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Mainstreaming Mobile Learning

by Ellen Wagner

June 30, 2008


by Ellen Wagner

June 30, 2008

"[I]t makes sense to simply begin now to figure out how to develop a learning module that works on an iPhone or other mobile device. It certainly makes more sense, and is a better use of time and talent, than the classic top-down approach: considering what enterprise performance goals need to be achieved by a distributed mobile work force and then considering whether or not an iPhone provides a means of helping those mobile workers to achieve those performance goals."

What ever happened to mobile learning?

Even after years of anticipation, there continues to be significant excitement about the power and possibilities of emergent mobile protocols, platforms, and devices. There is also growing awareness of what this means for designers of learning solutions and experiences. Yet there are many unanswered questions about why the promise of mobile learning has been harder to achieve than many proponents had assumed it would be. I offer you here my thoughts about key variables likely to affect the short-term and long-term adoption of mobile learning as part of an enterprise learning strategy. You will be able to read more about these variables and others in The eLearning Guild's 360° Report on Mobile Learning, which will be available July 17.

Much of the current activity surrounding m-Learning has focused on exploring possibilities and methodologies for designing and creating learning content that can be produced once and reused on a variety of portable devices. “Portable devices” includes smart phones, ultra-portable computers, and the iPod/iPhone family. The mobile devices are already here, and, as eLearning Guild Research will show in the 360° Report on Mobile Learning, many (if not most) learners worldwide already have several of them (see Figure 1, from the Report). The number of learners so equipped gets larger every month. Therefore, for many learning designers, it makes sense to simply begin now to figure out how to develop a learning module that works on an iPhone or other mobile device. It certainly makes more sense, and is a better use of time and talent, than the classic top-down approach: considering what enterprise performance goals need to be achieved by a distributed mobile work force and then considering whether or not an iPhone provides a means of helping those mobile workers to achieve those performance goals. (Note to management: the mobile workers aren't waiting.)


Figure 1 Mobile device adoption means most users have and use more than one device


Learning professionals will most likely find that, as with every other new wave of technology innovation, the obvious and self-evident promises and possibilities that mobile learning offers will have to get past any number of barriers. Mitigating factors include the state of essential IT infrastructures, availability of user support services, and an organizational culture that is committed to serving all members of the enterprise, no matter where they might be located.

It may be that the success of mobile learning, with a stronger focus on enterprise mobility, will depend on eventually finding common ground among learning designers, enterprise IT managers, line-of-business stakeholders, and enterprise end users. Learning designers must balance their hopes for solutions for connecting people with information, ideas, and each other regardless of physical location, time of day, or choice of digital transmissions and reception, with the realities of what it takes to support the needs of mobile workers, students, and citizens. The degree to which an enterprise is willing to support its mobile stakeholders’ needs will be one of the most significant factors in determining whether or not mobile learning will provide a viable solution for serving its distributed performance support and professional development needs.

Goin’ mobile

The “mobile Web” is coming into its own. The days of needing to be tethered to a desktop computer wired with Cat 5 Ethernet cable (see Jargon Glossary in Sidebar 1) to engage in and contribute to today’s digital conversations are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Today, more than half a billion mobile telephones connect to the Internet every day, bringing information to where people need or want it, anytime, anywhere. Multiple millions of iPods and other MP3 players found in pockets and purses all over the world have changed expectations about how we create, capture, and share “occasionally connected” experiences. These experiences can involve images, animations, games, movies, videos, and music. Portable, relatively inexpensive personal GPS (global position services) devices continue to proliferate. Location-based services that can ride on the same technology infrastructures make it possible to “smart-find” just the right ATM, restaurant, or service provider of choice, just as one can get directions while driving across town.

The IBM Institute for Business Value recently predicted that nearly a billion people would access the mobile Internet by 2011, engaging in transactions and interactions representing $80 billion in Web services revenue. When queried about the kinds of mobile services people are most interested in purchasing, respondents noted that mapping (68%), banking (56%) and IM (56%) top the list of Mobile Web features they want most, followed closely by news (55%), mobile television (53%) and email (52%).

Many of us have had a taste of the conveniences and efficiencies that these mobile services promise, and there is a growing sense of anticipation about what these services will include in the near future. The eLearning Guild Research on Mobile Learning shows that, among e-Learning professionals, the results (see Figure 2) were significantly different from IBM's, with respect to types of activity, amount of activity, and their distribution between men and women. Of course, The Guild's results reflect actual current use, rather than respondents' interest in purchasing.


Figure 2 How e-Learning professionals are using their mobile phones today


However, before people can do much of what they envision, mobile device makers are going to need to create handsets more geared to services, with infrastructure that is more scalable and cost-effective than today. IBM predicts that adoption of the mobile Web will be different around the world: in semiliterate areas, people will use low-cost handsets for access to voice and data services. In emerging markets, they’ll go directly to high-end mobile platforms that provide services similar, or identical, to those available on PCs. In mature markets, adoption will be an extension of, and a complement to, PCs. (See the Information Week article by Gardiner in the Resources section at the end of this article.)

Key enterprise trends affecting mobility

To have a shot at broad adoption, mobile learning applications must be an integrated part of a larger organizational vision for building capacity through learning, education, training, and performance support. It must move past the point where people see it as “bleeding edge” or incidental, and find a home nested within existing enterprise operations. Without reliable and supported infrastructure, there is no possibility for a mobile deployment of any significance. Consequently, one of the arenas where mobile learning must find enterprise champions will be among those individuals responsible for enterprise IT. It will be just as important to establish a culture that prizes and invests in support for the distributed organization, one in which all enterprise functions, including learning, are supported equally.

Devices, networks and IT

In these early days of mobility, the focus on devices and networks continues because so much depends upon ensuring reliability, security, and ease of integration with existing infrastructure. Gray and Silva (See References) suggest that IT professionals are key members of any team hoping to explore the power and possibility of mobile learning, and are tracking the following device trends:

  • Mobility is more than deploying smart phones and iPods on an ad hoc basis. Today, mobility has as much to do with moving from desktop computers to laptop computers, as it does with figuring out how to integrate smart phones into the existing network. Decoupling today’s enterprise workers from their desktop computers continues to consume significant enterprise IT time, energy, and resources. While some mobile learning proponents suggest that a laptop may not be a mobile learning device, enterprise IT organizations are finding that converting from desktop to laptop and notebook computers has contributed significantly to the perception of value that comes from being “unplugged.”
  • Mobility is becoming a core IT initiative. As enterprises continue to increase their mobile voice and data spending, IT organizations are in a better position to spread the benefits of a mobile work style to a larger portion of users than ever before.
  • Mobility, and the operating systems, devices, and applications associated with it, will be different for various users around the organization. As a result, many enterprises will implement mobility based on job roles, offering a different level of service to each disparate group, and especially for those whose responsibilities involve field support, field service, and sales.
  • Productivity needs are driving enterprise mobility adoptions. Leading companies are thinking beyond just mobilizing applications – they’re optimizing business processes, which often span multiple applications. For most enterprises, the pioneering mobile application pilot programs were wireless email and personal information management (PIM), including personalized contacts and calendars. Enterprises are beginning to mobilize more applications, including inventory management, sales force, customer-facing roles, ?eld service, and logistics. The logical conclusion is that the more that learning professionals can demonstrate productivity gains from mobile learning deployments, the more likely organizations will systematically mobilized them – sooner rather than later.
  • Manufacturers will no longer optimize mobile devices for personal or business life only. As consumer electronics continue to encroach upon what used to be “business only” territory, the already murky line between personal and business lives is likely to blur even further.

Enterprise mobility

In a 2008 Forrester Research report, Pelino and co-authors define enterprise mobility as the ability of an enterprise to connect to people and to control assets from any location. Technologies needed to support enterprise mobility include wireless networks, mobile applications, middleware, devices, and security and management software. They note that there continues to be confusion over which wireless networks need to support speci?c kinds of enterprise mobility needs, particularly when considering relatively new technologies like WiMAX and 802.11n. They also note that enterprises want to know the pros, cons, and deployment issues associated with various wireless network options (e.g., WLAN, public Wi-Fi, WiMAX, EVDO, 3G, 4G, etc.). Along with increased interest in new types of mobile applications, there are corresponding concerns about who should have access to them, and how to cost-effectively deploy and maintain these applications.


Sidebar 1 Jargon Glossary

3G: third generation mobile phone standards and technology. 3G enables wide-area wireless cellular voice telephony, video calls, and broadband wireless data, for a mobile environment

4G: fourth generation wireless communication, the successor to 3G. When implemented, 4G will provide a comprehensive IP (Internet Protocol) solution, and be able to connect users to voice, data, and streamed multimedia services on an "anytime, anywhere" basis at higher data rates than 3G

802.11: IEEE 802.11 is a set of standards for wireless local area network (WLAN) computer communication. These technologies are short-range, and not part of wireless cellular voice telephony

802.11n: a proposed amendment to the IEEE 802.11-2007 wireless networking standard, intended to significantly improve network throughput over previous standards (specifically, 802.11b and 802.11g). If achieved, this standard's potential 248 Mbps data rate will allow consumers to move beyond traditional wired Ethernet LANs. Expected release date is 2009

Cat 5 Ethernet Cable (also known as "Cable and Telephone"): a twisted pair cable type designed for high signal integrity. It is used in structured cabling for computer networks such as Ethernet. It also carries other signals such as basic voice services, token ring, and ATM. Over short distances, this cable can carry data at up to 155 Mbps.

Enterprise mesh: a wireless mesh network is a communications network made up of radio nodes organized in a mesh topology to increase the coverage area, and to improve reliability through redundancy

EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution): a digital mobile phone technology that allows increased data transmission rates and improved data transmission reliability. EDGE is usable for any packet-switched application, such as an Internet connection. EDGE can carry data speeds up to 236.8 Kbps in packet mode

EVDO (also EV-DO or EV): a telecommunications standard for the wireless transmission of data through radio signals, typically for broadband Internet access

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service): a packet-oriented Mobile Data Service available to users of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and IS-136 mobile phones. GPRS data rates range from 56 Kbps up to 114 Kbps. GPRS supports services such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) access, Short Message Service (SMS), Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), and Internet communication services such as email and World Wide Web access

Hotspot: a venue that offers Wi-Fi access

Wi-Fi: a trade name for popular wireless technology used in home networks, mobile phones, video games, and to support peer-to-peer connection of devices (also referred to as an ad hoc network). Uses IEEE 802.11 technology and standards, but implementation varies. Most commonly, Wi-Fi supports private, restricted networks in homes and offices. However, public Wi-Fi may make access publicly available at hotspots, provided either free of charge or to subscribers

WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access): a telecommunications technology that provides wireless data in a variety of ways, from point-to-point links to full mobile cellular type access. The WiMax Forum (industry group) describes WiMAX as "a standards-based technology enabling the delivery of last-mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL." WiMax is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard

WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network): refers to linking of two or more computers or devices through radio technology in a limited area. Users are able to move computers (usually laptops) and devices around within the coverage area, and still connect to the network. WLANs are nearly always based on IEEE 802.11 technology, but there are some rare competitors. Security, range, reliability, and slow speed of the connection are the four primary problems with current WLAN technology.


Many IT executives are confused about which mobile devices to support, which mobile platforms to use, and how to address changing requirements associated with the evolution of mobile devices (e.g., whether to support the iPhone). These decisions have an impact on the security of corporate information, and the range of devices and platform options becomes even more varied as employees bring personal mobile devices to work, further blurring the lines between personal and corporate activities.

Clearly, as more companies provide employees with mobile computing and remote access capabilities, establishing an enterprise-wide corporate mobility policy becomes increasingly important. Among the wide-ranging issues addressed by these policies are determining which employees should have mobile and remote access, identifying best practices for developing a corporate mobility policy, and the pros and cons of speci?c policies.

Ubiquitous mobility

Chris Silva and his colleagues had formerly suggested that the emergence of ubiquitous mobility would strongly influence enterprise mobility. Enterprises are increasingly connecting people, processes, and technologies outside the traditional boundaries of the enterprise. At first, Silva et al noted that enterprise users were interested in having access to personal business information – contacts, calendar, and email – when they were out of the office or while traveling on business. Today, users are seeing the value of taking their entire digital workplace with them.

Yet, as in the case of enterprise mobility, technologies associated with ubiquitous mobility have not yet evolved to a point where they are easily configurable. To achieve ubiquitous mobility, Silva notes that enterprises must first address migrating from desktop-heavy PC deployments to secure, wireless, laptop-centric deployments. Further, they must make this change while simultaneously embracing dual-mode (voice and data) mobile telephony. Consequently, the mix of network types that users must connect through must accommodate a variety of public cellular EVDO/EDGE/GPRS, private WLAN, public Wi-Fi hotspots, and enterprise mesh. In the future, they will also make use of carrier-owned 4G networks like WiMAX. This is going to make configuring wireless exceedingly complex for the average user.

Furthermore, current high-speed cellular services are not providing universal coverage in most markets. In addition to the relatively high penetration of base stations needed to blanket an area, the high cost of these base stations keeps the cost-per-byte on these networks high. The fact that mobile users must still manually choose which network will provide adequate coverage and speed complicates matters. Outside of the office, multiple choices exist from multiple sources. In addition to having to monitor coverage and speed, users must manually associate with, and re-authenticate across, each new network connection. Clearly, the current technology environment must continue to mature to attain the level of reliability needed to ensure that connections truly are available.


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