Insight

Demystifying mLearning

With the advent, and increasing ubiquity of powerful mobile devices and a rapidly growing mobile workforce, mLearning (mobile learning) has become an increasingly hot topic. Yet it is relatively under utilised as a learning medium and without widespread implementation. This may be partly due to uncertainty within organisations around what mLearning is best used for, how it can help grow and support their organisation, and how it differs from traditional PC-based eLearning.

mLearning can trace its history back to the days of the walkman. Audio has been used for learning subjects such as languages or business through recorded lessons for decades. Yet it is only with the prevalence of powerful, portable devices such as smartphones and tablets that a wide range of learning options have developed. New Zealand has been slow to implement the mobile learning methodologies which have been seen in Europe and the United States, yet with the estimated number of smartphones in New Zealand currently at 800,000 and growing, this is surely soon to change. It is not only the increasing number of devices which is pushing this change however – attitudes about how we use these devices have evolved to where they are an extension of the user, allowing access to information instantly, when and where it is needed, for both personal and professional gain.

Mobile devices, and smartphones in particular, are becoming more and more advanced, capable and connected at a rapid rate.  As these devices become more powerful, the possibilities of what can be achieved with them grows.  For example, these devices come with features such as GPS, wifi, high-speed mobile internet, accelerometers, video cameras, touch screens, gyroscopes… the list goes on.  Great applications take advantages of these smartphone features – in some instances expanding the potential of the device beyond that of a desktop computer.  For example, applications currently exist which can translate languages, using the video camera, on the fly – pointing your phone to a sign written in Spanish can instantly translate it back to you in English. These consumer innovations could be adapted for business uses. Imagine a pharmaceuticals salesperson being able to access the benefits, draw-backs, case studies, or side effects of any drug simply by pointing their phone at its barcode, or even the drug name in text? Complex, difficult to remember information has transitioned from being rote-learned to instantly accessible. Siri, the Apple iPhone voice assistant has shown its immense capabilities at interpreting verbal commands such as “book a meeting with my boss at 4pm next Tuesday”.  How could this be taken advantage of to give step-by-step hands-free instructions on how to complete a difficult physical task?

For the purposes of this article, the term mobile device is referring mainly to smartphones. Tablets present different opportunities for mobile or semi-mobile learning, with different advantages and drawbacks. For example, traditional mobile eLearning is a lot more palatable on a tablet than it is on a smartphone.

There are obvious advantages to adopting a mobile learning strategy – employees can turn downtime into productive time, important information can be accessed at any time, educational content can be distributed rapidly throughout a mobile workforce. Yet one of the biggest hurdles mLearning has to overcome is the tendency to try and replicate traditional eLearning. While it is true that mLearning falls under the eLearning / digital learning umbrella, it requires a different approach and its own strategy to make the most of the medium. The advantages of mLearning are not truly embraced if traditional eLearning mindsets and techniques are directly transferred to a mobile medium. eLearning courses generally take 10-40 minutes to complete, and focus on building skill-sets, or increasing knowledge of a subject through a structured learning path. It has been said that mobile eLearning (ie. on-the-go or portable) allows employees to undertake such learning when and where they desire, such as during a commute, but in all practicality there is more lost than gained when taking this approach.

Consider three employee user groups which could benefit from having mobile access to learning; salespeople, service people, and time-pressed executives. Salespeople require detailed knowledge of their product or service – and having such knowledge instantly available with 100% accuracy is invaluable. Rather than rote-learning all information about their product, wouldn’t it be more valuable for them to be able to quickly access the products, features, hot buttons, objections and pricing at the swipe of a finger?

mLearning is more about performance support and complementary learning than rather than delivering full, traditional courses. It is through providing employees with the tools and information that they need – when and where they need it – that mLearning helps them perform as if they’re an expert. ‘Just-in-time’, or ‘on demand’ learning is perfect for mLearning, as mobile or field-based employees will usually have their devices on them at the time that they need the information, removing the locational restrictions that pre-existing physical or computer-based job tools may have. The learning materials content does not have to be a purpose-made application either. Material can be as simple as pre-existing web-pages or PDFs, or even audio or video files. It is essential that the information can be accessed in the quickest manner, and the format of the material is intuitive to use and not hindered by the device.  The way mobile devices are used for learning must be designed to be similar to how users do other tasks on their phones – through a short burst of activity, rather than a drawn-out experience.  Simply having the information available is not enough; it needs to be quickly accessible.

The physical aspects of mobile devices also need to be considered. Most touch-screen smartphones have displays smaller than 4″, limiting the amount of information presented at a time, and making it an unpleasant experience to spend too much time interacting with. (Imagine how arduous a traditional eLearning course would be if you were viewing it through a screen smaller than a business card!). And consider whether there is one common platform being delivered to, or whether the content will be accessed via a range of devices, as this affects development, costing, and the time it will take to roll out your implementation.

Nick Ormrod, Development Director