There's no denying the imminent explosion of tablet computing as a learning tool. Reports from the 2011 Computer Electronics Show counted 85 iPad challengers, in addition to all of the iPad accessories being touted, including iPad holders, iPad keyboards, and even iPad alarm clocks.

Organizations of all stripes are taking major steps toward the brave new world of integrating media tablets into the workplace. According to Gartner, worldwide sales of tablets will jump from 19.5 million units in 2010 to 208 million units in 2014, while Forrester foresees similar growth and expects the United States' market share of media tablets to reach that of laptops by 2015 in terms of sales. The expanding tablet market is likely to cannibalize the market share of netbooks, media players, and stand-alone e-book readers.

Mobile learning research

In light of all this growth, Future Workplace and IESE Business School conducted an online survey among leading corporate learning organizations, called M-Learning: From Anticipation to Reality, to understand trends in mobile learning - learning that happens across locations or that takes advantage of learning opportunities offered by such devices as netbooks or notebooks, smartphones, and media tablets. More than 100 learning executives from professional services industries, high-tech firms, financial services, education groups, and government agencies shared their vision and deployment strategies of corporate learning on mobile devices.

According to the m-learning survey, nearly 40 percent of executives plan to incorporate media tablets into learning and development initiatives in 2011, and three-quarters of these learning executives plan to incorporate smartphones by the end of this year. Such devices are being used for ongoing learning and performance support in the areas of product updates and overall access of knowledge and tools needed to do one's job.

While use of these devices to deliver such information is expected to continue into 2015, learning executives claim that by 2015 they plan to leverage mobile devices not only for learning and performance support, but also for coaching and mentoring employees (37 percent), microblogging (27 percent), augmented reality (14 percent), and mobile gaming (12 percent). Learning executives report that the benefits to incorporating mobile devices into their learning strategies include seamlessly integrating learning into work, providing employees with 24/7 access to knowledge and information, increasing employee productivity, and building the company's corporate brand with Millennials who have grown up using mobile devices in their personal lives.

Media tablets in the workplace

Flexibility and accessibility are at the heart of why the iPad is catching on in corporations. Hilton Worldwide and SAP are two examples of companies using media tablets for learning, communications, and knowledge production.

Hilton is distributing 1,000 iPads to senior executives, who use the media tablet as a business and learning tool when sharing information and best practices. Hilton executives spend an average of up to 80 percent of their time on the road, making classroom learning impossible in many cases.

"People need to have learning of all types - instructor-led training, webinars, articles, stretch assignments, blogs, videos, wikis, and apps - available to them," says Dottie Brienza, senior vice president and global head of talent management at Hilton. "The iPad is a way to integrate learning into what people do every day."

At Hilton, the iPads come preloaded with customized apps and videos specific to Hilton executives and the company brand. The next iteration of the program will include iPads with a redesigned personalized user interface, akin to a MyYahoo! page. These customized iPads will be integrated into the company's leadership portal for top executives so that mobile learning applications, performance support, assessments, and surveys can be developed and tracked easily for a mobile workforce.

Hilton is not alone in experimenting with the iPad as a learning device. SAP, one of the world's largest technology companies, rolled out close to 1,500 iPads to its employees last year, with plans for that number to reach 17,000 in 2011.

As a software vendor, SAP expects to see an increasing demand for delivering its solutions on mobile and tablet devices. It is also looking to leverage media tablets internally to augment how learning is being delivered to its salespeople in the field.

While the company emphasizes the importance of traditional face-to-face learning, it acknowledges the challenge of connecting people across geographies and units in an increasingly global business environment. For example, a salesperson in China with two years of experience will need a somewhat different set of tools and performance support from someone who has been selling SAP solutions for 12 years in Germany. Moving some of the learning delivery onto a mobile device allows for greater personalization of the learning experience.

As SAP continues its journey of integrating media tablets into learning programs, rethinking the way content is designed and developed and ensuring the current infrastructure works reliably and securely loom large as key deployment issues. Says John Matthews, vice president of SAP Value University, "We have to be 100 percent sure that employee information is secure and that we have the right organization in place to support users around the globe."

Institutions of higher education have also discovered the potential of the iPad as a learning tool to complement classroom activity and extend the classroom beyond its four walls. Universities and school districts across the country have either begun programs or applied for grants to furnish iPads to select student and teacher populations.

Similarly, iPad pilot programs are being launched by leading business schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Wharton in the United States and IMD and IESE Business School in Europe are distributing the tablets among participants of their MBA and executive education programs. As with corporations, business schools see greater flexibility in delivering learning content and enhanced collaboration among participants as key benefits of the new approach.

The iPad and learning: A perfect marriage for a mobile workforce

When you consider using mobile devices for learning, it is important to develop an expansive view of how the learning experience can be enhanced. This means thinking of mobile devices as additional tools for learning, performance support, and expertise location - not as a replacement to what you are doing today.

Think of how your learners use their mobile devices today - for GPS, social networking, communications, and increasingly for payment of goods and services. Ask yourself, how can using a mobile device add to the learner's experience? Here are three suggestions for what can be possible in using mobile devices for learning:

There's an app for that. Based on where corporate learning is headed, media tablets will be the ideal delivery mode to transform learning so it is mobile, engaging, and, yes, fun.

Augmented reality, long predicted by corporate trainers and educators, is finally here. The iPhone, for example, has an augmented reality app that translates materials and signs and performs other communications, and Word Lens rolled out a similar app that translates materials and signs on video.

Although the app is designed for translating short passages, it's easy to envision the day when a salesperson can walk into a customer's office and discuss promotional materials while doing quick translations from Italian, German, or Chinese, and accessing the app to learn about the features and benefits of the new product.

Some companies are already migrating learning onto an app. For example, Watson Pharmaceuticals has created an app for Watson University so traveling pharmaceutical reps can easily access videos and produce knowledge and relevant whitepapers from their iPhones.

Think performance support, not merely learning delivery. The iPad is portable and very intuitive, paving the way for companies to use it as a reference tool. Retailers ranging from Sephora to JC Penney are using iPads as product-related reference guides at the point of sale. Content delivered in this fashion can not only support the sales process but also be educational and entertaining for retail salespeople as well as their consumers.

Deliver microfeedback on a mobile device. The annual performance review may soon be a thing of the past as companies embrace mobile devices for relevant, quick, and easy microfeedback. Millennial employees are driving this change; as members of the "Google Generation," they have grown up in the age of reference and are increasingly demanding instant feedback on their career progress. Panera Bread is one example of a company that is implementing a microfeedback tool for frontline customer sales associates in their stores.

Media tablets, smartphones, and netbooks increasingly have the power to transform the learning experience. One can imagine the day when adult learners will access a robust library of content, browse FAQs on a new product offering, access collaborative workspaces on a team wiki, and receive immediate feedback on how to improve performance on the job, all while working from their home offices or at a client site.

As companies continue to invest in a range of mobile devices, their focus must become how to make the business case for this investment. Improving one's productivity, learning your job faster as a new employee, and gaining immediate feedback from co-workers will undoubtedly help to build the case for using mobile devices in the workplace.