Informal Learning and Mobile Devices: A pathway to Inquiry-Based Research in the Classroom

When I first got my iphone the entire world around me took on new meaning. As long as I had connectivity, I could google ANYTHING around me that I was curious about. And not only could I google it, but with the advantage of 3G and full access to a web browser, regardless of being on Wi-Fi, there were applications (apps) available that helped me to figure things out. Bird identification apps like iBird, Peterson’s Fields Guides; Plant identification apps like Leafsnap or Botany Buddy; Location apps and Map finding with Google Earth or Maps, all with just a swipe or finger touches gave me access to information that I didn’t know. There were even practical applications like a tide chart, star gazer, and unit converter.  When teaching science, teachers often try to get students to make the connection to the world around them. One passionate biology teacher says, “…my motives are clear–teach the children to see the world under their noses. The world offers riches beyond a wealthy family’s dreams, but you need to go outside. Kids know this until we teach them to forget. Most classes fit well in a classroom–a good biology class tends to ooze outwards.” (Doyle, 2012)

Then came QR codes (Quick Response). A QR code is a graphic that is composed of bits of data and arranged so that a QR code reader can read the marker. (QR Code, 2012 para. 1). The information that the code can contain may be text or numbers, an image, a video, and more commonly, a link to a website URL. With the advent of the QR code, my informal learning became more directed. If I chose to scan a QR code then the creator of this code is guiding my learning. If I chose to find out specifics on my own, I still had the tools available to me to explore those details that are most interesting to me. I recently visited a National Wildlife Refuge that offered many QR codes helping to identify the more stationary objects. This was helpful and interesting, but I still found myself relying on other mobile applications to help me understand the objects that were not stationary or unexpected. Unless one begins banding White Pelican’s with QR codes that are readable with a spotting scope, I wouldn’t have known that White Pelicans are not common to the area and only fly through on their migration route and that they don’t plunge like brown pelicans when they are feeding, but rather they scoop up fish, often working in groups. (Peterson, 2012).

The markers of QR codes quickly paved the way for opportunities for augmented reality (AR) elements. Wikipedia describes AR as “a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. (Augmented reality, 2012). AR markers, like QR codes, can contain text, images, videos, or links to website URLs, but with AR you can also add animations and the user’s experience changes depending on where the camera on the smartphone is pointing. AR takes the directed learning of QR codes a step farther by giving the viewer choices on where to focus their interest. The informal learning may begin as directed, but the user is given choices and alternatives for taking the next step.

According to a Nielsen survey, people in the US have a 55.5% preference for a smartphone over a feature phone and the trend is steadily moving towards that preference. Android and IOS continue to dominate the market. 75% of the 25-34 year olds own a smartphone, and teenagers 13-17 demonstrated the larger population increase from 36% owning a smartphone in 2011 to 58% at the time of this survey. (Nielsen, 2012).  As access to a smartphone increase, the more familiar with the device students and teachers will become. With this familiarity will come greater opportunities for informal learning that leads right into and will have greater influence on incorporating mobile learning devices in the classroom.

Many research papers have concluded that students have increased engagement and gain a deeper understanding of learning when they are in control of their own learning. This is referenced in a paper on “Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning: A Collaborative Study” referring to findings fromMary B., Nakhleh, John Polles, and Eric Malina, “Learning Chemistry in a Laboratory Environment,” in Chemical Education: Towards a Research-based Practice, John K. Gilbert, Onno De Jong, Rosária Justi, David F. Treagust, and Jan H. Van Driel, Eds. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), pp. 69–94. Similar findings are ubiquitous throughout education research. Students involved in the activities around inquiry-based research are prime examples of those who could benefit the most from using mobile technology both inside, and outside the classroom.

For me, informal learning is a progression into the basis for inquiry-based learning in a classroom.  “The potential for innovation and both collaborative and independent learning experimentation offered by using mobile devices in this context appears to be nearly unlimited.” (Abilene Christian University 2008-2009 Mobile-Learning Report. p. 24). The natural curiosity that is fostered by the knowledge that the answers are readily available is an exciting concept for educators to see in their students.  Allowing students to use their smartphones (or smart devices) in the class “…is the one device that they always have access to (the immediacy) as a learning hub (continuum and consistency) and that provides the mobility for them to learn outside of the classroom, on the move and across contexts, and thus really enabled students to take both responsibilities and ownership to motivate them.” (Looi, C.-K., Zhang, 2010).  As smart phones become prevalent and broadband becomes less expensive and more widespread, there will be more opportunities for seeing mobile device use for inquiry-based research.


Abilene Christian University 2008-2009 Mobile-Learning Report. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012 from

Augmented Realty. In Wikipedia, Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012, from

Clough, G., Jones, A.C., McAndrew, P. and Scanlon, E. (2008), “Informal learning with PDAs and smartphones.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24: 359–371.

Doyle. (Jun. 1, 2012). June, again. Retrieved: Oct. 30, 2012, from

Looi, C.-K., Zhang, B., Chen, W., Seow, P., Chia, G., Norris, C. and Soloway, E. (2011), “1:1 mobile inquiry learning experience for primary science students: a study of learning effectiveness.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27: 269–287.

NielsenWire. (Sept. 10, 2012). Young Adults and Teens Lead Growth Among Smartphone Owners. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012  from

Peterson, Roger Tory. (2012). Peterson Birds of North America. (iphone application created by Appweavers, Inc.

Powell, Cynthia B., Perkins, Scott, Hamm, Scott, Hatherill, Robert, Nicholson, Louise, and Harapnuik, Dwayne. (December 15, 2011.)  Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning: A Collaborative Study. Retrieved Oct 25, 2012 from

QR Code. In Wikipedia, Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012, from


9 thoughts on “Informal Learning and Mobile Devices: A pathway to Inquiry-Based Research in the Classroom

  1. In my case, one of the most compelling tools for inquiry-based learning on my iPhone is Siri (and more recently, Google’s voice search, which is actually a bit better than Siri for general searches). I didn’t realize the extent to which voice search made a difference until I went from my Siri-less iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5. This has largely to do with the awkwardness of keying in complex search queries on a small touch screen. It’s so quick and easy to do that I’m much more likely to reach for my phone than either my laptop or iPad. I’m still working my way through the problem of sounding foolish to those around me, and there are some instances where it would be clearly inappropriate to do a voice search, but it’s generally quite a boon.

    I’m curious to see how this might work for K-6 students, whose searches are sometimes complicated by spelling errors and typos. I’m aware from my work with 5th graders at Badger Road Elementary that searching is second nature to most of them. I frequently observe students popping over to Google to define a word, search or an image, or do some calculations or conversions. I haven’t seen anyone use Siri yet for these purposes. I’m not sure whether they are not aware of it or whether the teacher discourages it, but I doubt it is the latter.

    • I’ll admit that I haven’t used siri on my ipad yet. I’ll have to try it out. I wonder if kids think it will be disruptive to have a voice talking to them. I love the idea about not having to worry about misspellings or typos.

      • I can see how it COULD be disruptive in a classroom at first, but once the novelty of some speaking to his/her iPad wore off, I suspect it would become routine and barely noticed.

        I used Siri a LOT last night (on my iPhone) looking for election info. If I had had to key those questions in, I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much done.

        In a slightly ironic twist, my sons and I were having a three-way iMessage chat about the elections (Will is a political science major and was deeply involved in the Obama campaign) in which all three of use were using Siri to compose and send our texts. At first blush, you might wonder why we didn’t just call each other, but the asynchronous nature of the conversations would have made that very awkward.

      • While I was visiting my 75 year old very hip mother she was trying to figure out how to use Siri. It was very interesting to watch her interact with her phone. She kept asking it detailed questions, and never got an answer. From a librarian standpoint, her questions were much too detailed and she was using too may words– similar to how people do Google searches. Perhaps librarians will have to coach people on how to formulate Siri questions.

  2. Excellent article! I love the quote you used “…Most classes fit well in a classroom–a good biology class tends to ooze outwards.” How different from reality this is in most cases! You present a good argument for students to use mobile devices in class and allowing their own devices allows for greater personalization through encouraging informal learning. I hope that with increasing use and familiarity, mobile will be used more in the classroom.

    Seems like there have been a lot of articles this year headlining something like “Are QR codes dead?” It’s funny how they have become part of the landscape though, as they still are all around if you look. One of my favorite practical QR code use is AK Airlines app-only boarding passes – just make sure you take a screenshot right away if you need to retain it for record keeping, as it will disappear after travel is complete!

    My son, who uses Siri often at home, says he doesn’t do it at school because it might be considered weird and it would force him to use his allotted downloads so he keeps his cellular data turned off in general.

    I can only find one edit: Students involved in the activities around *inquire-based* research

    • Thanks Jen – fixed the typo.

      I went to First Friday last week and found myself really frustrated at one gallery where I really wished the artists had put up some up QR codes so I could learn more about the artist or even get contact information. The studio was really busy so I didn’t get a chance to ask but I might have left some money there if there was more information available!

      Probably my best “science” experience that has stuck with me the most came in 4th grade. I went to Denali school and before the put in all the ball fields behind the school there was open land. We used to talk a walk through the woods every week, collecting, looking, listening, and feeling. We’d go back into the classroom and talk or explore more about what we found.

      What I found really interesting about distance and online education is the opportunity to learn about other areas of the state (or world) where the other students live. I think it completely enriches whatever topic you are studying. Getting these came kind of interpretations from another perspective is often missed in a f2f classroom. (wow…that went really off topic!)

  3. I feel like I keep repeating myself in BYOD discussions, but my one concern is digital divide! What about the students who do not have smartphones!?!?! There are plenty of them out there. As Lisa pointed out in her blog posting for this assignment , to remedy this situation , “Provide all students with a mobile device.”

    • I agree that there should be equity somehow but I think there can be a happy medium where a combination of approaches work – provide students with devices who don’t have them but also allow those who do and who want to use their own device to do so. Careful planning is important from what I’ve read but it is doable.

      • I’m not sure it’s necessary to provide every student with a mobile device, although it’s certainly incumbent to provide one for those that can’t bring their own. I think you’re right–a combination of approaches, tailored for a specific situation, is probably best. I know I’d prefer to use my own device if I had one.

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