It's Time to Reimagine Mobile Learning

The way eLearning pros view mobile learning might be due for an update.

As recently as 2015, mobile learning could simply mean making eLearning available on mobile devices. It might have meant tweaking the content a bit, perhaps moving text and visual elements around so a design created for desktop computers could be used on a smaller screen. It often meant chunking a long course, breaking it up into “bite-sized” pieces that were more easily consumed on a mobile device.

That’s all gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Mobile-only content

Forget mobile-friendly or even mobile-first content. Increasingly, content is being created specifically—exclusively—for mobile devices. For instance, when Nationwide Claims Training Organization’s instructional designers created mandatory training, they went straight to mobile, creating a series of podcasts for learners to use during “windshield time”—while driving to client meetings.

In fact, an entire genre of eLearning exists due to the ubiquity of mobile devices: chatbots that reinforce learning and coach employees to meet training goals. These helpful virtual instructors are on the job only because chatting, primarily via smartphones, is such a common and comfortable way for people to exchange information.

Right-sizing mobile content

Much mobile-only content takes cues from the way people use their phones. For instance, modern digital consumers expect to be able to quickly look up information—on the always-present smartphone or tablet—that they need in the moment.

Modern digital learners are no different, a significant factor in designing content specifically for mobile use. These learners’ expectations are shaping mobile learning. Detailed, text-heavy courses don’t fit the mobile paradigm. Here are some approaches that do:

  • Mobile performance support—job aids that support learners in the workflow—perhaps using augmented reality or mobile apps to offer quick lookup of product details or step-by-step instructions for simple procedures.
  • Spaced practice and repetition, often in the form of questions, quizzes, and flashcards delivered to learners’ phones.
  • Microlearning—ultra-short “microlessons,” often in the form of videos, that learners can complete in only a few minutes. (The eLearning Guild will present a Microlearning Summit in February 2018. Watch the Summits web page for details!)
  • Learner-generated content that demonstrates learners’ mastery and application of skills, such as photos and videos of themselves performing a task.
  • Reminders delivered via chat that guide new hires through the processes they need to complete during onboarding.

In each of the above examples, the units of content are small. While mobile devices offer learners the convenience of access anywhere, that comes with some drawbacks: Learners are likely to use mobile learning in environments with lots of distractions, for example. They might be squeezing in the learning while riding a train or waiting for an appointment, and therefore only engage for a few minutes at a time. Very short, self-contained microlearning units work best in these environments. A learner can quickly respond to a single question, quiz herself with three flashcards, review one product summary, or watch a single short video.

Design matters

Suitable design is a make-or-break issue for mobile learning. While essential, using responsive or adaptive design is insufficient. Content that fits onto a mobile screen might still be unusable:

  • Designers must pay attention to placement and size of buttons, menu items, and other navigational aids, ensuring that they are easy to use.
  • The amount of text that works well on a laptop or tablet might require an unacceptable amount of scrolling on a smartphone screen; mobile learning should have minimal text.
  • Visuals might rescale easily to fit—but look awful. Mobile images and infographics have to be designed to be clear and useful in miniature.
  • Many learners use their mobile devices in noisy environments or places where playing audio is inappropriate. Ensure that learners can use mobile learning without audio by adding closed captions.
  • Consider using vertical video, since most users hold their phones vertically most of the time.

As with the instructional content, one must create the design specifically for mobile use, with the mobile environment in mind. Find more tips in the Guild’s eBook 157 Tips on Improving eLearning Design. (Note that Guild eBooks are available to members for free download; membership is free. Research publications are available to members who hold Pro, Plus, and Premium content packages.)

Learning is changing

The key to successful mobile learning is understanding learners’ behavior, motivations, and expectations.

“Mobile habits aren’t all about stopping what we’re doing to concentrate on our devices. They are often about combining what we’re doing with immediate access to information, know-how, or entertainment. It’s about making the most of downtime in order to work, connect, amuse, or inform ourselves. And it’s about getting from not-knowing to knowing and then carrying on,” David James said in Mobile Learning Perspectives, an eLearning Guild Research publication.

This is increasingly true—and relevant. The eLearning Guild is exploring how digital learning is evolving and what that means for L&D professionals; changes in learner behavior are detailed in “Emerging Digital Learning Landscape: Flexibility, Opportunity.” Mobile use is a primary driver of changes in consumer and learner behavior; mobile learning cannot advance or continue to meet learners’ needs without evolving in tandem with those learners.

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