Pownell and Bailey (2001) identify four “technological trends” in the relationship between Information and Communication Technologies and educational environments. In the 1960s the first computers, which were very large and extremely expensive were rarely used in the educational area. They were only used to help in administration and in management. In the seventies with the arrival of the personal computer, schools in several countries, as in the United States, introduced computer basic courses to help students learn the use of this new technology. In the nineties the large-scale diffusion of Internet and the World Wide Web lead to a huge number of people who communicated through a computer mediated communication. At last in 2000, extremely small computers were sold on the market and the era of wireless connections began. These two factors in the educational field encouraged the beginning and the development of mobile learning.
With the term mobile learning, we refer to the modality of the distribution of almost any educational content, for example: entire traditional courses or new mini-courses, using mobile technologies such as Pocket PC, PDA (personal digital assistant), Table PC, eBook, mobile phones, and other portable devices.
Mobile learning is different from e-learning, since it is not just electronic, it is mobile (Shepherd, 2001). Mobile learning is seen as the natural evolution of e-learning, according to Hoppe, Joner, Millard, and Sharples (20003) “m-learning is e-learning using a mobile device and wireless transmission.” Harris (2001) also writes, “m-learning is the point at which mobile computing and e-learning intersect to produce an anytime, anywhere learning experience.”
With mobile learning the learning phase is not bound to a location with specific characteristics, potentially becoming omnipresent learning. For example, delays during commuting and traveling on the underground become potential learning moments. In general, any moment which would otherwise be “wasted” or that before now could not be enriched with didactic contents, has now become a potential learning moment thanks to mobile learning.
The privileged target of this new type of distance education typology will be made up of professionals who spend most of their time away from their work location and need updated information at the last moment; or for example, commuters who do not have time to keep updated if not the doing time it takes to ride to the office on the train or university students who also work.
Since 2000, studies and projects, which focalize on mobile learning, are increasing constantly. The MLEARN conference (the World Conference on Mobile Learning) held for the first time in 2002, has now become an annual event, as for example, the International workshop on Mobile and Wireless Technologies in Education (WMTE) and The National Workshops and Tutorials on Handheld Computers in Universities and Colleges, held in the United Kingdom. In Italy, apart from the third MLEARN conference held in 2004 near Rome, it is difficult to identify conferences or research groups that study this specific topic.
Many researchers, especially in the UK, Finland, North America, Chile, Japan and Taiwan have been and still are dealing with this new learning methodology.
Several authors subdivided the works presented in literature into research areas based on the arguments discussed. Specifically Hoppe, Joiner, Millard, and Sharples (2003) identified the following three research lines: “the first work group deals with the nature of the collaborative activity: how this favors or hinders learning, and the implications relative to the development of the mobile wireless technology for learning. The second work group reports studies regarding the innovative use of mobile wireless technology for learning. At last, the last series of work shows the innovative developments in the field of learning” (p. 256).
Trifonova and Ronchetti (2003) also have cataloged their research relative to m-learning on the basis of three macro areas: infrastructural research, accessing content and communicating and interacting with people.
In the first area, studies treat problems connected to navigating on the web with a device, such as a PDA with a very small screen. This area includes all of the studies relative to the techniques of adapting contents of Web pages to mobile devices.