Towards a critique of mobile learning

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 20 May 2011

Mobile and wireless technologies are often described in terms of efficiency and productivity, or in terms of their provision of “flexible and timely access to learning resources, instantaneous communication, portability, active learning experiences and the empowerment and engagement of learners, particularly those in dispersed communities.” (JISC, 2011) Given the research and funding agenda, pedagogic case studies tend to focus upon outcomes for learners and teachers. They rarely critique these technologies beyond: the pedagogies deployed; technical issues; and the spaces and places in which they are deployed (Traxler and Wishart, 2011).

Such a pedagogically-driven analysis risks describing mobile technologies as socio-culturally neutral, against their absorption within social relationships and networks of power, based on their enculturation (Feenberg, 1999). In developing a more critical view of mobile learning there are three areas that might be developed: firstly, against pedagogies of consumption; secondly, for social justice and ethical imperatives; and thirdly, within analysis of energy availability. We might then ask, what is to be done?

Against a pedagogy of consumption. The pervasiveness of mobile hardware and software, and the persistent desire to upgrade, risks further privatising our education. Thus, educators might usefully ask whether a focus on mobile Apps, as opposed to the mobile web, reinforces a pedagogy of consumption through the commodification of content (Jarvis, 2010). This is based in-part on transnational software and hardware corporations driving content-based innovations that encloses and threatens the idea of the open web (Rupley, 2010; Silver, 2010), within the context of their brand and procurement processes, and the dominance of their cultural perspectives (Dyer Witheford and de Peuter, 2009). Moreover, we risk leveraging education into the almost constant need to search for the latest technological innovation or handset upgrade. This obsession with chasing the next innovative tablet or handset or application and therefore with power-over our access to resources, rather than on producing or enhancing or challenging or reforming our social relationships, needs to be critiqued.

For social justice and ethical imperatives. The labour rights, resource accumulation, geographical dispossession and supply-chains in which our uses of mobile technologies are implicated also need critique. Factories in which the iPad, iPod and iPhone are made in China have seen an abuse of workers’ rights and disturbing levels of suicide (Coonen, 2010; Hickman, 2010). Closer to home, there are also reports of alleged tax avoidance by mobile phone operators against the common good (UKUncut, 2011). More disturbingly, Hari (2011) has recently looked historically and materially at the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In over a decade of fighting, more than 5 million people have been killed, and Amnesty International (2011) have documented human rights’ abuses including gang-rape, mutilation, enforced disappearances and the militarisation of young boys and men. In this war, Hari emphasises the material importance of the DRC’s mineral deposits, and in particular Coltan, which

“is essential for the power-storing parts of cell phones, nuclear reactors, Play Stations, and computer chips. Coltan is increasingly exploited in the mountains in the conflict torn eastern part of the country… As coltan is necessary for the high-tech industry and as demand increases, motivation to pull out of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi decreases.” (Ware, 2001)

So, it is argued that these minerals are the driving forces for war, and that those who benefit are multi-national corporations involved in western high-tech innovation and development. A UN Experts’ Report (2008) argued that

“exporters and consumers of Congolese mineral products should step up their due diligence efforts by publicly disclosing evidence that would demonstrate that they are not knowingly purchasing tainted minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The place of energy availability and climate change. There is an emerging critique of the issue of sustainability tied to the viability of capitalist work within the context of reduced liquid resource availability, and a lack of control over carbon emissions (Greer, 2011; Pielke, 2010). Consideration of these implications is a reminder that higher education (HE) does not operate in a vacuum (Thrift, 2010). In particular, peak oil, or the point at which the maximum rate of oil production is reached, is a critical issue. Following this peak, oil production declines due to exponentially falling supply. Oil and coal are embedded in the production processes for the tools that we consume (Winn, 2010), with the production of carbon emissions as one outcome. Is our constant renewal of a range of personal technologies sustainable? In the production process for mobile technologies we also outsource our production of carbon to “developing economies”, without bearing the full cost. Is this morally acceptable? To what extent do we dissociate ourselves and our use of our tools from their global outcomes (Greer, 2011; The Oil Drum, 2010).

Each of these three critical domains implicates and enmeshes our use of mobile technologies within the web of a global market (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004; Hardt and Negri, 2000). Yet these webs of capitalism and transnational power-relationships keep those of us who notionally benefit from mobile technologies at a distance from the effects of our consumption. Hardt and Negri (2000) note that “Machines and technologies are not neutral and independent entities. They are biopolitical tools deployed in specific regimes of production, which facilitate certain practices and prohibit others.” Dyer Witheford and de Peuter (2009) argue that whilst devices are enslaving, this is not to deny that they are pleasurable, but we need to recognise how that pleasure itself channels power. We need to critique the realities of our uses of technology, in order to imagine alternatives.

What is to be done? Clearly global solutions are required to the catastrophes outlined above. However, educators might think about the following in their lives and practices.

  • How do we lobby vendors, providers, re-sellers, commissioners, in order that they justify the extraction of the materials, and the production processes, that they use for their products? How do we do this in association with others and in our daily work?
  • How do we work for technological decisions, like procurement, outsourcing etc., to be based on community need related to a critical analysis of socio-environmental impact and human rights, rather than on a discourse of cost-effectiveness, monetisation, economic value, and efficiency?
  • How do we lobby for consensus in open systems architectures, focused upon open-sourced, community designed and implemented technologies?
  • How do we work for a digital or technological literacy that is ethical? How do we work up an ethics of mobile learning?

In Nostromo, Joseph Conrad (1963) wrote about the social and material history of the Congolese, as their land was despoiled and as they were colonised in the nineteenth century:

“There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Our current use of mobile technologies needs to be recast in light of a critical history of their production and consumption to imagine alternatives beyond the rule of efficiency and money, in order to reclaim our humanity.


Amnesty International (2011). Democratic Republic of Congo. Retrieved from

Conrad, J. (1963) Nostromo: a tale of the seaboard. London: Dent.

Coonen, C. (2010b).Two more suicide bids at iPad plant hours after media tour. Retrieved from

Deleuze,G., and Guattari, F. (1984). Anti-Oedipus : capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Athlone.

Dyer Witheford, N., and de Peuter, G (2009). Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning Technology. London: Routledge.

Greer, J.M. (2011). The onset of catabolic collapse. Energy Bulletin. Retrieved from

Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hari, J. (2011). Dying for a mobile phone. Retrieved from

Hickman, M. (2010). Concern over human cost overshadows iPad launch. Retrieved from

Jarvis, J. (2010). iPad danger: app v. web, consumer v. Creator. Retrieved from

JISC (2011). Mobile Learning. Retrieved from

The Oil Drum. (2010). The Science of Oil and Peak Oil Revisited. Retrieved from

Pielke, R. Jr. (2010). The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. Lyndhurst, NJ: Barnes and Noble.

Rupley, S. (2010). Mobile Apps: The Ultimate Threat to Search Engines? Retrieved from

Silver,J. (2010). Google-Verizon Deal: The End of The Internet as We Know It. Retrieved from

Thrift, N. (2010). A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma). GlobalHigherEd. Retrieved from

Traxler, J., and Wishart,J. (eds 2011). Making mobile learning work: case studies of practice. Bristol: Escalate.

UKUncut (2011). Vodafone. Retrieved from

UN Security Council (2008). Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Retrieved from

Ware, N. D. (2001). Congo War and the Role of Coltan. Retrieved from

Winn, J. (2010). Resilient Education. Retrieved from

One Response to Towards a critique of mobile learning

  1. Pingback: A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi | Richard Hall's Space

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