Mobile learning (m-learning) offers possibilities for delivering information that guides, supports, and coaches employees from a smartphone, iPad, or other mobile device throughout the course of their work day. Does this mean that you should rush to implement your next training or education program as m-learning? Maybe, but it depends on the project.

Before investing heavily in a mobile learning platform, its important to have a thorough understanding of your business needs, and how appropriately they align with the benefits, constraints, and requirements of a mobile strategy. Remember that m-learning is a delivery mechanism for information. Its not a learning solution in and of itself. A careful review of the goals, characteristics, and context of your learning need will help you make a wise decision.

What Learning Is Needed When?

Perform a careful analysis of your learners and their context. Characterize the frequency and timing of learning needs and the scope of required information. Determine the priorities for the information exchange. Those instances in which speed, mobility, collaboration, feedback, and brevity are high priorities may lend themselves to m-learning. But for projects requiring immersion, comprehensiveness, or careful sequencing, m-learning may be less suitable.

By referring to the Five Moments of Need model that was developed by learning experts Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, we can pinpoint the moments that are most conducive to mobile learning applications:

1. learning for the first time

2. wanting to learn more

3. trying to remember

4. when things change

5. when something goes wrong.

Moment 3 and Moment 5 may be most suitable for mobile learning because the information required is brief and specific. Moment 3 (trying to remember) is when content retention needs to be reinforced or when a job aid needs to be accessed for details not committed to memory. Moment 5 (when something goes wrong) is a critical juncture when information is required for removing an impediment to productivity, profitability, or customer satisfaction.

Both of these moments are examples of job performance support and they tend to occur when the individual is:

  • about to embark on or in the midst of completing a task
  • not proximate to knowledge sources or learning contexts
  • looking for a well-defined and bounded packet of information
  • experiencing the time and productivity pressures of the task at hand
  • required to share information with co-workers and managers.

In addition, you may want the learner to provide feedback as part of the learning interaction, such as feedback indicating that conditions have been met, a checklist has been completed, an order has been placed, or a problem has been solved. Learning moments that support the exchange of information while on the job, in the field, or solving a problem will definitely point toward a mobile solution.

What Is the Content Like and the Interaction Desired?

Once you have determined that the circumstances of the learning are well-suited to m-learning, your next step is to understand the nature of the content. Is the content being developed specifically for this project, or is it being repurposed from existing sources? Does the information require detailed graphics, video clips, mathematical notation, and animations? Make sure you characterize all aspects of any existing content: the file formats, unique players, plug-ins, or applications required.

Most importantly, the mobile content must have the capacity to be served in bite-size pieces that are easily retrieved by relevancy. Conventional wisdom indicates that 90 seconds is the limit for a burst of sustained concentration on a mobile device. Moreover, user comprehension of complex material is significantly compromised when viewed on a phone screen versus a computer screen. Your mobile learners will experience more success with content that is simple, brief, and straightforward.

You also will need to look at the nature of any feedback that is required from your learners and how this relates to the inputs available on a given device. Perhaps you need the learner to send a photograph of a broken part, a checklist that is completed via touch screen, bar code scan, or a GPS reading from their current location. These sorts of input are appropriate for a mobile device (though not all devices provide all forms of input). Conversely, a 20-page report documenting a site visit or a spreadsheet detailing costs would be more appropriate for a laptop or PC.

What Mobile Device?

Some companies allow employees to use their own devices for their m-learning needs, but issues around data security and device variability can present problems. You most likely will need to supply company-owned devices to your users. Along with the devices, you will need to supply guidelines to employees regarding personal use and care of the device.

As you select a device to support your mobile learning needs, remember that your content will dictate the choice of device, and your choice of device will imply requirements for your content. There are numerous devices available for mobile learning, including the iPad, iPhone, smartphones, cellphones, PDAs, and tablets.

Different smartphones have different shapes, screen brightness, screen sizes, display resolutions, and input mechanisms, such as camera, keyboard, touch screen, and so forth. Devices also run on a variety of operating systems, includings Android, Apple, LiMo, Microsoft, Symbian, Palm, or RIM. Devices vary in their support of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and their browsers may not support the plug-ins needed for displaying all types of multimedia content.

You will need to thoroughly understand the technical specifications for the device you choose, its operating system, and any applications you plan to use.

Implications for Content

Beyond the requirements of your particular device, m-learning in and of itself requires a different approach to content design.

Screen size is limited, and scrolling through content on a small screen can be inefficient. As a general rule, chunks of text should be dispensed in sizes that are no wider than the device screen and no taller than two-times the screens height. This could be as little as 200 characters. Because users see only part of the text at any given time, they need to rely on their memory for the content that has scrolled off the screen. For highly complex or technical information, such scrolling and remembering will be counterproductive.

Bandwidth availability on networks for mobile devices can also be a constraining factor. Even though the small screen of mobile devices lends itself to the display of a video or animation in lieu of lengthy text, limitations on bandwidth will hinder the liberal use of large media files. Streaming video should experience some improved performance when 4G wireless service is more widely available, but until these improvements are born out, your media content should be lean and lightweight, and graphics used sparingly.

Navigation elements are best if small and uncomplicated in order to reserve maximum screen space for content display. Avoid navigation bars and locate page controls unobtrusively after the content display. Some menu types do not work consistently across devices and should also be avoided, such as pull-down menus powered by JavaScript. Use plain arrows or simple words such as next or back for paging through content. Usability is particularly critical for mobile learning contexts where learners are often under stress, distracted by their environment, and feeling pressure to find exactly what they need.

Rapid retrieval of relevant information is a primary requirement for employees who are on the job and need highly specific information to address their current situation. Information structure and tagging are critical for supporting effective queries. Analyzing user vocabulary, search terms, syntax, and typical queries is an important component of designing usable information access.

Seamless workplace integration of the device and the learning is the foundation of a successful mLearning strategy. The content design needs to reflect the interaction of the user with the device and the information display, while also reflecting the full context of the users work functions. Conduct a full analysis of the users physical location for issues such as lighting, wireless connectivity, chemicals, machinery, charger outlets, or other factors that impact the use of the device. In addition, do a full investigation of the users workflow to identify learning moments that might occur. Make sure that your content is designed to intersect with those moments in a useful way.

For example, if you want to make sure the employee reviews safety procedures for a particular substance just before handling it, you could send the employee an alert message when their device is detected by sensors near the storage location, and the alert message could link directly to those procedures. Alternatively, you could rely on the employee to search for the procedures as needed. In either case, make sure that the procedures are available (and findable) in a stand-alone format rather than buried within other documents, manuals, or presentations. M-learning requires thoughtful design of the total learner experience within the work setting rather than just the interaction with the screen display.

Content maintenance is another area of analysis required during planning phases. Does your content require updates based on particular events (software upgrades or product releases or on calendar dates (pay periods or employment anniversaries)? Do you want employees to be able to update the content with corrections or comments as they use it? Even if the content accuracy is fairly stable, it may require some regular injections of novelty in order to keep employees engaged.

Ongoing Commitment

Make sure that your commitment to an m-learning strategy extends beyond the initial deployment. You will need to devise plans to ensure that the technology, infrastructure, and content of your m-learning initiative is up to date.

M-learning needs a fully operating technical infrastructure on an ongoing basis. You will need to dedicate technical resources to monitoring and troubleshooting servers, devices, and all aspects of the system during the full timeframe of employee access. The possibility of loss, theft, and breakage of mobile devices (and chargers) will require resources for replacement, storage, and tracking.

Moreover, the fact that new devices are constantly being introduced and new versions of operating systems and mobile applications are frequently being released requires a careful planning of upgrades and migrations. Your content will continue to change and evolve as well. Updates need to be implemented and deployed in a timely fashion in order to maintain the trust and productivity of the information users.

Bottom Llne

M-learning offers the promise of delivering information to employees at their point of need in a way that improves performance and maximizes productivity. In order for m-learning to deliver on this promise, it should be implemented in suitable circumstances and with full awareness of its implications and requirements. Careful planning and analysis will ensure that your m-learning initiative will yield the desired benefits.