Mobile Learning

by Lorrie Lykins
2011: ASTD

This "article" was a relatively short booklet, which I think was either a cours handout or a take-away from a presentation. Whatever the case, it lacks sufficient substance and depth to considered a "book" and is thus housed among articles.

It used to be commonplace for people to memorize phone numbers, keep a paper map in the glove compartment, get into lengthy arguments about the lyrics of a popular song. With mobile computing, such scenarios are becoming infrequent and will eventually be unknown.

The author considers each of these scenarios to be an example of "learning," a situation in which the information we need must be gained. Traditionally, people had to go somewhere to get the information they needed. With mobile computing, they carry a universe of informational resources with them.

(EN: I'm not entirely comfortable with this definition of "learning," as it seems rather broader than it ought to be. Traditional learning deals with placing information and skills into human memory for later access, and being able merely to reference information and instructions for immediate and temporary use is not quite the same, yet not so very different.)

The mobile device presents a capability that is previously unseen: to have the ability to deliver the right information, to the right person, at the right time. Nothing else has come close to providing such capabilities until now.

This new capability presents a challenge to learning professionals and has significant impact on instructional design: the mobile device takes learning out of the classroom and into the field, which is a model that is entirely unfamiliar to those who design learning experiences.

1: Why Mobile?

Mobile represents a shift in the way people access information: the Internet provided access to a breadth of information and resources in a fixed location, whereas mobile gives the user to access a rather less board array of information in any location.

(EN: My sense is there's a longer story than the author tells - it's all about the dissemination of knowledge, from the beginning of history. In the classical era, people would journey great distance to access the wisdom of the sages, which were brought to cities, then towns, then homes by various technological advances. With print, the wisdom of humans became stored in books, but again, it traveled from the private libraries of kings to the cities to the towns to the bookshelf in the home. With computing technology, it again went from mainframes at a few universities, to databases in virtually any organization, to the modem connection, to the always-on Internet. To my way of thinking, this is all of a kind - you can just as easily hire a human guide, carry a travel book, or travel with a mobile application that provides the same information. It is functionally no different - but what is significantly different is that mobile has the potential to deliver a broader array of data: the user need not know what knowledge they need to take with them, but can download anything, anywhere. However, in the present day, this is more a potential than a reality, though I expect that will change over the next decade or so.)

Mobile vs. Internet

A table presents some of the differences between mobile and traditional Internet, but some of them are inaccurate or exaggerated by the author. The chief valid differences are that mobile is not tied to a fixed location, makes it easier to pinpoint the user's location, but it is more limited in the amount of information that can be delivered or manipulated in a single screen.

Mobile as a Learning Platform

The author suggests "mobile devices are a perfect fit for the way people naturally learn." It has the value of convenience, immediacy, and expediency. For years, instructional designers have sought a method for delivering learning in smaller, just-in-time chunks, and smart phones are regarded as an ideal solution.

Another academic suggests the use of mobile devices as data-collection units that can gather information in the field, which can be brought into the classroom for discussion and analysis.

Yet another muses about the amount of learning that is "scrap" because the information changes well before a course can be delivered. Delivering education based on outdated information has long been an issue.

And still another compares learning to rainfall, that is better absorbed and used if it is given out in small amounts over time, rather than a periodic deluge.

Mobile vs. Virtual

The term "virtual" is often applied to computer-based learning, as it places the user in a contrived simulation of the real world - that is only as good as the simulacrum. Mobile offers an antithesis to virtualization: it brings learning to the real world, where they remain connected to reality.

2: What's Happening Now?

In the present day, mobile is marching toward ubiquity. (EN: I'm going to dispute a lot of the figures I see at a glance, because they're the typical exaggerations - I don't dispute the growth and popularity of the mobile channel, but have the distinct sense that such specious claims undermine the credibility of sources, and may cause their other claims to be dismissed as equally invalid, which would be counterproductive. The claims of mobile's soaring popularity are entirely valid, but not to the degree sources such as this one claim.)

In the US market, there are 302 cell phones in a population of 311 million, or about 96% of the market. (EN: This is offset by other research that shows that the average phone user has 1.8 phones, which brings the market penetration to a more credible 54%), and some sources predict that half of all cell phones will be smart phones by the end of 2011 (EN: also a bit suspicious because the share was 33% at the beginning of 2011 and the adoption curve is flattening.)

Other studies look to the usage patterns in foreign nations, which indicate in certain markets, such as Africa and Japan, the cell phone is the primary means by which people access the Internet. (EN: Again, other sources have been quick to point out that such countries lack a land-line infrastructure - mobile is the preferred option because in such locations it is the only option.)

In spite of the growth in mobile usage, the deployment of mobile learning has not been very pervasive: it is an important emerging topic, but has not gained as much grounds as conference promoters would have potential attendees believe. In all, the author believes the training industry to be taking a "wait and see" stance on mobile, as evidenced by research indicating only 22% of firms are leveraging mobile learning, and only 54% are considering it in the future. While it's clear that firms recognize the potential value, it's also clear that they are not making significant investment at the present time.

A separate graphic the author includes shows a less enthusiastic reception: only 15% currently provide any form of learning on the mobile channel, 10% claim it is in development, 40% say they are considering mobile in future - and the remaining 35% indicate having "no plans to use" mobile in training.

In a similar survey of industry professionals, nearly 75% of respondents identified that mobile was the most relevant component of "Web 3.0" but less than half reported their organizations were offering any e-learning that are even accessible on mobile devices and less than a quarter of them used smart phone apps for learning. (EN: A bit of skew here may be in the phrasing of the questions - I find it particularly interesting that so many people have such enthusiasm for "Web 3.0" when there is no widely accepted definition of what that notion even means.)

Augmented Reality

The use of augmented reality is also in its experimental phases, with only five percent of respondents to a study reporting that it has been used- thought it's rather a step up from a survey a year earlier in which 0.5% claimed to be considering it.

Some theorists have speculated augmented reality to be a considerable factor in the future of training: the ability to lay information over an actual environment is invaluable - both in its ability to provide direct illustrative assistance, as well as in its ability to "see" and analyze objects in an environment to push information the user may not be aware he needs.

BMW is experimenting with a method of using augmented reality to help support technicians, using a headset. This system features glasses that will provide an overlay of the engine compartment, showing information about the parts, and a segmented audio program that plays through an earpiece that provides step-by-step instructions fro conducting a given repair.

Taking Cues from Higher Education

Traditional computer-based training is used by learners in a solitary manner, interacting with what is often a linear presentation. Mobile learning has the potential to be more like interactive tutoring - enabling the user to interact with an application that delivers the information in smaller pieces that have immediate relevancy.

(EN: I have a strong negative reaction to the assertion that mobile introduces such capabilities. Technology has for many years had the capability of delivering a complex interactive experience, and mobile does not introduce significantly new capabilities. My own experience with CBT development has been plagued by instructional designers stuck in the powerpoint mindset who can't conceive of interaction beyond a simple exercise - or, on the rare occasions you get an ID who is moderately tech-savvy, the sponsor is unwilling to pay to have it built well. To many firms, training is seen as an expense, and it's very poorly done - which could turn into a much longer injection here.)

The author writes of training that colleges and universities are attempting to offer via the mobile platform, but has little to offer aside of anecdote and speculation. Of interest, one account indicates that mobile is growing into an educational platform slowly - it is being leveraged to augment classroom learning rather than replace it entirely, which investigates the ability of mobile to do things other than replicate the lecture experience . Another source acknowledges that a cohesive mobile training experience cannot simply be a matter of moving content from the Internet and reformatting it for a smaller screen.

Another incident demonstrates that merely "going mobile" does not guarantee success: in 2009, Stanford University provided students to register for courses via their mobile phones. Given that the college is in the tech-friendly Silicon Valley area and that teenagers are enthusiastic adopters of cell phones, they expected it would be a smashing success - but "no one" registered for classes on the mobile platform. This shows the importance of small trials, and accepting the possibility they will not be successful.

(EN: I'm equally incredulous of the "no one" assertion. Was it a negligible number, or literally not one single student? Did the university fail to communicate the capability to students, or make the process of registration too difficult? I have the sense that some students might not have confidence in an online registration process - but I think there's a lot more detail to be known before assuming the mobile channel is so complete a failure.)

3: What is the Future of Mobile Learning?

Adoption of the mobile channel is "staggering." For example 43% of US college students claimed to use mobile devices to access the Internet on a daily basis - up from 30% the year before and 10% in 2008. Meanwhile, the capability of devices is increasing rapidly. One futurist suggests that, within five years, the mobile phone will have as much "power" as a standard desktop computer of today.

(EN: It's often been suggested that the reason for mobile adoption's recent explosion has been linked to device capabilities. In my own experience, futurists have been touting mobile as "the future of computing" since 1999, but it's only been recently that the platform has had enough capabilities to do anything remotely useful. Even so, the footprint of the device remains an issue, and one that is not likely to be easily overcome: you can only make a screen and keyboard so large before the device is no longer portable.

Applications vs. Mobile Web

The author considers the conflict between using the mobile platform to access content housed on the internet, as opposed to developing device-specific applications to deliver training experiences - asserting that "designers haven't figured out the best approach just yet" and later that "most IT professionals are not yet experienced or adept at writing software for mobile devices."

(EN: This and other content in this section seem to suggest the choice between the two is entirely arbitrary, which misrepresents the situation: in the best of cases, it is a choice based on needs - which option is capable of delivering the functionality required, or doing so most efficiently. Other times, it is a matter of the cost. Other times, in is determined by the variety of devices in use by the target audience. Other times, it depends on the skills available in-house and the company's willingness to invest in training its IT staff. Other times, it is development expense. There are many more factors at play than the mere choice of the designer, even when such advice is heeded by the developer and the sponsor - who often has little authority in such decisions.)

Perhaps the best analogy to understand the difference is that an "app" is a specific piece of software written for a specific phone, much like computer software is written for a specific version of a specific operating system. It has the ability to have more access to system resources, but only on one specific kind of system. The mobile Web us more like server-based software, which has less access to the device and is more dependent on a constant connection, but can be designed to be virtually universal.

In general, the mobile platform is highly fractured at present - applications and even mobile Web sites must consider the specific ways in which a training module must be developed for each mobile device on which it can be used. In time, there will be convergence among devices, such that the need to design anything that is device-specific will become an outdated requirement.

Phones vs. Tablets

Given the limitations in the size and capabilities of the mobile device, attention has returned to tablet computing - they are fairly new, and have captured a great deal of attention and excitement, but it is uncertain whether these devices will attract a significant user base.

In terms of mobility, tablet computers are more like a notebook computer than a mobile device. They are small and light enough to be carried, but the user must stop what they are doing, retrieve the device, and make a deliberate effort to use it - and as such, it is not a convenient in-hand device that can be used at a whim in the same way that a mobile phone is. (EN: Another author made a cleaner distinction - if the user cannot use the device while walking, it's not mobile.)

Even so, the tablet device, like the notebook computer, enables the user to bring computing technology with them, into the field, where it can be used to access information in the context of a task they are performing, which means they can be leveraged to provide information to the right persons in the environment in which they need it - and as such are of interest as training devices.

Mobile Support vs. Mobile Learning

Presently, mobile devices are regarded as performance support tools rather than learning tools: the contextual nature of the content and the immediacy of it serves as a reference for the practitioner in the field, but is not used for teaching/training in advance of encountering a situation in which knowledge and skills are needed.

The example is used of sales support, in which the mobile device provides access to product information that is used as a reference, as opposed to the "training" task in which the information is committed to human memory. In that regard, the mobile device replaces a physical binder of product information that cannot be conveniently carried about. Effectively, this reduces "the amount of stuff that was required to be memorized" in training.

(EN: And this speaks to my earlier point about the loose definition of "learning" - if information is accessed as needed, is it really learned? And what's more, I'm not convinced that this sort of reference has the same impact on performance. In this specific instance, is the salesman equipped with a mobile catalog really as capable as a salesman who knows his goods? I strongly suspect that the a salesman who knows his products can have a more interactive conversation and more quickly identify an option that is suitable for the customer, whereas the one with access to product data doesn't really know his products, can't make a reliable recommendation, and will have to break off multiple times in a conversation with a customer to look up product information - which would undermine the confidence of the customer. Rote memorization has its value, and doesn't get the respect it deserves for its effectiveness.)

Case Study: SuddenLink

The author considers the example of SuddenLink, a provider of residential communication services (cable TV, phone, and Internet). The company has 1.600 field technicians who install and troubleshoot, and which traditionally offered these technicians a nine-week classroom training.

The company issued smart phones to these technicians to give them access the entire content of their courses as well as the manuals and troubleshooting guides. This required an enormous start-up cost and ongoing maintenance costs to develop and update training. However, no details were provided about whether the program has been successful in improving efficiency or productivity.

The author does comment that the training element was not the firm's primary concern: they looked to the mobile devices as a way for technicians to perform administrative tasks: fill out forms, file reports, update work orders, and the like. Training seems to have been an afterthought.

(EN: I'm less suspicious/doubtful of the use of a mobile device in a service situation. In this situation, the customer has already made the purchase, and I don't have the sense that their perception of the provider's competence would be damaged by a technician referencing a job aid on a service call as they would be to a salesman doing the same thing in a sales conversation.)

Mobile vs. the Classroom

"Mobile learning does not denote the end fo the classroom," states the author. The companies that are investing in mobile training are at the same time increasing their investment in classroom learning, rather than taking from one to feed the other. In many instances, the mobile component is a take-away from the classroom training, that can be used as a refresher on an as-needed basis.

One study conducted at the GWu school of business indicated that there is considerable synergy: those who took training on a mobile device performed significantly worse at follow-up tests than those who were trained in the classroom - it simply isn't a substitute.

4: Where Do We Start?

Mobile is an unfamiliar medium, in which there is significant doubt, and developing training for the mobile platform comes at significant expense. Moreover, it is not something that can be handled piecemeal: a fractured training experience, with some information being delivered in the classroom, some via internet, some in hard-copy references, and some via mobile, is highly inadvisable - it leaves learners at a loss to know where to turn. What's needed is a comprehensive approach.

Obstacles to Overcome

On technical issue to providing information online is authentication - enabling the learner to identify himself to the system, for the system to deliver information only to authorized users, and to integrate the mobile delivery channel with the other methods by which training is provided. However, this problem is not unique to learning systems, as organizations have similar issues with any delivery of internal services via mobile devices.

Another obstacle is the content itself: many firms do not develop their own training materials and are dependent on what their vendors can deliver - and from the perspective of the vendor, training is of little importance: they provide a small amount of information that covers the basics, but do not take an intent interest in whether the customer actually knows how to use their products. Companies generally accept this, and pass along the responsibility of learning - somehow - to their own employees.

But aside of the general problem of vendor apathy, there is the dependency on the vendors for format - not all vendors offer mobile support applications, and those that do are self-contained and do not play nicely with all learning systems. As such, the company that cares to provide good information to its own employees myst repurpose and rebuild vendor materials to improve their delivery, or facilitate delivery through mobile channels.

There is also the obstacle of the traditional approach to learning, which involves a short-term event in which information is delivered in large chunks in the context of an artificial learning experience, which is contrary to the mobile model of being a constant reference that provides smaller bits of information to users in the field dealing with real situations. Vendors do not generally provide this, and instructional designers are not experienced in providing training in this manner.

Of all obstacles, clinging to tradition is likely the most significant: until project sponsors and instructional designers are willing to embrace the mobile channel, they will be unwilling to undertake the tasks necessary to leverage it effectively.


The first question to ask about mobile learning is: is it necessary for this particular piece of learning to be mobile? If you cannot demonstrate how the mobile delivery channel makes sense, it will be difficult to obtain the cooperation fo stakeholders in using the channel - and as the channel is unfamiliar, there is likely to be great resistance to using it. The sponsor, stakeholders, and even target participants would all much prefer to fall back on more comfortable and familiar channels if there is not a compelling reason to go mobile.

Another approach is to consider three factors: the capabilities of the device, the needs of the learner, and the social aspect of learning- that is, the need of learners to communicate with one another and with the instructor, both during and after a learning experience.

There is also in some instances a benefit to being able to leverage existing assets. The example of Adobe is given, where all employees had already been issued Android phones, and where the company had a standing library of training videos. It was a simple matter to place these videos on a private YouTube channel to make them accessible to employees without a major investment of time or money.

Pilot Programs

Another approach to introducing mobile is to start with a small and tightly-controlled pilot program, which can enable a small group of employees to utilize mobile training and "prove" the value of wider deployment. Especially in very large organizations, it makes sense to start small rather than seek to do a massive implementation (at massive cost and massive risk) all at once.

Qualcomm, for example, starts with a group that may be as small as a few dozen employees, then scales up to a few hundred, before undertaking a broader release. Not only does this enable them to prove value, but it also enables them to test and tune on a smaller scale to make the eventual implementation more successful. Google is also known for having an experimental culture, and is fond of rolling out new features and functions to a small percentage of users to see if it's going to work before going to a wider audience.

Especially when dealing with a new channel, where you are uncertain of user response and acceptance, a slower and more cautious approach is advisable.

Conclusion & Policy Recommendations

With each advancement of technology, there seems to be a tendency to want to make the new technology emulate the old. When the motion-picture cameras were new, movies were made by filming plays, such that the people who went to see a movie had the same experience as a member of the audience of a stage play. It took quite some time for the motion-picture industry to come to grips with the capabilities of the new technology and fully leverage its potential power.

Instructional designers fell into much the same trap when developing computer-based training modules: they used them to deliver the same experience as would be had by a student in a lecture hall, and the true potential of the new medium was largely missed. Instructional designers should be careful not to fall into the same trap (again) with mobile learning.

The mobile channel presents a significantly different body of capabilities, which are going to require learning designers to completely revisit their approach for delivering training to a medium that reaches the learned in any location, with the information he needs at a specific place and time.

It's also clear that mobile should not be perceived as a "replacement" medium - but as a new tool that will complement other modes of training. It lacks the effectiveness and capabilities of formal classroom training, but provides capabilities that traditional training tools and methods do not.

The author also feels that the organizations are undergoing change more rapidly today than in the past, and the traditional methods of learning are ill-suited. To provide months of classroom training to an employee is costly and makes less sense in a workplace where employees remain with a firm for but a few years, and the ability to provide smaller amounts of training on an as-needed basis is a wiser decision that is well supported by the mobile channel.

The many firms that are springing up, with offers to provide companies with training modules, are a poor solution to the problem. Their self-contained solutions are foten incompatible with larger learning systems. It is cheap and easy for a firm to leverage these providers to create a disorganized and intractable mess of a training library. However, this does point to a need for standards compliance, and a great opportunity for a firm that can provide training content that is flexible enough to be repackaged and repurposed.

Finally, the author leaves the reader who is presumably interested in more aggressively pursuing mobile as a training channel with a few key points to keep in mind.