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Marc My Words: Thinking About Mobile Learning in the Age of iPad

by Marc Rosenberg

June 15, 2010


by Marc Rosenberg

June 15, 2010

“Perhaps the most important game-changer is that the iPad, and other devices to follow, are designed to be ‘always on,’ or ‘always connected;’ the intent being that you always have access to the Internet (of course this may not be practically true yet, but it certainly is the goal). Smartphones have this feature as well, but the iPad screams it.”

Periodic reflections on learning, e-Learning, and the state of our profession

Last month I swooned over the new iPad. Since then a second million units have sold, but not yet to me. I must admit though, I’m still swooning. The introduction of the iPad has prompted me, and others I’m sure, to think – or rethink – about the nature of mobile learning, or “mLearning.”

Up to now, most definitions of mobile learning centered on the device; personal digital assistants (PDAs), now morphed into smartphones, were the primary vehicles for delivering mobile learning. The argument was that laptops were too heavy and cumbersome to be truly mobile, but now netbooks have addressed this problem; whether they will survive in the age of iPad-like devices remains to be seen.

This focus was useful because it got us to think about how we could use such small, portable devices, with limited memory and a limited viewing area for learning on the go. We quickly realized that such mobile devices were not really well suited for traditional courseware delivery, but rather for information delivery and performance support. So we began to think more about information access and tools rather than training. We focused on providing just-in-time resources, in the context of work situations not easily predicted, rather than longer duration, more tightly targeted and structured instructional programs. This, I believe, was one of the catalysts to the emergence and growing importance of informal learning.

Now, the iPad represents another game change in mLearning. First, and most obvious, the screen is bigger, which makes a huge difference in how we can display informational and instructional content. So those who advocate mLearning as limited to pocket-sized devices may now have to wonder, “Does size really matter?” Second, the idea of “the app” will likely change how we view content development processes and authoring tools. But perhaps the most important game-changer is that the iPad, and other devices to follow, are designed to be “always on,” or “always connected;” the intent being that you always have access to the Internet (of course this may not be practically true yet, but it certainly is the goal). Smartphones have this feature as well, but the iPad screams it.

The always-connected feature gives rise to another transformation of mLearning: the use of organization-based social networking as a mobile learning strategy. Used carefully, this ability to instantly and consistently connect with peers, headquarters, SMEs, etc. means that information, advice, intelligence, and support can be transmitted and used in real-time, whether it’s just between two people or between thousands. There is no waiting, and no logging on each time you want to access content or people, and the idea of downloading starts to seem antiquated.

The end of downloading (coupled with the smaller storage capacity on mobile devices) begs the question as to where all the content (public or proprietary) is stored. More and more, the preferred approach is in “the cloud,” which has become a useful metaphor for “cyberspace,” “the Web,” etc. Mobile learners will reach out, dip into the ever-present always-on information stream and grab what they need.

So where are we headed with mobile learning? Clearly, the platforms and devices becoming available are more flexible, more powerful, more portable, and more user-friendly. 24x7 access to content makes mLearning more convenient and valuable. New communication channels open up new opportunities to connect with coworkers and experts, anytime and anywhere. And the use of cloud computing makes virtually limitless amounts of content instantly available to virtually limitless numbers of users.

Despite all this potential, it’s important to remember that mLearning content, like e-Learning content (or any content for that matter), is only as good as its accuracy, comprehensiveness, authenticity, and relevance. Garbage in, garbage out.

Moreover, mLearning content, be it instructional or informational, a document or an SME chat, a Website, Podcast, blog, or wiki, must be the right information, presented at the right level of detail, targeted for the right user, and delivered right at the moment of need. The greatest benefit – immediacy – is lost if mobile learners have to spend valuable time searching for the right information and then evaluating it to determine if that content is appropriate for them and for the problem at hand. More work to match users with content through profiles, preferences, and tagging will be critical.

The future of mobile learning is quite bright. So much so that The eLearning Guild is devoting a special conference to it this week ( Even as we are excited about new mLearning opportunities brought about by the iPad and its ilk, we know that mLearning cannot be just about devices and platforms. We know – we have always known, really – that it’s even more about content value, design, and accessibility.

People are addressing the “mobile” part of mobile learning quite aggressively. New technologies are making mLearning available everywhere and any time. Perhaps we should define mobile learning as learning that follows us. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, there it is. In a world of too much information and too few minutes to digest it all, the challenge now is to make the “learning” part of mobile learning worthy of our time.


In my very first column in April, I lamented the demise of Training Magazine and the Training Conference. To paraphrase Mark Twain, who, upon reading his obituary in the newspaper, commented, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” we now know that my notice of the death of Training was short-lived (see: While I can’t say for sure that my tribute was the catalyst for this development (but how could it not be?), I can say for sure that it is very welcome news indeed.

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