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Mobile Learning: Anywhere, Anytime

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While we humans have a fascinating history of innovation, we sometimes seem to be at a loss when it comes to immediately realizing the potential of any given technological breakthrough. Instead, we use new technology to mimic whatever was done before. Case in point, when television was invented, we filmed plays with a single stationary camera. It took some time before the ideas of multiple cameras, different angles and the concept of editing came into play.

The learning function is not immune to this self-limiting mindset. When e-learning first came around, we tried to figure out how to present a classroom experience on a computer. Early virtual learning experiments simply recreated physical classrooms with virtual desks, virtual chairs and a virtual podium. A similar pattern has emerged with mobile learning, which to date has held back the obvious opportunities this important medium holds for corporate learners. br />

As a concept, mobile learning has been around for several years; some companies began delivering information in text format to employees on mobile devices nearly a decade ago. Today, the confluence of device technology, operating systems, content platforms, GPS and Web access - among other factors - has reengaged the minds of the learning community. Morning subway commutes can become mini-classrooms; waiting for appointments can be turned into instant tutoring sessions.

Truth be told, many users would probably admit that they don't use their smartphones for much more than texting, Web surfing, checking e-mail and the occasional actual phone call. More sophisticated users, however, know it is now possible to deliver media rich, interactive learning content to almost any smartphone. This represents an entirely new delivery channel for corporate learning professionals.

But that potential will be missed if we go the route of original TV programming and spend our time trying to cram an entire leadership development course onto a phone. Professional learning developers understand that the design is the biggest differentiator between mobile learning success and failure. More importantly, they understand that mobile learning is a strategic key to connecting multiple learning modalities. It is the link between learning and performance support; the tie between formal and informal learning.

Perhaps the most significant potential of mobile learning is the ability to achieve what many performance support advocates believe has long been the learning profession's Mount Everest; as MIT professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Seymour Papert said, "You can't teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it."

Imagine a technician in the field trying to diagnose an equipment problem. A quick scan of the part's barcode with the phone's camera, and a troubleshooting guide is displayed. Just-in-time, always-in-context learning can save a company a tremendous amount of money while improving productivity.

Another often-cited scenario: a salesperson is in the field trying to close a difficult sale. Just prior to the meeting, a tutorial walks the salesperson through the consultative sales steps necessary to seal the deal. Taking advantage of the salesperson's physical location, his GPS-enabled device gives him key up-to-date information on the company as he's entering the office building. While in the meeting, instead of having to memorize all of the pricing and inventory information, a quick tap on the touch screen brings up the latest information, updated to the second. It's easy to imagine many other useful applications, but today imagining isn't necessary - many of these applications are in use by organizations already.

Mobile learning is not without issues, though, most of which boil down to very tactical, practical application and the ever-present challenge of garnering the support of senior leaders.

Do content owners now need to develop a mobile application for every piece of content they create? If so, does there need to be versions that can run on iPhones, an Android device, BlackBerrys and Windows phones? What about tablets? Are there authoring or content creation tools that make this easy? How do we manage all of this - through our existing Learning Management System (LMS)?

As part of a study i4cp conducted with the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), we found that these tactical issues have delayed mobile learning from truly taking off. But the lack of support of senior leaders and the lack of available budget are two of the most often cited obstacles to mobile learning implementation, according to study participants.

This is unfortunate, because the study also highlights a very important correlation: high-performing companies are much more likely to have adopted mobile learning than low-performing companies. This correlation is something that all learning professionals should take note of. But like many new technologies, the tipping point for widespread adoption will likely come only when "a killer app" emerges for mobile learning.

Whatever that killer app is, it will undoubtedly be all about adapting the approach to delivering contextualized chunks of immediate learning to people when and where they need it most. For busy workers everywhere, this will open an entire new world for devices that were originally only designed for us to talk to each other.

i4cp's 4-Part Recommendation:

  1. Try to remain agnostic. At this stage of the game, unless your organization is willing to provide employees with one device and platform, it may be best to approach mobile learning from a Web-based delivery perspective.
  2. Pilot programs. It is not necessary to develop a complete and polished mobile learning initiative right away. Start with small experiments. It is the only way to figure out what works without wasting time and resources.
  3. It has to make sense. Ask "Do we need to deliver this on a mobile device?" If there is no obvious benefit to delivering a piece of learning this way, it's not worth the effort.
  4. No fear. Mobile computing is not a flash-in-the-pan fad. It has become an acceptable and preferred method of accessing information for high-performing companies. Organizations need to embrace this and find ways to leverage the technology. Address internal barriers such as security and network concerns.
David Wentworth has been a senior research analyst for the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) since 2005. He has published several reports and articles on various human capital subjects with an emphasis on workforce technology. He has contributed to several reports published by ASTD, including authoring The Value of Evaluation: Making Training Evaluations More Effective, The Rise of Social Media: Enhancing Collaboration and Productivity Across Generations, and Instructional Systems Design Today and in the Future. Wentworth's work has also appeared in Compensation & Benefits Review and T+D Magazine.

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