Mobile computing is here. What does it mean for learning
professionals? How will it affect instructional design? What
influence, if any, will device manufacturers, platform providers,
and software developers have on mobile learnings future?
ASTD and i4cp partnered to investigate the topic and the resulting
report, Mobile Learning: Learning in the Palm of Your Hand,
addresses these questions and many others by examining the existing
literature, and speaking with practitioners and thought leaders who
are proponents and early adopters of mobile learning. The time is
ripe for organizations to get smart on the current state and future
of mobile learning.
APPs vs. Mobile Web
Mobile learning proponents say that right now we have two types of
learning technology that are coexisting: traditional web and
mobile; but we may soon see convergence, and ultimately the
extinction of one as the other takes hold. John Polascheck, manager
of learning technology at Qualcomm, says his organization is
currently focused on the mobile web: If we found the right use
case, we would definitely design apps.
Mike Sharples, professor of educational technology at the
University of Birmingham, U.K., says designers havent figured out
the best approach just yet. There are going to be some interesting
and useful mobile apps for learning, provided we can get away from
simply taking a desktop app and squeezing it onto a small screen.
He continues, There hasnt been a killer app for mobile learning.
One of the drawbacks to mobile learning via the web is a lack of
Flash support. Many designers use Flash as a way to build in
feature-rich, interactive content. Currently, only the newest
versions of Android support Flash, and the iPhone does not.
According to Clark Quinn, for mobile learning to truly reach its
potential, there will need to be either a more widespread adoption
of Flash, or HTML5 will have to be solidified as the new web
standard. HTML is the standard upon which the web is designed, and
the latest evolution, HTML5, is still being developed. It promises
much more interactivity and the ability to embed multimedia content
without the use of separate software.
Stanford Universitys Tim Flood likens the competition between web
and mobile learning delivery in terms of two species. One was here
before the other, and in fact, the second species emerged from the
first, a prime example of evolution in motion.
Flood posits, We will create native apps, i.e., apps that are
written in code compiled specifically for a mobile platform and
downloaded either from an app store, or a website that will be used
to download the app to your device where it is kept for you to run
whenever you like. With mobile apps, we will enhance existing web
pages to detect when a mobile device is requesting access to the
page. Upon detection, the website will invoke a style sheet that
formats the page for the devices smaller, often unique, real
estate, or screen size.
So we are, at present, in a state of what Flood refers to as
coexistence in that at the moment, business units dont commonly
have access to technologists who have the skills to build mobile
apps. But that will change, and probably sooner rather than later.
In ASTDs Web 3.0 study, 55 percent of respondents predicted that
their organizations would have this internal expertise within three
years (see Figure 5).
Most IT professionals are not yet experienced or adept at writing
software for mobile devices, but they do know how to create style
sheets for their corporate websites. These represent two different
skill sets. And even if an organization employs IT staff who are
knowledgeable about creating mobile apps, they are the same staff
saturated by other demands for IT support and services.
Furthermore, Flood points out, business leaders often dont fully
understand the distinctions between mobile web and traditional web
technologies; and their erroneous inclination may be that in order
to make learning mobile, all they need to do is replicate what
already exists on the website on a mobile device.
This convergence may occur over time, Flood says, as mobile device
hardware and software will continue to evolve, and expand their
range and capabilities. And increasingly, consumers will demand it.
As the mobile explosion approaches its peak, web development
technology will catch up, increasing its capability to close the
divide, says Flood.
Phones vs. Tablets
With the advent of the iPad and other tabletstyle devices, there is
uncertainty as to whether or not these will become the dominant
devices of the future. In the Web 3.0 study, more than 85 percent
of respondents indicated their company provides mobile devices to
at least some of the workforce, but less than 30 percent did so
with tablet computers.
Certainly more portable than most laptops, tablets still lack the
ubiquitous mobility of a phone. And, as with laptops, a user must
make the conscious decision to carry a tablet with them, whether in
their hand, a case, a backpack, and so forth. Mobile phone usage is
less deliberatemost people are rarely without their mobile phones
and carry them almost subconsciously, as they fit into a pocket or
purse unobtrusively. This gets to the heart of just-in-time
learninga person often needs information when they least expect it.
The comparison between phones and tablets becomes even less
important when we look back at the conversation about native
applications versus mobile web applications. Both devices are
capable of rendering and interacting with the same content. The
only difference becomes screen size, which ends up being a personal
preference. If the content is available and usable on any device,
then designing anything device-specific becomes pointless or
Many experts agree on the need to be deviceagnostic at this point
in time. According to Sharples, If you want to make any sort of
business out of mobile learning, you cant make it available only on
a single device, at least for the foreseeable future.
Virginia Crockett looks at Qualcomms experiences with mobile
learning and says, We are going more and more device-agnostic as
time progresses. In the beginning, Qualcomm used devices dedicated
to the learning platform and connected to a dedicated server used
solely for the learning program. Now the mobile learning portal at
Qualcomm is accessible from basically any mobile device equipped
with a browser.
Mobile Support vs. Mobile Learning
As it stands today, mobile devices would most likely be considered
a performance support tool rather than a learning tool. Bob Mosher
of LearningGuide Solutions says that the contextual nature and
immediacy of the mobile device makes the true intent really to
support rather than to teach.
This is evident in some work Mosher did with chair manufacturer
Herman Miller. The company previously spent a lot of time teaching
sales people volumes of information about sizes, specifications,
pricing, and inventories. It was also a challenge to keep this
information, which was stored in binders, current. Finally, the
information was moved out of the classroom and onto handheld
devices, making it readily available, current, searchable, and
presentable, enabling representatives to use these devices with
According to Mosher, It offloaded for the learners and the trainers
the complexity and criticality of training, and reduced the amount
of stuff that was required to be memorized. It also increased
performance, because all of the information became immediate and at
the sales peoples fingertips.
In that context, mobile learning may always be considered
performance-supporting. The ultimate goal is to deliver necessary
information to someone who needs it in the time, place, and context
they require. This is essentially what performance support is.
Note: This article is excerpted from Mobile
Learning: Learning in the Palm of Your Hand (ASTD Research,
Vol. 3, No. 1).This study represents a synthesis of interviews
with thought leaders in the field of mobile learning, as well as
practitioners from global organizations that are in varying phases
of adoption of mobile learning applications. These interviews,
along with a comprehensive review of available literature, form the
foundation from which the ideas and recommendations in this study