Mobile learning entails the kind of learning in which learners use mobile devices with digital content inside, to learn in "anytime, anywhere" situations. Such devices include PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), laptop computers, cellular phones with wireless communication capabilities, as well as customized hardware (Liu & Hwang, 2010; Shih, Chu, Hwang, & Kinshuk, in press). To avoid students aimlessly wandering around, instructors need to carefully arrange the learning environment and design an interactive learning model, along with meaningful learning content provided in time. In the past decade, mobile learning has been used in a variety of educational fields in both informal and formal settings, such as bird-watching (e.g. Chen, Kao, & Sheu, 2003), chemistry experiments (e.g. Hwang et al., 2009), math (e.g. Zurita & Nussbaum, 2004), language learning (e.g. Cui & Bull, 2005), environmental investigation (e.g. Rogers et al., 2005; Lai et al., 2007; Chu, Hwang, Tsai, & Tseng, 2010), and butterfly ecology learning (e.g. Chu et al., 2008; Hwang, Kuo, Yin, & Chuang, 2010; Hwang, Shih, & Chu, in press).
Most of the existing research has been carried out for science, language, or technique-oriented content that trains students to master certain structural or systematic knowledge or skills, while the use of mobile learning technology for social science learning is seldom reported. Moreover, researchers have indicated that, although mobile learning seems to be innovative and interesting to the students, their learning performance could be disappointing without proper learning strategies or tools (Chu et al., 2010; Hwang, Chu, Shih, Huang, & Tsai, 2010). Unfortunately, so far few scholars have applied mobile learning practices in the social science subjects, not to mention proposing effective strategies or tools to facilitate social science learning.
To cope with this problem, this research aims to develop a mobile learning system for supporting exploration activities in authentic learning environments. Moreover, to evaluate the effectiveness of this innovative approach, a mobile learning activity for a social science course is conducted by guiding elementary students in southern Taiwan to learn in a local temple with PDAs. The project is targeted, as social science, to include geographical, historical, and cultural issues since learning about the temple in the students' hometown requires overall content learning about these aspects. The students are situated in a learning scenario that combines both the real world (a local temple) and the virtual world (the PDA learning system with access to digital materials) to extend their learning experience. A series of educational activities between the field and the digital system are designed to demonstrate the practices of mobile learning, which emphasizes learning that happens close to real life. To achieve this objective, an inquiry-based approach is proposed for developing the mobile learning system to facilitate students' field studies; in the meantime, the cognitive loads of the students were taken into account when designing the user interface. Furthermore, both qualitative and quantitative analysis methods were used to evaluate the learning performance of the students.
Inquiry-based learning is a concept which encourages teachers to allow learners to get in touch with authentic situations, and to explore and solve problems that are analogs to real life (Feletti, 1993; Li & Lim, 2008). By means of exploration, investigation, and observation, students become involved in more rigorous social interactions as well as higher level thinking. In inquiries, students not only develop a deeper understanding of the subject, but also 'learn how to learn' (Price, 2001). Lim (2004) stated that online inquiry learning ensures students' positive participation, on-task behavior, and rich collaboration, as well as empowering students' ownership and self-directed learning by increasing their involvement and responsibility for their own learning. …