows: any information that can be used to characterise the situation of learning entities that are considered relevant to the interactions between a learner and an application. Wang (1994) identifies six dimensions that are relevant in computer-aided mobile learning: identity, spatio-temporal, facility, activity,learner and community. It is of interest to note that Wang (2004) mentions the community as significant factor in computer-aided mobile learning. These views correspond to those of Fersha et al (2004:69), and will remain a prominent feature of this section:

”In our approach, we are adding team awareness as a seventh dimension, as the six pre-defined context dimensions are single-user centred and do not cover issues that can only arise when looking at the learning team as a whole.” (Fersha et al 2004:69)

Beale (2004:23) follows the same path and highlights the importance of communication tools and collaborative learning as forms of support to maximise students’ learning:

”For many people, what is required is the digital equivalent of the street corner-where people can come and go; requiring little knowledge to participate in; and where people can learn and gain support and advice from their colleagues.”

For Naismith et al (2006:10), the potential of mobile technologies for learning can only be considered either embedded in classroom practice or as part of a learning experience outside the classroom. In addition, they recognise their capabilities for social interactions and foresee that

”Learning will move more and more outside of the classroom and into the learner’s environments, both real and virtual, thus becoming more situated, personal, collaborative and lifelong.” (Naismith et al 2006:5)

Naismith et al (2006:36) are indeed great believers in mobile learning technologies and collaborative learning when they declare that

“Such technologies can have a great impact on learning. Learning will move more and more outside of the classroom and into the learners’ environments, both real and virtual. Learning will involve making rich connections with these environments to both resources and other people.”

Here again, the benefits of collaborative learning are put forward by O’Nuallain and Brennan (2004:150):

“Students learn more effectively through the sharing of ideas with other students and general brainstorming which occurs through the use of collaborative features. Collaboration can be either synchronous or asynchronous.”

Bull et al (2004:39) are in agreement with O’Nuallain and Brennan (2004) when they indicate that

“A recent development within education, particularly higher education is support for group and collaborative learning. Previous research has shown that peer collaboration is an effective means of learning.”

There is indeed a great deal of concensus between researchers regarding collaborative learning, albeit in a variety of contexts. The last word on this issue for this section will be given to Dornyei, who specialises in student motivation and second language acquisition:

”Two interrelated psychological processes contribute significantly to the outstanding learning potential of the method: the unique group dynamics inherent to the CL processes that generate a supportive learning environment characterized by strong cohesiveness among learners and the motivational basis of CL which underlies student achievement gains.”
(Dornyei 1997:483)

”Cooperative learning has been found to be a highly effective instructional approach in education in general and this has been confirmed with regard tosecond language learning as well.” (Dornyei 1997:482)

Apart from collaborative learning, another significant feature of mobile learning concerns learner empowerment and personalised learning. These are not perceived here as mutually exclusive but rather as supplementing each other. Various researchers (Attewell 2004; Ally 2004; Kukulska-Hulme 2006) have put forward the benefits of personalised learning and learner empowerment. Attewell & Webster (2004:15) stress that

“Learning mediated by technology can provide a convenient, personalised and non-judgemental alternative to traditional education.”

For Ally (2004:6), learning is more efficient in context, when it is meaningful to the learner. Mobile learning is considered as a great way to achieve personalised learning because students can choose what and how they learn,when and where.
Kukulska-Hulme expresses views favourable to mobile learning as a way to empower learners, to give them a greater say in their learning experience with a view to increase their motivation:

“Alongside social interaction, more intensely personal use of portable devices promise greater levels of engagement with learning. Besides, those who have a mobile device often appreciate having the option of mobile access to electronic materials, resources and people […] it is the element of choice that is particularly appealing.” (2006:122)

”Mobile devices have opened up a vast range of possibilities for learning in ways that are convenient and suited to the needs of an individual within the context of their lifestyle.”(Kukulska-Hulme 2006:128)

As presented earlier in this section, many researchers are favourable to e-learning and m-learning, in particular regarding features enhancing opportunities for personalised learning and collaborative learning. However, Conole (2004:2) brings in a more cautious note to the current discourse, as she declares that

“E-learning is transforming education. It provides opportunities for learning anytime, anywhere. It provides access to a wealth of resources and new forms of communication and virtual communities. Sounds familiar? These are the sound bites that pepper research journals, conferences and the media. But the reality is that e-learning is still marginal in the lives of most academics, with technology being used for little more than acting as content repository or for administrative purposes. Think carefully, how many really innovative examples of the use of technology have you seen?”


“In the new landscape of learning with mobile devices, those involved with language teaching and learning would do well to bear in mind the above three aspects: context, continuity, and openness to the unexpected. Placing these aspects at the centre of any new designs for language learning could lead to interesting new directions for its future.” (Kukulska-Hulme 2006:131)

In conclusion, although a lot of research is conducted in the field of computer-assisted language learning and related areas such as e-learning and m-learning, m-learning itself can still be considered as an ill-defined concept and there is also a justification for the strengthening of specific m-learning theories.
Although m-learning appears to be presented as an ideal tool to meet today’s requirements in education, voices are being heard regarding the limitations of its applications and the relative difficulty to evaluate its impact. In particular,Wang and Higgins (2006:4) express the following reservations:

“We therefore accept that mobile learning can, and probably will, play a more important role in life-long learning processes. However, due to technical limitations, as well as human psychology, mobile phone learning is still limited to an assistance-only function. Traditional classroom learning or even […] e-learning should not be brushed aside, and the real potential of mobile phone learning should not be exaggerated.”

They also make the following comments regarding the impact and evaluation of m-learning:

“Psychologically, people have not become used to mobile learning; pedagogically, mobile learning results are not easy to evaluate or follow-up.” (Wang & Higgins 2006:12)

In addition, Wang and Higgins (2006) believe that mobile phones will be used mainly for communication purposes, and not for learning. For them, m-learning is just another way of using a new technology, especially as they consider that m-learning suffers from an absence of a learning atmosphere. Finally, they express concerns regarding the possible resistance of learners to m-learning:

“If the interruptions and distractions occur frequently enough, educators believe the learners will gradually become resistant to mobile learning in the same way as has been found in other transitory learning environments.” (Wang & Higgins 2006:6)

Recurrent features of e-learning and m-learning research concern the context in which learning technologies are used, as we do not only deal with learning tools but also with human beings, with diversified motivations and ways of learning. Throughout this review, two issues distanced themselves from the wide variety of issues concerning m-learning: collaborative learning and personalisation of learning and learner empowerment. These are not exclusive of each other but, in my view, supplement each other and highlight the importance of the context in which the learning process takes place. Indeed, Naismith et al (2006:4) reinforce the need to place m-learning in a learning context:

“A blended approach to enabling learning with mobile technologies is necessary as successful and engaging activities draw on a number of different theories and practices.”

As a last comment, it should be said in agreement with Kukulska-Hulme (2007:1) that, although we are dealing with technologies, human nature should be firmly anchored at the centre of developments and that m-learning still remain to be discovered:

“Mobile learning is proving to be a fertile ground for innovation, but it is important to realise that the success of mobile learning will depend on human factors in the use of the new mobile and wireless technologies. It is only now that the challenges of mobile learning on a larger scale, and with diverse populations of students, are beginning to be understood.”


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