Muddling Through Mobile

dreamstime_xs_52738328Slowly but steadily, mobile learning seems to be a part of our learning landscape.  Over the last seven years, I’ve formed a strong opinion that mobile learning will eventually be a game-changer in our industry.  If you have a smartphone-equipped audience, then I do urge you to look at how you can add it to your learning delivery channels.  Not only can it really transform your delivery of formal learning, increasingly I’m realising how it can also be a critical enabling factor for both social and informal learning.

But I also know that we are still at that point in time when the technology options are numerous and the application of mobile learning can take many different forms.  I can quite understand if you’re hesitating to make your first moves in this area.  With every wave of new learning technology, it can take a while for things to settle down.  So how can we make sense of the current mobile learning muddle?

What is it?

First of all, it’s helpful to think about what you’re looking for when it comes to mobile learning?

Personally, I don’t think you should limit yourself to just making e-learning courses available on a mobile device, although that is a typical first step.  Just be mindful that what was designed for desktop delivery may be lacking when it comes to delivering a great learning experience on other devices.  You only start to realise the real benefits of learning on the move when you look at it as your platform for delivering bursts of micro-learning and – most definitely – performance support assets.

Mobile learning may also draw on other forms of knowledge resources – considered an extension of the corporate intranet – but take care not to overload the user with too much content.  Better to offer a cherry-picked selection – a slimmed down version of the intranet – instead.

And mobile learning will – I predict – become a mainstay part of our social and informal learning ecosystem.  Mobile devices are great for capturing user-generated content and if we are to learn from the Facebook experience, social learning is also a mobile learning experience.

What formats should we use?

This is the one question that has us scratching our heads, often on a case-by-case basis.  Do we develop standalone native apps, e.g. for iOS or Android devices, or do we just develop a single web app, i.e. a mobile website?  And do we try to stick to just one app, or will our learners be happy accessing a variety of different ones?

The number one factor that should enable you to decide on your approach is whether you want people to be able to undertake their mobile learning in an off-line mode.  If yes – and I tend to insist on that criteria myself – then you will be looking at using native apps.  Web apps generally require the user to be online.

But if you want to get started quickly and see the end result just as quickly, then the web app approach can deliver a fast solution.  That said, web apps will generally offer you limited functionality, so if you are looking to create something more sophisticated, with possibly a richer user experience, then you will need to look again at the native app option.

What devices should we use?

If you’ve started with deploying e-learning to mobile devices, then – in all likelihood – your best user experience will come from laptop or tablet use.  But if you extend your scope to include micro-learning and performance support, then this will open up all the other device types to you.  It’s early days, but don’t forget to think about wearables too.

And remember, if you are relying on people using their own devices, make sure they are happy to do this and think about things such as how you might cater for the many different types of device, how you’ll support them and who pays for any data charges incurred.

How will we build it?

You may be fortunate to have an existing e-learning development tool that can handle mobile learning content, but in many cases you will find yourself resorting to trial and error to create content that works on multiple devices.

Look out for the new breed of so-called responsive HTML5 development tools that allow you to design content that adjusts as needed to suit different devices.

You might have access to app developers who can use dedicated app development tools, though this might mean you are wedded to using their expertise all the time.

Increasingly, we are seeing a new generation of mobile learning authoring tools arriving in the market place.  Most have responsive design at their heart, but some offer more variety as to the development approach.

And finally, you may find what you need from the ever-increasing range of generic mobile content portfolios.  Look out for practical performance support apps, as well as providers who offer libraries of mobile-ready, bite-sized micro-learning.

How do they get it?

My experience has shown that this is actually the very first question you should answer.  It doesn’t matter how amazing and award-winning your mobile learning content is, if the learner can’t easily access it.

Do you have your own internal enterprise app store?  And if so, how easy is it for your intended audience to access it, particularly if they are using their own devices?  If you don’t have your own app store, then will you be allowed to use a public app store, such as iTunes or Google Play? And don’t underestimate the hoops you have to go through to have your content approved.  The store content approvers are the judge and jury and your content will need to pass their tests before it can ever see the light of day.

If you’re using web apps, then you might be able to deploy your content via a website or the corporate intranet.

But what about your existing learning management system (LMS)?  Most of these now offer a mobile app or web app service (mLMS) which means you can stream or download e-learning content to a tablet device.  These should also be able to handle a good number of the micro-learning formats, but you might still struggle to deploy other forms of mobile learning in an efficient manner this way.

Over a decade ago, the so-called learning content management system (LCMS) tried to make an impact, but generally failed.  But in a classic case of a technology that was too far ahead of its time, we are now seeing their re-emergence, particularly those that include a content development tool that is able to push content out to a variety of device types.  Similarly, you might want to look out for one of the many mobile learning authoring and deployment systems that are now on the market.

If you are using off-the-shelf content, then you might well be using that vendor’s own app and backend platform to deliver the learning and support materials to your learners’ devices.

And don’t forget to think through how you’ll manage user access to your content.  Single-sign-on may still be a struggle here, so thinking about the confidentially level of your content, alongside other security concerns, will be an important factor.  Will your BYOD users need to install any mobile device management software first?

With all these systems, you will mostly likely have to accept the fact that you will be deploying secondary platforms alongside your existing LMS.  Personally, I determined that this was a necessary evil.  I prioritised responding to learners’ demands for mobile learning over finding that almost illusive perfect technology backbone.

How will we report on it?

As with all learning – and particularly with anything new in the digital learning space – you’ll no doubt want to track uptake.

An LMS or LCMS is mostly likely going to support SCORM, though don’t assume that SCORM courses will report as intended on certain mobile platforms.  You will need to test beforehand.

Increasingly, we should be able to rely more on the still relatively new standard, xAPI (formally known as Tin Can).  I’ve yet to see this being used as first intended, as a way of monitoring anything that looks like training, but I do believe this will be the solution to which we eventually turn to track mobile learning activity, regardless of type or delivery approach and where we just want one source of truth for all learning data.

Getting started

You’ll recall I believe that mobile learning is a game-changer and you might now be wondering why I believe this, given the muddle I’ve just described.

The Mobile Learning Muddle

For me, just recognising we are currently in an imperfect mobile learning world gives me reassurance that it’s OK to start something now.  If my stakeholders acknowledge the same, but place a greater importance in getting something out there now, then we can live with some uncertainty; and factor in review points into our longer term digital learning roadmaps.

So pick a project and use the infographic above to choose your initial approach and get started!

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Muddling Through Mobile

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