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Reflecting on the Principles of Effective mLearning Design

I'm participating in a micro-MOOC called Instructional Design for Mobile Learning (#idml13 on Twitter).  During the first official week of the course, participants were presented with a list of six general principles on mobile instructional design described by the University of Oregon's (n.d.) department of Applied Information Management (AIM ).  Those principles are: 
  • Principle #1: Develop a simple and intuitive interface design
  • Principle #2: Integrate interactive multi-media
  • Principle #3: Build short, modular lessons and activities
  • Principle #4: Design content that is engaging and entertaining
  • Principle #5: Design content that is contextual, relevant, and valuable to the learner
  • Principle #6: Design content for just-in-time delivery
This list of principles was developed by the AIM as a set of recommendations stemming from a review of a range of research and literature on effective mLearning design.  I can't argue with any of these recommendations, as they do offer sound, practical guidance for anyone venturing into mLearning instructional design.  These principles are reflective of the eight recommendations for universal instructional design for mLearning presented by Elias (2010, p. 147), which are summarized below: 
  1. <!--[endif]-->equitable use;
  2. flexible use;
  3. simple and intuitive;
  4. perceptible information;
  5. tolerance for error;
  6. low physical and technical effort;
  7. community of learners and support; and
  8. instructional climate.

They are also reflective of the extensive list of tips provided by Traxler and Wishart's (2011, p. 43) Mobile Learning Practitioner's Checklist (in particular, points 8-10 under the Pedagogical Advice subheading):

Pedagogical advice:
8. Learning opportunities - identify key ‘starter’ opportunities for students to focus on that are relevant to subject being taught.
9. Constructivist approach - build learning opportunities across and between authentic contexts and the classroom.
10. Student autonomy – the need to work with students to enable them to choose the best ways of using their personal devices to support their learning.


Rather than debate the merits of one particular checklist over another (as the all provide relatively similar advice), I'm using this blog post to reflect on just how sound these tips are in terms of Koole's (2009) theoretically-grounded Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME), which is depicted graphically below:


Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME) (Koole, 2009)

The FRAME model is fast becoming one of the most widely referenced frameworks for mLearning research design and evaluation.  This is because of its elegant simplicity and simultaneously comprehensiveness.  FRAME draws upon established learning theory such as Activity Theory, social interaction theory, and Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.  FRAME divides mLearning analysis into three primary domains: the learner aspect, the social aspect, and the device aspect.  As depicted above, these aspects overlap in mLearning design, and effective instructional design will not only account for all three domains... it will try to integrate them as closely together as possible.  Using FRAME, we can comfortably assess how comprehensive the six principles proposed by AIM are:

  • Principle #1: Develop a simple and intuitive interface design (Device Aspect)
  • Principle #2: Integrate interactive multi-media (Device Aspect, Learner Aspect)
  • Principle #3: Build short, modular lessons and activities (Learner Aspect)
  • Principle #4: Design content that is engaging and entertaining (Learner Aspect)
  • Principle #5: Design content that is contextual, relevant, and valuable to the learner (Learner Aspect)
  • Principle #6: Design content for just-in-time delivery (Learner Aspect)

One thing that the AID principles seem to be lacking in their advice is any mention of the Social Aspect described by FRAME.  Obviously, not every learning activity is going to be a group effort... but there must be some form of social interaction (either with fellow learners, instructors or, in the case of MOOCs, wayfinders).  Social interaction is critical for motivation, support, and skill scaffolding.  Both Activity Theory and the zone of proximal development (ZPD) emphasize the benefits of social interaction in learning, and ZPD stresses that learners who more frequently engage in collaborative social interaction in learning efforts gain the skills and confidence to achieve more when learning independently. 

The same exercise could be carried out with either of Elias's (2010) or Traxler and Wishart's (2011) checklists, and would find that the only direct mention of social interaction in either checklist is Elias's reference to a "community of learners and support" (p. 147). 


As part of our activities during week one of #idml13, we were asked to reflect upon one of the principles listed by the AIM and how we could integrate that principle into our own distance / mLearning instructional design.  Rather than reflecting on one single principle from that list, I spent several days mulling over how comprehensive the advice is in light of FRAME and the Collaborative Situated Active mLearning (CSAM) approach that I've been developing.  CSAM draws upon the three domains of the FRAME model and its theoretical grounding in Activity Theory and ZPD (Impedovo, 2011; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006).  It also draws upon Moore's (1989, 1991) Transactional Distance Theory and Flow Theory (Chaiklin, 2003; Chen, 2006; Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).  Unlike FRAME (which is designed more as an analytical tool), CSAM is designed more to act as a pedagogical guidepost.  It suggests that mLearning design will be most effective if it includes collaborative, situated and active elements.  By collaborative, I mean that learners need to interact in partnerships with either their peers, their instructors, or their wayfinders in some way (FRAME's Social Aspect and Elias's point #7).  By Situated, I mean that learning should take place in authentic contexts (which directly encompasses principles 5-6 referenced by AIM and Traxler & Wishart's point #9... but also encompasses AIM's principle #4 about being engaging and entertaining).  By Active, I mean that learners must actually do something with the learning content, and not just act as passive recipients (which could be argued to be part of AIM's principle #2 about interactive multimedia design, and is definitely reflective of Traxler & Wishart's point #9 about incorporating constructivist approaches).  Below is the poster on CSAM that I presented last week at Mobile Learning: Gulf Perspectives in Abu Dhabi, UAE:




Now don't get me wrong... I'm not suggesting that mLearning designers dismiss AIM's six principles.  I try to touch on all of them in my own instructional design, and I advise others to do so as well.  A look at the mobile RLO I developed for my recent THE2013 workshop on designing your own CSAM mobile reusable learning objects (RLOs) will show how I presented very similar advice (and drew upon it in my own RLO designs)... but it will also show how I tried to integrate that critical social interaction element even into an RLO that could be used by learners who are both geographically and temporally distant from each other.   One of the common criticisms of both distance and mobile learning is that removing learners from the traditional environment of peer and teacher support (the classroom) could be detrimental to motivation, formative feedback, and achievement.  This need not be the case... but ensuring that it is not means accounting for the Social Aspect domain described by FRAME (and central to CSAM)
Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. Retrieved from
Chen, J. (2006). Flow theory. Flow in games. Retrieved from: Clark, R.E. (1994a). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-30.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: Creativity and optimum functioning. Excerpt from the book ‘Finding Flow.’ Psychology Today, 46(5). Retrieved from
Elias, T. (2010). Universal instructional design principles for mobile learning. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(2), 143-156. Retrieved from
Impedovo, M. A. (2011), Mobile learning and Activity Theory. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, English Edition, 7(2), 103-109. Retrieved from
Kaptelinin, V. & Nardi, B. (2006). Acting with technology: Activity theory and interaction design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  

Koole, M. L. (2009). A model for framing mobile learning. In M. Ally (Ed.), Mobile learning: Transforming the delivery of education and training, 25-47. Edmonton, AB: AU Press. Retrieved from

Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.


Moore, M. (1991). Editorial: Distance education theory. The American Journal of Distance Education, 5(3), 1-6. Retrieved from

Traxler, J. & Wishart, J. (2011).  Making mobile learning work: Case studies of practice.  Bristol: UK: ESCalate.  Retrieved from

University of Oregon (n.d.). Mobile instructional design principles for adult learners.  Retrieved from

By: Robert Power
Posted: April 27, 2013, 3:18 pm


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