Until April 2010, the mobile learning market was arguably at its tipping point. The recent launch of the Apple iPad has likely tipped this market into wide-scale acceptance and growth by bringing heightened awareness in homes and offices of what can be achieved on the move with a mobile device.
In this market growth phase, instructional designers and managers, as well as vendors, need to identify and understand the critical success factors that will make mobile learning an everyday practice. To be effective at improving productivity and content retention, mobile learning content must take a different form from what has gone before. And it is content — content fit for the mobile learning purpose — that will drive market growth.
While we, as users, value mobile devices to help us communicate and access information and entertainment, the key to mobile learning is employing a device in a way that improves productivity. From a business perspective, this means designing content and delivery systems to improve the effectiveness of business information, instructions, and learning. For the users, we need to design and deliver content to play across any mobile device, giving them just enough information, at just the right time, anywhere they choose to work.
The real impact of the mobile device and its learning content depends on the user; or to be more precise, the user’s task at hand and his or her frame of mind. Broadly, there are two types of user for mobile learning — the “considered” user and the “trigger” user.
The considered user downloads and views learning material, on their regular commute for example, in the same way they would read a business book. They actively contemplate the material and adopt a reflective frame of mind in order to take a close look at their job.
The trigger user responds to contextual situations that require action. The number of trigger users seen in organizations has been increasing in recent years. They tend to be pressed for time. They check and send e-mails as they walk down the corridor between meetings. The mobile device is both the symptom as well as the potential cure for this type of user. Depending on the situation, users could be in either a considered or trigger mode.
For the considered user, mobile learning retrieves information from their semantic memory — our memory of meanings, understandings, and other concept-based knowledge unrelated to specific experiences or events. In a work environment, our semantic memory holds our memories of “know whats,” such as the principles of change management, branding, leadership or innovation (see Figure 1). Mobile devices can retrieve these core principles and values, which are very important for the worker, but can be neglected without the right stimulus.
Figure 1: Semantic memory is our memory of meanings, understandings, and other concept-based knowledge
In the case of considered learners, mobile learning is as a refresher of things they learned in a more extended formal training event, including face-to-face training (as Figure 1 suggests), synchronous e-Learning, asynchronous e-Learning, or even study of printed information. After a large chunk of training, your head is filled with information. A mobile device is a smart way of retrieving what you have learned, especially close to the time when you need to apply it. Sharpening the key learning points can anchor mobile learning content to help the user efficiently and accurately recall these deep-level semantic memories.
For trigger users the mobile device can act as a retriever for procedural memory (see Figure 2). Procedural memory is our long-term memory of skills, procedures, and know-how. In the work environment, these are processes and techniques that are needed to drive a business forward — what to do, what not to do, the expected attitudes and behaviours. Examples would be running a creative meeting or induction of new employee, or a more complex skill such as restructuring a team.
Figure 2: Procedural memory is our memory of how to do things.
Mobile learning is also best focused around “inflection points.” These are times during the week where there is no opportunity to redo the task, and where high performance is vital. Examples of inflection points include issuing a verbal warning to an employee, conducting a meaty interview, and doing a key client review. These moments are the optimum times to get new or refresher content. Our aim is to facilitate this, to enable people to make the most of those key inflection points.
This change in how we can use mobile devices to access training-on-the-go is no different from the rapid way organizations have shifted from hard-drive computing to cloud computing. We no longer need all the applications loaded on our hard drive. Instead we can use the mobile device to call down the content as and when we need it. We can take training out of the formal setting (whether classroom or online) and onto the street. We can slice it up into bite-sized chunks. We can make training less formal and allow users to discover what they need to know.
In my opinion, the idea of learning separated by an extended period of time from the “Event,” when a person actually attempts to use the learning has to be challenged. Few learners today want the information weeks and even months in advance. They actually would like to have specific top-of-mind and refresher learning “on-demand” minutes or even seconds before they will need to use it. This indicates that learning should not be days or even hours long but broken down into “nano” blocks of learning.
There are several ways to create nano blocks of learning. The form that I prefer is short training or communication videos that take traditional learning content and break it down into the key “need-to-knows” across one or several two-minute learning segments. The videos can be accessed via intranet, Web, and mobile phone networks, giving learners the ability to pull down content when and wherever they need it, and in a format that is meant for use on the go. This idea has met with sufficient acceptance that my company is releasing, at the end of this year in association with Pearson, a MobileMBA for iPads and iPhones. It is based on this concept, which we call “skill pills.”
Mobile learning won’t ever replace other venues for training, but the technology, and more importantly the content, can be used to make it so much more effective.