Seamless Learning

Explanation of Terminology and Research Status

The term "Seamless Learning" (SL) - often referred to from the German as "continuous learning" (Fössl, 2014, p. 6) - was coined by the American College Personnel Association in 1994 and is defined as follows:

The word seamless suggests that what was once believed to be separate, distinct parts (e.g., in-class and out-of-class, academic and non-academic; curricular and co-curricular, or on-campus and off-campus experiences) are now of one piece, bound together so as to appear whole or continuous. In seamless learning environments, students are encouraged to take advantage of learning resources that exist both inside and outside of the classroom ...students are asked to use their life experiences to make meaning of material introduced in classes [...]. (Wong & Looi, 2011, p. 2365)

There are two constitutive elements of SL: (1) the bridging of traditional dichotomies, especially regarding formal and informal learning settings, and (2) the stronger connection between formal learning and the learning experience in everyday life or work.

SL has found a new impetus and conceptual extension with the proliferation of mobile devices coupled with widespread, low-cost internet access. Chan et al. (2006, p. 5) expanded the concept of SL under the new technical conditions that were still developing at the time:

We see ubiquitous access to mobile, connected, personal, handhelds creating the potential for a new phase in the evolution of technology-enhanced learning, marked by a continuity of the learning experience across different environments. We term this “seamless learning.” Seamless learning implies that a student can learn whenever they are curious in a variety of scenarios and that they can switch from one scenario to another easily and quickly using personal device as a mediator. These scenarios include learning individually, with another student, a small group, or a large online community, with possible involvement of teachers, mentors, parents, librarians, workplace professionals, and members of other supportive communities, face-to-face or at a distance in places such as classroom, campus, home, workplace …

Mobile devices with online access are therefore attributed a number of functions: (1) bridging hitherto often separate contexts, (2) increasing the number of methods, and (3) networking with other learners and teachers. However, it is important to stress that SL does not assume that technology alone will bring about a revolution in learning - on the contrary: "While the properties of the [mobile] devices are important, we suggest avoiding the techno-centric view as implied by notions of e-learning [...] and m-learning. Unfortunately, these terms are often associated with a simplistic understanding of facilitating learning by delivering instructional content." (Chan et al., 2006, p. 9). Instead, Chan et al. suggested that "modern education and pedagogy ... converges in their valuation of active, productive, creative, and collaborative learning methods much beyond the absorption of codified knowledge" (2006, p. 9).

As an interim conclusion, it can be stated that SL primarily seeks to bridge the gaps in learning contexts (especially formal and informal learning contexts), better integrate everyday experiences (including business contexts) with formal education, delimit learning in terms of time and place, and focus on a learner-centered education that wants to utilize the possibilities of technology instead of focusing on technology in a reductionist way.

With the proliferation and increased capabilities of mobile devices coupled with the falling cost of both hardware and online access, SL research has received a boost. Wong and Looi (2011) analyzed the literature (54 articles) in 2006-2011 based on database analysis in Google Scholar, Eric, Web of Knowledge, and the British Education Index (2011, p. 2366). The authors first demonstrated trends in the field of wireless, mobile, and Ubiquitous Technology in Education (WMUTE) (2011, p. 2365) and, against this background, argued for expanding the term SL to mobile seamless learning (MSL) (2011, p ,2365). From their literature analysis, they developed ten dimensions that characterize MSL conceptions (2011, p. 2367):

“(MSL1) Encompassing formal and informal learning;
(MSL2) Encompassing personalized and social learning;
(MSL3) Across time;
(MSL4) Across locations;
(MSL5) Ubiquitous knowledge access (a combination of context-aware learning, augmented reality learning, and ubiquitous Internet access);
(MSL6) Encompassing physical and digital worlds;
(MSL7) Combined use of multiple device types (including “stable” technologies such as desktop computers, interactive whiteboards);
(MSL8) Seamless switching between multiple learning tasks (such as data collection + analysis + communication).
(MSL9) Knowledge synthesis (a combination of prior + new knowledge, multiple levels of thinking skills, and multidisciplinary learning);
(MSL10) Encompassing multiple pedagogical or learning activity models.”

Overview of the Ten MSL Dimensions

Wong and Looi (2011, p. 2372) suggested that the ten dimensions can be subsumed under three more abstract categories:

„We notice that the ten dimensions could be loosely divided into three higher level categories that represent the major element of MSL that is foregrounded, namely, the technology [emphasis added] (essentially MSL5 – ubiquitous knowledge access, and MSL7 – multiple device types), the pedagogy focus [emphasis added] (essentially MSL8 – multiple learning tasks, and MSL10 – multiple pedagogical models), and the learner focus [emphasis added]...”.

While the individual dimensions of (mobile) seamless learning have now been defined and the first conceptual, theoretical, and empirical work is available, there is still a gap in the application of SL in everyday life and accompanying research. Although Wong et al. (2015) are substantive and up-to-date in terms of research and practice, the area of higher education relevant to our project and, above all, the bridge to the occupational/educational context remains largely unexplained in the case studies (2015, p. 261-438).

Figure 1 - Ten dimensions of seamless learning
(Fößl (2014, S. 14))

Research Question and Objective

Against the background of the current state of research and the existing gap, the overarching research question for this project can now be defined:

How can we conceptualize seamless learning for the Lake Constance region with its specifics in terms of didactics, technology, and learners/teachers to enable seamless, lifelong learning in training and continuing education?


To achieve the above goal, the following work packages are envisaged (shortened versions):

  1. State-of-the-art and analysis of the concept of seamless learning (literature, needs analysis, best practices). Situational analysis for SL in the Lake Constance region.
  2. Development of a didactic and technical framework for SL.
  3. Development of a procedural SL implementation model (basis for follow-up projects) based on a design-based research (DBR) approach.
  4. These additional projects 1-3, accompanied by Project 1, create subject-specific prototypes of a SL conception for their area. This accompaniment relates in particular to didactic, technical aspects. Furthermore, Project 1 supports the other projects in the evaluation and improvement of the prototypes created.

The consortium has decided that in terms of the objective of the project and the procedures outlined above, a design-based research approach as a procedural model is the most promising. This is introduced below and its fit to the project goals discussed.seamless-learning-nach-foessl-wong
Abbildung 2 - Implementierung der Seamless Learning Projekte mittels Design-Based Research

Characterization of Design-Based Research

The design-based research approach, which has also established itself as a name for design research in German-speaking countries (see Reimann 2014, Euler 2014), can be characterized by the fact that in a cyclical process of analysis, design, testing, evaluation, and re-design, findings develop on two levels: Firstly, specific individual cases and products in the sense of informed design, that is, justified and reflected-on solutions developed for a practical context; and secondly, design principles abstracted from an individual case as medium range, context-sensitive principles and theories. To this end, a variety of different methods is used in authentic contexts and by means of communicative references to scientific practice by different protagonists (in the sense of actions and reflections). Design research can therefore be described as interactional and reflective research that involves exchange in collaborative projects between the worlds of science and practice (e.g., data, facts, empirical knowledge, subjective theories and object theories, principles, concepts, rules, or prototypes) and, to this end, the processes of analysis, information, consulting, design, construction, and evaluation are related to each other (McKenney & Reeves 2012, p. 73; Reinmann 2005; Reinmann 2014, p. 68 et seq.).

Phase Sequence as a Basic Structure

In order to characterize the cyclical process of design-based research (Edelson 2002, Euler 2011, Euler 2014) different phase models are suggested. According to Cobb et al., this in particular emphasizes the iterations between the phases (especially Phases 3 to 5).

Figure 3 - DBR cycles

Within the DBR approach, iterative processes are performed between more theoretical-conceptual and empirical phases. The phasing within the approach is used to switch deliberately between the theoretical analysis and conceptual perspective (Phases 1, 2, and 5) and the empirical design and evaluation (Phases 3, 4, and 6). The structured process sequence combines the didactic concept development in an individual case and the development of design principles that claim to have a broader validity. According to Wang and Hannafin (2005, p. 6 et seq.), it is a "systematic but flexible methodology aimed to improve educational practices through iterative analysis, design, development, implementation, based on collaboration among researchers and practitioners in real-world settings, and leading to contextually-sensitive design principles and theories."


The design-based research approach, which was originally developed in didactic research/instructional design research in the United States (Brown 1992), builds on the research finding that a multiple transfer problem between teaching-learning theoretical research and development and the implementation in real conceptions of the development of teaching/learning settings either does not happen or only happens partially. Criticism of existing didactic research targets the fact that research findings, in particular those relating to learning psychology, are not used as guides for the development of teaching/learning settings. On the other hand, seen from another angle, teaching-learning settings are often designed according to other rules, in particular practical knowledge and experience, but are then not systematically examined as to their effect, meaning that actual success factors cannot be worked out.

Justification for DBR

  • The required knowledge structures take a different order for the research and the design of teaching-learning settings. While research is formulated in as much detail as possible to focus on defined individual relationships and so develop a deeper engagement, in practice the design problem is often represented as a complex network by multiple action requirements and through multiple interrelations. With a strict research approach, primary subject-systematic knowledge structures are the focus, with development access action-systematic knowledge structures a priority. The change of these knowledge structures or the systematic integration and the necessary adaptations are defined in the basic research more from the research process or in the previous application-oriented research at the second stage of the research process. The DBR approach envisages an agile and flexible interplay between the two forms of knowledge structure through permanent reciprocal reference. It tries to solve the problem of transfer between science and practice that through the permanent transmission in all phases between the two knowledge structures always enables and ensures connectivity in both fields.
  • A second approach to explaining the lack of use of research findings for the development of teaching/learning settings is the perception that the structures and processes as well as systems of relevance between science and practice follow their own principles and logic. Thus, the orientation of science towards internal legitimization is based on technical and scientific standards (Weber 1960) aimed at methodological stringency and specialized systemic structuring, while the field of practice is characterized by pressure to act and political processes or processes of change (Hauschildt 2004). These different rationalities are shaped by the very different situational contexts between science and practice. The DBR approach relies strictly on a collaboration between the two contexts of science and practice to ensure the connectivity of the DBR process and outcomes in both fields. Likewise, the aim of the collaboration is to link the two rationalities (McKenney/Reeves 2012, p. 73).
  • A third aspect of the transfer deficit between science and research in didactics is evident in the insufficient treatment of the required meta-analysis or in insufficient deployment of action regulations. Thus, the necessary construction and reflection processes are addressed, which in practice are rather less explicit and also explicitly formulated only selectively in science - in the sense of the credentials of the research design. The DBR approach requires that through the iterative cycles, the phases of design-testing-reflection, and redesign are run through and evaluated several times. Through this refining process, changes, in particular, become noticeable, drawing attention to differences in the conceptual assumptions (design principles) and designs (teaching-learning setting). By demonstrating the different versions and the justified changes, a systematic comparison makes it possible at the meta-level to locate the relevant aspects on the design level and make them the subject of reflection (Reinmann 2005; Plomp 2007; Edelson 2008; Euler 2011).

Procedures in the DBR Approach

The DBR approach is characterized by a cyclical structure that integrates several microcycles in one macro run. The sequence of phases and the tasks or requirements therein are summarized as follows according to the following authors: Brown 1992; Design-Based Research Collective 2003; Reinmann 2005; Plomp 2007; Edelson 2008; Tulodziecki et al. 2013; Euler 2014; and Reinmann 2014.

The first phase contains the problem analysis, and thus the DBR approach is positioned in the light of a scientific debate, as can be seen in Popper. In the DBR approach, analysis of the problems and their substantiation are conducted from at least two perspectives - science and practice. By reflecting on and negotiating the different perspectives, a differentiated and elaborated understanding of the problem can be achieved which fits in with the two situational contexts of science and research.

The second phase is the encounter with concepts and theories already in existence and the clarification of the theoretical-conceptional basis, and therefore the (preliminary) understanding. The status of the discussion and experiences in a practical context are included in parallel. At this point, and due to the recurrence of this step, the descriptive-reflective understanding of the design tasks is built up and further developed.

In the third phase, designs for specific individual development tasks are developed or further developed through additional iteration. These designs are didactic concepts for teaching/learning settings. This phase also marks the beginning of the micro-cycle within the DBR approach - which includes the phases of design (further) development, design testing, and formulation of design principles, which are performed repeatedly in the DBR approach. Design development is carried out through the development of prototypes.

In the fourth phase, the first and multiple trials of the developed prototypes and, therefore, the formative evaluation of the design are placed under the spotlight. Here, the applicability and usability of the didactic concepts are tested and evaluated through their implementation in a practical context. This testing can apply to individual aspects or the entire design. By developing prototypes (in Phase 3), it is possible to make empirical access available as early as possible during development and systematically incorporate experience in dealing with it, as well as including it in the further development process. The DBR approach follows the principles of agile conception and rapid prototyping.

In the fifth step of the DBR approach, the formulation of design principles is carried out via an abstractive-reflective approach. In this step, the principles behind the specific individual case and thus the "patterns" are worked out. Doorman, Drijvers, Gravemeijer, Boon, & Reed (2014, p. 440 et seq.) stated that "... a set of such design heuristics is indispensable, but in the meanwhile does not guarantee a successful design." This leads to the creation and systematic further development of the micro-cycle of case-related design, development, testing, and evaluation in multiple-cycle runs.

In the sixth and final step, a summative evaluation of the development is resumed, if necessary, to subject the design development and testing once more to a comprehensive analysis. In the various DBR approaches, it has been disputed whether this step is constitutive or not.

Potential of the DBR Approach for the Seamless Learning Concept

With the DBR approach, we observe the integration of science and practice from the beginning, a systematic interlocking of the perspectives of the representatives of educational practice (the developer of teaching/learning settings, teachers and learners, training managers in companies, and training administrators) and science (in particular specialist areas of science, didactics, and educational sciences) as a prerequisite and condition for the success of a theoretically and conceptually underpinned development of innovative teaching-learning settings and development, and of design principles. The DBR approach, with its collaborative approach between science and practice, provides just the right working framework for the desired interlocking of the two.

With the DBR approach, the requirement of quick testability for prototypes suits the principles of agile design. The innovative content of seamless learning as a concept and as specifically developed teaching/learning settings requires structured support for the prototype development and methodically supported reflection. The design of prototypes allows conceptual innovative ideas to be tested more quickly; at the same time, the prototype design provides for further innovative approaches resulting from explication. In the DBR approach for the development of seamless learning, we see an adequate work mode because the seamless learning concept is still too innovative to be sufficiently well established on the one hand and, on the other hand, to draw the innovation potential from it.

Through a systematic formative and summative evaluation, the experiences in development and testing are methodically supported, processed, and presented. In this form, they enable knowledge to be generated that a) runs cyclically, b) is structured, and c) can be made accessible and disseminated to third parties. With the DBR approach, we also see the potential for a collaborative way of working which strongly supports further application both in science and in a practical context. This system of communication is particularly useful in the seamless learning approach, as it is precisely the connection and the consideration of different educational and application contexts that should be addressed and integrated.


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