Mobile technologies are everywhere today – more than 1.5 billion of them, according to a recent report by Strategy Analytics with 10 percent year-over-year adoption expected through 2008. Cell phones, PDAs, iPods and handheld game consoles are just a few examples of the devices that have become common, everyday accessories.
Two of the most striking things about mobile devices are the array of options available and the loyalty that users often attach to their device of choice. With such widespread adoption and so many passionate users out there, it is not surprising that mobile technologies are beginning to offer learning professionals unprecedented opportunities for reaching employees, customers and partners with useful, engaging content anytime and anyplace.
In many ways, mobile technologies are in a unique position to improve learning and training. Learning is a deeply personal act, best facilitated by relevant, reliable and engaging experiences, yet many teaching approaches still rely on more impersonal “command and control” models that include an instructor in charge, specific goals to be met and criteria to be mastered.
The adoption of e-learning courses helped address some of the limitations of traditional learning models by extending the reach, quality and accessibility of training. Today, mobile technologies are taking e-learning an important step further by capitalizing on network advances and the pervasiveness of digital devices to reach people, as futurist Wayne Hodgins has said, with just the right content on just the right device at just the right time.
This is an important departure from previous approaches to learning, where trainers could spend most of their time traveling from training center to training center, or when learning was available only to certain staff members who had the right type of computer and Internet connection. With mobile technologies, training now accommodates people instead of people working to accommodate training.
The Changing Nature of Learning
Several factors are prompting professionals to integrate mobile learning into their programs. First, employees are more mobile than ever. Equally important is that competing in today's global marketplace frequently requires teams of workers to collaborate across continents and time zones. In this environment, traditional training models are difficult to implement, requiring far too many resources and failing to meet user demand for timely, tailored training.
As part of any discussion of mobile learning, it is helpful to understand what mobile learning is. At its most basic, mobile learning combines strategies, practices, tools, applications and resources with proven advances in technology to support “anywhere, anytime” learning. It's a simple premise with far-reaching implications. Of course, equally important to gaining a clearer picture of mobile learning is understanding what it is not.
Mobile learning is not an online course on a cell phone. For one thing, existing bandwidth and processing power limitations make cell phones better suited for handling conversations and real-time data exchange. While third-generation (3G) services make it easier to share applications such as videos and movies on, say, a mobile phone handset, the small form factor can make viewing high-fidelity content on a small screen a less-than-satisfying experience.
Other common misconceptions about mobile learning include thinking that it is always network connected and interactive. With regard to the first point, the tremendous popularity of iPods demonstrates the widespread appeal of portable mass storage devices and their potential to reach users worldwide.
And interactive? This goes back to the issue of delivering the right content to a person at the right time. Many times, a simple digital file stored on a static, disconnected device, and being available just in time is preferred over an interactive, visual application that takes far too long to download and arrives ten minutes too late.
The reality is that mobile learning takes many forms and can rely just as easily on a handheld or laptop computer as it can on a portable digital player or other device. The important thing is connecting with and engaging users. Technology is simply the vehicle to make this happen.
Technology Advances Drive Change
Looking at mobile learning only within the context of devices – MP3 players, smart phones, PDAs, laptops and cell phones – is just part of the story. It's also important to look at general advances in technology and how they are being adopted worldwide.
The continued expansion of broadband wireless networks opens up possibilities for the type and quality of content that people can receive. Faster, easier access to information delivers the important benefit of expanding the audience for mobile devices, as more people find more uses for services. This trend is evident worldwide, especially in places such as Japan, South Korea and Nordic countries, where the vast majority of citizens already have access to high-broadband, rich multimedia services.
The explosion in broadband networks combined with the impressive power and capacities promised in next-generation cell phones is setting the stage for rapid adoption of mobile learning. For learning professionals and people receiving training, the good news is that mobile phones already are integrated into our everyday lives. Instead of requiring staff, customers, r partners to purchase and learn a new technology, much mobile learning will simply require people to use a readily available, accepted technology.
Opening Doors to Learning
The popularity of mobile devices and the increased reliance on broadband networks is ushering in a new era of training and education. Some of the most obvious benefits are equal-opportunity access, ubiquitous connectivity, multigenerational users and uses, expanded services for mobile workers and enhanced access to services for mobile learners.
As the price of mobile devices drop, user adoption increases. With more competition in the marketplace, users enjoy lower prices for MP3 players, PDAs and cell phones, enabling a wider range of people to purchase the devices.
This not only enhances the diversity of mobile users but also drives demand for a greater variety of mobile learning content.
The changing demographics of mobile users are evident. Several years ago, mobile devices largely were the tools of a privileged few who had the resources to support the costly systems. Businesses increasingly recognized the benefits of the devices to help sales, service and other mobile groups work smarter and more efficiently, prompting the market to respond with a wider array of offerings. In no time, consumer adoption was on the rise, opening doors to more competition, better services and lower prices.
Today, the face of mobile users is dramatically different than it was a decade ago. From children to senior citizens to business managers on the go, mobile devices are just as likely to be used for recreation as for business-related purposes, driving opportunities for cross-generational and multigenerational resources and services. At the same time, a person's physical location has become much less important because relevant services and support can be accessed on-demand from anyplace at anytime.
Learning from the Past
Mobile learning is an extension of e-learning efforts at organizations today. In that light, it is possible to apply some of the knowledge gained from the early days of e-learning to mobile learning in the hope of avoiding some of the early e-learning missteps.
For example, simply making courses available over the Internet did not guarantee people would use those courses. In fact, many initial attempts at e-learning were little more than exercises in turning electronic pages, which left training professionals and participants wondering where the advantages were to this new approach. As with successful e-learning programs, training content – whether for mobile or traditional e-learning environments – must be reliable and relevant, and it must engage users through more personalized experiences.
A Foundation for Success
When developing mobile learning programs, it is important to consider what makes mobile experiences compelling to users. Overlooking usability issues such as the ubiquity of media players, richness of experiences, and the efficiency and flexibility of applications can set up even the best training efforts for failure.
Ubiquity is paramount. For instance, do users have easy access to the media player required to view the application on their devices? Clearly, learning content is useful only if recipients can view it reliably. At the same time, it is necessary to consider the efficiency and flexibility of the application. In other words, how fast will it load and play, and is it possible to view it on a variety of devices? Anytime, anywhere access to information implies exactly that, giving users information where and when they want it.
Issues regarding application richness, security and interactivity are also vital to ensuring satisfying user experiences. Concerns over Internet worms and viruses are at an all-time high. It's obviously no benefit to anyone to receive an application that brings a system to a halt.
Users need to be able to interact comfortably and freely with application content, having pages load quickly and animations play smoothly and seamlessly. Addressing these issues early on when developing mobile learning programs helps ensure success.
Lasting, Enthusiastic Learning
With all the technology advances, it is tempting to think – or at least hope – that better learning is guaranteed. If only it were that simple. Yet, technology can help to strengthen learning motivation, focus attention and make a learning moment more memorable. It also can help clarify the correlation of learning to performance. Combined, these benefits offer more lasting, enthusiastic learning. For learning professionals and others with a stake in training and education, mobile learning offers rich opportunities to deliver more personalized, meaningful learning experiences.
Ellen Wagner, Ph.D., is the director of worldwide e-learning at Adobe Systems Inc. She can be reached at email@example.com.