Why choose between face-to-face and technology-mediated interactions?

As an element of the capacity building framework designed to help students make better use of mobile technology in workplace learning (WPL), this thematic statement aims more specifically to help academic teaching staff, workplace educators (WPEs) and students to purposefully consider the role of time and place of mobile technology for learning and work on placement.

In the context of university education, the use of mobile technology for learning “challenges the need for buildings and campuses and makes us question the need for education to take place at fixed physical locations; it challenges the need for timetables and makes us question the need for synchronicity; it challenges the need for lectures and seminars and makes us question the essence of face-to-face teaching and learning”.[1] In the context of WPL, the use of mobile technology invites us to rethink the triadic relationship between students, WPEs and the need for teachers to be with students in the same time and place.

How to help students, academics and WPEs choose between co-presence and mobile technology-mediated learning and interactions?

‘Time’ and ‘place’ are not neutral concepts, but social constructs and that we need to be wary of discourses that promote the idea that the use of “[digital] technology can set learning free of spatio-temporal constraints”.[2] Professional practice is context-dependent and traditionally time and place defined situated practices and WPL. However, with mobile technology, the way we learn and practise is changing.

Many authors argue that because mobile technology accompanies people on the move it can facilitate learning across time and places.[3] Through the use of mobile technology, the geographical distance between the university and workplace placement can be bridged. This raises many questions about temporal and spatial conditions for learning and work in terms of how we relate to self and others, in general, and around the distinction between distance and proximity, in particular.

Mobile technology is a boundary object; it is an artefact that fulfils a bridging function. As such it allows boundary crossing and can help transform space and time.[4] Its use not only helps blur the boundaries of learning spaces between the ‘now’ and ‘then’, but also between professional and personal. Mobile technology can be most useful for students to bridge university and workplaces, especially when they go on placement far from campus or on long placements. They can then use their personal mobile devices to stay connected with academics, exchange ideas with peers and/or support each other from a distance.

Though the use of mobile technology can enhance and deepen students’ learning experience within interactive and networked environments, some situations in WPL require synchronicity of time and place, physical and temporal co-presence between students and WPEs or academic. There are situations during placements where place, situatedness and context are crucial, whereas there are situations where place is less important. For example, for academics, the issue might be about checking-in students, whether to visit them on site or simply organise a Skype meeting. For the WPEs, it might be about how to be there for and with students and help them distinguish between the decisions that need to be made in a split second as opposed to the ones that require slow consultation or deep reflection. For students, it might be about understanding when discussions and/or reflection on situated practice experiences can be done away from the place where it happened.

In these instances, the deciding factors are whether ‘thick’ information (e.g. body language, gesture and silence) information is required, whether the situation requires shared time and place, mediation away from the workplace (for example “to allow ‘risky’ requests to be made without losing face”[5]; and/or identifying and shifting between topics to ‘loosely’ (i.e. accidental, no script) arrive at a shared understanding of what is needed in terms of processes and outcomes.

Having said that, it is important for students to conduct a variety of WPL tasks rather than only focus on synchronously or asynchronously as well as in virtual or physical places. This will ensure they experience a fuller range of interactions and are able to decide  when mobile technology or co-presence (face-to-face) is the most appropriate way of addressing a situation.

Therefore:  For students to understand when to seek opportunities from co-presence and when to turn to mobile technology for learning, academics and WPEs can help them consider the level of details required to address the issue, such as verbal non-verbal, immediacy, complexity and/or proximity of the information required.

Refer to the associated resource page for some examples of how to do this.



[1] Kukulska-Hulme, A., & Traxler, J. (2005). Mobile teaching and learning. In A. Kukulska-Hulme & J. Traxler (Eds.), Mobile learning-a handbook for educators and trainers (pp. 25-44). London: Routledge (p. 42).

[2] Goodyear, P. (2006). Technology and the articulation of vocational and academic interests: Reflections on time, space and e-learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 28(2), 83-98. doi: 10.1080/01580370600750973 (p. 85).

[3] Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2005). Towards a theory of mobile learning. Paper presented at the mLearn 2005 – 4th World conference on mLearning: Mobile technology: The future of learning in your hands, Cape Town, South Africa.

Traxler, J. & Kukulska-Hulme, A (2016). Introduction to the next generation of mobile learning. In Traxler, J. & A. Kukulska-Hulme (Eds.), Mobile learning: The next generation, (pp. 1-10). London: Routledge.

[4] Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of educational research, 81(2), 132-169.

[5] Goodyear, P. (2006). Technology and the articulation of vocational and academic interests: Reflections on time, space and e-learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 28(2), 83-98. doi: 10.1080/01580370600750973 (p. 95).