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Whatever happened to the mlearning craze?

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CRM calamityBest Technology Feature 2008

mental_toughnessLike many other enthusiasts, technology editor John Stokdyk was smitten by the possibilities of mobile learning. So he went in search of evidence to justify the excited claims.








Photo of John Stokdyk"Mlearning will probably fade into obscurity as the practice of downloading learning material and instructional podcasts goes mainstream. While there are advantages to being able to push content to learners wherever they are, the way it arrives is likely to be an irrelevance for them."

John Stokdyk, technology editor

From all the portents at the beginning of the year, 2008 was destined to be the breakthrough year for mobile learning (mlearning).

The BETT show in January reflected feverish interest in mobile learning technologies in the education market and new, high-spec devices such as the Nokia N95 and Apple iPhone are rapidly expanding the universe for mobile content - surely the commercial world will follow?

But within weeks, elearning champion Donald Clark posted a blog entitled Wherefore art thou mlearning?

In Clark's view, "m" stood for "missing". Mobile learning was proving elusive because "people don’t really seem to understand what they want to do with these devices", he wrote. Different models with different screen sizes and operating specs meant the mobile market was very fragmented, and mobile video was dead in the water, he added.

Jane Hart, who compiles a list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning, confirmed that educators are much more willing to embrace new technologies and informal approaches than commercial trainers, but noted in a recent update that mobile versions of popular tools such as Flickr, YouTube and Google Maps were beginning to appear in her list. Mobile services such as find.mobi, fring, Qik and Utterz were also showing up - but remain outside the Top 100 placings.

What is mlearning and what are the benefits?

Mlearning involves delivering blended learning and elearning material via mobile devices such as smartphones, personal digital assistants and iPods. In a 2006 whitepaper he wrote for Epic, Clark argued that mobile delivery could reinforce learning in a way that classroom teaching and other vehicles could not.

Enticing mobile devices
Prices range from £200 to £400 or so. Interface preferences, battery life and the need for features such as still and video cameras and GPS are part of the equation, but your choice of mlearning device may be determined by your firm or telecoms provider.

Apple iPhone 3G The dreamboat of contemporary mobiles, with a large, high-quality screen and feely interface beloved by design-conscious media types.

Asus EeeSmall enough to be carried with you, laptops like the ground-breaking Eee offer more functionality and better screen size than smartphones.

BlackBerry Pearl The workhorse smartphone for the corporate crowd. If you want to get a message across to these workaholics, the "CrackBerry" is as good a vehcile as anything.

HP iPaq 614 Business Navigator A Windows-based device, the Business Navigator can do everything the iPhone 3G can - and more, including recording videos.

HTC Touch DiamondAnother all-in-one Windows device offering good performance for the money.

Nokia N95 A classic Symbian-powered mobile that includes FM radio, GPS navigation, up to 8GB of multimedia storage, a digital video and still camera with Carl Zeiss lens - and it can make phone calls too.

wMG Atom Life New kid on the mobile block offering a 2.7inch screen with GSM, GPRS and 3G connectivity, WiFi and built-in camera.

"If the knowledge was pushed to you as a text message, or repeatedly used over time, much higher levels of retention would be gained," he wrote.

Mlearning is particularly useful for collaborative projects and fieldwork, or where employees are widely dispersed and hard to reach, such as in transport, cleaning and project-based service industries. Among the cases Clark cited were a major bus company that uses mlearning to distribute refresher courses to drivers, and a British School of Motoring project to help revision with the Highway Code.

According to Omniplex managing director Matthew Lloyd, mlearning is proving popular in the corporate world with senior executives, who frequently need to work - and learn - while on the move. Mobile delivery has the added advantage of letting them access content without having to navigate the firewalls and roadblocks they often encounter on their internal company networks.

Corporate market leads the way

The corporate market is proving fruitful for Skill-Pill, which develops two minute video clips that can be downloaded to any video-enabled smartphone, media player or PDA, according to company spokesman Oliver Black.

The company is working with Pearson Publishing to condense some of its leadership and management titles into two minute video Skill-Pills. The learning snippets are stored on a web server and SMS text messages are dispatched to learners when new modules become available. The user can then signal that they'd like to access the module and it is downloaded to their mobile so they can play it immediately, or store it for later.

The content can be linked to Microsoft Outlook or online calendars so that users can set up alerts for when they want the material to arrive - for example just before a meeting when a two minute briefing might help keep them on their toes. Nine Skill-Pill demos on the company's website give a good idea of the experience.

The material is currently being used by sales teams at the FTSE Group and by executives at Unilever, where mlearning is being used to support a European-wide change management programme.

While the iPhone has been hailed by rival Mohive as a breakthrough tool for mlearning, Black explains that BlackBerrys are more prevalent among Skill-Pill's corporate clients. Compatibility issues are not a problem, since the videos are stored in the 3GP mobile video format and can play back on a wide variety of devices.

As mobile devices come down in price and their capabilities increase, the costs of delivering learning materials is also coming down. Tougher economic conditions will put a squeeze on training budgets, but mobile learning represents a cost effective alternative to face-to-face training, according to Black.

"We're still growing and it's certainly an easier sell in 2008 than in 2007 and we're looking forward to an even better 2009," he said.

Are the barriers to mlearning behavioural or economic?

In a recent article for TrainingZone, Don Taylor took Ufi technology director Dick Moore to task for gadgeteering puffing up the likely role of PDAs in learning beyond the limits of credibility. Moore's crime was to suggest that mobile devices would become so powerful that they would be able to automatically collect and "pre-digest" relevant knowledge, effectively taking on the elements of learning that are supposed to be done by the student.

It's an entertaining spat that illuminates the occasional lapses of judgement that can beset those who focus more on the technology than the learning. Inviting potential clients to come and join you out on the bleeding edge might not play that well with less technologically confident clients, particularly at a time when their budgets are coming under threat.

Suppliers such as Skill-Pill and Mohive claim to be making headway in the corporate market, but Clive Shepherd recently warned smaller elearning content developers about the impact the downturn would have on client behaviour. Because of the time, cost and environmental advantages, elearning should hold its own, he said, but there's likely to be less interest in experimenting with new approaches using sophisticated blends or web 2.0 techniques.

"To get these going you'll need to demonstrate cast iron cost savings, a low initial investment and the minimum risk of disruption. Remember, training will not be the biggest issue an employer will be grappling with," Shepherd wrote.

"I have yet to see any really engaging mlearning materials."
Michael Hanley
Responding to Clark's lament in February, Michael Hanley reckoned that compatibility would remain a barrier to growth. "Given that we still have to jump through any number of hoops to ensure content is delivered as specified in different browsers on the Windows platform (never mind MacOS, Linux etc) is it any wonder that training and content providers are reticent about developing courseware?" he wrote.

"Associated issues include designing user interfaces that work on 2x1inch screens, bandwidth considerations, interoperability, tracking learner usage, providing and measuring tests, and so on." Aside from, or possibly because of all of these obstacles, Hanley's clinching explanation for the subject's mysterious disappearance was: "I have yet to see any really engaging mlearning materials."

Is the future of elearning mobile?

Among the implausible claims that have been made is that mobile delivery techniques represent the future of elearning. Mlearning will overcome the teething pains so far identified, but is unlikely to become the be-all and end-all of instruction as we know it. Rather it will become one of several elements in the blended learning mix, particularly as companies kit out their employees for mobile-enabled work practices.

Technology trends are notoriously difficult to track. Often you don't spot them until they pop up and poke you on Facebook. Like many technology labels, mlearning will probably fade into obscurity as the practice of downloading learning material and instructional podcasts goes mainstream. While there are advantages to being able to push content to learners wherever they are, the way it arrives is likely to be an irrelevance for them.

Ufi's Kirstie Donnell recently noted on TrainingZone that technology works best when it supports existing human behaviours. Videos and podcasts downloaded to mobile devices will do just that by integrating learning into the daily fabric of people's lives.

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