The Realities of Mobile Learning

1st July 2014

I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that the biggest change to the way we learn, communicate and do business in the 21st Century is the widespread adoption of mobile devices. From smartphones to tablets, most of us are now carrying around devices that are more powerful than the PC’s that were on our desktops four or five years ago.

The elearning industry’s initial response to mobile was to repackage their content to fit a smaller screen, a trend that thankfully didn’t last long. So seven years after the launch of the iPhone and four years after the iPad first saw the light of day, what are the realities of mobile learning? My own view based on what I see clients and others doing is that there are two broad strands:

Delivering content to a mobile workforce

Despite the initial promise that it would make learning accessible to anyone at any time, conventional elearning remains tied to the desktop - and in many organisations to specific PCs dedicated to that purpose. Like workshop attendance, this approach to online learning is separate and distinct from the actual work.

Access to mobile devices has, for the first time, genuinely enabled us to deliver learning content to the workforce irrespective of time and location. This opens up the possibility of providing a whole raft of ‘pull’ content that learners can access as and when they need it.

However, along with the opportunities this presents us with a few challenges.

Content needs to be designed for and developed to work across multiple devices and screen sizes. The technical challenges are being overcome quite quickly, with authoring tools old and new offering mobile output options. The learning design challenges can be a little harder for some people - designing content for mobile can be quite different to designing for the desktop. We use mobile devices differently to the way we use desktops and laptops, and we use smartphones differently to the way we use tablets.

The greatest challenge though is offline access. For a start wifi and 3G/4G connectivity are not as ubiquitous as some providers would like us to think. Also, for many people the most convenient time to use mobile devices is during their commute by train or tube, which means variable and (currently) no signal. To support this we need our LMS to be able to package content in a way that it can be downloaded to the device when the learner is online, accessed offline and then any results or other tracking data should be passed back to the LMS next time they are online. All of this should happen with little or no intervention by the learner.

Using mobile devices in the classroom and elsewhere

The other major use case is to take mobile devices, usually tablets, and make them part of a formal blended delivery effort. In this scenario the mobile device is often not personal to the learner, but is instead allocated to the course and/or location and is set up specifically for content delivery.

I have seen this done as part of classroom activities, in which the learner is given a tablet to use for the duration of the course. They might be used as a replacement for typical paper based workbooks, providing instead a richer and more interactive experience that could be described as an e-workbook. I’ve also seen them used to present simulations and games that the learner can use to practice what they are learning. This allows for a much richer and more realistic application of learning than the usual classroom role plays.

They can also be used in the workplace itself, and being mobile, it doesn’t matter whether that’s an office, shop, factory, warehouse or even a ship at sea. The learner can carry the device with them, taking the content to the physical location in which the learning is most relevant. Want to learn where the fire assembly point is? Then why not go there rather than read that “each location has a designated assembly point”? Combine this with technologies like QR codes, Bluetooth LE or iBeacon and the content presented to the learner can be triggered by the proximity of the device to a point of interest.

Are you using mobile devices for learning in your organisation? What has your experience been?

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