The Pitfalls and Promises of Mobile Learning

If you are in any way connected with the fields of training, learning and development, or eLearning, you are probably regularly inundated with messages about the wonders of mobile learning. Mobile devices, such as smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and tablet computers are becoming ubiquitous and increasingly powerful with respect to their range of functionality. Just about anything you can do on a desktop or laptop can now be accomplished via much smaller and more portable mobile devices. This is why many organizations are now looking to make learning materials available via these devices. They offer the possibility of reaching your learners wherever they happen to be in a very portable, flexible and convenient manner.

However, all this fanfare about mobile learning – or mLearning – must be taken with a grain of salt.

Firstly, unlike traditional eLearning, which relies on fairly common web standards to make things work correctly (no matter the learner’s computer operating system), there is a wide range of very different and distinct mobile operating systems. You will have a real challenge on your hands if your learners are using different smartphones with different operating systems (e.g. Google Android, Nokia Symbian, RIM BlackBerry OS, Apple iOS, Microsoft Windows CE, HP Palm WebOS, etc.). Mobile content must be developed in different ways to work on all of these competing mobile platforms. This can add greatly to the complexity and expense of developing and delivering mLearning.

Secondly, the small screen size of most mobile devices, particularly most smartphones, is a limiting factor with respect to the type and extent of learning content that can be successfully delivered via these devices.

Here are some tips about mLearning.

Only Do mLearning When Your Learners are Truly Mobile

It makes no sense doing mLearning just because you can. However, if the learners you are trying to reach are truly mobile, then mLearning makes sense. It can be a way of reaching “road warriors” with the training and support they need when they need it. Here are two of the best examples of mLearning I have come across:

  • On the first day of the launch of a new product, sales reps communicate with each other via their smartphones. They share information about what benefits and features of the product are getting the best response, and what are the best approaches to countering objections. The organization was able to adjust and refine its sales approach for this new product by the first afternoon of its launch.
  • A technician on a service call comes across an older model furnace with which he is not that familiar. He is able to access a knowledge database via his smartphone and successfully trouble-shoot the problem and fix it.

Keep it Short and Sweet

Most mobile devices are not well suited for delivering large amounts of learning content. Therefore, delivering a traditional “course” via smartphones is not practical or effective. However, for small “nuggets” of learning, or as an adjunct or follow up to other types of learning (i.e. in-person or eLearning courses), or as a just-in-time performance support tool, mLearning does have its place.

On the Good News Front…

The emergence of tablet computers (e.g. Apple iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, Samsung Galaxy Tab, etc.) may be a good compromise between robustness and mobility. Tablets will be able to facilitate much more in-depth learning experiences (because of more expansive screen real estate), while maintaining fairly good portability.

Also, there are many software applications on the market that make it easier for you to author learning content and make it accessible to mobile devices, including:

  • OnPoint CellCast
  • OutStart Hot Lava Mobile
  • Intuition Mobile Learning
  • Chalk Pushcast Software

If you do venture into mLearning, make sure it is for all the right reasons, and that you start with a pilot to work out all the bugs before scaling up to a large roll out.

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