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Quick and Simple mLearning Content for the iPhone

by Paul Clothier

June 6, 2011


by Paul Clothier

June 6, 2011

“The approach outlined here is quite simple — I don’t recommend it for large scale rollout of mobile learning in an organization — but the process of developing a small project like this will provide you with some important insights that will guide you when you start to invest in larger-scale mLearning projects.”

Everyone seems to be voicing their opinion about mLearning — about the impact it will have on work, productivity, education ... and how it could, in fact, solve world hunger. The truth is that very few people or organizations have actually developed any mLearning, and their opinions are often more philosophical than pragmatic. My intention in this article is to focus on the pragmatic — to help you get your hands dirty so you can speak about mLearning from the perspective of having actually developed some.

Getting started developing eLearning content is relatively easy; you grab a rapid eLearning tool — maybe a PowerPoint-to-Flash tool — develop some content, a few animations, interactions, add narration, and publish it. You might use a screen-recording tool to create a simulation. You can play around with it, see what’s possible, and try it out on some unsuspecting learners.

It’s a little different with mobile learning. There are very few simple mLearning tools available to the mobile content developer. There are a myriad of different devices — such as native apps, Web apps, hybrid apps. What should you create? Should you adapt some of your eLearning and place that on a smartphone? Create some quick references and have them be accessible on a mobile device? Develop mobile performance support content? The challenge is manifold: finding easy-to-use development tools, developing for multiple devices, and most importantly, determining the right context for the mLearning content we are going to create.

Before investing thousands of dollars in an mLearning solution for your organization, you might want to experiment with designing some simple content first. It’s only by playing around with real content that you’ll begin to discover the possibilities and limitations, and start to generate creative ideas for your own mLearning needs.

I’ve aimed this article at providing you with a very basic vehicle for creating simple mLearning content, so that you can get started quickly, see what’s possible, understand the pitfalls, and begin to figure out how you might blend mLearning into your existing training or learning strategy. The approach outlined here is quite simple — I don’t recommend it for large scale rollout of mobile learning in an organization — but the process of developing a small project like this will provide you with some important insights that will guide you when you start to invest in larger-scale mLearning projects.

Starting simple with PDF

Most people have some level of PowerPoint skills so this can be a good basic development tool to get started with. You can design and develop your content in PowerPoint and then convert it to a PDF file. PDF is a much better portable format than a ppt or pptx file, and much smaller in size. Although many smartphones can now display PowerPoint files, the file sizes are still large and typically will not render all the graphics and fonts correctly. Also, hyperlinks will not work on most of the PowerPoint viewers on smartphones.

On the other hand, PDF readers are now supported on most types of smartphones —iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and Symbian. The best PDF reader I’ve found for the iPhone (and iPad) is GoodReader. (See the sidebar for details.) The Getting Started Guide below helps you to use a tool like this to develop mLearning content.

Getting Started Guide

This is a step-by-step guide to creating simple mLearning content for the iPhone using PDF files and GoodReader. Although this is for the iPhone, you can adapt it to whatever smartphone you may be using, as long as it has a good PDF reader.

1. Determine the type of content you want to create

How can mLearning add value to what you are doing? What would be appropriate to your organization’s learning goals — a short online module, a quick-reference guide, a job-aid? Think this through carefully and determine the most important requirements. Don't just add learning content to a mobile device — figure out how you can use the mobile device to facilitate an approach to learning that didn't previously exist. How can it complement what you are currently doing? How can you utilize the fact that people will be carrying the mobile device around all day?

2. Create a page size of the correct aspect ratio

Once you have determined the type of content you need, you can begin to make design decisions. Determine the primary orientation you want for your content — portrait or landscape. Set up your PowerPoint page size with the correct aspect ratio. The iPhone is 2:3, Blackberry Curve 4:3, Droid 9:16. In the template provided with this article I have set the page size to 7.3” x 11” which is approximately the iPhone’s 2:3 portrait aspect ratio. (The iPhone will change the view of your content based on orientation, but it is best to stick to one or the other so you can create an optimal experience for the user.)

3. Design a PowerPoint template for mobile use

Adapt an existing template or create a completely new template design for your content. Use master templates to add consistency to your page design. Make sure the template or design complements the device you are using, as well as the purpose of the mLearning. Avoid using standard PowerPoint templates.

I’ve provided an iPhone template to get you started; you’ll find directions for its use in the section below headed “Using the iPhone template.”

4. Create content

Make sure form follows function. Use font sizes that are easily readable on the target device. For the iPhone, I recommend a minimum of 23 points for the provided template. Design legible graphics to avoid the need for zooming. Decompose complex graphics into simpler ones. (See the template for content examples.)

Add any interactions where needed. Consider using links within your content to simplify navigation in the PDF. In the template, I used links to create a main menu, to link from page to page, and to link to online content.

For linking to other pages in your content choose Insert Hyperlink “Place in This Document”

For linking to external URLs choose Insert Hyperlink “Existing File or Web Page”

(Some PDF readers do not support hyperlinks, so test this out first.)

5. Convert to PDF

Convert your PowerPoint content to PDF. I recommend downloading the free Microsoft “Save as PDF” add-in for PowerPoint; it converts content extremely well. With this add-in loaded, choose Save As PDF within PowerPoint.

6. Load content into GoodReader

There are several ways to load the PDF file into GoodReader.

  1. E-mail the PDF to your audience. When they open the e-mail attachment in the iPhone mail reader they can tap the top-right icon and choose “Open in GoodReader.”

  2. Choose the “WiFi-transfer” icon in GoodReader, connect to the IP address provided, and use your browser to upload the PDF directly into GoodReader.

  3. Host your PDF on a Website. In GoodReader choose “Web Downloads,” and either browse to the location on the site or enter the URL of the content. This will download the PDF directly into GoodReader.

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The article was good. I would like to make one suggestion concerning the template. Would you mind swapping out the picture of the women. I had to change them inorder to share them with my collegues. They are rather sexist. Maybe something a little less fleshy and mouth wide open. Kinda pushin it.
I have relayed your concerns to the author.
Thank you for your article. I download your template and converted it to PDF. All the links work in GoodReader except the one which leads to the YouTube video. Why?
akun, thanks for the feedback. I will see if I can figure out what the problem may be. The link worked when we checked it during editing, but the gremlins stay busy all the time.
I'm getting inconsistent results when I try it. I'll have to check further and will get back to you.
Hi Akun - This is Paul Clothier, the author. It looks like the latest version of GoodReader is causing the problem. The solution is to go into the PPT template, create a 100% transparency box over the top of the image you want to link to and add the YouTube URL hyperlink to that. I tested it - works fine.
Hi Paul,
Thank you very much for the tip. Yes, the 100% transparency box did the trick. :-) It also works when I open the PDF file in iBooks now. Cool! ;-)
I downloaded the template but did not see the actual PowerPoint file just the published conent. Did I miss something?
Hi, I can't seem to figure out how to save and use the template? I know that's basic, but do you need to save it to a template directory, or its own directory... Unzip and start where? Thanks.
The template is just a PowerPoint file (template1.pptx). It isn't zipped. When you choose the link, the file should show up in your Download directory.
When I click on the template link, I do not get a ppt or pptx file. I get the choice to open or to save the file... no matter which I choose I get a complex set of Winzip files that seems to contain many, many xml files. When I unzip the zip file, I get three folders, one of which is a ppt folder containing 19 different xml files... However I just tried right clicking on the link and saving the target... I decided to try renaming the file giving it a ppt extension instead of the .zip extension it was tying to give itself. That actually worked. Now I'm actually seeing the template in PowerPoint. Cool, but not intuitive.
When you hover over the link it says it's a PPT ( but when you click to download it's downloading it as After extracting there is no PPT file... only xml files which power point is saying is corrupt.
Same happened as other users - the link opens a zip file. Save the zip file, and change the extension to .pptx, then open the file.
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