In its purest form, mobile learning (m-learning) is micro learning: training tidbits delivered via a mobile device such as a smartphone, MP3 player, netbook, Kindle, or iPad. M-learning is also predicted to be one of the top trends in the learning field in 2011. For the past few years, m-learning has been on the cusp of becoming a mainstream practice in the training profession. Now, with new technologies and the wide availability and use of mobile devices - particularly those that are web-enabled - m-learning will soon realize its full potential.
What it is?
There are three types of m-learning: formal, informal, and self-directed. Formal learning consists of learning organized by triggered notifications and reminders, such as SMS messages asking employees to confirm understanding or participation in an event or the completion of an assignment. E-learning courseware viewed on a mobile device also falls into the formal m-learning camp.
Informal learning includes strategies such as engaging in interactive messaging, fostering two-way communication, and soliciting user feedback or data collection. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and other social media are considered mediums for informal learning. Lastly, self-directed learning consists of user-directed learning, reference and performance support materials, content and courseware, and media-based content such as podcasts or videos.
Where is it going?
According to Robert Gadd, president and chief mobile officer for OnPoint Digital, "m-learning is expanding and reaching the general population. It is expected that mobile learning projects delivered in established and emerging global markets will outnumber those delivered in North America (the United States and Canada) due to greater interest, faster uptake, and a willingness to leverage m-learning on both basic feature phones as well as advanced smartphones."
How, you ask? Well, advanced mobile platforms and emerging technologies such as HTML5, cloud computing, and online gaming will make it easier for people to access interactive, engaging content. HTML5 will make rich media playback on mobile devices more practical and compelling, too, reducing the need for flash-based content on mobile devices.
Cloud computing can now manage mobile devices, rather than a private corporate network. There is also discussion about how smartphone applications that currently live on a device may live in the cloud and be accessed via the Internet in the future. The cloud will thus flatten the app industry, so material could be created once and then accessed by any device.
M-learning will meld with social networking on every learner's mobile device, making the two technologies a fully integrated experience. Support for these two technologies is an essential part of every m-learning vendor's core offerings. The failure to provide a combined experience for the learner will alienate a large part of the audience.
Another m-learning trend is location-based learning. Location-based learning is taking advantage of a learner's physical location and her GPS-enabled device to provide teaching "in the moment," or on-demand. For example, a salesperson can receive valuable information on a city she's never visited while entering the office building of a potential client.
Lastly, touch screen functionality will open up interactivity in m-learning. Touch screens allow much richer interactions than a QWERTY keyboard or an out-of-date traditional keypad.
M-learning offers many benefits for you and your audience:
- It provides an easy way to get current, up-to-date information to your audience.
- It accelerates reinforcement of training courses and follow-up strategies.
- It accesses a population who otherwise may not fully participate in training.
- It is efficient; learners can complete training on their own time and at their own pace.
- It provides increased productivity and revenue because of time saved from other training methods.
There are quite a few mobile software development kits and application programming interfaces available. Many approaches are available when it comes to mobile development, each with its own advantages and shortcomings. The mobile industry is dramatically evolving as devices such as Kindle and iPad make their way onto the scene. Finding a one-size-fits-all solution is the downside to these changes and the increase in device diversity. There are two approaches to developing applications for mobile devices: developing standalone applications and developing applications that capitalize on the device's built-in web browsers. Browser applications possess a greater ability to target a wider spectrum of devices, but a lesser ability to tap into the native hardware and software features of a user's device, such as the GPS or accelerometer functionality.
For m-learning to be effective, it needs to be short, accessible, and relevant. Think of it as performance support. Use the following strategies to make m-learning most effective.
Rethink instructional design and content development. Text should be short and concise. This is not the place to expand on the theory of relativity.
Course length should not exceed five to 10 minutes, at most. Think about it: Would you want to spend 30 minutes staring at your smartphone, trying to learn, while crammed like a sardine on the subway during rush hour? Will learners have remembered their headphones in the rush to get out of the door? Most likely not. Do users of mobile devices have long periods of free time to participate in a learning activity? Generally not; they will use m-learning as a way to discover new information and reference materials, tips, and activities prior to meeting with a client for the first time.
Simplify visual design. According to Eren Rosenfeld, director of global markets and investment banking learning and development at Merrill Lynch, "Training via the BlackBerry succeeds or fails based on design. The technology can be revolutionary, but if people can't pick it up and use it with little to no explanation, then they won't use it."
Keep these considerations in mind when designing m-learning content to ensure visual simplicity:
- Screen layouts should work with or without graphics.
- Use images as infrequently as possible and only where contextually relevant. Many mobile devices only have access to low bandwidth services, so download time may be very slow. Also, some users pay per kilobyte of mobile web data.
- Make images or other graphic elements small. If an image is too large, the user will need to scroll horizontally or vertically to see it in its entirety. Some mobile devices don't support vertical scrolling, resulting in a cut-off image.
- Avoid background images or graphics. Background elements can make it difficult to read the screen in some types of lighting. Ambient light will vary depending on whether a user is indoors or outdoors.
- Fonts are extremely limited on mobile devices. While a desktop machine or laptop has many fonts, a mobile device may only have two. Don't count on differentiation between fonts to make any sort of important point. Geneva and Verdana are both optimized for small resolution screens and are good choices.
- Avoid subtle font color distinctions; rather, keep the color contrast high.
- Do not embed text in graphics. Often screens will be too small for the text to be readable.
- Use tables only to organize data, not as a screen layout. Various devices render tables differently, so tables aren't useful to control screen layout. Also, don't make tables wider than the screen. If a user can't scroll from left to right, there could be content in the table that he cannot see.
Reassess your tracking expectations. Many learning management systems are not yet optimized for mobile platforms. You must decide what information about m-learning activities you wish to capture:
- What data do you want to track?
- How often do you want to track it?
- How capable is your LMS to track this data?
- What does the user have to do to get credit for using the m-learning?
When creating m-learning, be sure to consider your audience members: How do they use their mobile devices? What are their roles? What would be valuable for them to access from a mobile device? Also, keep localization in mind: How does it affect m-learning content and design?
Finally, remember to develop your m-learning's functionality by creating vertical scrolling navigation, a mobile website, and a desktop website. Consider how many mobile devices will require m-learning design. Screen sizes, web browsers, and mobile operating systems have different technical requirements. Plug-ins such as Flash, PDF, and Java, as well as many movie formats, do not work on some mobile devices or may require the user to download an app to his device.
M-learning is finally being embraced by many of those concerned with effective training in the modern environment. It is valuable to audiences who are remote and for learners who need information quickly and easily. New technologies will create new audiences and new opportunities for learning.