Marc My Words: What Exactly Is Mobile Learning?

Mobile learning is exciting and full of potential. But if we are not careful, how we see mobile learning can inhibit what we do with it.

Device confusion

Think about this. You’re home, late at night, and you start a course on your tablet. The next day you head out on a business trip, and, while waiting for your plane, you pull out your tablet and continue the course. Finally, at the hotel, you log in, again on your tablet, and finish the course. Is this mobile learning?

Let’s change the situation just a little. You’re home, late at night, and you start a course on your desktop computer. The next day you head out on a business trip, and, while waiting for your plane, you go to a lounge with computer workstations and continue the course. Finally, at the hotel, you log in again on a computer in the business center and finish the course. Is this mobile learning?

And what if you took the course on different devices, at different times—a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop computer. Is this mobile learning?

The answer to all these scenarios is “yes.” They are all examples of mobile learning. The fact that in the first scenario you used a mobile device, in the second you used a fixed device, and in the third you used multiple devices, is secondary to the fact that the learning moved with you, was available on demand, wherever you were, and deliverable on a platform of your choosing.

A common misperception of mobile learning—or mLearning—is that it must be delivered on a mobile device. Why? Are we really concerned that the device is mobile, or that we are? Sure, most mobile learning is made possible by the increasing mobility of our devices, but the growing ubiquity of cloud computing is beginning to make specific devices less important than anytime, anywhere access.

So the first part of our definition of mobile learning is learning that is available anytime and anywhere, and is platform agnostic.

Our viewpoint on learning may be too limited

Does the term “mobile learning” constrain us? Most of us would certainly agree that delivering training on a mobile platform, accessible anytime and anywhere, falls into the mobile learning arena. But what about these situations:

  • You visit a client and access a job aid online to help him or her through a purchase decision.
  • In your car, you listen to a podcast from your CEO.
  • On the factory line, you punch up a video on your tablet to explain an assembly process.
  • On the retail floor, you show the customer how to access an app on their smartphone that provides additional information on the product they are buying.
  • As a field technician, you message a colleague at another location and ask a question about troubleshooting a repair.
  • In an art museum, you scan a QR code with your smartphone, bringing up additional information on the painting you are viewing.
  • You have wearable technology that automatically detects proximity to something you are interested in and automatically begins feeding you relevant, curated content.

Clearly, we are not limited to training; in fact, training may be the last thing we want to employ in a mobile environment. Performance support, knowledge management, social media, and other approaches and technologies—including much of the mobile app environment—are all appropriate for a mobile strategy. The term “learning” puts us in a bind, but it’s a bind we can easily get out of. In this new context, learning goes way beyond courses and instruction to embrace a much larger toolkit, or ecosystem of solutions. Don’t think of mobile learning as mobile training; that box is way too small.

So the second part of our definition includes all approaches to enhance learning and performance.

A new definition

Mobile learning is not simply training on a cell phone or a course on a tablet; we’re long past that. Our new definition must reflect new opportunities and a broader playing field. So here goes—try this definition on for size:

Mobile learning is the capability to seamlessly deliver a wide array of knowledge and performance improvement resources to users—anyplace, on any platform, on demand, and at the moment of need.

A mouthful, I know, so here’s a shorter definition that also works: Mobile learning is learning—in all forms and formats—that follows you.

Want to go further? How about using the term mobile performance support instead of mobile learning? It’s more comprehensive and includes a broader toolkit of strategies to improve performance. Perhaps it’s time—or long past time—to recognize that instructional solutions are just a piece of what we do.

Use the complete definition or the simpler one; both do the job. Once we break free of the bonds of a particular device or a limited learning strategy, we’ll never look at mobile learning the same way again.

From the Editor

To go even further in your exploration of mobile learning, performance support, and mobile performance support, join us at either or both of these conferences coming up June 10 – 12 in Austin, Texas!

  • mLearnCon 2015 is North America’s leading mobile learning conference and expo, focused on applying mobile technologies in the context of learning and support, the strategies for integrating these technologies into the training mix, and the best practices for designing, developing, and delivering mobile content. 
  • Performance Support Symposium 2015 is the only conference dedicated to the topic of performance support and the goal of delivering small amounts of information directly into workflows when and where it is needed to enhance on-the-job performance. Registration for Performance Support Symposium 2015 gives you access to all sessions in both conferences!

Register for either event and receive access to the mLearnCon 2015 Expo, an outstanding opportunity to explore a highly focused collection of key vendors offering leading technologies, tools, products, and services for mobile learning and performance support applications!

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