Before you can begin designing successful mobile learning programs, you need to decide if you are developing content or applications exclusively for a mobile platform, a specific set of users, or a wide range of devices. As you continue to develop content for the desktop, you should consider thinking about what would happen if this content were to be accessed from a mobile device. Would it work? If your answer is no, then you need to rethink your program and consider the impact of adding mobile support as well as the primary desktop support.

1. Will it function as the ideal delivery method?

2. Will it fail and not work at all, partially work, or be fully supported? For example, if your content is primarily Flash-based, iOS will not play the content at all.

3. Can you design the content to support and take advantage of each platform? This is getting easier if you are using HTML-based frameworks for your content, because they will work via any browser. If you are concerned about the size of the browser window or the physical size of the device, consider using CSS3, cascading style sheets, and JavaScript to recognize the device your learner is using and automatically adjust the UI (user interface) to optimize for that device.

If your organization does not currently support this concept, you will want to look at what would be involved, and plan to update your LMS, CMS, or platform so that you can support most platforms and devices.

Go native or develop web app?

After defining the scope of your strategy (audience, hardware/software, timetable, budget, and so forth), you need to determine whether you plan to develop a native app or web app? A web app is accessible from any device, on any operating system, be it a desktop or smartphone, created with HTML5.

Web App Native App
Definition A web app is an application or site that is delivered via the web browser. Using JavaScript and the growing tools within HTML5, it is now possible to create sites that can behave as an application.

A native application is a bundled program that you have your users install or you pre-install on their mobile devices.

Pros Is easy to update. Can be deployed to desktops, mobile devices, and product with a browser.

HTML5 continues to grow in adoption and features to allow for more powerful features.

Allows for unique experience. May provide for improved hardware/software integration on tools.

Promotes improved utilization of mobile hardware.

Cons Testing may be required in multiple browsers and platforms to support feature set. May not take advantage of all hardware features.

Is harder to update. May require delivery via store or enterprise solution.

Requires longer development times.

Requires custom packaging or programming per platform.

Is costly to support, update.

Development Process and Results Average development time is one to two weeks. Average development expense is $10,000.

Developer expertise required is one to two years.

Content experience is fair.

System security is basic.

Access to core functions is nominal.

Overall experience is serviceable.

Average development time is 12 to 16 weeks or more. Average development expense is $75,000 or more.

Developer expertise required is three or more years.

Content experience is polished.

System security is high (mil spec).

Access to core functions is fully integrated.

Overall experience is exceptional.

Single OS?

You also need to choose a single OS (operating system) or attempt to support as many as possible? Based on your organization and audience for learning, you need to determine if you will support one or multiple platforms. If you are working with learners who can choose their OS or use home devices, then you will need to take a more general approach to be able to deliver to as many platforms as possible. If you choose an OS, you need to consider how often the company updates the OS, how often the hardware changes, and how they may affect your web or app tool.

Usability issues to consider

You should also consider who your audience is, how they will access the content, when they will access the content, and how much time they will spend with it during each session. Usability should always be a priority in development, but it is extremely important when it comes to mobile devices. They come in all shapes and sizes, so an aesthetically pleasing yet simple display is essential. Along with simplicity comes ease of use. The screen is most likely going to be smaller than that of a computer, so try to keep a clean design that does not require much explanation on how to use it.

The user should be able to figure out what to do just by looking at the screen. The interface should have an appropriate display layout, simple menus and buttons, and varied media support. Another important thing to consider is help links and files. If a user is having trouble understanding how to properly use the interface on their device, there needs to be a quick and easy way to find the solution. Along with a "help" button, a search option is an additional way for users to find what they are looking for.

Tools for mobile development

The following tools can be used for mobile development, and choosing a particular tool should be based on the level of experience you have as a developer and what you want to offer with your mobile program.

  • Native Programming Language: Each platform (Apple, Google, HP, Microsoft) offers a suite of applications that are designed for programmers to build and customize tools.

  • Web HTML: One recommendation would be to learn the syntax and then use an authoring tool to build custom HTML and CSS to provide the best and cleanest code. If you are new or starting out, you may want to look at a tool like Adobe Dreamweaver, which provides a drag-and-drop visual interface and allows you to view the code as you design/develop or flip back and forth between modes.

  • Flash: Using Adobes Flash Professional CS 5.5 now allows you to create applications from your Flash content and bundle them into an application for delivery on Apples iOS and Android platforms. For experienced teams or programmers, this may be a great way to speed up delivery and offer the ability to customize for each platform quickly.

Two amazing tools to consider for game development are:

  • GameSalad Creator: Currently only available on the Mac OS platform, this drag-and-drop interface provides an amazing interface to quickly develop games and interactions with content. You can currently export to HMTL5 and iOS platforms as well as to Mac/Windows browsers, which use a free plug-in to playback (http:// gamesalad.com).

  • ANSCA Corona: Provides a Mac and Windows development environment for coding games using a powerful suite of APIs. The gaming engine is fast, and delivery is available for iOS and Android markets.

Wrap up

You should be considering mobile learning for your workforce because it is a critical factor in delivering the best in learning experiences. You can start small, adding components and continuing to evolve as your organization adopts mobile devices. With an enormous growth in mobile devices across the board, reluctance to adapt to the evolution of technology could leave your company behind and scrambling to catch up. As the newer generations grow up using these devices in all aspects of their lives, why should learning be left out? Access to mobile devices will change the future of learning.

Note: This article is adapted from the Mobile Learning Infoline Issue 1110 (October 2011). To learn more, go to the ASTD Store.