M-Learning’s dirty little secrets

I have a confession to make.

At my workplace a little while ago, I created a smartphone-friendly version of our online induction course.

Ownership of smartphones is relatively common in this corner of the world, and a large proportion of our new recruits are Gen Y. So conventional wisdom dictated that a mobile version of the course would be a smash hit.

It tanked.

But my confession is not that it tanked. It’s that I knew it would.

You see, when you have been in the e-learning game for as long as I have, you learn a few things that a surprising number of my peers in the broader L&D industry don’t know – or perhaps don’t want to know!

This insight bubbled to the surface during my little m-course experiment. It was doomed to fail and it did.

To explain why it failed, let me share with you m-learning’s dirty little secrets…

Woman with finger to lips in shh! fashion.

SECRET #1. Most people won’t train outside of business hours.

Some may say most people won’t train inside business hours, but let’s remain generous.

The working day is typically defined as Monday to Friday, 9:00am-5:00pm, or thereabouts. An increasing number of people are working earlier and/or later than that, so any time outside of this zone is becoming increasingly precious.

Off-duty hours will be spent on family, hobbies, sports, mowing the lawn, watching TV and sleeping. It won’t be spent on anything resembling more “work”.

SECRET #2. Most people won’t use their own mobile devices for training.

They prefer to use them for fun, like playing Angry Birds or updating their Facebook status.

Besides, if they’re paying for the data out of their own pocket, they won’t chew it up on something that can wait until they’re back in the office.

SECRET #3. Smartphones are a pain.

There are so many makes and models and operating systems and screen sizes and versions, it’s futile trying to accommodate them all. Believe me, I’ve tried.

In my m-course experiment I found it straightforward enough to resize the canvas of the original online course and retrofit the content, but while it looked OK on my iPhone, it was problematic on the Galaxy and Lumia.

Oh the quirks! Apple’s incompatibility with Flash is widely known, but then there are the audio and video formats to consider. I also spent countless hours repositioning graphics so they didn’t obscure the text after they were published (what you saw was not what you got), while the “next” button inexplicably refused to work on the iPhone (whereas its text link equivant did).

While authoring tools on the market claim to deploy to multiple devices at the click of a button, I didn’t have the time to trial them, nor the budget to buy one, nor the inclination to learn it, nor the naivety to believe it anyway.

Moreover, I think I would have been going down the wrong track. But more on that later…

SECRET #4. LMSs aren’t smartphone friendly.

For all the rhetoric in the LMS market about mobile learning, IMHO they are designed principally for the desktop. While some have mobile apps, not all do, and the user experience has been the subject of criticism.

That makes a system that is notoriously arduous to navigate at the best of times highly unlikely to be navigated “on the go”.

SECRET #5. Most people prefer the big screen.

Size matters. The restricted dimensions of a smartphone screen compromise the user experience, and hence the learning experience.

Of course, people will use their smartphone for training if they have a burning need and that’s the only device they have on them; but given the choice, they’ll go large every time.

Man looking at mobile phone with laptop in background.

When you combine all of these secrets, the message is clear:

The majority of online training is done on desktops, laptops and tablets.

Armed with this knowledge, the question arises as to how you can use it to your advantage. Obviously you use it to inform your m-learning strategy!

May I suggest the following tactics…

TACTIC #1. Think informal first.

Do you really need to push out yet another course? Instead, why not host the content on a mobile-friendly platform like an intranet or a wiki that the learner can access, browse and search via their device of choice.

This approach empowers the learner to pull the learning at their discretion, wherever they are, at the time of need. It replaces the notion of training “in case” it will be required with performance support “when” it is required.

TACTIC #2. Create the one course to rule them all.

If you must push out training, forget about smartphones. No one wants to use them for that, so they are an unnecessary complication.

Instead, concentrate your efforts on the one course that will fit onto desktops and laptops and tablets, based on HTML so it will run across operating systems.

You may still need to accommodate peculiarities such as video formats, but with a bit of clever coding you can make the same course device agnostic.

A venn diagram showing m-learning overlapping e-learning

By employing these tactics, we start to distinguish m-learning from the broader notion of e-learning.

As John Feser articulates so elegantly, and furthered by others such as Clark Quinn, m-learning is more than just doing a course on a mobile device. Such a narrow view misses the point.

The point is that m-learning facilitates learning in context, in the moment.

For example, consider a telecommunications technician working on an electrical box out in the burbs. If he needs to find out which wire should plug in where, he’s not going to go back to the van, turn on his tablet, log into the LMS, search for a course, register into it, launch it, then click through page after page until he stumbles upon the right bit.

He needs to know right here, right now! So he uses his smartphone to look up a step-by-step guide. Quick and easy.

This is m-learning. It is indeed a form of e-learning, but it’s a subset thereof. It’s not just learning on the bus or at the airport; it’s much richer than that.

33 thoughts on “M-Learning’s dirty little secrets

  1. Hi Ryan – Well said. I agree M-learning has its place in performance support but it is being touted as the sliver bullet for everything.

  2. You had it right the second time, this is the only purpose mLearning has in the enterprise. Simply retrofitting current eLearning formats for mobile will not work and you have proven just that. Good to have it in tested and written format as I’ve always suspected but can now point to proof. Can you post some of your statistics on why and how it failed?

  3. @ Jeevan Joshi – Cheers Jeevan. Indeed, a silver bullet m-learning is not.

    @ Nick – Good point, Nick. I’m referring to “failing” as low take-up. Less than 2% of the target audience launched the smartphone version, while everyone else launched the regular online version.

  4. Ryan great post! You’re right to emphasis ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’. As you conclude, mobile learning has great potential but not as an inadequate version of what people could do more comfortably at their desks.

  5. @ learningaboutlearningblog – That’s right, Matt. Sometimes you need to let the results speak for themselves, then you have the evidence to support your position.

    @ Ara ohanian – Thanks Ara. I support both pull and push learning, but yes I also think we can get a lot smarter about how we deploy them.

  6. And I’m glad it’s not just me :0P

    Brenda, does your organisation adopt any pull training? If so, how does it fare?

  7. Thanks Ryan, I really enjoyed this article.

    I often found myself raining on the parade of someone enthusiastically suggesting m-learning as a solution that can be wrapped in a bow and automatically devoured at performance review time.

    I’ve found that ‘great, let’s make it a blended approach’ has helped me turn into the good cop. Video in particular has generated good results with regards to ‘pulling’ learning.

  8. Thanks Tracey.

    Suggesting a blended approach is a great idea, and it can be combined with smartfailing. By that I mean you can deploy different forms of m-learning and see which one wins out. The trick is to fail quick and fail cheap!

    I’m a big fan of video and contend that it is underused in corporate e-learning, particularly for scenario-based education. It’s no “secret” that people love video; just take a look at the eye-popping traffic stats commanded by YouTube and Netflix. We should be leveraging this affinity people have for the medium, both for push and pull training.

  9. Love the article! When people aren’t listening to the learning argument, sometimes the business argument is more powerful. Simply put, bringing up the idea that learning rarely occurs outside of working hours (if we’re talking traditional learning here) as well as the cost implications either personally or for the company if phone-based courses are eating up data plans.

  10. Hi Ryan, I had another thought. The use of m-learning doesn’t seem to be learner driven i.e. they are not asking for their learning to be delivered in this format. The drive behind it seems to be that people have mobile devices with them most of the time, so let’s put their courses/modules on there. Matt

  11. I agree, Matt, that we should leverage this device that people have attached to their hips! I’m wondering though if courses/modules are the way to go. Indeed, learners are not asking for content to be delivered in this format – until they need it. This tells me pull rather than push is the way to go.

  12. Don’t you think that smartphone learning is just perfect for ‘by heart’ learning, like vocabulary for a foreign language? It’s not a course anymore, but maybe the only learning to be done on mobile.Then necessary focus may be an issue in order to memorize the content, but that should be overruled by practice & repetition, where the smartphone should be of great help.

  13. Yes Aupire, smartphones are great for “by heart” learning such as foreign language vocab. When I went to Germany recently, I found Google Translate invaluable for decyphering signs and menus, while audio lessons were useful for listening to the correct pronunciations. In both cases, I was pulling the learning as and when I needed it, and refering back to it when I needed it again or wanted to test my recall.

    Please check out my previous blog post, “Something all learning pro’s should do” http://wp.me/pf1R0-26E :0)

  14. Some valid points here Ryan. Informal, pull, and performance support should be the key themes.

    I just wanted to touch on the elearning-mlearning graphic you’ve included. In my view, with the almost limitless affordances that mobiles bring, what you can do with mobiles in Learning & Performance Support is far greater than what elearning ever could. Probably a more appropriate graphic would be if we interchanged the two texts – elearning & mlearning. Hope this makes sense.

  15. Interesting thought, Amit.

    My graphic here refers to the coverage of e-learning, of which I consider m-learning a subset. Incidentally, I was careful not to subsume m-learning entirely under e-learning, because of course non-electronic forms of m-learning exist (such as books).

    In terms of the affordances of e-learning vs m-learning, yes, what you suggest makes perfect sense.

  16. Great post Ryan, very useful tips!

    I agree with you that too many designers are choosing to ignore the problems with m-learning, such as the fact that the majority of people will not be spending their free time to work. I think m-learning will have some sort of role to play in the learning process, but it still remains unclear what that exactly will be. Maybe it will only go as far as being a tool to provide important tips to workers while they are on-site, I’m not sure.

    Current studies and polls, such as the Student Mobile Device Survey, are indicating that young students want greater access to their courses through their mobile devices. Perhaps the m-learning explosion is still to come.

  17. Misinformed, a lack of planning and misguided. Follow this advice and you will go broke! Or is this a joke? If not, it is more a reflection of a very poor attitude and unsubstantiated assertions based on problems that could easily have been averted.

  18. Hi Liam. What specifically don’t you agree with? My informal first philosophy? Or my suggestion to create the one course for desktops and laptops and tablets?

  19. Ryan, the questions you should ask are: What could you have done differently to create a successful M-learning program that meets the needs of the audiance I am creating it for? Do they need or want a mobile solution? What equipment will they use or will you provide them to use? How will I market it them and why will they use it? Is the content compulsary or optional?
    Every one of your so called “secrets” is nothing more than an feable excuse for poor performance. 1. “Most people” (how many and what demographic are making such a generalisation?) wan’t training after business hours (Have you been on another planet?) As of 2010, the US had 20.3 million students in higher education, roughly 5.7% of the total population.[5] About 14.6 million of these students were enrolled full-time.[6] Millions of students work part-time and study and millions study full-time and work part-time. To suggest that they don’t /won’t train outside normal business hours is outragiously rediculous.
    “Secret” 2. This is incredible – Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and every other major mobile phone company must have it all wrong. Again the generalisation is both arrogant and false.
    “Secret” 3. Tell that to the Billions of users around the world and yes you will get a laugh. Silly statements often make us all laugh when their is a tinge of truth in them. I often long for the good old days when it might take 2-3 days to get back to someone on a land line. I use to love the telephone box, in part because I am a Doctor Who fan but also because I remember the excitement of being away from Parents and being free to say whatever I wanted to without be overheard. But sorry, I digress. “While authoring tools on the market claim to deploy to multiple devices at the click of a button, I didn’t have the time to trial them, nor the budget to buy one, nor the inclination to learn it, nor the naivety to believe it anyway.” you confuse “naivety” and with arrogant cynicism. AS for Secret 4 and 5 – there are thousands of LMS’s in the world and just because you haven’t found one is not adequate justification for your assertion. Get a new one! Not all smart phones are equal. Yes thanks for stating the obvious. Finally as for your. As for your Tactic’s – “Think informal first” how about we change that to “Put your brain into gear before you put pen to paper” – is that what you refer to as a philosophy? If so then you should enjoy reading the back of your Corn flakes box every morning. As for your conclusions : “If you ask the wrong questions you get wrong answers.” Good luck!
    From beginning to end nothing but whinging dribble. You “tanked” in more ways than you can obviously comprehend.

  20. I surveyed about 100 college students on this issue and the vast majority -82% – responded that they would prefer a laptop over a phone or tablet for mobile learning. However, 42% said they would do a short (15 min) learning activity on a phone, 58% wouldn’t. 17% would do a long learning activity (1 hr+) on a phone, against 83% who wouldn’t.

  21. @R2g What does that tell you about the quality of M-learning that these students have experienced? Where and what did the students study? How old are they? What expirence had they had with mobile learning previously? How often do they use their Mobile phone/ Ipad or Tablet for games activities, emailing, blogging shopping? What are the differences between the 17% group and the 42% that would do 15min? Is that then 59% of students have said they would use either a phone or tablet for mobile learning but 82% have said they would prefer to use a laptop. So what difference does it make if they use their laptop or Mobile or tablet? Is it worth catering for the 17 – 42 % who would use it?
    When online learning first started to be implemented no one would expect every student to be comfortable and the content was often less than it should be. Mobile learning is not a panacia for all training and education programs but it can add significant advantages. Millions of students are using various devices to access their learning. What do these 100 students represent? or What are they a representative sample of?

  22. Sorry for being so blunt Ryan. I’ve read some of your other material and it is infinitely better than this article. In the context of some of your other posts I see some of the points you are trying to make now. Informal Learning is a continuous process and not somewhere I would start when designing the m-learning or e-learning process in an integrated way. Statements like “forget smart phones” in m-learning, to me is akin to saying forget the water when you go to the beach. Ah What? No! No! No! Do I expect every student to use mobiles to access their Learning material? No! Never! The Galaxy, Android, IPhone, Ipad technical issues GRRR! Yes I get it!
    I’ve designed a mobile App for the Vet sector primarily but, it also includes authoring tools and will be applicable across any educational environment and a fully functional LMS that can link with any mobile device and send data files to any other LMS. I wish I could give you a definitive launch date but I’m not doing the coding and am still talking to investors, coders, designers and every other Tom, Dick and Harry about integration issues, file storage, technical issues like those you identify blah, blah, blah the list goes on and on.
    I’ve put in huge hours creating this APP and I guess some of the statements you make in this article were like a red rag to a bull.
    John Feser’s and Clark Quinn’s blogs put some of the remarks in context.
    For me the App is only one component of an integrated delivery model that needs to customised to the students needs and even give them some control over how that integration happens. The Delivery model I’ve implemented with students has involved real world practical projects. I based it on the Work Experience placement program I developed for international students and during that program we assessed students for 8 out of the 18 units they had to complete for their Diploma of Community Service. In reality we found that most of the students had learnt little or nothing from 2 years in the classroom environment and so we had to do more than just Train we had to Teach and include cultural knowledge and personal development plans for each student. Topics included Emotional Intelligence; Personal and Professional Boundaries, Professional Reflection as apposed to personal reflection.
    Joshua Kim outlines some of the challenges well in http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/comparing-itunes-u-ios-app-lms-mobile-apps
    So please don’t tell me to forget the App! I’ve spent every penny I have on designing one to address the types of issues you and Joshua and many others have identified and it’s like climbing a mountain. But there is light at the end of the tunnel and the end result will be a game changer I hope.
    As an Authoring tool Mobile devices all have their different limitation and the I-phone is the easier one to work with in some respects but not in others. The Ipad is a little better but not much better for authoring. It’s still frustrating at times. Joshua suggests “mobile devices really shine .. as devices for curricular content consumption. Should we really be thinking of smart phones and tablets as laptop replacements? If I’m going to create, I want a keyboard. If I’m going to consume all I need is a screen.” From a course design perspective, I agree 100% but I also want the student to be able to author some of their assignments within the app and really interact with the content, not just consume it.
    Every time my 11 yr old duaghter has friends over they take the Iphone and Ipad and create video’s for Youtube. They are like fish to water and problems with technical issues don’t phase them in the least unless they can’t find away around them. The apps they are using are simple template video’s or games and they love the Music apps. Anyway, I did not mean to be offensive but rereading some of my off the cuff remarks they could be taken that way and hence I apologize if they were.

  23. Thanks for your apology, Liam. For the record I don’t mind bluntness, nor do I mind someone having a different point of view. However I do mind personalised attacks. As a blogger I have attracted a few over the years; they’re never pleasant. At least you had the balls to use your real name rather than hide behind a pseudonym.

    Please allow me to clarify my argument in light of your feedback.

    The questions you suggest I ask, I agree with. You will gather at the beginning of my post that I was more-or-less railroaded into creating that course for the smartphone. Yes, I should have done this and I could have done that, but those in a similar position will appreciate the driving force that is business reality. I wasn’t boasting about it, and I accept that it may have sounded so.

    More importantly, I do NOT advise anyone to forget about smartphones for m-learning. I do suggest they forget about them for push training (in the context of online courses), but absolutely not for pull learning. I advise anyone who cares about what I think to host content on a mobile-friendly platform to empower the learner to browse and search it via their device of choice – including a smartphone. An app could be such a platform, though you would need multiple apps for multiple devices.

    I get what you mean about this post being a red rag to a bull. Before I pressed the “publish” button it did occur to me that what I was suggesting may threaten a few business models. But then again, maybe not – I shall explain…

    For a start, your app sounds fantastic. Obviously I’m not exactly sure what it does, but you say “I want the student to be able to author some of their assignments within the app and really interact with the content, not just consume it”. That was my point! If the app were to simply push PowerPoint-like content onto the student, I would expect they would be unlikely to whip open their smartphone and consume it on the bus. If it were engaging content, maybe they would be more likely do so on a tablet.

    Also, my post was written in the context of the corporate sector – and more specifically, the office environment. VET (and higher ed more broadly) is a different environment. Moreover, your students are undertaking a Diploma of Community Service, which from my limited knowledge means that they are going to be out on the road a lot. That is a very different target audience.

    So I am certainly not telling you to forget the app. What I am saying is please take my honest feedback into account. It’s not just idle fantasy; it’s an educated opinion informed by years of experience and conversation with peers.

    So, for example, I would suggest that the app enables the student to interact with the content *in the field*. Perhaps it encourages them to walk around the Cross (to be Sydney-centric, but you know what I mean) and prompts the student to describe their surroundings. If the app then simulates an interaction with a homeless person or with someone who is drug-affected, then it’s done in the context of the work and thus becomes infinitely more meaningful. And if the student could select the scenarios at their discretion rather than have to wade through them in a pre-defined linear manner, then that hands over to them some of the control that you want them to have.

    I am very interested by the authoring aspect of app. I think the potential of user-generated content has remained largely untapped across the board. I’d wager you’re onto a winner there, and I urge you to realise that it is the polar opposite of push training. I’d guess that when the student creates a learning object, the app doesn’t push it onto all the other students; that would be silly and downright ineffective. But if it published to a common platform that allowed the other students to explore and discover, now we’re talking.

    Good luck with it all, Liam, and let me know when it launches.

  24. Thanks Ryan! I’m never afraid of admitting I may have made a mistake. You did manage to provoke a response and I assure you, I don’t often respond to random posts with such remarks without fully investigating the context and background of the author. I made false assumptions that you were just another US Education guru telling us that we don’t need M-learning and it really got up my goat. With a title of “Provocateur” and broad generalisations you are going to attract some to respond in-kind.

    Perhaps a title of “The Dirty Tricks of corporate push training and M-learning” would have been more appropriate.”

    Here are some other questions. You say m-learning is “a subset of e-learning” so would you also say e-learning is a subset of education? Your example of the Communication technician in the burbs, as you described, I would not call m-learning. That’s what I would call reading a guide book on your mobile. However, if he/she had been recently employed and was still in the induction phase, learning new tasks and was being guided by an instructor via his smart phone and reviewing instruction as required, perhaps even a video demonstration and then completing his/her task, taking a photo of the end result and uploading test results of the system for an assessor to confirm, yes, that has been done correctly. Then yes, I’d say that’s M-learning. With process orientated training such as this example Siri or other artificial intelligent tutor programs http://seyyer.com/2013/06/07/avatars/ could become an expert in specialist areas. The content development process for this however, is not as easy to create at the click of our fingers but could greatly enhance the learning experience if done well.

    In the Engender Learning App (ELA) students will be given prompts to upload voice and video content and create their own story from Journal notes, information about their environment and any other source they can access and then share that with other students or publish it for public access not unlike the facebook App but these will be stored in the app itself on their device until they reconnect to the internet at which point there material will be made available.

    In relation to the “one course” idea I think I understand now what you’re saying and Yes I agree we should not have to create 3, 4 or 5 different versions of the same training program. We should be able to publish one course and have it accessible on multiple devices automatically. The content creation is a where we are on a sharp learning curve as an industry. MOOC projects at Melbourne Uni and in the USA are asking Lecturers to become presenters. Really bad idea, in my view as they are often not good at presenting but as they say themselves they will get better. Lets hope they do. Otherwise we will be subjected Sheldon Cooper style lectures presenting that are not funny.
    In the ELA geographical maps and local area maps will be used for specific locations like the Sydney Zoo, Botanic Gardens, or museums to guide students through these particular locations. Many of these organisation already provide free tours for school students and this will enable them to communicate back to the students school the results of these learning experiences. Each Student group will have the option to follow a predesigned learning tour pathway or create their own and share it with other schools by publishing it.

    This is indeed the opposite of push training which should be called “Policy Processing or promotion” because no learning is actually neccessary or at least not likely to be happening. If a class room of students are not learning is the Teacher really teaching?

    I will stay in touch and perhaps you and some of your blog followers would like to be part of a beta test program for the Engender Learning App.
    “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.”
    ― Daniel J. Boorstin

  25. I’m late to the party but I liked this article a lot.

    I’ve worked in corporate or government training for ages. I think many of your secrets are on target.

    In the increasingly capricious corporate world (one Fortune 500 CEO apocryphally said, “Every two weeks, when you get your check, we’re even”), the employer intrudes enough on the worker’s life. Attempts to shunt training (defined as “learning the employer thinks should happen”) onto my discretionary time carries the suggestion that the employer doesn’t value the learning sufficiently to pay for it.

    Regarding secret 2 (and 3), I think one reason people won’t use their mobile devices for (much) learning is that it’s just too much. Reading 1,000 words on a phone is much more taxing than reading them on a tablet or computer screen; as you point out, interacting while doing so on a phone is a further layer of grief.

    One further thought: “m-learning,” like its sibling “e-learning” and their great-grandparent “computer-based training,” implies that all learning is created equal. There’s a suggestion that whatever skills need to be acquired — and I suspect more often it’s whatever facts need to be assimilated — can be acquired through the phone.

    This is as simplistic as the laptop-based training I attended a while back on typical office software. The course centered around a 140-page workbook which was only digital. So in trying to work through exercises, learners were constantly toggling or resizing in order to shift from workbook to software and back.

    Why? Because printophobia, or a misguided desire to save trees, meant that the training company wasn’t printing workbooks.

    If people don’t typically use their mobile devices for work, at work, why on earth would they use them for work-related learning?

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