Impact Journal Logo

Is the use of mobile devices in schools really innovative? What does the evidence say?

8 min read

This article reports the initial findings undertaken by a transnational team of academics and teachers funded from an Erasmus+ project entitled ‘Designing and Evaluating Innovative Mobile Pedagogies’ (DEIMP). We recognise that mobile technologies have been used inappropriately by students and do not deny that smartphones have generated problems and challenges for teachers, leading to concerns amongst parents, teachers and headteachers around the disruption caused by personal mobile devices in schools. However, we are also cognisant of the benefits for learning that these technologies can offer when used appropriately (Bano et al., 2018); (Ng and Nicholas , 2019). The research reported here therefore seeks to help teachers to identify and design innovative mobile learning pedagogies that make a tangible difference to the lives and experiences of learners.

What is innovation?

The word ‘innovation’ is used rather loosely in education, but the research literature suggests that it requires more than superficial change and should be impactful and valuable to individuals or communities (Denning , 2004); (Lindfors and Hilmola , 2016). Innovation is a complex and contested concept, but our own findings suggest that it can be best understood as a continuum. At one end are ‘sustaining innovations’, where an existing idea or practice is adapted but not radically challenged (Christensen et al., 2008). At the other end of the spectrum, ‘disruptive innovation’ is extremely different to the status quo and can initiate a paradigm shift (Christensen , 1997), transforming existing, dominant practices.

The research methodology

With the above discussion in mind, academics and teachers from the DEIMP project team have conducted a systematic literature review to identify how the use of mobile technologies supports innovative teaching and learning practices for school-aged learners. Unlike a traditional literature review, a systematic literature review adopts a clearly defined set of criteria and search protocol to scan academic and other research databases for articles that match. In this case, the criteria focused on the terms ‘mobile learning’, ‘innovation’ and ‘school-aged children’, along with various synonyms. The initial search yielded 208 academic papers. A further refinement was then conducted, in which pairs of researchers applied the following selection criteria:

  • published in English between 2010 and 2017
  • SCImago journal ranking (SJR) in the top two quartiles
  • targeted school-aged learners (5–18 years)
  • study adopted a rigorous methodology with compelling evidence
  • focused on innovative mobile pedagogies
  • strategies and approaches used were effective (e. had positive learning outcomes).

This process reduced the number of suitable papers to 72. Subsequent refinements reduced this to 57 papers, which were then ranked along the innovation continuum described earlier, using the following criteria identified in the literature on innovative mobile learning (Law , 2003); (Law et al., 2005):

  • innovative nature of the task
  • context of the learning
  • relationship between teacher and student
  • extent of student agency.

A table was set up so that each criterion could be scored from 1 (low) to 3 (high). Each team member independently scored a selection of papers, and scores were statistically analysed for outliers. Papers with a score of 4–6 were identified as low in innovation, 7–9 as medium, and 10–12 as high in innovation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 is titled "Innovation spectrum" and shows a graph with one horizontal axis. The axis is labelled "Sustaining innovation" on the left and "Disruptive innovation" on the right. It ranges from 4 to 12. Results in the ranges 4, 5 and 6 are labelled as "Low". Results in the ranges 7, 8 and 9 are labelled as "Medium". Results in the ranges 10, 11 and 12 are labelled as "High".


Of the 57 papers, only three demonstrated high levels of mobile pedagogical innovation that could potentially disrupt traditional practices. Twenty-five papers were placed as medium on the innovation spectrum and 29 at the low point.

All three of the high-scoring papers featured high levels of student autonomy, such as in how, where and when they undertook a task and how they demonstrated their learning. The relationship between students and teachers was more democratic than normal, with tasks such as the co-authoring of a mobile learning activity. Most significantly, learning occurred across multiple contexts, such as the classroom and the local environment, and the mobile device bridged the boundaries between these contexts, potentially making learning more authentic and meaningful.

An example can be seen in a study undertaken by Barak and Ziv (Barak and Ziv , 2013), which investigated Year 9 students’ use of a tool called Wandering to facilitate outdoor, interactive learning in their environmental studies. Students used the program to design and create their own short, reusable learning packages, which included an objective, a learning activity and peer assessment. Learning was enhanced through students searching for information, creating a ‘LILO’ (location-based interactive learning object), and then sharing it with the community using social media. Findings indicated high motivation amongst students, not only for completing their school assignment, but also for contributing to the community.

By contrast, in the studies that were scored ‘medium’ or ‘low’, students were granted fewer opportunities to demonstrate agency. An example of a study scored as ‘medium’ can be found in Looi et al.’s study (Looi et al., 2011). Over a period of 21 weeks, Grade 3 students in a Singaporean primary school used mobile devices in the science curriculum to investigate a series of scientific challenges created by their teachers, with a focus on ‘seamless activities’ that crossed between formal and informal learning contexts. These tasks were highly student-centred and collaborative in nature but none were significantly disruptive and most of them followed traditional classroom practices. Whilst the mobile devices played a significant part in supporting students to undertake these tasks (e.g. video recording the experiments they undertook at home with their parents), they were not indispensable and most of the tasks/activities could have been undertaken with more conventional tools. Unlike the disruptive innovation illustrated above, this study was more typical of the medium-scored papers in which teachers made most of the decisions about the overarching nature and design of learning tasks.

In this example, and more so in the examples classified as low in innovation, mobile learning tasks that teachers designed were often not uniquely mobile and could have been completed in more traditional ways. These tasks tended to be simulated, rather than the authentic activities identified in the high-scoring papers, and this often reflected the more traditional contexts, mainly the classroom, where the mobile devices were being used. An example of a low-scoring paper was Smith and Santori (Smith and Santori , 2015), which investigated the typical use of iPad devices in two middle schools in the USA. The authors described tasks that resembled traditional activities that might have been undertaken on a computer, such as web browsing, and which were all completed in one space – the classroom.

Emerging principles

Based on a thematic analysis of all the papers, we identified a set of 21 pedagogical design principles that underpin the innovative and disruptive use of mobile technologies (see Table 1).

Table 1 is titled "Design principles for innovative mobile pedagogies" and shows a table with the following 21 lines: "1. Seamless learning: Activity occurs across a variety of physical and/or virtual setting", "2. Digital play: Activity involves exploration without explicit curriculum goal", "3. Student agency: Students have a choice how to do the activity", "4. Student autonomy: Students determine the activity", "5. Gamification: Applies elements of games such as competitions, random events, scoring", "6. Customisation: Learning pathways are adapted to individual input", "7. Authentic environment: Activity occurs in situ (that is, it occurs in its original or natural location)", "8. Simulation: Conducting realistic virtual task e.g. Google expedition", "9. Context awareness: Activity adapts to environmental stimuli, for example new vocabulary is determined by external items", "10. Data sharing: Learners share digital artefacts with peers", "11. Artefact construction: Learners make digital object, e.g. video, music, game", "12. Co-construction: Learners use collaborative authoring tools, e.g. Google docs", "13. Reflection: Learners reflect in multimodal ways, e.g. with vlogs, colours, sound", "14. Real-world processes: Learners engage in activities similar to those done by practitioners, e.g. testing aero-dynamics of objects with app", "15. Real-world tools: Activity uses app as a tool, e.g. to compose music or paint a picture", "16. Role-play: Learners assemble tools and methods and enact roles, e.g. citizen, journalist", "17. Peer review: Learners review each other's contributions, e.g. via blogs", "18. Co-design for mobile learning: Students and teachers 'mobilise activities', i.e. transform them into ones with mobile features", "19. Intergenerational learning: Learners across different generations work together, e.g. capturing oral history", "20. Bridging: Learners work across formal and informal contexts", and "21. Community-based: Learners conduct a community activity or project, e.g. monitoring litter".


All of the studies identified in this systematic literature review illustrate how mobile technologies can be used by school-aged students within existing educational systems to bring about meaningful learning. Whilst few of the studies were radically disruptive in nature, they all demonstrate positive benefits for learners, such as greater student agency, choice and opportunities to work in more seamless and varied contexts. Therefore we conclude that there is a need to support teachers and pre-service teachers in designing similar mobile pedagogical activities. The 21 principles identified can be used for this purpose, and the DEIMP project team are currently analysing the findings from a worldwide survey of teachers and mobile learning experts to identify which of these principles are most effective and most likely to be incorporated in mobile teaching and learning activities.

Conclusion and recommendations

The initial findings from the DEIMP project reveal a diverse range of pedagogical strategies for using mobile devices for beneficial purposes and in ways that begin to challenge existing practices and structures. Based on these findings, we recommend that teachers:

  • Design mobile pedagogies that incorporate change that is not merely incremental in innovation, or what we have called ‘sustaining innovations’, but ones that have some elements of disruption in them.
  • Recognise that radical or disruptive innovation is too challenging for most to adopt immediately; rather, we suggest that we encourage innovation somewhere between conservative and radical and view disruption as being on a continuum. An important aspect of disruption in the context of school-aged learning with mobile devices, we argue, is that it is feasible.

To support teachers, the DEIMP project is developing a selection of multimedia scenarios, a bespoke mobile app and an online training module. These will be field trialled in 2019–2020, and teachers/schools wishing to take part in these pilots can visit the project website at for more information.

    • Bano M, Zowghi D, Kearney M, et al. (2018) Mobile learning for science and mathematics school education: A systematic review of empirical evidence. Computers & Education (121): 30–58.
    • Barak M and Ziv S (2013) Wandering: A web-based platform for the creation of location-based interactive learning objects. Computers & Education (62): 159–170.
    • Christensen C (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Revised Edition). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
    • Christensen C, Horn M and Johnson C (2008) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw‐Hill.
    • Denning P (2004) The social life of innovation. Communications of the ACM 4(4): 15–19.
    • Law N (2003) Innovative classroom practices and the teacher of the future. In: Dowling C and Lai K (eds) Information and Communication Technology and the Teacher of the Future. Dordrecht: Kluwer, pp. 171–182.
    • Law N, Chow Y and Yuen H (2005) Methodological approaches to comparing pedagogical innovations using technology. Education and Information Technologies (38): 7–20.
    • Lindfors E and Hilmola A (2016) Innovation learning in comprehensive education? International Journal of Technology and Design Education (26): 373–389.
    • Looi C, Zhang B, Chen W, et al. (2011) 1:1 mobile inquiry learning experience for primary science students: A study of learning effectiveness. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27(3): 269–287.
    • Ng W and Nicholas H (2019) Understanding Mobile Digital Worlds: How Do Australian Adolescents Relate to Mobile Technology? . Technology, Pedagogy and Education.
    • Smith C and Santori D (2015) An exploration of iPad-based teaching and learning: How middle-grades teachers and students are realizing. Journal of Research on Technology in Education 47(3): 173–185.
    5 1 vote
    Please Rate this content
    Notify of
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments

    From this issue

    Impact Articles on the same themes

    Author(s): Bill Lucas