Fresh from DevLearn 2012: Mobile Learning

Fresh from DevLearn 2012: Mobile Learning

Is there any e-learning trend bigger than mobile learning? I don’t think so and it was a hot topic at DevLearn. As a nascent delivery platform, there are many questions about how to use mobile devices effectively. The ubiquity of mobile devices, and smartphones in particular, drives our interest in harnessing the learning potential of tools our target audience has with them throughout the day. Effective m-learning is not a translation of e-learning to a small screen. The differences between e-learning and m-learning are significant.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


Screen Size

Screen size is a huge factor in determining what can be accomplished on a mobile device. However, screen size varies tremendously. On the small end, smartphones have a very small screen. That means our training has to be simplified. Not dumbed down, but scaled differently. Compared to what is displayed on a laptop screen, content on a smartphone has to be focused on what is most important. Enriching and supplemental details have to be shared elsewhere. Smartphones are effective for delivering small chunks of information or training for people who work “in the field.” Using a smartphone to access training or information in context and at the moment of need has the potential to improve job performance significantly.

At DevLearn, a large snack food provider presented a case study on his company’s use of training on a larger mobile device (tablet) for people who stock store shelves. A tablet allows richer and more elaborate content than a smartphone can handle. The speaker’s training allowed team members, who were in stores at different times, to learn how to resolve problems effectively.

There was considerable interest in screen size when Apple announced its iPad mini. We already have the challenge of developing content for different mobile operating systems and screen sizes. The last thing we needed was a device with yet another screen size. Fortunately for us, screen size on an iPad mini is not significantly different from the original iPad and the aspect ratio is the same on both devices. iPad2 has a 9.7 inch diagonal display. The mini has a 7.9 inch display. The good news for mobile developers -- we don’t need to change our screen design for the iPad mini. The bigger device differences are weight and thickness.

Performance Support

One of the things I find interesting about using mobile devices for performance support is that the devices expand the scope of our offerings. In the past we spoke of instructional designers creating training. As MicroAssist is working on m-learning projects, I see a shift in what we are delivering. It definitely is performance support and fosters positive behavior change, but it is not always training. Sometimes what we provide is access to information at the moment of need. It seems like a lot of early smartphone use is for salespeople to access product information. Access to information allows an employee to make better informed decisions, use job/sales aids, or reduce the amount of information that has to be memorized.

Communicating information and designing training are two different things, and both provide performance support. We need to think about those differences as we design a greater variety of offerings for mobile devices.

Mobile Websites vs. Mobile Apps

Recent work on a mobile-based performance improvement project got me interested in the difference between mobile websites and mobile applications (apps). What’s the difference? What’s the best choice for someone who is just starting to design training for mobile devices? I went to a session facilitated by Koreen Olbrish, whose job as a senior product manager at includes doing training research. Her company is now making training available on mobile devices. Their first mobile offering was a website, then they created an iPhone app, followed by an iPad app, and then an Android app. Why that sequence? It is easier, faster, and less expensive to design and develop a mobile website that it is to create an app.

Koreen was asked if there is a downside to delivering content on a mobile website compared to an app. The answer -- mobile websites have less interactivity than mobile apps. This is particularly significant if your training is in a game format.

Benefits and Problems

Most of us are probably aware that designing for mobile is the BIG thing these days. Almost everyone in the workforce has a smartphone or tablet. Mobile devices are with employees regardless of where the employee is. Mobile devices have features that make them desirable training tools:

  • Cameras
  • Communication apps
  • Touchscreens
  • Augmented reality capability
  • Location awareness
  • Rich media access
  • Real-time video (Face Time)

In addition to portability and having a rich feature set, we’re interested in mobile technology because it is a huge growth area. We’re already seeing people spend more time on Facebook using a mobile device compared to time spent on the site with a desktop computer. Mobile is the way of the future.

With all of the benefits mobile has to offer and the phenomenal adoption rate, are there any reasons why you should be hesitant to implement mobile training? Mobile technology has a few downsides:

  • Lower bandwidth  
  • Inconsistent wifi access
  • Smaller storage capacity
  • Security concerns

Wrap Up

There were a handful of dominant topics at DevLearn and mobile was one of them. While there are always challenges with new technology, mobile learning and performance support represent exciting growth opportunities. 

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