Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mobile Learning - 7 Interesting Patterns

Over the last two DevLearn conferences, the big buzz has been around Mobile Learning. While the thinking around this was far more mature this time around, a lot of the initial conversations still seemed to be around porting existing elearning courses onto mobile devices. Of course, the presence of pioneers such as Neil Lasher, Judy Brown, Ellen Wagner and others has helped clear the air around mobile learning a bit. I think at the recent conference, it was pretty clear that mobile learning isn't exactly 'elearning on the move'. Nor is mobile learning all about the iPhone, though the images on this post might make it seem like that. To confess, I've gotten interested about learning on the go ever since I got an iPod - and that's not even a mobile phone! In that, you might already realise that there are several different degrees of mobility. The heterogeneous nature of the mobile ecosystem today brings a bunch of challenges with it:
  • Varying form-factors of devices - screen sizes vary across several mobile devices.
  • Varying platforms that bring the challenge of compatibility across devices. Droids, iPhones, Blackberry phones and Symbian phones are as different from each other as chalk and cheese.
  • Varying degrees of internet connectivity; from 4G connectivity in the USA, to absolutely limited connectivity in Africa and most of Asia.
  • Varying platform capabilities - not everyone has an iPhone or a Droid. In fact my curent phone is so worn out that I can't even see the keypad.
These challenges aside, mobile learning is a storm that's coming especially with feature phones and smartphones becoming a common phenomenon across a lot of the modern workforce. I'm by no means an expert in this space - just a commentator. I have however, been observing a bunch of patterns with mobile learning that could become the norm for how this practice evolves in the enterprise. In today's blogpost (which I anticipate could be a tad long), I want to outline some of these patterns and invite discussion on what you think the future of this space could look like.

Learning Apps
Having an iPod has opened me up to the world of mobile apps and I've been looking for learning applications like a hungry cat. My device has several applications that will teach you something or another. For example I use an application called Presenter Pro that's a free download from Rexi Media. The app is a little pocketbook of wisdom on making better presentations and has examples, exercises and quizzes that'll keep you engaged. In a similar manner I've got an application on my iPod that's all about Delhi and is helping my wife plan a trip at the end of this year. An app about Yoga poses has become my anytime, anywhere yoga instructor in a pocket. Apps are starting to get so ubiquitous that it's led Clive Shepherd to ask if they're the future of elearning. I personally think apps have a long way to go on that front, because not everyone has a smartphone. Even if they did, an app based strategy is risky and costly given the development skills your team will need and the number of platforms that dot this space. Apps definitely have some place in your learning strategy of the future, but I guess it'll always tricky if you put all your eggs in this basket.

Books and Documents
My Kindle has revolutionised the way I read, and the availability of reading applications for Kindle books on PCs, Macs and mobile phones has made my learning extremely flexible. In fact the reading experience on the Kindle is so social that it gives me the opportunity to share my thoughts about what I'm reading, with my social network - anytime, anywhere.  Then again, the notion of bookclubs becomes far more interesting with Kindles. You can have upto six separate devices connected to one Amazon account. Which means that the books, bookmarks, notes and highlights also sync across the devices. This has interesting implications for learning in the enterprise. Devices like Copia seem to be built for enterprise book communities from the ground up.

Also, the ubiqutous nature of formats such as PDF makes portability almost a non-issue across devices - that makes iBooks my favourite application on the iPod. In fact, online applications like Project Rome make PDF a far more interactive format than what we've known it to be. Is this a low cost entry point to provide low-cost, high-quality mobile learning to our workforce?

Podcasting and Portable Media
At DevLearn, I had the pleasure of meeting Inge De Waard, who has really pushed the envelope of elearning by taking mobile learning to South America. Now who would think that continents with limited connectivity options could support the high-quality, video based learning that Inge's team created for medical professionals in this location? As you may be able to glean from the slides here, the idea is quite simple. The health care workers all have iPhones, because these are significantly more convenient to carry around than laptops. The videos come from a freely published podcast on the iTunes store. To get around the cost of 3G connectivity, the institute of tropical medicine have gone ahead and provided these health workers with Airport Express wireless routers that they can use with their home broadband connections. That allows them to download the videos on their iPhones and access them on the move. For a health worker on the road, the big challenge is to have the ability to keep charging their device - video takes a lot out of your phone. So these guys have solar chargers for their phones - now that is clever! Given how effective video can be for showing demonstrations, introducing scenarios and short educational lessons, this is something that could be another low-cost, yet effective way to get learning onto the mobile. Don't know how to create a podcast? Here's a tutorial.

Social Media on the Move
My favourite use of mobile phones is to ensure that people stay engaged and connected with each other to learn socially. A lot of public internet applications already have feature phone and smartphone interfaces. I'm talking about applications like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. This apart, enterprise social software like Jive and Yammer have full fledged interfaces on the major smartphone platforms. The advantage of mobile connectivity for social learning is that it really starts to make learning an anytime, anywhere process. For enterprise social software, this takes away a huge barrier to participation - people can get answers to their questions, see interesting information emerge and co-create knowledge on the go. The key for success in my opinion, is to ensure that you pick social software that already provides mobile access. That reduces your deployment time in a big way and you can focus on the people angle of social media instead.

Game Based Learning
I was greatly influenced by Byron Reeves' keynote at DevLearn 2010. Byron mentioned the power of games in creating engagement and driving learning and Richard Culatta followed up with a pretty outstanding lightning talk on 9 reasons why you should throw out your online courses and start using games instead. While I think Richard's perhaps a bit too radical, I really liked his arguments - particularly how games encourage mastery by immersing individuals in a performance context. I think all games teach something or the other. For example the game you see in the photo above (Trainyard) is a great way to learn about analytical thinking and problem solving. It gives you the safety to fail until you succeed and in fact you get the see the consequence of every decision you make. There isn't always just one way to solve a problem, which is pretty cool because it encourages individual thinking. I could keep going about why Trainyard's so cool, but I think you should learn from an expert instead.

The gaming pattern is an interesting one to use for learning on the go, though I think heterogenous environments could make it quite expensive. Having said this, I think there are inexpensive ways of engaging people. Alternate reality games like the Zombie Apocalypse and Dr. StrangeLearn should be quite simple to port to a mobile web format that is cross platform, yet engaging.

Performance Support
One of the highlights of DevLearn 2010's Demofest was Neil Lasher's Phone2Learn. While I couldn't attend the demo myself, I know from the crowd I saw around Neil, that this was one of the stars of the show. The concept is quite interesting. Neil has gotten mobile learning back to the basics -- all mobile phones carry voice and Neil wants to leverage that basic capability. He's propagating the idea of a learning conversation and the concept of "Just-too-late" learning. Often we realise the need to learn only after we start working on something and don't know how to finish it. This is the "Oh Sh*t!" moment that drives a lot of modern day learning. What if you could pick up the phone and just ask someone how to solve your problem at this point? Neil's system facilitates this learning conversation by harnessing the latest in voice technology.

In Neil's words, "The most natural way to learn. Ask for what you need and have someone explain it to you as and when you need it and at a pace you can absorb."

While it remains to be seen how popular the concept of learning conversations becomes, it seems evident to me that this has a lot of value in environments that include innumerable small transactions. Performance support definitely has it's place in the workplace -- Neil's concept is a creative example of extending this approach to mobile devices.

The Mobile Web
In April this year, Paul Clothier wrote a very interesting article about Mobile Learning on the iPhone. Paul mentioned how easy it can be to create a mobile formatted website using simple tools like iWebKit. At DevLearn, Judy Brown showcased a mobile learning primer from ADL, which is what you see on image above. This is nothing but a simple website formatted for mobile access using iWebKit. For teams that have limited budgets and are looking to provide short, bite-sized chunks of learning over a mobile, this could be a good way to optimise for the form factor of the devices. What's more, this pattern could be cross platform and is unlikely to require a huge chunk of change to port across devices. Nice, huh?
Those are the patterns for mobile learning that I see from my experience. What other patterns have you been seeing? Do you have some revolutionary ideas to facilitate learning on the go? Let me know by commenting on this blogpost. That'll go a long way in making this article complete!


GlobalSchmidt said...

Fantastic post. Thanks for summarizing and including the visuals. A must read for any mobile instructional designer

Aaron said...


I'm continually impressed by the visuals in your posts. Clearly this is a result of non-stop presenting. I'm going to start doing the same at the local strip-mall if I can't find groups to help me get my 10,000 presentations in ;)

The trend I notice in these examples is that until you get to the social networking aspect of mobile, it is all about content that you can access "anywhere." That's not a bad thing at all -- it certainly accentuates the mobility of learning.

What I wonder about is the locality of learning. What are the needs (and maybe what are the examples) of learning that can only truly be summoned in your current context of time & space. Neil's Phone2Learn app is a great example of learning where and when I need it... I'm thinking about the context of "place."

It seems to me that there is a gap in mobile learning with specific regard to where one is learning. There was a book (not a great book, but an interesting one) by William Basso called "Wisdom Lives in Places" I had to read 12yrs ago for my Masters work. I can't help but think we're not there yet.

Sumeet Moghe said...

Hey Aaron,
Thanks for the compliment about the visuals. When you do get to the strip-mall presentations, do send me a postcard.

In a way we are a fairly content driven ecosystem even today. I like your take on the "locality" context and frankly context based learning is where we ought to be heading - content based approaches can't keep up and we'll just end up chasing our tails all the time. Especially with the rising standard of mobile media, I wonder when our content creation budgets reach Hollywood standards just because we have to keep up!

At ThoughtWorks our decision's been a conscious one. We want to focus on building just enough content to drive conversation. We face a lot of the "just-too-late" learning moments and frankly these are so different each time they come up, that no amount of content can ever help. The locale drives the need, the conversation addresses the need.

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Matt Cross said...


Thanks for the post. I found it very useful because I have been thinking a lot about mobile learning after the clear emphasis at DevLearn.

After reviewing Aaron's comment I agree that mobile learning is all about content that you can access anywhere, and indeed it is not a bad thing! There are still a few organizations out there who are just getting on the elearning bandwagon and getting content out there is half the battle. I appreciate your organization's strategy to get just enough content to drive conversation. I think your comment is important to note as "elearning rookie" organizations implement learning technologies.

As I move toward building a more comprehensive elearning strategy for my organization I am listening to you guys with open ears and hearing great stuff that is both practical and helpful! I appreciate the discussion your blog promotes!


Kelby said...

Great post. Thanks for the summary and discussion.

One thing we've seen at shows like DevLearn and in conversations with companies is that people are looking for use cases to show them how to think about using mobile learning in their orgs. They get that mobile devices present some real benefits, but aren't sure where/how to start. To help these folk out, we're publishing a blog series on mobile learning use cases.

The first post discusses how one org is using mobile learning for Training Evaluation and the second discusses Reinforcement of Learning.

I thought you and your readers would find these interesting and informative. You can find our blog at

If anything strikes a nerve, definitely join the discussion.

PS. Your post on "The Perils of an Email Centered Strategy to Social Learning" is also spot on.

Amit Garg said...


Great post!
I love the visuals.

I think mobile apps have the potential to change the way we learn & train. Incidentally I wrote a post on it earlier this year. In case you like to see it's here

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Roben said...

This is an interesting question. Technically a laptop is also a mobile device especially when you compare it with the traditional desktops. For the purpose of mobile learning we define mobile as – a mobile device to us is something that’s connected, always on and can be carried in a pocket or purse. So it would include devices like feature phones, smart phones, tablets, mp3 players, ebook readers. However, we believe smart phones and tablets would be the most often targeted devices for mlearning on corporate environments.

jane meyer said...

My favorite are the language apps that come in French and Italian. Been learning those languages on the go. Mobile learning has started since the introduction of the Ipad in the learning environment such as schools. According to melbourne seo, mobile learning counts towards resources like wikipedia.

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