Study Provides Insights into Mobile Learning

By Pamela Babcock Jun 13, 2011
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As the popularity and use of mobile computing devices increase, the implications for mobile learning and instructional design are exciting and a bit daunting. But there’s no need to rush into delivering mobile learning, notes a recent report, particularly because the mobile market is growing and evolving continuously.

Instead, it pays to begin developing a strategy “based on needs, so that when a path becomes clearer, your organization is prepared to act,” according to Mobile Learning: Learning in the Palm of Your Hand, released in May 2011 by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

“With the advent of mobile technology, learning is now ubiquitous and occurs any time and any place one chooses,” Michael Green, research manager for ASTD, told SHRM Online. “Individuals have already embraced the concept, but organizations are still grappling with how to synergize their learning and development function with mobile technology.”

The study recommends piloting mobile learning programs to find out what works, rolling out programs incrementally and thinking creatively about the many mobile device features “that can enhance the learning experience.”

The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) compiled the report for ASTD based on interviews with thought leaders and global practitioners in various stages of adopting mobile learning. It’s ASTD’s first report on mobile learning—an outgrowth of a previous report published by the organization in January 2011 titled Better, Smarter Faster: How Web 3.0 Will Transform Learning in High-Performing Organizations.

Smart Phones Drive Growth in Mobile Learning

In a July 2010 ASTD study titled Instructional Design Today and in the Future, only 15 percent of 1,546 survey respondents reported that their organizations were using mobile learning. But that study found that use of mobile learning “was highly correlated with market performance and effective instructional design,” Green said. “The more mobile learning is utilized in an organization, the better the organization performs.”

While only 10 percent of respondents said their organizations were developing mobile learning, or “m-learning,” applications, 41 percent said that they were considering it.

“It’s still early, but m-learning is moving fast,” Green said.

A key driver is the growing use of smart phones such as the iPhone, BlackBerry and Droid, which provide Internet access. By the end of 2011, more than 50 percent of phones sold in the United States will be smart phones, projects consumer information provider Neilsen.

“Organizational learning has always been about trying to find ways to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time, and smart phones sort of represent that Holy Grail,” David Wentworth, a senior research analyst for i4cp and the report’s author, told SHRM Online. “A lot more learning is going to be happening via mobile devices—in whatever shape or form [they] take.”

The pervasiveness of mobile computing depends a lot on geography and culture. Various cultures define mobile learning differently, notes Mike Sharples, professor of educational technology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., it typically means delivering corporate training via mobile devices. In many countries in Africa, mobile devices are the primary means of obtaining information.

“In technology-hungry Japan, mobile devices are also the main means of accessing the web, and we see a great deal of self-directed learning in that culture as well,” the report says.

Despite the prevalence of mobile devices, “mobile learning is not as pervasive as the myriad conferences, webinars and summits may have [one] believe,” according to the report. “It is definitely an important emerging topic, but it is one that organizations are still trying to understand.” After charging headlong into “e-learning and social media,” the industry in general seems to have adopted a wait-and-see position, the report notes.

Recommendations for Mobile Learning

Green cautioned that mobile learning is not a replacement for traditional, formal learning programs and practices. Instead, it augments formal learning “by making relevant content easily accessible to employees at the time and place of their choosing and/or convenience” by providing “real-time learning.”

The report includes several other recommendations for pulling together a mobile learning initiative:

Try to remain “agnostic.” Unless a company plans to give employees one device and platform, consider web-based delivery because developing mobile applications and providing devices represents the biggest upfront costs in mobile learning. “While native apps can provide the most robust, feature-rich content, mobile web browsing is quickly reaching a point where the differences will diminish, and [content] can be accessed by a wider range of learners,” the report notes.

Don’t focus only on the importance for training. Put too much emphasis on the training aspect of mobile devices and you might face a tough sell with senior leadership. The expectation that the latest devices can improve productivity, increase efficiency and help manage a workforce “creates a package within which learning can play a prominent role,” the report said.

Remember it’s OK to wait and see. The market is still fragmented. Standards are still being developed, and consumers are still figuring out which devices and platforms work best for them. But companies should begin developing a strategy. “Start slow, but start,” Green advised.

Take small bites. You don’t have to develop a 100 percent “polished” mobile learning initiative right away, and it’s better to make adjustments than to roll out a finished product “that doesn’t work at all,” the study said. Green recommended identifying a target pilot program and calling it “an experiment.” Sales is often a great place to start, he added.

Leverage features that make mobile learning unique. Don’t just focus on ways to put existing learning content onto a mobile device. Although mobile learning might not be appropriate in every situation, learning professionals should “be creative and think about the many features of mobile devices that can enhance the learning experience. GPS devices, cameras and microphones can all be used to deliver contextual information in meaningful and engaging ways,” the report said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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