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
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
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
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
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
- 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
What Is the Content Like and the Interaction
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.