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Andrew Jackson

Pacific Blue Solutions


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Mobile learning: The shortest lived technology fad ever?


Andrew Jackson turns his sights on mobile learning. Is it all hype, and are we defining it properly in the first place?

At Learning Technologies and Skills in 2011, I co-presented a session on mobile learning in one of the exhibition floor theatres. My co-presenter was from a small Finnish software company. They had a pretty simple but very effective cloud-based LMS, optimised for mobile.

The purpose of the session was to show the system in action and demonstrate that creating and distributing simple mobile learning content was really not that difficult. If you've ever been to the LTS exhibition, you'll know those exhibition theatres can seat in the region of 40-60 people. Typically, a good turnout for one of those free sessions, is 70% of the seats filled.

For our mobile learning session, all the seats were filled and there were large numbers of people standing at the back and along the sides. I don't know exactly how many people attended, but by normal standards, it was a lot. And we kept people all the way to the end. At the end, there was a contact form for people to fill in if they wanted a free mobile learning 'getting started' guide. We got about 60 forms back - again, by typical standards, a phenomenal response.

I'm telling you this, not to boast, but as a cautionary tale. Because if you'd asked me on that day in January 2011 how big mobile learning was going to become, I'm sure I would've answered, 'huge - the future is mobile'.

We kept in touch with most of those form-fillers pretty assiduously for quite some time. Until it became increasingly clear that lots of them were expressing enthusiasm and interest in mobile learning, but very few were ever going to act on it. Gradually each of those interested people fell by the wayside. And the small software company we were working with? Bought out by a much bigger elearning company. As far as I’m aware, their product never did get incorporated into any of the buyers existing product line (the original plan).

"Hardware, software, operating systems and other software applications in the mobile space are in a continuous state of flux. Hardly an environment in which you can confidently make technology decisions that might be called future-proof."

Clearly, there have been some very visible, high-profile pioneers doing interesting things with mobile learning. A few others have followed in their footsteps. And for some organisations, there is a compelling case for mobile learning. But for the vast majority? I'm not so sure. I'm constantly amazed by the number of organisations where elearning is still the big new thing. As far as these organisations are concerned, doing mobile learning is about as likely as flying to Mars.

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of articles about many of us in Learning and Development seem to have lost focus. Obsessing over delivery mediums seems to have taken precedence over the quality of learning. All the hype surrounding mobile learning is a good example of this.

And the hype is pervasive. It creates a subtle sense of pressure. A feeling that this is something you should know about and be on top of. A sense that everyone else is talking about it and doing it, so shouldn't we be getting our act together, too? (Full confession: I definitely got caught up in that hype in 2010-11).

In reality, everyone should be asking themselves a simple question. Is a whole pile of expensive new technology really going to improve the quality or effectiveness of learning or have any tangible, performance-improving effect on the organisation and its employees? For mobile learning to be a viable option, there must be an unequivocal 'yes' in answer to that question. Because unless there is an utterly compelling case, at the moment, mobile looks like a pretty unattractive option.

Hardware, software, operating systems and other software applications in the mobile space are in a continuous state of flux. Hardly an environment in which you can confidently make technology decisions that might be called future-proof.

Then there's the potential cost of the hardware. Because another little problem with mobile learning is who provides the hardware. And if content isn't being accessed by free wifi, who pays for any data tariffs? If this is not an issue for your organisation, then all to the good. But in my experience, beyond a basic laptop or desktop, most organisations are very reluctant to shell out lots of extra money for tablets and smart phones. And many employees will baulk at the idea they should start using their personal tablets and phones for work purposes. Even if, after all this, you think you need to be doing mobile learning, there’s also the conceptual problem. These days, what exactly is mobile learning? How the heck do you even define it?

"As an example, imagine I'm a learner completing a piece of elearning on my iPad. Does this make it mobile learning?"

When I first started getting interested in mobile learning in early 2010, it was much easier to define. It pretty much meant content delivered to and consumed on a mobile phone. Either an old clunker or a sexy new smart phone. It's almost hard to fathom now, but in early 2010, the iPad was still just a rumour on Apple-watching websites.

Since then, the whole world of mobile devices has exploded beyond recognition. Which for me begs the question, is there even any point in talking about mobile learning as a separate entity?

As an example, imagine I'm a learner completing a piece of elearning on my iPad. It was created in Storyline (an elearning authoring tool). It was designed and created primarily for use on a laptop or desktop machine, but here it is running on a tablet. Does this make it mobile learning? elearning on a tablet? T-learning, perhaps? And how do you define a mobile device? These days, many laptops are effectively mobile devices. And some, like the MacBook Air are getting slimmer and lighter by the minute. Does elearning running on a MacBook Air suddenly become mobile learning?

My guess is that 10 years from now, most laptops or notebook computers will be as thin and light as an iPad is today. So where will that leave our definition of mobile learning, or elearning, for that matter? So all of this leaves me wondering if mobile learning as a distinct entity will just end up having been a fad. Possibly the shortest-lived technology fad in the history of learning and development.

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of instructional design and elearning designers Pacific Blue Solutions. He’s a big fan of learning technology, but tired of technology fads. If you want to get back to focusing on the quality and effectiveness of your learning, regardless of delivery medium, get a copy of their Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Instructional Design Success.

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Andrew Jackson


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