The mobile era has definitely arrived. A 2015 Pew Research Center study shows 68% of adults in the U.S. now own a smartphone. That’s an impressive figure, one that reaches far beyond the millennial demographic usually associated with mobile devices. What this means is that, no matter who your learners are, mobile devices are a familiar and intuitive platform for accessing information. Mobile learning is not going away.
Meanwhile, improved HTML5 and responsive designs are helping developers manage the fragmented device landscape and present richer, more compelling media content than ever before.
Given this rich environment, you have to wonder why so many mobile learning experiences are still so mediocre. There are certainly a number of contributing factors, but I suspect the main reason for failure is that training often fails to use mobile tools the way they were designed to be used. A simple port of existing classroom or online content may seem like a straightforward, cost-effective solution, but it’s an approach that passes up on the unique advantages mobile platforms offer. Training that may have worked well in other formats now bores and frustrates learners, leaving training objectives unmet.
Strengths of Mobile Learning
The real disappointment is that mobile learning could do so much more than just match the outcomes of traditional training. In fact, when we leverage the unique affordances of mobile technologies, it actually offers distinct advantages over other forms of training, creating learning experiences that are:
Traditional training generally pulls learners out of the workplace—into either a classroom or virtual learning environment—and attempts to impart all of the information and skills they might need when they go back to work, “just in case.”
But the accessibility of mobile devices makes them ideal platforms for just-in-time learning resources that are targeted at specific on-the-job needs. More than being accessible anytime and anywhere, these learning experiences can be activated at the very moment a learning gap is encountered. And even the basic augmented and virtual reality functions being built for today’s consumer devices suggest powerful new opportunities for learning tools to scaffold work performance.
There seems to be no end to the proliferation of features and apps in smartphones and tablets, yet communication is still the primary function of mobile devices. Strangely, though, most mobile learning is aimed at providing an individual training experience. There is an open opportunity to increase learners’ participation through dialogue, collaboration on projects and problem solving, and engagement with communities of practice.
I think the assumption is technology-mediated learning can’t replace the social interactions that occur in a highly engaged classroom environment, but the fact is that much of our social connections now have a strong digital component. This is especially true for weak-tie relationships that have been linked with increased information-sharing, influence, and creativity.
The creative potential of consumer devices is perhaps best exemplified in smartphones and other mobile devices. It is projected that by the end of 2016, 90 million Americans will be using Instagram to edit and share their own photographs. That’s more than a third of mobile phone users. Other artists are shooting professional-quality videos using their smartphones. Mobile devices have become a critical tool for drafting documents, collaborating on revisions, developing slide decks, and sending emails.
Traditional training focuses on the information, experience, and resources an instructor or lesson can offer, but mobile learning unlocks the possibility of reaching much more complex learning goals related to creativity and skill performance. More than a task to complete, training can become an opportunity for learners to construct meaning and develop their own identity.
Mobile devices are integrated into our daily lives more than any other tool. They wake us in the morning, play music and podcasts during our commute, and are essential workplace tools. A classroom or computer can’t stay with your learners, but their mobile devices are never out of reach.
Your learners are already using these tools to set appointments, make lists, track fitness goals, and more. Consider how training could be using these features to help learners integrate new knowledge and skills through setting goals, tracking and reporting performance, conducting self assessments, receiving reminders, and asking questions. Mobile tools can play a critical role in transforming training events into an open-ended, ongoing cycle of learning.
Clearly mobile isn’t the ideal solution in every case. Just because a communications or learning technology is new, doesn’t mean it’s suited to every learning goal. And just because mobile devices are easy for learners to access doesn’t mean that an effective mobile learning program can be built without effort and expertise. But if, after thoughtfully assessing your needs and assumptions, you want your training to be more situated, more social, more creative, and more sustained, a well-designed mobile solution definitely has something to offer.