Smartphone as a Learning Tool – An Activity Theory Approach for Learning Marketing Concepts

Authors: Outi Niininen and J. Graham Spickett-Jones |

For many people, the smartphone has become ubiquitous- the smartphone has evolved rapidly into an essential instrument for modern life. It has become a commonplace tool that has helped to extend personal horizons beyond immediate physical constrains; it supports a seamlessly blended, hyper-mediated and interconnected sense of the personal environment. It is a vital element of the real world where students spend much of their waking hours.

In education ‘digital’ is viewed as an innovative way teachers can enthuse learners, yet technology on its own will not ensure superior learning outcomes. Moreover, changes to pedagogic practice do not transpire simply by introducing technology to lecture halls. In an ideal situation, the technology enabled learning activities are built on a frame of reference the students are familiar as part of an enhanced earning scaffolding.

This paper evolves from the desirable learning outcomes related to current pedagogy to the development of the smartphone photography-sharing capacity as an effective educational tool where learning takes place in the following spaces: in class vs ‘real-life’ and on-line vs off-line.


Today, smartphone use is widespread and especially relevant for the age group currently attending universities (Chen, Seilhammer, Bennett & Bauer, 2015; Klimova & Poulova, 2015; Tao, Yang & Chau, 2018; Vázquez-Cano 2014). Outside the learning situation, the HE learners now use smartphones routinely and frequently.  However, it is a challenge for educators to use mobile devices for new types of learning; few universities have the resources or expertise to develop and refine customised apps for the smartphone.  While web based MOOCs are relatively commonplace, it is debatable if the level of innovation they support represents a new approach to learning and fully utilise the functionality offered by smartphones. Moreover, mobile apps created for Learning Management Systems, like Moodle, tend to mirror their web site version. However, in education, ‘digital’ is claimed to offer one of the innovative means teachers can use to enthuse learners (Grimes, 2019). And, therefore, lecturers are under pressure to adopt and develop new pedagogic ways to utilise information and communication technology for teaching and learning. Building new learning spaces and introducing technology to the learning environment is not a new trend, but unfortunately, much of the new digital technology is simply used to enhance traditional lectures. In other words, ‘advanced pedagogic practices with the new pedagogy do not spread by itself… and technology does not work as a catalyst for educational reforms’ (Lakkala & Ilomäki 2015,1; Vázquez-Cano 2014).

According to Taylor and Sharples (2006) most pedagogical theories ‘fail to capture the distinctiveness of mobile learning’ (p1) as most traditional theories emerge from the lecture room environment where teachers determine how material is disseminated, in other words, mobile learning is still in its infancy (JISC 2015). Mobile learning pedagogy should embrace the notion that learning can be personally initiated or structured as well as taking place beyond the time/place confines of teaching timetables. This evolution of pedagogy is probably best described with ‘computer language’ where Education 1.0 refers to teacher delivered lectures and formal exams. Education 2.0 utilises more interactivity between students and teachers as well as peer-to-peer. Computer savy learning activities here include wikis, blogs and networking outside classrooms (e.g. collaborating with learners from another country). Education 3.0 is the connectivist, heutagogical approach to learning using the digital universe to achieve individualised learning programmes where learners are autonomous and self-motivated (Gerstein, 2013). Since portability and adaptability of the smartphones is likely to naturally encourage learning to move away from the teacher-centered didactic to more student-centered learning experience (Dabbagh, Fake & Zhang, 2019; Looi et al, 2010) the mobile, on-the-go learning is the desirable and logical next step for many of the HE classes we teach.

One of the aims of this project is to foster self-directed, life-long learning that is highly portable and allows the learners to respond to new challenges during their future careers as well as develop context specific competences (Looi et al, 2010). Smartphones are ideal for fostering life-ling learning skills as the device is highly personalised, user-centered, ubiquitous and cloud stored data is also highly portable and durable (available for use in the long term) (Dabbagh et al, 2019; Shaples, 2000). The learning we also aim to foster is non-competitive (i.e. collaborative) in nature and aims to holistically develop both skills and understanding of the fundamental marketing principles, thus develop a learner’s problem-solving skills (Sharples, 2000; Tao et al, 2018; Vázquez-Cano, 2014).

The Expanded Marketing Mix is a core concept of Marketing theory (Figure 1) taught from the first Introduction to Marketing courses. The Marketing Mix is a structured collection of the controllable variables Marketers can use to influence the success of their organisation. The Marketing Mix is often referred to the as the 4 or 7 or 8 Ps depending on the context:  the 4P’s of the Marketing Mix are well established since 1940s and the ‘very basics’ of marketing: Product (goods and services are called Product in Marketing), Price (what the customer is willing to pay), Promotion (all advertising and promotional communication work organisation undertakes) and Place (‘Place’ is the word starting with ‘P’ to denote the Distribution of goods and services). With the emergence of the service industry, were the People (employees), Physical evidence (décor), Partnerships (business alliances) and Process (how is the product made available for the customer) were added to the Marketing Mix to recognise the intangible characteristics of a service product. Today this split between services or goods is viewed old fashioned and all types of organisations use the full suite of Marketing Mix to position their business and create value (Pride, et al 2018).

The Marketing Mix is an excellent framework to test our smartphone learning activity: it is a classification scheme that is familiar to the students yet the way the Marketing Mix elements are utilised by organisations is challenged every day e.g. bundling of goods and services or by using emerging technology to add value to the exchange. By using theory to frame a real-life marketing practice, the learning process is likely to be more meaningful and encourage the learners to take responsibility of their own life-long learning practice. In other words, this learning activity is situated in the social, cultural and marketing business context, requiring the learners to view their everyday environment through the Expanded Marketing Mix prism, collect pictures that illustrate the current day examples of the Marketing Mix variables, share these images with their learning team as well as abstract key marketing theories from these examples collected for reflection (Sharples, 2000). The students would be practicing self-generated inquiry and taking responsibility of their own learning. This contributes to a learning environment that is ‘both experiential and learner-centered’ (Grimes, 2019, 140; Stepien & Gallagher, 1993)

Table 1. The 8P Marketing Mix Concept

Marketing Mix variable Product Place (i.e. Distribution) Promotion Price
Definition A good, device or service    that provides benefits a customer values and is willing to invest in to obtain, e.g. using time, money and effort.  Benefits may be derived from a bundle of features and services, and enhanced by a brand that symbolising specific qualities. Distribution of goods or service: how is a product made accessible to a customer?  How and where can a product be acquired and sourced, e.g. bought or downloaded? How are customers informed about a product or service, and what it can do for them?  This includes all advertisements, and it can include messages that give brands the currency of meanings and associations. How much a customer is prepared to pay for a product or service is a reflection of the value they recognise it can have for them? The more they see value the less a customer will demand a discount so if they are offered a discount, it can make the price seem a bargain?
Example A tangible product e.g. shoes or a service e.g. hair cut Supermarket for groceries,

Spotify for music

Gym for weight lifting

TV or radio advertisements

Online advertisements

Poster outside café: ‘coffee for 1eur’
Examples of pictures students could take A car

Hair saloon

Bicycle repair shop

Educational course brochure

Picture of a song playing in Spotify

Market place cafe

A banner advertisements online

Advertisement at the side of a bus

A product featured in a game

Cash till at supermarket

Cost of fuel at petrol station


Marketing Mix variable People Physical evidence Process Partnerships
Definition People involved in the production or service process Tangible components used to communicate about the brand, e.g. plush furniture in 5* hotel vs plastic chairs in burger bar How do we deliver our product/service bundles to our customers? Do organisations collaborate with other complimentary product/service providers to offer better total service to their customers?
Example Staff members and how do they look, interact with customers Picture from outside of a restaurant or patio Do we use self-service or do customers get full service A fuel station also sells McDonald’s
Examples of pictures students could take Picture of self at work

Picture of own uniform

Student’s own staff uniform

Furniture at a restaurant

Gardens at a hotel

Getting car tyres changed

Getting bicycle repaired

Queueing at a bank

A lorry with a sign of ‘collaborating with xx’

A sign: ‘ we only use xxx branded products in this salon’

Teaching of large groups of over 200 students can exclude many of the commercial educational apps from use since the pricing is usually dependent on the student numbers. Therefore, the focus of this paper is to describe the process of creating a pedagogically sound smartphone enabled learning experience without a substantial development budget nor app development skills, in other words, the designing of a DIY smartphone learning activity.

The structure of this paper is as follows: first the pedagogic theories most relevant to our planned smartphone learning activity are introduced, the value of ‘mobiles’ to learning is outlined followed by an explanation of the learning activity we designed. Finally, a short discussion of our pilot study and the lessons we learned from it.

Pedagogic background

Following the principles of Socially Distributed Cognition, this smartphone learning activity aims to use photographs of the Marketing Mix variables to stimulate social discourse and interaction between learners (and teachers) with the overall aim to facilitate knowledge construction. Socially Distributed Cognition is a good representation of this smartphone learning activity as it assumes that the team of learners can distribute cognitive processes, there is coordination between internal and external materials as well as environments, and finally, the process is distributed through time in a way that allows later events (photographs and debate) to transform also the interpretation of earlier events. In this Context Aware learning activity the students observe Marketing activities evident in their daily lives, thus creating a highly personalised learning space that is free from geographical and timetable restrictions (Laurillard 2007; Underwood,  2009). The whole learning activity moves between on-line, in class and ‘real-life’ environments as well as from individual processing to team debates of photographs and relevant theory (Hollan, Hutchins & Kirsh 2000; Looi et al 2010).

In this smartphone learning activity the students observe their own environment to gather examples of common marketing activities under the 8P Marketing Mix categories.  Through this group task the students are also engaged in Constructivist and Socio-cognitive Learning. The long-term objective is also to train Lifelong learners who continuously monitor their business environment to capture emerging trends in consumer behaviour and competition (JISC 2015; Taylor 2004; Taylor & Sharples 2006). Through this smartphone enabled learning activity the students are curating learning materials for their whole tutorial team. This curating process allows the students to collect photographic examples of Marketing Mix variables from their everyday environment and organise these examples in a way that helps learners understand relevant theory. Furthermore, through the on-line communication and in-class/tutorial discussions the students are sharing their understanding of the Marketing Mix theory and, at the same time, helping their peers to also make sense of the topic (Kervin & Mantei 2009; Kearney, Schuck, Burden & Aubusson, 2012; Mihailidis & Cohen 2013).

This learning activity could also be described as featuring Problem Based Learning (PBL) characteristics where learning is applicable to the real world situations and the learning process ‘fosters deeper learning, problem solving and reasoning skills‘(Grimes 2019, 140).  PBL is about active and collaborative learning that utilises realistic problem-solving situations that encourage the learner to take responsibility of their own learning with the ultimate goal of improved understanding (Grimes 2019; Wood 2003). Through the PBL process the ‘students learn how to use iterative process of assessing what they know, identifying what they need to know, gathering information, and collaborating on the evaluation of hypothesis in light of the data they have collected’ (Stepien & Gallagher, 1993, 25). Problem Based Learning (PBL) is widely used in e.g. medical schools where various ‘triggers’ are used to get learners to implement the theory they have studied. In Marketing education, these triggers commonly include e.g. videos, written scenarios and news items. Beyond knowledge acquisition, PBL in group learning context also facilitates essential transferrable skills like ‘communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, independent responsibility for learning, sharing information, and respect for others’ (Wood 2003, p. 328). The commonly cited learning theories suitable for mobile learning purposes are summarised in Table 2.

Table 2. Summary of relevant learning theories

Learning theory Key features of this learning theory Mobile learning examples Smartphone specific features used for learning
Behaviourist learning Repetitive practice and reinforcement facilitates learning Language learning apps for smartphones Listening and imitation of spoken language, recording own language practice, phrase translation
Constructivist learning Learners use their own past/current knowledge to construct new ideas. Teachers facilitate learning Game simulations Learners take active role in directing the game progress
Situated learning A ‘cognitive apprenticeship’, students work alongside teachers/experts, learners adapt to interact with diverse environments. Authentic context and culture. Learning is also a social participation Field study apps;

Multimedia exhibitions, multimedia museum tours


Taking pictures of e.g. natural or geographical examples
Problem based learning Students are given an ‘ill defined’ problem to solve that simulates work environment tasks Medical training apps;

Medical calculators

IV drip rate infusion calculator

Interactive ‘map’ of human heart, calculators, voice memos, taking pictures
Context aware learning Observing learners own environment to gather information. Learner can observe external environment and seek clarification from app Multimedia museum tour Location based, interactivity with other learners and other environments
Activity theories of learning Engaged action builds stronger knowledge representations Engaging games create an expansive cycle of activity Interactive features of smartphones
Sociocultural/ collaborative learning theory Learning takes place in social context, with collaboration and sharing knowledge with peers e.g. Facebook Sharing of knowledge, voting, likes/dislikes to rank knowledge or ideas; includes text, voice, video and images
Informal and lifelong learning Learning takes place outside formal educational institutions e.g. Khan academy, professional association’s learning portals (e.g. Chartered Institute of Marketing) Utilises internet and multitude of file formats; includes text, voice, video and images; learn ‘just in time and just enough for me’

Based on: Chao, et al 2014; Clark and Chambers 1998; JISC (2015); Taylor & Sharples (2006); Vermeulen 2015

How can ‘Mobiles’ add value to learning?

Outside the learning situation, the HE learners now use smartphones routinely (and frequently), yet the use of mobile devices for learning is not that well established, especially when learning activities are required beyond simple online information search activity. However, when considering the opportunities smartphones offer e.g. for taking notes, information search, various educational specialist apps as well as the communication (Rozgonjuk, Saal & Täht, 2018) the disparity between educations situations and real-life experience is notable: outside the lecture halls students utilise internet connected mobile devices frequently. In classrooms, some teachers view mobile phones as a distraction or a threat to their authority (Chen et al, 2015; Seifert, 2018) whilst others advocated smartphones as the perfect tool to facilitate flexible learning or even ‘learning without the boundaries of time and place’ (Seifert, 2018, 1; Tao et al, 2018).

Smartphones also facilitate decentralised, 24/7-learning with the added mobilities in physical, conceptual and social space as well as across technological platforms. Smartphones are also ideal for collecting, storing, organising and even presenting information. Interaction between smartphone users can be immediate or asynchronous depending on the communication style and user preferences (Seifert, 2018). Allowing students to use their own smartphones (a device they are familiar with and that is highly personalised) will also empower the learners as well as make the learning experience more meaningful and relevant (Klimova & Poulova, 2015; Seifert, 2018). Mobility of the learning activity is a great opportunity to augment the overall HE learning activity as practicing such ‘nomadic learning’ also introduces ubiquity, interactivity, collaboration and authenticity to the learning experience, especially when the learners are exposed to real-life tasks and current examples. Smartphones can facilitate even complex educational tasks as well as enhance student engagement (Chen et al, 2015; Klimova & Poulova, 2015; Tao et al, 2018). The challenge, therefore, is to incorporate smartphone enabled learning into existing curriculum and maximise the pedagogical opportunities offered by these devices.

In the next section, the implications of using photographs (taken by students of real-life events) to guide theory application and learning is discussed.

How the use of photographs can develop students understanding of the Marketing Mix?

Object based learning is probably one of the oldest forms of learning (‘what is this used for’) and continuously fostered in e.g. museums. Objects (or photographs as in this study) can ‘be used to inspire discussion, group work and lateral thinking – all essential key, transferrable, skills in higher education’ (Chatterjee 2011, 179; Le Grange 2000). Photographs have also been used to classify, group and understand phenomena in cultural ecosystem/heritage studies, anthropology and tourism (Le Grange 2000; Oteros-Rozas, Martín-López, Fagerholm, Bieling, & Plieninger 2018).

But before the students can be given the challenge of curating Marketing Mix examples for learning, some fundamental processes must be determined: the students need clear guidance of taking photographs in public places as well as a convenient way to collect, organise and discuss the photographs they have taken. Firstly, before the students were tasked to collect photographs, privacy and copyright briefings provided guidance to ensure action was engaged in within an acceptable ethical framework.  The basic principle of ‘do no harm’ was given as an overriding ethos when taking photographs in real-life situations; no embarrassing images of individuals, events or facilities were to be allowed as part of this learning activity.  Furthermore, a photograph where a person can be identified (e.g. where a picture is focussed on a person or group of individuals) would be viewed as personal data and consent was to be sought from any individual being identified (photographs where individuals appear merely in the background, and no one individual can be clearly identified did not require consent).  Children were not to be photographed without the explicit permission of a guardian.  To avoid copyright issues, students were told to guard against using advertisements or parts of advertisements, like slogans or other creative content, that could have Intellectual Property Rights, although this can differ between using images ‘for commercial purpose’ and ‘for educational use’ (Seng, 2016).  The students were also informed how not everything they do (including assignments with photographs) may be appropriate for sharing in social media.

Secondly, a collaborative online study space was required to facilitate this learning exchange. Since this learning activity is based on pictures taken by smartphones, the available file size became an issue. The modern smartphones have excellent digital cameras where a 12MP image is not out of the norm. This is an important consideration for both local mobile data plans (i.e. is free data typically included in the plan for no extra costs to the students) as well as the total accumulative file size the lecturer needs to facilitate. Although the students are most familiar with various social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Pinterest, these platforms were not considered suitable for such formal learning experience simply because these platforms are littered with commercial messages and, in essence, designed for images and comments to be shared – even outside the planned study groups. This could be a problem when operating under an Educational Copyright licence. The DropBox for Business account was used for this activity as it offers superior functionality and storage capacity. Furthermore, this design allows students to save pictures directly in the specified folders and wait to upload images to DropBox when Wi-Fi is available. It was necessary to keep the process of students saving photographs to the cloud server as simple as possible to avoid technology barriers for participation.  The students were encouraged to use free Wi-Fi for uploading pictures to avoid incurring costs.


The focus (theory to be examined) of this smartphone learning activity should be something the learners have easy access to. Marketing facing practice, and especially the Marketing Mix variables that are visible to observant consumers every day, can provide a good example. Other possible areas to be investigated with pictures taken by the students are architecture, facilities design, civil engineering, tourism, hairdressing etc. When the learners are allowed to collect their pictorial examples over time and save these images to files where a theoretical structure is superimposed by the teacher the students realise how in the practical marketing business examples just one image could capture several key theories taught in separate lectures. For example, a simple picture of people queueing to check-in at a hotel could be used as an example of the following Marketing Mix variables: Physical evidence (how is the lobby furnished), People (how are the staff members presented, their uniforms etc), Process (how is queuing managed) etc. In other words, the students also learn to synthesize learning materials divided across lectures and subjects. The lecturer simply needs to superimpose a structure under which picture evidence is collected and through in-class and on-line communication help the learners interpret the images for deeper understanding of the concept.

We have, so far, conducted a small-scale pilot study with volunteer student participants and can confirm that the questions asked by the participating students were more complex and more related to the current business environment that the conversations based simply on the teacher sourced examples. Debate based on learner curated examples was, at times, lively: what marketing mix does this picture represent and students verbally introducing further examples they had experienced in their home town or during vacations (introducing an unanticipated International Marketing twist to the tutorials). We can also confirm that building tutorial debates on student curated materials is best suited for the confident and experienced lecturers- we really enjoyed these debates! The learners were instructed to debate the curated pictures asynchronously on-line as well as the discussions hosted in the tutorials. The tutorial team discussions work better. This is interesting, given that the students often participate in various social media platforms by commenting on content posted by their peers. The DropBox facilitation for learner curated photographs worked well, however, in an ideal world a University managed cloud storage with equal functionality would be better (currently the paid DropBox for Business is free from commercial messages).

Finally, to get the whole class fully participating in any learning activity some course credit should be allocated to the task; if on-line communication is expected, separate grade allocations should be attributed.


Using smartphones in large group learning situations is not yet common day practice. Yet Seifert (2018) suggests that once lecturers and learners have had the opportunity to become familiar with smartphone learning activities they would benefit from the experience. One of the obstacles limiting wide scale smartphone learning activities is a general lack of appreciating how smartphone learning activities can be a pedagogically beneficial and rewarding learning experiences. Students see the potential of m-learning, as a practical and useful extension to compliment in-class learning activities (Klimova & Poulova, 2015), but the challenge for educators is to move the students from passively consuming information to actively producing learning materials or examples for shared learning experience as well as actively contribute to team analysis of the images collected by the team of learners. The portability and adaptability of the smartphones is likely to naturally encourage learning to move away from the teacher-centered didactic to more student-centered learning experience (Dabbagh et al, 2019; Looi et al, 2010). A smartphone enabled activity is an opportunity to liberate learners from set lecture times and spaces where the learners can also be immersed in context aware learning experience.

This proposed smartphone learning activity would work in any context where the learners can observe development in their own field of study in their everyday life and where photographs can be used to initiate discussion of key theoretical issues, for example in architecture, tourism and art. Whilst the students fill the theoretical framework set by their teachers with photographical examples, a great deal of the learning will be facilitated by the scaffolding discussion analysing the collected images and how they relate to theory, how the examples could be utilised in other contexts, innovating ways to enhance some of the processes pictured. At times the teacher will schedule this discussion, other times an example posted by one of the learners will prompt impromptu debate either on-line or off-line (Looi 2010). This collaborative learning activity, with planned on-line and off-line interactions and debates between learners as a team as well as between learners and educators, is also an excellent example of co-creating value (Chao, Lai, Chen & Huang, 2014).

And finally, from a teaching point of view, this planned smartphone learning activity, where learners collect pictures and interpret the Marketing Mix applications in their everyday lives, is a refreshing opportunity to keep up to date with latest (even unexpected) trends as well as to have the opportunity to draw students into a debate about the current state of Marketing practice. A key lesson for the authors of this paper was that the design for learning activities should start with pedagogic principles rather than invest time in an unguided search for a new smartphone app; with careful thought, mobile technology can be effective for enhancing learning activity without needing novel and complicated software.


  1. Outi Niininen, Jyväskylä School of Business and Economics, Jyväskylä, Finland. Address correspondence to Outi Niininen, Jyväskylä School of Business and Economics, Mattilanniemi 2, P.O. Box 35, FI-40014  University of Jyväskylä, Finland. e-mail:
  2. J Graham Spickett-Jones, Coventry University London, Department of Marketing, Fashion, Hospitality and Tourism,United Kingdom



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