Views from the Vanguard of Using Mobile Media for Learning

Behind the Research

2.15.10 | In “Mad City Mystery,” fourth- and fifth-graders role play as doctors, government officials and environmental scientists to determine the cause of death of one Ivan Illych. (It’s always good to know your local game designer has a sense of humor, and a literary one at that.) [Watch Mad City Mystery in action.]

As the game story goes, Illych was depressed, drinking heavily and fell into a lake – but there may be other factors pertaining to his death. Mercury was found in fish that inhabit the lake. Trichloroethene was found in the factory where he worked, and polychlorinated biphenyls were found in the ground around the lake.

The kids have 90 minutes to provide a police examiner, played by a real person, with enough information to open an investigation into the cause of death. Using their mobile phones, they talk to virtual characters, access documents and conduct simulated tests for the pollutants.

It’s a dreamy kind of learning experience. Engaging, active and social. Acting as detectives, the kids have a sense of agency. The learning is fun. It’s hard to imagine a kid not wanting to play. And it’s hard to imagine that kid not learning, even if by accident, even if only how to think critically about a multifaceted problem.

But what’s so interesting about “Mad City Mystery” is not just that it’s a game being used for education purposes, but that it’s a game using mobile media for learning.

“Mad City Mystery” was created by Local Games Lab, housed at the University of Wisconsin and funded by a federal grant from the Department of Education.

“How might mobile devices support place-based learning?” asked Jim Matthews, a designer and project assistant at the Lab as well as part of the research group Games, Learning, and Society at University of Wisconsin. “That’s what we wanted to look at.”

Local Games Lab is part of a growing vanguard that’s looking at how to use mobile devices not for shopping or entertainment, but to facilitate learning.

There are four core things to think about when considering the future of mobile media and learning: place-based learning, personalized learning, social networking, and reaching disadvantaged youth. These are the things you hear echoed over and over by everyone from designers supported by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative to employees of Qualcomm, a tech company.

Place-based Learning

“Place-based learning is the idea that you use the local culture, environment and ecologies to teach,” said Matthews. “The local place becomes the curriculum.”

It’s not a stretch to see how mobile media could be directly suited to this kind of learning.

“The kinds of mobile phone games that interest me are the kinds that take place outside the screen,” said Colleen Macklin, associate professor at Parsons School of Design, director of PETLab, and part of the MacArthur-funded New Youth City Learning Network.

Macklin makes a distinction between games that people play on their mobile phones and games that people play with their mobile phones. Students shouldn’t be staring into the screen the whole time, she says. Rather, they should engage with games that use the mobile device to get kids out exploring their environment – whether that be a riverbed or an urban neighborhood.

The New Youth City Learning Network, with the Museum of Natural History as the lead partner, is working on a project called the Urban Biodiversity Network. Kids use their mobile phones to observe seasonal changes and take pictures of what they observe in their own daily lives. They then upload the material to a database that professional scientists will use to study the environment.

This is a good example of place-based learning, but it’s more than that, too.

“You’ve heard the term citizen journalism,” Macklin said. “Well, this is citizen science.”

Personalized Learning

One of the great things about videogames as teaching tools is they allow students to advance at their own pace. People working in mobile media point out that a mobile device takes this a step farther.

“Mobile media lead[s] to a profound personalization of learning,” said Kurt Squire, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and part of New Games Lab.

“Being able to consume whatever media we want, when we want, with some degrees of privacy changes the basic landscape on information consumption and production for students, he adds. “Personalized media environment makes it possible for each student to pursue his or her interest areas irrespective of the teacher or overall classroom goals.”

Social Networking

In 2007, tech giant Qualcomm funded K-nect, an experimental education project in North Carolina. K-nect was an experiment to see whether providing 24-hour wireless connectivity to at-risk youth could jumpstart their flagging interest in math.

With 150 donated phones, the kids used the mobile devices in the classroom as notebook and textbook, and then – and here’s what struck the folks at Qualcomm the most – they use the phones to connect with one another after classroom hours for help with the work.

“Part of it is they get a visual representation of the problems they’re working on, a multimedia component,” said Marie Bjerede, the vice president of wireless education technology at Qualcomm. “But that could happen on any digital device. What’s unique about this usage is what happens when the kids get home.”

Not only are students in K-nect engaging in peer-to-peer learning by communicating with one another for guidance, but also Qualcomm found the kids were uploading videos of themselves solving problems, which other kids could watch.

“They have access to so many more materials - user generated materials - than you’d find in a classroom,” Bjerede said.

Late last year, the Department of Defense announced it would pick up the program, funding it for $2.5 million and renaming it Connect Onslow, after the North Carolina county in which it takes place.

Reaching Disadvantaged Youth

Part of the appeal of using mobile media for learning is the access it provides to a broad audience.

“More inner city kids have phones than computers,” said Macklin of the New Youth City Learning Network. “And they’re super into their phones.”

According to Macklin, creating learning games for mobile phones is simply a practical way to reach an audience that might otherwise be left behind.

Bjerede is also keen on using mobile devices to shrink the digital divide.

“As we start moving towards a new understanding of learning,” she said, “we have to include wireless or we risk increasing the digital divide, and trapping at-risk youth at best in 2010, for the next two decades.”

It’s notable that none of these games are taking place in today’s classrooms. Squire, of the University of Wisconsin, has noticed that, too.

“Simply put, our K-12 classrooms are generally not prepared to deal with a world in which students can and do have ubiquitous access to information, constant contact with peers, and the ability to ‘be’ in whatever virtual places they choose,” he said.

Six Questions Going Forward

Colleen Macklin, Kurt Squire and Heather Horst, associate project scientist at the University of California, Irvine, held a MacArthur-supported meeting in Chicago this past fall to discuss the subject of mobile media and learning. The group came up with six questions it identified as crucial:

1. When does location matter?
2. What are some connections between peers, parents and institutions?
3. Does mobile change what it means to know?
4. How might we design for different levels of expertise and investment?
5. How might we connect and collect real data, casually?
6. What assessment models are appropriate?

Macklin says they’re far from having the answers to these questions. But as any learner knows, a good set of questions is a great place to start. 

Photo: Kids playing Mad City Mystery, courtesy of Local Games Lab.


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Melissa King (Herndon, VA)


Sounds like a very promising application that makes best use of mobile media to tap into the natural curiosity of young kids. I’d love to learn more about this project. Who’s the appropriate contact?

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Sarah Jackson


Hi Melissa - You can learn more about “Mad City Mystery” by contacting Kurt Squire or Jim Matthews at University of Wisconsin, Madison. You can contact them through the Local Games Lab Website ( or through the university (

To learn more about the work being done in New York City mentioned in this article you can contact Colleen Macklin at PETLab ( or through Parsons the New School (

Thanks for your interest.



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