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mLearnCon 2010: Mobile Gets Real

by Bill Brandon

July 5, 2010


by Bill Brandon

July 5, 2010

Here’s some of what those who attended mLearnCon 2010 experienced at this premier conference on mobile learning.

What do you get when over 400 people meet in San Diego to review the state of the art in mobile learning? You get a mind-expanding week of information, resources, viewpoints, and insights. At the Opening General Session on June 15, participants were eager to get started (Figure 1).

photo of a session room with lots of people around rounded tables

Figure 1. Participants at mLearnCon 2010 on Tuesday morning were looking forward to the Opening General Session.


It’s been a challenge to summarize mLearnCon 2010 because of the scope of the event, and because of the extremely high volume of high-quality information that the speakers and the participants provided. Here’s just some of what we experienced.

What’s an mLearnCon?

The mLearnCon events are the premier conferences covering:

  • Management and instructional design strategies for mobile learning,
  • Mobile platforms for learning and performance support (Smartphones, PDAs, iPods, Tablets, etc.),
  • Mobile operating systems (Android, BlackBerry, iPhone OS (now iOS4), Palm (now acquired by HP), Symbian, Windows Mobile, etc.),
  • Authoring tools and technologies that support mobile learning and performance support, and
  • Mobile content and best practices.

In other words, mLearnCon is focused on all aspects of mobile learning and performance support. Sessions address these concerns in academic, corporate, not-for-profit, government, and military settings. The goal of mLearnCon is to give participants the ideas, information, and community their organizations need to succeed.

“We're thrilled with the success of the first mLearnCon! Clearly mLearning has come a long way and all the ideas and innovations shared were awesome – but it also still has a long way to go on the road to becoming mainstream. It will be exciting to see all the advances next year at mLearnCon!" said David Holcombe, president of The eLearning Guild.

Big lessons learned at mLearnCon

In mobile learning today, “pull” may work better than “push.” However, many vendors, presenters, and participants were focused on the “push” approach, and there is something to be said for this. Perhaps one way to think about it is this: “Pull” works for personal, self-directed learning and for collaboration. “Pull” works for performance support, just-in-time, and “just-too-late” content. “Push” works for small nuggets or droplets of instruction. “Push” works for spaced practice and repetition. In either case, it is important to remember the limitations of the devices that learners have in their pockets, and always remember that in mobile settings, learning competes for attention with life, work, and social interaction.

The ubiquity of the mobile phone is driving the interest in mobile learning. Mobile phones are always with learners, they are always connected, they are familiar to learners, and they are convenient.

Mobile phones are the medium of choice of the next generation. In his keynote speech (Figure 2), Tomi Ahonen said, “Mobile is outstripping television, the PC, the Internet in growth. There are 4.6 billion users worldwide today, and there will be 5 billion by the end of 2010. The mobile Internet is now over half of all Internet use. SMS is 720 times faster than e-mail in terms of message opening throughput. Youth says, ‘My phone is my friend.’ Those under 22 use mobile phones differently in six ways:

  • To ‘discover it all’ – in a word, Google. Those under 22 have always known Search, and so they have a different relationship to data and facts.
  • To participate – as the first generation with Reality TV voting, youth expect to participate as a right.
  • To create – this is the first generation where ‘everyone’ has a digital camera and video, because these are built into the phone.
  • To share – This is the first generation to grow up with Napster, Kazaa, etc. They share, hack, mash, explore cheat codes, and more.
  • To live virtually – This generation had Tamagotchi for pets; now they play in Habbo, Second Life, WoW, Counterstrike, Lineage, and Cyworld.
  • To communicate constantly – Youth send 100 SMSs per day, as a worldwide average. This makes them nearly telepathic – and to have a ‘hive mentality.’ 42% of American teenagers can send SMS text messages blindfolded.”


photo Tomi  doing keynote

Figure 2. Tomi Ahonen delivered the opening keynote.


The worst idea in mLearning is simply moving desktop content directly to mobile devices: it doesn’t work.

Take advantage of what the mobile phone offers, and be wary of its deficiencies. The mobile phone’s strengths are SMS and audio. The mobile phone’s weaknesses are small screens, and the diversity of platforms. Judy Brown noted, “You must think about the capabilities that your audience has in its mobile phone: camera, computer, phone, GPS, SMS, apps, and more.” Tomi Ahonen offered, “Mobile is the seventh medium, and it is better than the internet or television. It is as different from the Internet as television is from radio. Mobile will copy everything from the Internet, and will invent new concepts that are not possible on the Internet. However, it will not kill the Internet.”

Mobile today offers eight benefits that other media do not (according to Tomi Ahonen):

  • It is a personal medium.
  • It is permanently connected.
  • It is always carried.
  • It has a built-in payment channel.
  • It is available at the moment of creative impulse.
  • It has the most accurate audience information available.
  • It captures the social context of communication.
  • It enables augmented reality.

The buzz at mLearnCon

mLearning growth and strategy

Judy Brown addressed the growth of mLearning by citing eLearning Guild research to the effect that 26.5% of members are already engaged in some form of mLearning, 40% are exploring it, and 47.4% plan to do more mLearning next year. Of those already using mLearning, 51% are experiencing positive ROI, while 38.8% say it is too early to tell. (See Figure 3.)


photo Judy Brown in session with people, projector, and monitors

Figure 3. Judy Brown addressed creating a successful mLearning strategy.


Judy quoted Ray Kurzweil: “Mobile phones are misnamed. They should be called ‘gateways to all human knowledge.’” To answer the question, “When is mobile appropriate?” she suggested that designers consider Conrad Gottfredson’s “5 Moments of Learning Need”:

  • When learning for the first time
  • When wanting to learn more
  • When trying to remember
  • When things change
  • When something goes wrong

The first two needs are about learning. The last three are about performance support, and they are where managers will find the ROI for mobile learning. The last need, in fact, is what Neil Lasher in his session referred to as “Just too late learning.” Neil proposes thinking in terms of “droplets” of information or learning in this situation – “60 second learning,” ideal for the mobile environment.

Judy gave many examples of uses (see her slides), many of them related to collaboration and also to education for audiences that are not going to be in the classroom. Pick the application that works for the needs of your audience.

One particularly excellent example was, which is a mobile information service for pregnant mothers that sends periodic reminders about matters that affect the health of mother and baby. This is a practical application of “spaced repetition” theory. We could not afford to apply this method before mobile.

What about the iPad? What about Android?

Everyone wanted to talk about Apple’s iPad, about Android, and about what these technologies mean for learning in general and mobile learning in particular. Brent Schlenker moderated an expert panel discussion around this, and the range of viewpoints was wide. (See Figure 4.) Panel members included experts from the academic community, consultants, and developers.


photo of a panel in a session room with projector and people

Figure 4. Brent Schlenker and the expert panel discuss the iPad.


Asked to give one word that encapsulated their view of the iPad, panel member responses ranged from “magical” to “not ready” and audience members echoed these. One thing the panel members agreed on was that the iPad really is a big iPod touch, but this was not seen as pejorative in any way. In fact, the similarity helps application developers because iPhone and iPod touch apps scale up immediately. At the same time, another panel member noted that “there is nothing that makes it easy to create an iPad app – great apps take time and money to create.” He added that it’s not an Apple issue; it’s who’s making the app.

The similarity between the iPad and the iPhone/iPod touch helps the target audience because so many of them are already familiar with the way the device works. However, one panel member from a university cautioned that in his experience, when offered mobile content for the iPhone and iPod touch, students did not do as well with the touch because they only carry it 20% of the time. These same students had their iPhones with them 99% of the time; in fact, it currently seems that the iPhone itself is the killer mLearning app. The same panel member noted that he is finding the iPad “interesting” for media consumption but that it only has “potential” for media creation – it seems mainly intended, as Steve Jobs has said, for media consumption.

The obvious advantages of the iPad, the features that make possible what wasn’t possible before in mLearning, include the larger screen, less obvious interface (which means less of a barrier between the user and data or content), longer battery life, “instant on,” and the App Store. In addition, the iPad is a more “shareable” device – people sitting around one at a table can easily see the content on the big screen, something they could not do easily with an iPhone. This may be an advantage for collaborative learning.

Any lack of readiness for mLearning use may be more the result of software issues, not hardware (although some want wireless keyboards, a USB port, and cameras à la the iPhone 4). There is much hope for better use of the untapped capabilities of the iPad, such as being able to use it in conjunction with the iPhone for educational gaming, being able to use it as a gateway to the Internet cloud, and for using it for rich media textbooks.

The Android platform, according to the panel members, is the only serious competition at present for the iPad in the mobile learning field. However, the Android platform is fragmented by different versions of the OS and by different implementations from various manufacturers and service providers. This segmentation makes things harder for developers, and in some ways the Android platform is just as closed as the iPad.

Windows Mobile was not even part of the conversation. One panel member noted that the developer kit for Windows 7 shows that Microsoft is headed the right direction, and the new Kinetic interface for Xbox shows some real creativity, but whether Microsoft will ever arrive with practical support for mLearning was in doubt. Another panel member noted that the iPad is not an Intel device and it will not run Microsoft software; he felt that this marks the beginning of the end of putting MS Office on mobile devices.

Finally, there is the issue of Flash, or in the case of the iPad, the lack of Flash. Is it a problem for e-Learning? The panel had a range of opinions here. One noted that complaining about the lack of Flash is like blaming bad poetry on the pen – it’s not a problem. Another felt that this would not even be a topic of discussion in six months, while a third member pointed out that developers can do similar things with CSS and HTML5; not only that, if your content is going to run on different systems, you will still have to deal with multiple versions and Flash. From the audience came the comment that, “Faculty and SMEs will have to be retrained to produce rapid eLearning – all the current tools create Flash output.” Brent Schlenker closed the discussion with the comment that, as a practical matter the eLearning community is so heavily invested in Flash that it will be difficult to break away from it.

The designer and mLearning

Designing mLearning is more about the user and less about the technology. I've heard this idea at e-Learning events as well, but the message was even more loud and clear at mLearnCon. Only AFTER you understand your learners, and their mobility, can you look towards technology.

Carmen Taran’s session on the “Psychology of Absence: The reality of less in mLearning” presented the principle of mindful reduction, or “designing with absence in mind” as a key to effective mLearning. This is more than just a simple matter of reducing screen clutter in order to fit content to the space available on a mobile device. A minimalist approach allows the learner to zoom in on what is important and on the details, as the design elicits emotions and reactions. What the learner pays attention to wins, and what the eye pays attention is what the learner learns. Carmen pointed out the benefits of absence in mLearning:

  • The absence of detail can cause the learner to reflect and interpret – it liberates.
  • Absence of excess detail, and designing on the essentials, creates space for learning.
  • Absence creates anticipation and causes the mind to look forward to a future state.
  • The less information you present, the more you reduce the options and the faster learners make decisions.
  • Absence makes it possible to create a better design.

At the same time, balance is necessary. There is a downside to over-reduction in design. The design must not make the audience ask what it is that they are NOT looking at. To know when you have removed too much, you must keep some key practices in mind. Here are some of the ones Taran suggested:

  • Begin with absence. How much can you leave out? Decide this before you begin.
  • Use more graphics than text, because the brain processes images about 30% faster, because people remember images better than text, and because the right graphics keep people focused longer.
  • Remove the gratuitous. Again, use pictures not words.
  • Treat numbers differently from the way you treated them as spreadsheets and pie charts. Present them as a way to get attention and focus.
  • Select graphics with texture to engage people by awakening their senses.
  • Use color.
  • Use some drama. People are used to exciting media. Convey mood. Do not present only “serious” stuff.
  • Something has to happen every few screens that deviates from the pattern. Balance absence and presence, and give them some interplay.

Finally, she addressed the mandatory components for a mobile app:

  • There needs to be an objective
  • There needs to be provision for navigation
  • There needs to be some clue as to how to get to features that are hidden
  • Make the device and the app disappear
  • Give visual breaks that indicate steps have been completed and that progress is being made.
  • Enable sharing and bookmarking, copy and paste.
  • Remember to help the learner by being consistent, by giving feedback and creating closure, and by reducing the short-term memory load.

It takes a lot of effort to create and polish elegant solutions – just because something is simple doesn’t mean it was easy to create!


What about the technology, other than the iPhone and Android, you may be asking yourself? Technology was certainly addressed, including sessions by Inge de Waard and Carlos Kiyan Tsunami (Mobile Moodle), Richard Clark (Surviving Without Flash: Some Practical Alternatives), and several others that addressed particular development issues. These sessions were generally more complex than can be addressed in this article; I would urge those who attended mLearnCon to download the slides and supplementary material made available to attendees online, and to contact presenters directly.

In addition, there was considerable coverage of the event and the sessions in Weblogs and on Twitter. I have included links to these in the final section of this article.


(In alphabetical order by name of weblog or blogger)

B.J. Schone (on SlideShare): 20 mLearning Tools in 60 Minutes

Global eLearning (Darron Johnson): App Development: Simple, Light, Accessible

e-Clippings (Mark Oehlert) (Mark wasn’t at conference, but these are his reflections based on what he saw in the tweetstream and blog entries from mLearnCon): Why Do We Ignore the Most Important Tools We Use?

eLearning Roadtrip Blog (Ellen Wagner) mLearnCon Trip Report

Float Learning (Chad Udell) mLearnCon Session: Design approaches for adapting your content for mLearning

Float Learning (Scott McCormick ) Thunderstorms and a bountiful harvest: Reflections on mLearnCon

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Mobile Moodle at mLearnCon

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Rick Nielsen: Making a podcast a learning experience not just a listening experience

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Mark Siegel: Advancing learning in healthcare using mobile technology (mHealth)

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): David Metcalf: mLearning Theory Mashups

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Richard Clark: mLearning on multiple devices: A practical guide

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Mimi Ito: What the user wants in mLearning

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Mike Sharples: Innovation in mLearning: An international perspective

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Tomi Ahonen: Mobile in Learning: Lessons from Around the World

Ignatia Webs (Inge de Waard): Preconference Workshop: Android 101

Jenise Cook: mLearnCon 2010: Dr. Mimi Ito – What the User Wants in mLearning

Jenise Cook: mLearnCon 2010: Richard Clark: Surviving Without Flash

Judy Brown’s Hashtag notebook of Tweets from mLearnCon:

Learnlets (Clark Quinn): Ito #mlearncon keynote mind map

Learnlets (Clark Quinn): Tomi Ahonen keynote at #mlearncon

mLearnopedia (Judy Brown): mLearnCon Mobile Learning Content

Upside Learning (Amit Garg) How To Create Successful M-Learning Strategy: mLearnCon – Part I

Upside Learning (Amit Garg) Mobile Learning – SMS Can Get You Started

Topics Covered

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