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David Marshall

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An introduction to mobile learning environments


David Marshall, Founder and CEO of e-learning specialists Marshall ACM, looks to the next phase of e-learning and the use of apps in learning and development.

Mobile learning has been a trend in the L&D industry for some time, but it is only recently that the combination of workforce demographics, mobile device capabilities and organisational readiness is making mobile learning a reality.

Much of the pressure to provide learning on mobile platforms is coming from employees, including increasingly mobile workforces. Indeed, according to recent figures from International Data Corporation (IDC), by 2015 the world’s mobile worker population will reach 1.3 billion, representing 37.2 percent of the global workforce. Eighty percent of people accessing the internet will also eventually do so from mobile devices (2011 Horizon Report).

And a recent survey into mobile learning by The MASIE Center (a US think tank focused on how organisations can support learning and knowledge within the workforce) found that approximately 50 percent of survey respondents reported that at least 50 percent of their employees already use their own smartphones and devices to access work-related sites or information.

Marshall ACM has found that while organisations are increasingly receptive to mobile learning opportunities, they still have key concerns. It is widely acknowledged that leveraging mobile devices for learning can provide important advantages including access to learning that is ‘anytime, anywhere’, reinforcement and updating of previous learning and using otherwise unproductive time for learning activities. But employers are also concerned about the lack of sound designs for mobile learning (which can frustrate learners) and technical issues that could negatively impact the brand.

So where is e-learning going next?

The short answer is – it depends who you ask. The popularity of smartphones and tablets and the availability of high quality apps mean learners and their organisations (rightly) have higher expectations regarding media quality and interactivity when it comes to learning in a more mobile way.

E-learning projects can go well in so many ways, inspired writers, good instructional design, wonderfully executed graphics….and consternation amongst the learning and development team when take-up isn’t quite what they hoped for.

We can write any number of return-on-investment scenarios to justify online training but training delivered at the desktop is often inconvenient simply because that is the place where 100 other tasks have to be completed.
When it comes to e-learning on mobile devices, it can be most effectively delivered in two ways, either as an ‘app’ or in web page format such as HTML 5.

The key advantage of using an app is that it offers the ultimate convenience, and that is exactly what users want – an app that delivers training on the go. No internet connection is required, no waiting for pages to load, they can literally take the training during ‘dead time’ perhaps when they’re stuck between stations on the Jubilee Line! The app technology also allows for the development of more sophisticated learning applications and a richer learning experience for users. The key disadvantage of this approach is that it’s costly to develop.

As a result, many e-learning providers insist that HTML5 development tools have ushered in a new era of mobile training. In our experience, however, e-learning requires fluid, sometimes complex interactions or animations, and HTML5 simply isn’t ready or capable of delivering that to users right now.

HTML5 technology means that packages can be sold as “mobile training” and “tablet compatible”, but for the end user the experience is often inferior and frustrating particularly when compared to the apps they are used to accessing on a daily basis via an icon and without the need for an internet connection.

For HRs, it about being clear about what you are investing in. A so called ‘app’ that is in fact an HTML5 based web platform for mobiles may be inferior and less sophisticated than a native app (a native app is an application programme that has been developed for use on a particular platform or device allowing for fast performance and reliability. Native apps can also interact with and take advantage of operating system features and other software such the camera, GPS or address book on a smartphone).

With the advent of the iPhone, iPad and similar devices, the emphasis has been on fun and functionality and we’re witnessing the slow demise of the more corporate Blackberry. Ensuring e-learning is relevant and attractive to users is critical and is the key to it becoming truly mobile.

Three top tips for implementing mobile learning

1. Getting started and developing the business case for mobile learning
Focus on immediate benefits; keep it simple and have a quick-win launch in mind with limited and achievable ambitions – aim to impress with this initial offering, and then ramp-up the programme.

2. Overcoming organisational resistance and scepticism 
Emphasise a nimble, open-minded design process. Lots of NHS e-learning has taken the form of massive, centrally-directed programmes that overpromise and take years to deliver. Try to focus on content that is of critical importance to those sponsoring/opposing it. To ensure user buy-in, engage them throughout the design process, focus on them as learners and what they will enjoy and, of course, value (top-down thinking around learning needs can alienate users).

3. Delivering an effective app on a budget
Design learning outcomes with organisational needs in mind. What are people getting wrong in their day-to-day jobs? What do they *actually* need to know? How can it be presented in a way that people will engage with?

  • Mobile Learning is a chance to engage on a peer or peer basis with learners… avoid a compliance based approach and engage users
  • Remember the context in which learners will engage with the training… they may only give this a minute of two of their attention at a time- maybe on a train, or in a very loud environment.

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