Mobile Playful Learning Environments: Conceptual Foundations for Informal Learning Environments in the Digital Age

Student Name
Jan Maushagen
Thesis Type
PhD Dissertation
Thesis Status
Academic Year
2020 - 2021
Olga De Troyer Beat Signer

In practice, most learning is done in a classroom environment including face to face instruction and training. This type of learning is called formal learning. Classroom-based learning and teaching has several advantages but frequently also faces difficulties. It might be difficult to gain attention from everyone in a large class and motivate all learners due to the “one-size fits everybody” approach usually applied. On the other hand, there is the everwidening accumulation and access to information technologies. In theory, this could lead to a world where no boundaries to knowledge construction exist anymore. With a tap on a smartphone or a computer, people are able to search for relevant facts on any topic. The hyperlink structure of digital information spaces makes it possible to interactively explore related content. Search results can generate insights which in turn result in associations for new queries, creating infinite trails of information and knowledge. A new generation of learners is growing up who seems to navigate these complex information environments with ease. In the literature, they are called Digital Natives, Generation Y or Net Generation. They immerse in digital technologies, not only to be entertained but also to develop a collective understanding of politics, culture and society. When this is done voluntarily, the learning is much more driven by personal goals and interests. Opposed to formal school learning, this type of learning, also called informal learning, is not centered around the examination of educational goals and does not lead to a certification. It is an important part of lifelong learning which is the ”ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated” pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. This type of learning could mitigate some of the disadvantages of classroom-based learning and offer tailored learning experiences to every student. Based on personal interests and learning aims students could access information autonomously and self-directed.

While independent and informal learning is an admirable aspiration, many learners will still need guidance in their informal learning process. Especially, youngsters (often called digital native learners) have an ambivalent relationship with the overabundance of information and tools available. Research has shown that on the one hand they are used to a wide range of information technologies in their daily life, but on the other hand they seem to miss the necessary information literacy skills to deal with this amount of information. Leaving them entirely alone in learning activities can result in a loss of motivation or even a cynical attitude towards learning in general and increased dropout rates. The current Corona crisis has confirmed this. Even within the context of formal learning and with the guidance of the school and teachers, at lot of youngsters have a hard time to adapt to the online learning situation and to stay motivated. Without guidance, it would only become worse.

Therefore, and in the same vein as formal learning makes use of Learning Management Systems, we argue that informal learning can benefit from the support of some form of digital learning environment. Such a learning environment should provide ways and guidance for people to explore interests and exploit them for future opportunities. It should also show ways to integrate informal learning practices with the (digital) classroom in order to mitigate the digital divide which still exists between classroom-based learning and informal learning. Providing a conceptual framework for such a learning environment is the subject of this dissertation. The goal was to develop a reference model for such a type of learning environment. To develop this model, we first investigated the major requirements for such an environment. For this, we formulated different research questions and performed an extensive literature study to provide answers to these questions.

Based on all the findings, we defined and motivated the main features of our model and explained how the different components interact with each other to achieve the main goal, i.e. supporting youngsters in informal learning, as well as other types of learning. In this way, we reached our research objective: a reference model for creating digital enviii ronments that offer opportunities for lifelong learning and support for informal as well as formal learning activities, and which are suitable for digital natives, more in particular for youngsters. We called our model the Mobile Playful Learning Environment (MPLE) model because the mobile aspect and the playfulness turned out to be main features in our model. Based on the defined MPLE model and as a proof of concept of such an environment, we developed TICKLE, a platform for mobile playful learning environments for youngsters. Our research followed the Design Science approach which means that we generated scientific knowledge through cycles of sketching and evaluating different versions of our model with the means of a proof-of-concept application (TICKLE). Theoretical findings from literature and practical insights from user studies were incorporated into the design of the model and indirectly tested by means of the proof-of-concept application with a number of user evaluations.

TICKLE itself is developed using a User Experience (UX) design methodology, which addresses more than just the functionality and usability — it also considers how users feel about a product. Starting from the “Why”, the needs and emotions of the user are clarified and then used to specify the so-called Be-and Do-Goals, where Be-goals capture a person’s emotion and attitude about using a particular software and the Do-goals refer to the pure functionality. TICKLE has been evaluated in different contexts, including different purposes, and shows to be promising.

The contributions of the thesis are: (1) a clarification of the conceptual foundations for digital learning environments to support informal learning and lifelong learning; (2) the identification of fundamental features for such digital learning environment; (3) the definition of the Mobile Playful Learning Environment (MPLE) model, being a reference model that can be used as a starting point for developing digital learning environments aiming to support informal learning or lifelong learning; (4) TICKLE, a proof of concept application for the MPLE model, developed as a generic mobile playful platform suitable for supporting different activities, for different users, and in different domains.