For years, we have been following educational paradigms that promote formal, structured, unidirectional interventions to help learners acquire and retain miscellaneous knowledge. We hoped they would retain it until the moment they might need it.

Now, we are witnessing how these long-standing patterns in teaching and learning processes are in tension with more dynamic, connected, and collaborative ways of finding and exchanging context-relevant information. As learning designers, we cannot ignore these new channels of communication and knowledge transfer. We need to start thinking beyond the traditional training courses, beyond the constraints of LMSs, and outside of static educational environments.

It is time to seize innovation by leveraging social interactions and designing uniquely mobile experiences in order to help learners make meaning of the world around them. Here are some ideas about how to accomplish this.

Leveraging social interactions

One of the main premises of social learning is that meaningful interactions among individuals can lead to increased understanding. Social networking as an educational tool naturally promotes collaboration and participation and therefore, it could profoundly transform traditional educational settings and practices. By using social media and participating in virtual communities, educators can become facilitators of interactions and content curators while students can model and produce—as opposed to passively consume—the learning content.


The Twitter Experiment carried out by Dr. Monica Rankin, professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas, is a clear example of how we can make the transition from teacher-centered approaches to student-centered tasks and student-generated content. Four years ago, Dr. Rankin decided to integrate Twitter into an actual classroom setting in order to foster higher participation in class discussions. She left behind the traditional model of unidirectional lectures.

Students reported that this experience made them more willing to participate and allowed them to express themselves more freely. They also highlighted how the immediate access to relevant resources and information helped them advance their understanding on the subject.

In addition, Dr. Rankin found that this type of synchronous communication activity via social media helps students stay focused on the task as they gather relevant information at the exact moment they need it and try to provide the most accurate answers in front of their peers. Students interact with the content in a more meaningful way and shape it according to their needs; as a result, they will be more likely to remember and retrieve the key information later.

The 140-character payoff

Another aspect that I found particularly interesting about using Twitter for educational purposes is the 140-character constraint, which demands cognitive effort. To be able to express their opinions or share relevant evidence, students need to evaluate, compare, analyze, and synthesize the information available—and express the result in 140 characters. This requires that higher-order thinking skills come into play.

In relation to this, it is worth mentioning a very interesting challenge issued by the social learning specialist, Jane Hart, some months ago. In her article, Instructional Design in 140 characters #140id, Jane refers to @cookbook’s tweets as excellent examples of how small bits of instructions cleverly expressed in only 140 characters can be very useful to guide performance of specific procedures, in this case, recipes. The challenge was based on the idea of creating new sources of information and opening new learning paths by sharing brief instructional texts or just-in-time, just-enough, just-for-me recommendations on a daily basis.

Designing uniquely mobile experiences

When we talk about social and contextual learning, the role of mobile devices as primary tools for communication, instant data capturing, and enhanced realities acquires special relevance. But, are we really exploiting these mobile devices’ capabilities when they can significantly improve a learning experience? According to researchers Pimmer and Pachler (see the References at the end of this article), “Many of the current approaches [to mobile learning in work contexts] tend to repackage eLearning content in order to make it suitable for the smaller screens of mobile devices—following behavioral and cognitive paradigms.”

Indeed, paradigms and principles conceived in past decades persist and dim the path towards more innovative and disruptive solutions in education. It is true that mobile learning could not be the ultimate solution for every knowledge or skill gap. It is also true that mobile device capabilities should not be used just because they are cool features to have. They should be used when they support a pedagogical purpose and could enhance aspects of a learning experience. However, if users’ needs and behaviors determine that mobile devices are the most appropriate delivery path to support a learning goal, designers should make the most of these capabilities.


When educational technologists and course lecturers started to work on the project iArchi[tech]ture, they had this purpose in mind. They decided to focus “upon the unique affordances of smartphones with relevance to Architecture and student ePortfolio generation facilitating situated learner-generated content, including: geotagging of images and video, augmented reality (e.g., Wikitude), microblogging (e.g., Twitter), and mobile codes (e.g., QR codes)” (see References).

The researchers, educators, and students involved in this project aimed at making the most of mobile devices provided by their institution and they created a meaningful learning experience in their field. Students captured geotagged photos and videos and designed a layer of digital information (points of interests or critiques of poor designs) to augment real-world architecture in their city. They also made use of 3G networks to share resources from the point of capture and created a solid community of practice through effective communication and mutual support.

Observation in real life

Another project intended to take full advantage of mobile devices’ unique features to broaden the understanding of real world phenomena is Physics On the Go, created by Professor Cesar Poyatos. During this problem-based learning initiative, high-school students used their mobile devices to capture data in an amusement park. They then utilized different mobile apps to interpret physical principles. Students were able to connect educational content to real-life situations by observing, analyzing, and designing their own multimedia representations of that reality.

Building more effective and integrated learning architectures

At this point you might be wondering, what about the issues that we may encounter on the way? How can we overcome organizational, contextual, and technological problems that may affect the implementation of these projects? Can we end up having only unintended outcomes and chaotic interactions without relevant conclusions? How do we measure success without explicit, gradable results?

This is the reason I refer to “learning architectures.” These are unifying and coherent systems based on a thorough planning process and leading towards a definite goal. The first planning step involves a careful analysis of the learning needs and objectives that we need to address. In addition, we need to pay close attention to the learners’ characteristics, behaviors, and their context of performance. It is also important to evaluate the technology available and how we can leverage it to enhance learning. Finally, we should look for ways to document these new experiences and to gather relevant information throughout the process.

The importance of data and the value of the xAPI

Why is data gathering important? Because it will allow us to answer key questions for a more comprehensive learning strategy targeted at improved performance. What do these types of activities mean in a specific context and in a bigger learning ecosystem? What is the value for the learner as a performer of certain social, collaborative, and mobile actions? What types of knowledge or skill did the learner call upon, and what types will they need to reactivate?

Until recently, the task of capturing different kinds of experience was not possible through existing learning specifications, such as SCORM, which can only capture the learner’s performance through a specific course. Now, the xAPI (formerly known as the Tin Can API) will enable us to collect relevant information across heterogeneous environments and across different flows of actions (including social interactions, mobile activity, as well as simulations and games). As Megan Bowe affirms, “The point of Tin Can is not just to generate a pile of similar data, but to get meaningful data that can be widely understood and is valuable to those creating learning experiences and supporting performance” (see References).

The xAPI allows for tracking granular actions and for capturing statements of experience. The statements are reported in an LRS (Learning Record Store). An in-depth analysis of the statements could enable us to obtain detailed learners’ performance profiles and these could be valuable tools to make informed decisions about intervention strategies in the future.


The type of experiences described in this article pose new challenges and raise many questions. Also, some issues may arise during the implementation and evaluation phases. Their disruptive nature could be threatening for established pedagogical practices and their most dedicated adopters. However, current social, active, and distributed ways of learning demand new approaches. Social interactions and uniquely mobile activities should be integrated into educational practices since they are part of learners’ lives and because these activities can foster a better understanding of the world around the learners. Well-thought-out strategies can help us, as learning designers, analyze problems, evaluate resources, and collect performance data in different contexts in order to determine more effective paths towards proficiency and innovation.


Bowe, M. “What’s Up with Verbs in .95?” Tin Can API Blog. 11 October 2012.

Cochrane, T. & Rhodes, D. “iArchi[tech]ture: Developing a Mobile Social Media Framework for Pedagogical Transformation.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2013, 29(3).

Hart, J. “Instructional Design in 140 characters #140id.” Learning in the Social Workplace Blog. 5 February 2013.

Pimmer, C., and N. Pachler. “Mobile Learning in the Workplace: Unlocking the Value of Mobile Technology for Work-Based Education.” Mobile Learning Development for Flexible Learning. Athabasca University Press, 2013.

Poyatos, C. Physics On the Go. 2012.