The Promise of True mLearning is a Tough Sell

For the last few weeks, I have been busy delivering webinars and workshops on the topic of mobile learning, and throughout, the one question I hear constantly has to do with people asking me for mLearning examples.

This got me thinking about the true meaning of that very popular question. In other words, I was thinking about what most people really expect to see as mLearning examples?

In my experience, most people who ask to see mLearning examples are going to only be fully satisfied if they see the same old traditional eLearning courses (that we know and love) running on a tablet, for example, the iPad.

If you show people something much simpler, without all the flying text and animations, you will often hear ‘but that’s too simple, where’s the rest of the text and everything else?’ if you show people something a bit more complex, people ask ‘yeah but does it support SCORM tracking?’ if you show them prototypes that prioritize content over navigation, they will invariable ask how they can incorporate more buttons and more navigation and everything else they currently have on the desktop PC?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to show at this point that is uniquely mobile, most examples today are basically eLearning courses converted to HTML5 and shrunk to fit the smaller screen.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having these expectations. Mobile in general requires a new mindset and change is something we are not very comfortable with.  For the most part, when presented with uncertainty we often retreat to our comfort zone.

The more I think about mLearning, interact with clients and deliver mLearning workshops, the more I’m convinced that mobile technology and the inherent constraints of dealing with multiple screens isn’t our biggest challenge on the way to the promise mLearning land, but rather the real challenge is embracing change in order to reimagine the future of learning, rather than simply retrofitting what we have today on the desktop into the small screen.

Because of this epiphany, I spend quite a bit of time during the mLearning workshops I have been delivering to companies, doing several hands-on exercises, that help learning designers reimagine their current eLearning for the new multiscreen world. Furthermore, I also have my students go through several sketching exercises using various templates for smartphones, tablets and desktop PCs.

The goal in all of this is to wean participants off old PC design habits and begin adopting new mobile design principals. Initially most people end up sketching out smaller versions of what they already have on the desktop, however with some practice people tell me later that these exercises have helped them think different about designing for this new mobile shift.

In closing, I leave you with the same advice I give my students, namely to be open-minded and don’t be too quick at dismissing something you aren’t comfortable with. Mobile changes everything and for all of us to be successful, it’s going to require a new mindset and the sooner we realize this and embrace change, the more successful we will be!

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  • JoshCav

    If we can only get that mindset to the rapid eLearning tool companies. We are really in a funk right now with the development tools. Attempting to take a tool that was built for desktop delivery and retrofit it for mobile is not the way to go. There needs to be more effort in establishing content way up the creation chain in the form of Learning Content Management Systems. Separation of content and context in eLearning will happen in the next 12-24 months, but until then we’ll continue to shove knowledge into these antiquated applications and delivery platforms.

    • rjacquez

      Howdy Josh, I couldn’t agree more with you in that the onus is on Vendors to get their mLearning act together asap. I think it’s pretty tough to evolve a tool that has been built around eLearning for true mLearning design. The most I think about it, the more I feel we need new tools designed from the ground up. I wish I had time to build one my self 🙂

      • I agree. We’re a LMS/ learning authoring tool company that has done just that. Completely redesigned our LMS to make it output in HTML5 and like many web development companies are doing such as and others, having fluid templates that change the content size and positioning based on the device its being viewed on. Upside: Runs on any modern browser on most any device or tablet and tracks using Tin Can. Downside: We had to give up SCORM.

      • Nick M

        Responsive Frameworks are the way to go. Most are still in the beta stages, but Kineo as well as a few other companies from the US and UK are coming along really good. We are actually going to be starting a project using our responsive design framework in the coming months.

  • This is a very hot topic and I am aligned with your considerations, all very valuable. ID processes for mobile design shall follow different paradigms. However, in a world where a large percentage of business entities still provide training with PDF and PPTs, I am a bit hesitant to embrace the fact that a vast majority is ready to embrace mobile design strategies. Authoring tools? They are clueless. They don’t know what to do, if they build one thing, they are addressing one need, but there are at least 4-5 recurring implementation scenarios out there, and most of them follow different approaches. Hence what do they do? They wait, because they don’t want to allocate investments (developments) on something that will get old in 6-12 months.
    I have been following the mlearning topic, along with its various tentative acronyms, since 2007, and have always been a big believer in its power.
    Quite frankly, I have felt fooled by its potential, and I almost gave up. I always saw the need and perceived the potential but never seen the “it’s happening moment” – the disruptive force that changes the game.
    Why? My final answer is, it is not a market yet. When there is a market, there are a)ready-buyers and b)ready-vendors. Here I don’t see none of the 2. Both the buyers and the vendors are confused and have “their interpretation” about how to make it happen both in terms of business models and technologies, including application standards.
    There are many opinions – which is fine in mature markets – while it freezes things in non mature ones, just like in mlearning. Think about it, there is not even a definition of mlearning, if you just google it, you can identify at least 10-12 different nuances of it. Who is authoritative? I like one more than another, but nobody is.
    The ADL failed in its attempt to make mobile part of the learning experience with scorm. Yes, some tried, to implement it, but it never happened besides a number of respectable and yet excisting very custom projects (but that to me is system integration and not mlearning). Now TinCan is our new hope. It has much better premises, it is way more flexible. Yet it needs time to clarify how such a standard applies to a mobile content design. But TinCan has addressed the cross domain problem and the LRS opens a world of possibilities also to mobile learning evangelists and developers. Is it going to be the good time?

  • Reuben Tozman

    The issue for me isn’t about the ‘interface’ at all. Innovation for ‘mobile’ will only come when we can re-imagine a classroom. Delivering ‘uniquely mobile’ means nothing until it fits into something. The problem with trying to design ‘uniquely mobile’ is that it doesn’t yet have a home. We can’t change the classroom by trying to build artifacts based on a different paradigm. We have to first sell that ‘learning’ and the way its measured and the role of ‘instruction’ for learning exists in a parallel universe without classes and teachers and tests, etc and it works.

    eLearning didn’t change the classroom and mLearning ain’t gonna change it either. The classroom has to change for us to change how we design technology’s role within ‘learning’.

    • rjacquez

      Hi Reuben, many thanks for stopping by and chiming in. However I’m not quite sure understand what you mean for the most part. If you could further elaborate, that would be great. For example not sure what you mean by “re-imagining the classroom.” Also your comments about how there’s isn’t yet a home for uniquely mobile experiences? Do we not have millions of mobile devices out there from people ready to consume new and innovative learning? Thanks again and I look forward to further clarification.

  • Divya Bhasin

    Maybe we are trying to do too much with mlearning and the market isn’t ready for that much!
    But if you look at informal learning, just in time learning, and learning when you have no other means handy, mobile learning can be a perfect fit. And it doesn’t have to be app based learning. In developing markets where mobile internet penetration is a fraction of the total mobile users, more basic mobile bearers like voice, text, USSD can be used to deliver some very effective learning. In fact in these markets, even if we want to reach out to the mobile internet users, using the mobile web provides far more reach than mobile apps, largely due to the fact that these markets are very heterogenous in terms of the types of mobile phones available. A combination of voice and SMS can help deliver many kinds of learning with a lot of interactivity and personalization possibilities for the users. Add videos to this, and the possibilities become larger. Certainly the constraints of the medium have to be borne in mind when looking at the curriculum, pedagogy and the user interface.

    The point being that mobile learning doesn’t have to be thought of as porting e-learning to the mobile screens. It has many other facets that can be exploited to bring education to the masses.

  • Amit Garg

    Hi RJ,

    I’m with you on the need to change mindset of learning designers.
    However, since mobile learning goes beyond traditional learning (or training) and hence beyond the L&D, mindset change is needed at many different levels – not just learning designers.

    I’ve had similar experience with clients when you show them examples of mLearning. “eLearning on iPads” is probably what they’re most comfortable to see. Even though it is not true mLearning I believe it is stretching the boundaries of eLearning and that’s not too bad. I hope that the next step will be to do something uniquely mobile on iPads (and other tablets) and then move to true mobile learning on smaller devices (iPad mini to Galaxy S3). It is indeed a hard sell but we’re making progress.

    Best, Amit

  • Nick M

    Will it really work on “all” browsers. That seems like a blanket statement to me. It might work utilizing certain functions, but each browser is going to treat each function differently. As of now, each browser plays back the material differently. I think it also has to do with individuals who have phones , need to have the knowledge of which browser is the best to use. I also think it could be relevant for LMS/Authoring tools companies to make their learning specific to only one browser. Its an idea – but that way there is no discrepancies and you know what your getting and how it will perform.

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