Take A Leap Of Faith With Mobile Learning

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This article was originally published in Learning Technologies 2013’s special show guide issue. Mobile Learning has been on the horizon for a long time but has met with scepticism and technical constraints in its early days. Now, even though bandwidths have improved and devices have become more capable, mobile learning is still struggling to take off. The recently released Towards Maturity report ‘Mobile Learning at Work’ indicates that only 30% of organisations are incorporating mobile learning. Interestingly, these statistics are only marginally better than those reported by ASTD for the US market in May 2012. So what ails mobile learning?

Understanding Mobile

The most important reason for the low uptake of mobile learning, until now, has been the lack of understanding of mobile devices and mobile learning. To truly appreciate mobile learning, it is crucial to understand, what I call, the 3 key principles of mobile learning.

It is much more than ‘Learning’

The term ‘mobile learning’ is its own biggest enemy. Invariably, it forces you to focus on how to deliver learning on mobile devices. ‘Mobile’ is a unique device that brings together the capabilities of numerous disparate devices – like a phone, a camera, an audio/ video player & recorder, a computer, eBook reader, a GPS device, a game console – all in the palm of your hand. Today’s mobile devices move beyond merely providing access but to actively helping and supporting us at work and at home. It has also empowered and enabled us to do things that we may never have had the confidence to do in the past. If we stay within the comfort of the “learning box”, we will never fully recognise or realise the true value and potential of adopting “mobile” solutions.

Think augmentation

One of the common mistakes organisations make when considering mobile learning is ‘shifting their existing eLearning to all types of mobile devices’. This is like the mad rush to convert all ILT training to eLearning that we witnessed a decade ago. Only to discover years later that a lot of eLearning didn’t work as we thought it would. With mobile, ‘augmentation’ should be the key theme. Clark Quinn in his book’ Designing mLearning: Tapping into the Mobile Revolution for Organisational Performance’, says “…mLearning should be viewed as augmenting your learning or performance…”, which, for me, captures the soul of mobile learning.

Context in the real king

We normally use mobiles in short bursts of 1-2 minutes and in environments as varied as being on the Tube, on a plane with no connectivity, or inside a high decibel manufacturing facility. The context, then, in which we ‘the learners,’ use mobile learning is critical and a key element in designing meaningful mLearning.

No Escaping Mobile Learning

To be fair, understanding mobile learning is a bit difficult, especially for organisations with a ‘push learning’ mindset. Further, particularly in past, there have been challenges of small screen sizes, low bandwidths, low penetration of smart devices, security of content, Flash vs. HTML5 confusion, native vs. web based options, and more. Honestly, most of these are myths; myths with a logical and convincing argument against them. What’s important is to realize that there is no escaping mobile learning. Here’s why: we live in a mobile world, which is changing the very nature of work, and together these present a fantastic opportunity to transform workplace learning. I elaborate on each of these below.

We live in an increasingly mobile world.

Smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales in the US and the trend is similar everywhere too, soon tablets will do the same, and before we know it, PC sales will be dwarfed by that of mobile devices. Further, smart phones and tablets are becoming cheaper – some have already reached a £50 price point and in a year or two, almost all of your workforce will own one (if they don’t already) for their personal use. Intel futurist, Rob Johnson, in an article earlier this year, writes, “As we pass 2020, the size of meaningful computational power approaches zero. When you get intelligence that small, you can turn anything into a computer,” Johnson writes. “All of a sudden, it’s possible to turn your shirt, your chair, even your own body into a computer.” I think this will have a huge impact on learning as an era of embedded ubiquitous learning unfolds. There is no doubt that computing is shifting to mobile devices and it’s only natural for learning to follow suit.

Work is changing

Over that last few decades, the concept of work has changed. With the advent of computers and Internet, work is increasingly knowledge-based and for many it’s no longer a place you go to. The workforce is now more mobile than ever – IDC estimates 37% of world workforce will be mobile by 2015. To manage and support the new workplace and mobile workforce, ‘enterprise mobility solutions’ is a rapidly evolving trend in driving productivity. Research by Dr. Robert Kelley, at the Carnegie Mellon University, indicates that the amount of information one needs to memorise to get the tasks completed has dropped from 75% to 10% between 1986 and 2006. This hints at the declining importance of formal structured training programs, which aim at ‘pushing’ information into the learner’s minds. More and more of learning is now embedded in the workflow.

Mobile presents a transformation opportunity for workplace learning. Of the five moments of learning needs listed by Gottfredson, the latter three – when trying to remember, when things change, and when something goes wrong – are more pertinent to the workplace. It is in these moments that the staff applies knowledge and skills to do the job. Any learning that can help it is immediately effective. And mobile, being always on and always carried, is the ideal device to target for such performance support. As mentioned earlier, mobile is unique as it combines many distinct capabilities. It is also a very personal device (may not be so true for tablets) and is available at the moment of “creative impulse”. If you could capture that moment for further reflection or share with colleagues to build on it further, that’s a phenomenal opportunity. Imagine creating a digital water-cooler for your enterprise where your staffs come to chatter. It’s your informal & social learning hub if you like. It helps bring continuous learning in your enterprise. To me that is a transformational opportunity which mobile presents.

Thus, with our computing habits, work culture and even our daily life inclining more towards a mobile world, I do not see any way by which anyone could escape from adopting mLearning for very long.

Just do it!

Once we realise the transformational opportunity mobile presents, it’s easier to get started. The challenge, however, with trying to create a comprehensive strategy before you get started is that mobile strategy is a moving target. You can’t wait till things settle down – as they won’t. Start small but do make a beginning. The strategy can simultaneously fall in place as you gain some insights into how it works in your enterprise. Here are some simple options to get you started:

mEnable your eLearning

Many organisations who have done eLearning in the past have first converted their existing content to make it tablet compatible. Not a bad move, unless you plan to put the same eLearning onto mobile phones too. Technically, this tablet learning lies in between eLearning and mLearning. And, if done well, delivering eLearning on tablets could help get you started with mobile learning.

Support portal for sales (Field Force)

Field based staff are the most mobile and need to be kept updated with, for example, the latest information, new developments, changes to operating processes and policies and any other materials, resources and communication that could help and support them in their day-to-day work. A mobile optimised website designed exclusively to cater to these needs could be a great first project – and it is not restricted to learning.

Custom app for a specific task

Survey your operations teams to identify any support opportunity that can be provided using mobile devices. It could be creating checklists to increase safety compliance or a custom calculator to help process certain tasks faster. I’m sure you can think of many more such simple options.

Although mobile learning is a seemingly complex learning technology, given its newness and rapidly evolving nature, avoiding it is not a choice anymore; especially for organisations that wish to bolster their employees’ performance and progress in midst of tough competition. While the possibilities in mLearning and the domain per se will continue to evolve, it is important that organisations initiate mLearning. And to get past all the scepticism and mundane objections, a leap of faith is needed to get you started. Go ahead, just do it!

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