The workforces appeal for m-learning has surged from ardent interest to a resounding demand within three years. And learners, not the learning department, are driving this demand.

According to Bersin & Associates March 2011 report, m-Learning: Mobile Learning Is Finally Going MainstreamAnd It Is Bigger Than You Might Think, in 2009 17 percent of the workforce used mobile learning, compared to 14 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 2007. While the growth has been positive, it is slower and less transformational than predicted by Bersins 2007 study, m-Learning: The Latest Trends, Developments and Real-World Applications.

The report suggests that m-learning has remained largely in the early-adopter stages during the past three years because of immature m-learning technology; destabilizing innovation in mobile devices; business mobility lagging behind the consumer world; and business audiences who are simply not ready.

We were surprised at the slower pace of adoption, admits Janet Clarey, senior analyst for Bersin & Associates. However, after nearly 10 years of predicting that m-learning will go mainstream, were finally seeing enough momentum now that it really is going mainstream, and its driven by the consumer market.

A July 2010 Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that 55 percent of U.S. mobile web users go online from their handheld devices on a daily basis, compared to 24 percent of mobile Internet users from the previous year. Because of the boom in the number and variety of portable devices, platforms, and mobile applications, consumers general interest has evolved into true demand. Clarey notes that many corporations are still not distributing tablets or smartphones to their employees; instead, most m-learning takes place on individuals personal devices.

The Bersin study reports that most m-learning has taken the form of short nuggets of learning content offered on-demand for performance support purposes. It is recommended that mobile learning continue to be delivered in these smaller chunks because of the format of mobile devices and the likelihood that learners attention will be somewhat divided while consuming the information.

Current and evolving uses for m-learning include

  • communications such as news and alerts, event information, and reminders
  • formal training delivery such as e-learning courses, tutorials, and virtual instructor-led training
  • on-demand access to assessments, surveys, practice materials, job aids, podcasts, searchable references, articles, and videos
  • social networking hosting with direct connection to experts and coaches, virtual meetings and teams, and social media
  • embedded functions including decision trees, augmented reality, and feedback capture.

While most companies currently use m-learning to communicate information to employees and deliver small segments of formal training, there is a widespread interest in more informal and collaborative approaches. As informal learning grows, so does m-learning, Clarey says. It is following the evolution of enterprise learning overall.

Early adopters of m-learning represent all levels of the market, from small to large businesses, and primarily the technology, business services, and healthcare industries. The developing world is leading the way in mobile adoption: Of the 1.9 billion global mobile cellular subscriptions added between 2006 and 2009, more than 1.6 of them were from developing countries, compared to fewer than 300 million from developed nations. In many developing countries, more than one-half of rural households have a mobile phone, and, because of mobile, more than 90 percent of villages in China and India are now connected.

Such growing use of emerging technologies is reaching the workplace, too, where many organizations are unlocking new mobile learning possibilities. Kelley Executive Partners, the executive education program at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, uses an alternate reality game (ARG) to create an engaging and customized learning experience for its clients. Coca-Cola recently sent 16 executives from its North- African division to Kelley in an effort to better market to its Millennial consumers who are immersed in Web 2.0 technologies. The participants used blogs, YouTube, mobile GPS devices, and smartphones to complete the ARG activities. The experience helped the team to better understand how Millennials share information and to determine targeted marketing strategiesand it was fun.

Accenture offers another mobile learning success story. The global management consulting, technology services, and outsourcing company launched a podcast initiative called uPodcasts using its existing conference bridge system, which resulted in a low-cost, high-value mobile learning program. Employees record podcasts via a telephone conference call, and the system edits the recordings into the necessary format. Accentures learning function uses the platform to record interviews with key practice leads, which employees can access on their mobile devices at their convenience. According to a course calculator that determines a learning solutions impact on performance, retention, and recruitment, the podcast initiative has resulted in a return-on-investment of approximately $519,948.

These case studies and the studys supporting data should serve to urge the learning function to adapt its methods to meet the needs of the changing workplaceand the world at large. According to the report, Timeliness, proximity, [and] versatility are some of the measures of the modern high-impact learning organization. M-learning is an important part of improving at these measures.

As for the future, it can only get bigger from here. I think well see positive growth continue in the next three years, Clarey predicts. I also expect that soon we wont see the m in m-learning. Its difficult to separate training and technologytheyre almost intertwined. It seems odd to be tethered to a desk or classroom anymore.