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Micah Fairchild Mobile Learning Explained and Positioned

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 By Micah Fairchild

Game Changer or Just More Games: The Truth About M-Learning

We all know that we don't use our desktops and laptops in the same way we use our mobile devices. By their very nature mobile devices are not tethered, can be used anytime and anywhere, and their use revolves around context and need. You wouldn't use your Smartphone to create pivot tables would you? But need to find a restaurant close by? Well then, there's an app for that. Logically then, it makes sense that any opportunity for learning that takes place on a mobile device is going to be quite different than the learning possibilities a stationary office setting might bring.

It should come as no surprise that the newest kid on the block for Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS) is m-learning (short for "mobile" learning), and it should also come as no surprise that it's not really all that "new"—with the first research studies being done back in 1995. Still, even at a company like Oracle, their Human Capital Management blog lists m-learning as "THE hot topic of 2011 in the training world". So, it would stand to reason that this is a topic that still vexes even the most stalwart information company.

M-learning Defined

For starters, mobile learning is just the latest in a series of technology advances designed to reach learners from outside the normal office structure. More specifically, m-learning refers to a modality of content dissemination via portable devices like PDAs, Tablet PCs, e-books, and smart phones. In the ether that is the modern learning workplace, these mobile devices must support synchronous communication using voice, VOIP or instant messaging as well as asynchronous communication via email, weblogs, web forums, wikis, and virtual learning environments. As m-learning has evolved it has come to be perceptually opposed to e-learning which has been the focus of the learning and development community for the better part of two decades, and for many still creates confusion.

E-Learning & M-Learning: Content vs. Context

Generally speaking, e-learning exists to get a person ready for an upcoming need through content, focusing in on the key learning objectives of comprehending the material and retaining that information for a later date. M-learning on the other hand is available when the need actually arises and has the key objectives of ease and access—driving any needed learning through context and in real-time. Because of this context/need differential, m-learning content has to satisfy an incredibly broad range of tasks by effectively leveraging portability, connectivity, location /contextual awareness, and performance-point proximity, all while delivering content in easy-to-swallow bites. This is a solution that works for many applications, but not all, cautions Sage Road Solutions Partner and Senior Analyst Ellen Wagner in an analyst briefing with Intrepid Learning. "It's really important to remember that digital technologies [like m-learning] don't do the learning—people do".

Still, even as traditional classroom-based and e-learning facilitation remain somewhat productive in our 24/7 access world, it's becoming clear that the ability to provide digestible chunks of practical learning by way of mobile device is a proposition that forward-thinking organizations need to look to. Gartner's research, in their publication Watchlist: Continuing Changes in the Nature of Work, 2010-2020, points to several reasons that a change is in the learning "air", including changes to work routines, increased volatility, a hyperconnectedness among people and workers, "swarming" and more. "In addition, simulation, visualization, and unification technologies…[]…will demand an emphasis on new perceptual skills," remarks VP and Gartner fellow Tom Austin. Much like the practices of mobile customer relationship management, to achieve strategic goals, companies are going to have to look outside standard practices to find out what works, whether that be mobile CRM or informal staff development initiatives like m-learning.

A recent Forrester report, Informal Methods Challenge Corporate Learning, supports Gartner's stance. In it, Research Analyst Claire Schooley identifies three trends that have aided in the acceleration of these learning practices– 1) information overload, 2) demand for immediate access to information, and 3) the habits of Millennials. Indeed, by 2020 Millennials will account for 50% of all employees, and because technology and media are an inherent part of this new generation of learners, a shift will be required toward the use of dynamic learning to access and engage these learners more appropriately. "Learners today want to get things done fast," says Certpoint CEO Ara Ohanian. "They're impatient and disregard whatever doesn't meet their needs." M-learning is one of the best ways to offer fast, flexible, real-time, and on-demand support. "Learning and development professionals have to recognize this, harness it and move on to the next generation of learning at work," says Ohanian.

The Mobile Market

In a survey released this past January by Kelton Research, 90% of IT Managers polled (250 U.S. and UK companies with $100M+ revenues) indicated they would be positioning new mobile apps this year; 2/3 of which say they'll be pushing 5 or more apps, with 21% opting for mobile deployments of 20 apps or more. Add to that the fact that 5.3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide exist, and predictions are being made that smartphone sales will take over feature phone sales this year; and there can be no doubt that mobile devices are now an integral part of our everyday. A 2011 survey by IDC furthered this belief by detailing the expansion of the "consumerization gap", citing that the personal desire to use mobile devices in the workplace is outpacing IT professionals' ability to build and secure systems for these types of applications.

This advent and apocryphal rise of mobile technology would seem to be a boon for strategically developing employees. From micro courses to mobile videos, m-books to mobile games, and mobile apps to augmented reality, there seems to be no end in sight to the possibilities m-learning offers. Tony Bingham, CEO of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), even remarks, "[anytime] learning [can be made to be] more dynamic and timely, relevant, and easier to consume, the organization benefits by having a workforce that is smart, skilled, responsive, and ready to succeed in a highly competitive global economy." That responsiveness in turn yields definite return-on-investment (ROI), but the question is how would your organization actually wind up using it?

There's An App For That

For one thing, it should be noted that at no point should m-learning be used as a panacea for all that ails your organization in terms of development. An overall learning strategy should always be used, incorporating m-learning where appropriate—especially for mobile positions like sales, field workers, and traveling executives. For example, a hallmark study among Columbia University and IBM uncovered the result that employees were using mobile devices for two reasons: in-field performance support from colleagues and access to the latest company information. That discovery aided them in crafting what the rest of their learning strategy would be. Likewise, you'll need to determine what content is necessary for your workforce and how it needs to be provided. For instance:

  • bite-sized learning is highly interactive and best suited to modified e-learning strategies like compliance certifications or policy/procedure issues
  • blended learning uses mobile apps as just one learning channel of many and is best suited for value-added content delivery like podcasts that accompany some other synchronous component
  • collaborative learning is a tap-in to communities like Twitter and Facebook in order to promote collaboration and peer-to-peer development and is also extremely useful for organizational wikis
  • just-in-time learning is focused on performance support and uses apps like checklists and reference materials as a way to support workers exactly when needed
  • access learning is focused on brief news bites designed to keep employees up-to-date on organizational issues

By understanding who your audience will be and what their needs are, you can choose to have content optimized for their mobile devices or opt for a browser neutral SaaS model from any number of vendors. Still, while the positives and possibilities for m-learning are apparent, there are still some drawbacks to consider before moving full-steam ahead. Namely, until learning apps are more readily available, an early-stage technology curve will be present. Further, multiple platforms, multiple technical frameworks, and the need for native apps will likely slow down progress in this medium. Companies are developing the applications necessary to utilize the true potential, but many vendors (especially at the enterprise level) lack focus due to trying to place m-learning into an already present Learning Management Systesms (LMS) or Performance Management Systems (PMS) without understanding the true dynamic nature of the medium. Regardless, your mobile strategy should include options for new developments and possible front or middle LMS integration in the future.

Mobile Learning Bottom-Line

Bottom-line, m-learning may well be the latest greatest tool on the block, but it is just one of many utensils that need to be deployed to get the most out of developing a workforce. Much like the solutions needed to tackle any number of the myriad other problems organizations face, learning diversification is a pretty solid strategy. If you ever find yourself doubting that, remember what Abraham Maslow said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." End

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Forrester reports three trends that have aided in the acceleration of learning practices—information overload, demand for immediate access to information, and the habits of Millennials. Indeed, by 2020 Millennials will account for 50% of all employees, and because technology and media are an inherent part of this new generation of learners, a shift will be required toward the use of dynamic learning to access and engage these learners more appropriately.


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