Mobile learning – Push or pull?

The universal advice for m-learning is to keep it short.

The argument is that workers these days are busy professionals with the attention span of a juvenile gnat, so anything longer than a few minutes won’t be effective.

I don’t buy it, but I am in the minority.

Two people using their mobile phones.

Nonetheless, I recognise the benefits of this approach. Shorter content is quicker to develop, and single files like MP4s are easy to produce.

Regular snippets are also useful for reinforcing key messages, assessment, post work, and bridging the knowing-doing gap.

However, I also think this approach is limited.

Although it leverages modern technology – namely, smartphones and tablets – this kind of m-learning remains traditional “push” training. Of course push training has its place in the broader learning model, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a true learning organisation, the vast majority of learning is pulled.

So I propose we turn the prevailing notion of m-learning on its head…

Let’s think less in terms of “training” and more in terms of “performance support”. Create the content once in a central repository (such as a wiki or an intranet) where it can be searched, explored and discovered on-the-job, and just-in-time if need be.

This approach accommodates multiple devices (mobile or otherwise), without the need for multiple authoring tools or the production of multiple content packages.

It also facilitates a more constructivist mode of learning, which one may argue is the pedagogical foundation of the 70 in 70:20:10.

Businessman using his mobile phone.

Of course the pull approach to m-learning relies heavily on standardisation. Wikis, intranets, VLEs, LMSs etc must be mobile friendly for the paradigm to work.

In other words, these repositories must be compliant with international mobile standards so that we can accommodate the myriad of devices, browsers and operating systems that m-learning entails.

And we can turn this on its head too. If we all build content on standards-compliant platforms, suddenly the onus is on all those devices, browsers and operating systems to accommodate us.

16 thoughts on “Mobile learning – Push or pull?

  1. Hey nicely compiled your thoughts on push-pull debate on m-learning.

    I completely agree pull is good option for on-the-job, just-in-time access to information.

    As well as push works great with instigating mobile learning & engagement culture.

    We offer Mobile learning solutions for enterprise. For more details check

  2. Rob, that’s probably a bit of wishful thinking on my part. Apologies if I wasn’t clear.

    W3C has the Mobile Web Initiative ( and for m-learning more specifically, the Australian Flexible Learning Framework for example includes mobile in its e-standards for training (

    While I’m certainly no expert in the web standards domain, it appears to me that much more needs to be done in terms of consistency and universal adoption. The Apple vs Flash fiasco underscores that!

  3. Not sure that short attention span is the issue (actual or implied). However, I strongly agree with the idea that m-learning is best for performance support. I also agree that compliance with international mobile standards let alone the many formats/devices which seem to churn a couple of times each year is a big challenge.

  4. I can only speak for my audience of 1,500 well-educated professionals, but during prototyping our examplar mobile learning module went from 34 BlackBerry screens of content down to just 20. I’m mindful of our we consume mobile content. We want it fast, we dip in, find out what we need, maybe share it with contacts, then move onto the next thing. Given there are many more external factors seeking to distract us when we’re using mobiles, we can’t plan on keeping learner focus for too long, though we found moving from tutorial screens to interactive Q&As helped. I’ve also witnessed the trend over the last two years for our learners to demand shorter and shorter modules, that they can better dovetail into their working day. We are, after all, interupted every 11 minutes, so a ten-minute module isn’t such a bad target.

    I totally agree though – and sense – that a lot of m-learning will become performance support in nature. I go back to how those employees with a high propensity to use their phone beyond the basic features. We/they just dip in and out when needed, pulling whatever we need, maybe having lost pressure minutes trying to find the best content.

    As a corporate L&D practitioner, I believe I can help my audience by both selecting and creating performance support resources that they can quickly access, safe in the knowledge that they’ve been quality controlled. And I know my learners will want me to have stripped out superfluous content in the process.

  5. Indeed, Tim, interruptions are the bane of professional life – whether in or out of the office.

    10 minutes sounds reasonable to me for a mobile intervention, and I think your shift from tutorial screens to interactive Q&As is a master stroke.

  6. Many thanks for this. I have been researching a company in Mumbai, India, called Enablem. Their solutions are interesting.

    Otherwise, I would agree with many of the comments here, but am a fan of the idea of a learning organisation, but have yet to find one! I think you find learning individuals or groups in organisations, but not organisations as a whole. Even so, this would be a reflection of leadership, as well as careful recruitment.

    Johannesburg, South Africa

  7. Cheers Tony, and I 100% agree. A true “learning organisation” is an aspiration.

  8. Thanks so much for your post, Ryan.
    One type of mobile learning I really love is podcasts. Lengthy podcasts (20-40 minutes) enable me to go into deep reflection about my practice as I’m on the bus. I guess the experts I listen to are articulate, experienced, often humble and generous. I know there are people like this in our organisations. I’d love to see a podcast channel in the organisations I work in – using a platform that enables synchronisation onto my mobile device, of course.

  9. Cheers Alison. Podcasts (and e-books) are sometimes forgotten in the m-learning mix, and they’re not necessarily short.

  10. Thanks for your post! I know it was written a while ago, but as mLearning discussions have really exploded, I found it interesting. I completely agree with the idea that we need to be more focused on performance support as well instead of training. Our company has written blog posts saying similar things.

    However, I would love for the ideas you address in your final few paragraphs to be expanded, especially now that technology is coming out in regards to mobile learning. I think you touch on this need, but practically, how do we achieve the standardisation that you mention? The pull approach is good, but what about practically having LMS’s, for example, work across different devices? I think the most important thing now is getting the accessibility cross-device, which is difficult with the flash and HTML difference. We at CourseAvenue have been developing this technology, and I think the future of mLearning, even with the pull approach, will rest in the practical ability to access the information cross-device. Check out our blog too for more of our thoughts on mLearning! Thanks so much for yours!

  11. Cheers CourseAvenue. Sounds like a big new post is required, and I’m not sure I have the IT savvy to do it!

    Nonetheless, thinking about LMSs working across different devices, I suppose my point is: If the big LMS providers in the industry can agree to a set of standards, a device manufacturer would be highly motivated to comply with those standards if part of their strategy was for the device to be used for mobile learning. Those manufacturers who *don’t* comply lose a competitive edge.

    This is the opposite of convential wisdom, which is to bow to the constraints and quirks of the device.

  12. re: LMS providers agreeing to a set of standards…

    Agree that this would be handy but from 12 years of working with LMS vendors unlikely. Why? Well with all of the momentum behind SCORM generally there is just basic SCORM support (bookmark, completion status) even by the big LMS players.

    The real challenge is that every LMS vendor we have ever worked with (> 20) has implemented SCORM using Java…which is not supported by iPad/iPhone. So when a mobile tool says it produces mLearning that is SCORM compliant…so what? When the LMS goes to launch the course as a SCORM course for an iPad – it won’t work. Ouch.

    It is an interesting time in LMS/Authoring tool land!

  13. Good point, CourseAvenue. Mr Jobs either didn’t have e-learning in mind or he expected those 20+ vendors to cave (as per Adobe).

    IMHO this is the problem with a single player having too much power in the market. I remember a time when Microsoft got burnt for it.

    Why do I feel like a Pepsi all of a sudden? ;o)

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