Book Review: Designing mLearning, by Clark N. Quinn

Written By

Bill Brandon

February 02, 2011

On the Web site that supports Designing mLearning: Tapping into the mobile revolution for organizational performance, author Clark N. Quinn says his book is intended to provide “a comprehensive basis for you to take advantage of mobile learning.”

bookcover, Designing mLearning

I believe that he has more than achieved that aim, beyond any other book on the subject that I have seen to date. As an author myself, I marvel at the way Clark has captured so much practical advice and design wisdom in only 256 pages. This is a great resource for instructional designers, developers, media experts, managers, and anyone else with responsibility for supporting performance in organizations.

Performance? Isn’t mLearning about learning?

This is the question that bookstore browsers may ask when they see the title. Quinn’s response in the Introduction is that, “[M]obile is not about courses, but instead supports a broad definition of learning, including innovation, collaboration, research, design and more, generating new products, services, and problems solved. Whether providing needed tools, augmenting learning, or connecting individuals, mobile is a powerful new tool for supporting performance.”

Practitioners need to, as he says several times in the ensuing pages, learn to think differently about what they are doing. Not only are organizations of all sizes and types already applying mobile devices to improve their results by improving individual performance, the potential is (in Clark’s words) awesome, and we are already seeing how readily doable mLearning is.

A complete and efficient guide

Clark provides an efficient four-part structure to deliver the comprehensive approach that he promised. After a quick (but for some readers, necessary) review of the history of learning and a survey of devices available today, he addresses the process of designing, delivering, and deploying mobile solutions, along with their strategic implications and related trends. He does not ignore technology, but he puts it into proper perspective as he quotes Jay Cross, “INATT: It’s Not About The Technology.”

Along the way, Quinn keeps the discussion grounded and real with actual examples. Questions at the end of most chapters are meant to help readers check their understanding as they prepare to develop and deliver mobile learning.

Plenty to like

There is so much in this book, and it has so much depth, that it would be easy to write a couple of thousand words more about it. But respecting your time, and Clark’s need to be rewarded by sales of his book, here are some of the aspects of the work that seemed to me most valuable. (You can see his summary of the contents and the book outline at http://www.designingmlearning.com/.)

Addressing misconceptions

In a section that many readers will dog-ear or copy verbatim for use in the inevitable arguments about implementing mobile, Clark names and counters the familiar misconceptions, from “We can’t provide mobile learning devices” to “courses on a phone don’t seem like a good idea” to concerns about the small screen size, cost of programming, the (assumed) need to always be connected, and more. He moves from this to the convincing business case, based on the way that mobile devices are already making people more effective wherever and whenever they are.

Change begins with ourselves

For the more conservative among learning practitioners (and we all have some cherished notions that we cling to), Quinn demonstrates throughout the book that we need a change in the mindset of the learning unit itself – whether it’s styled a Training Department or a Learning Group. He shows how and why we must make the important strategic shift from information provider to performance facilitator. He offers the handy idea of thinking “task by percentage improvement” to which we attach dollars or time measures. In other words, think about how we can improve productivity, doing more with the same resources.

He supports this with plenty of information about what we know today to be true about learning and cognition. This includes discussions of informal and social learning. These will be invaluable for those who are new to the learning field, or as resource material for managers, executives, and others to stop thinking in terms of classrooms and sages on stages.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

You probably already know that Clark Quinn has a substantial and long standing reputation for expertise. But he has done an excellent job in Designing mLearning by citing and crediting the work of others, from whom he has learned and to whom he recommends the reader. He builds upon these to provide new insights into mobile learning, elaborating to show how to think about mobile learning as a learning augment, as performance support, and as formal learning.

Practicality and application

Quinn provides concrete examples from real life — 38 pages, a big chunk of the book. This assortment of examples offers ideas that will be helpful to managers and designers.

Throughout the book, he includes sidebars that explain ideas, terms, concepts, and devices, such as “Microblogging,” “Handhelds for K12,” “QR Codes,” “The Leapster,” “mLearning as a Cognitive Augment,” “Rethinking Learning,” “The GPS as Performance Support,” “Skills”, and “Cognitive Apprenticeship.”

He provides mobile models for delivery of full courses, for learning adjuncts, and for performance support. He provides exercises and worksheets that will help readers really “get” mobile and to “think different.”

Brass tacks for design and implementation

For actual design work, in the third part of the book Quinn shows the reader the “platform approach.” This requires seeing mobile capability as an infrastructure that supports other initiatives, including learning and performance support. He develops this approach carefully, beginning with the analysis that is so necessary (and so often left out) to good design.

His discussion uses all that he presented earlier in the book, in a search for elegant solutions. What he offers is a process that is both elegant and pragmatic, supporting both learning and performance support. I am sure that instructional designers will be very pleased with this section.

He also provides a very sound chapter on implementing and evaluating mobile solutions, including testing and revision. This is another necessary activity that is often not done. He remains practical and realistic about this, and addresses the issues that will come up across legal, Human Resources, and IT: social policy, accessibility, security, and what devices and support to provide.

The fourth section of the book, “Looking Forward,” presents strategic views of where we are headed and what we will find when we get there, as well as encouraging the reader to make the journey.

Appendices include a concise but useful bibliography, a glossary of terms that will be new to readers just getting started in mobile, worksheets for analyzing mobile opportunities, and a checklist for development.

Summary

If you are in the learning and performance field for the long haul, this book belongs on your shelf. Mobile is no passing fad. As a platform for many roles and initiatives, it is already here, it is here to stay, and it will become more and more dominant over the coming years. You will need to be able to design and deliver effective mobile learning and performance support.

Clark Quinn has produced a book that will remain essential to practitioners for many of those years to come, in spite of the rapid rate of change that we see in specific devices and technologies. He can update the book to accommodate those changes, while the wisdom he shares about design and strategy are timeless. I believe that is the basic secret of how he managed so much in so few pages.

This could become a classic in our field, destined to guide practitioners for the next several decades. It is definitely already a keeper.

Publisher information

Quinn, Clark N. (2011) Designing mLearning: Tapping into the mobile revolution for organizational performance. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. 256 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0470604489. Publisher Price: $44.00 (hardcover and Kindle editions)

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