Friday, February 01, 2008

Wherefore art thou M-learning?

M-learning may as well mean missing-learning – it’s is an elusive beast. The problem is that people don’t really seem to understand what they want to do with these devices. Then they don’t know how to handle the ‘fragmented market’ problem – loads of devices with different screen sizes, memory, java issues etc. Everyone may have one but they're all different.

The advantages are clear
Personal, portable, playable

Massive market saturation – everyone of all ages and genders have one (52% of mobile game playing is female)

Open platform – anyone can develop a JME (Java Micro Edition) application and you’re not locked into licensing agreements – just make one and distribute

THE convergent device – mobile swallows everything; voice, texting, MMS, MP3 player, radio and now GPS

Digital distribution – no box or packaging

Troublesome skews
There are loads of screen resolutions from 128x126 up to 352x416, then different memory sizes and processor speeds. Another problem is that although all have Java (literally a little computer in your phone) they all have different bugs and implementation issues.

Good news
The good news is that only 4 brands of phones make up 75% of the market and with some clever coding (tiling) and screen resolution choices (71% of market has just 4 screen resolutions) you can cover most of them if you know what you’re doing . The trick is to have code that is easy to port. If you really want to know what to do on these devices try Affinity Software, Brian Rodway knows more than anyone I know about mobiles and they have a track record in delivering across large numbers of devices.

Video NO, applications YES
One thing seems clear, that video on phones has bombed. Mobile TV has gone nowhere fast. The reason is simple enough. Nass and Reeves did the research at Stanford, and showed that the emotional impact, psychological attention and retention were all substantially reduced on small screens. Don’t do video, do text and graphic applications. Make the applications interactive; a mobile is not a passive, watching video medium. Go for quick, short pieces of standard e-learning, quick retention or assessment quizzes, even paged powerpoint or Java games.


Lars Hyland said...

Donald, I share the frustration here as mobile devices appear to hold a lot of promise for plugging the big gaps in our current learning experiences. Instead of the lumpy event-driven course model that dominates now, a more fluid, intuitive (informal?) flow of support, interaction and collaboration could come to the fore. If only the technology was a little easier to use, more integrated and standardised than at present.

The new multi-touch interfaces and clearer, slightly larger screen sizes will help, but at the end of the day, most corporate employees wander around with two mobiles in their pocket, one personal, one for work. This basic inconvenience puts most people off the idea of engaging with their phone in new ways.

I'd love to get involved with real trials - Brian will know from conversations we've had over the past 2-3 years that I've tried to get a decent sized organisation to take this mode of delivery seriously, with limited success. But the inertia will melt away, I am sure with a younger generation more comfortable with their mobile than email.

May be JME won't be what wins out in the end - with 3G and wireless built in to most new phones, the browser application (with Flash?) may work best, allowing scalability across numerous types of device - mobile phone, internet tablet, PC/Mac/OLPC etc...

I can but dream...see my post from December 2007 on a mobile theme.


Damien DeBarra said...

Not sure about that at all Donald. I've been merrily enjoying video on my iPhone since I got it and find many of the ITunesU offerings to be highly educational and lasting. I have to say that I shudder at the thought of having to work my way through some kind of courseware on a mobile - yuck.

Michael Hanley said...

I believe that part of the resistance to a broader take-up of m-learning is plain old content formatting. Given that we still have to jump through any number of hoops to ensure content is delivered as specified in different browsers on the Windows platform (never mind MacOS, Linux etc.) is it any wonder that training and content providers are reticent about developing courseware for the range of what Douglas Adams called "Personal Electronic Things"? Associated issues include designing UIs that work on 2x1 inch screens, bandwidth considerations, interoperability, tracking learner usage, providing and measuring tests, and so on.
So there's all that, and the fact that I have yet to see any really engaging m-learning materials.

Mark said...


I think the problem is summed up in the picture you include with this post. Its a bunch of devices. I think we've started from this hardware perspective instead of an experience perspective (how do you take a picture of a pile of experiences?). As an anthropologist and an optimist, I always kind of believe that if people want to/need to learn away from their desktops/laptops...then they probably are already finding some way of doing that and maybe one way to proceed is to seek out those things that people are already doing and optimize those for learning objectives. The starting point though must be the user experience...these aren't little laptops...people regard phones as intensely personal devices and i think that this more than functionality colors how and what people want to do on their devices.


Unknown said...

Hi Donald,

You've set out some points that strike a real chord with me. I'm a Brighton-based technology writer for and predicted big things for mlearning in 2008 - but am struggling to spot any signs of the anticipated breakthrough.

If you get notification of this comment, I'd love to get in touch with you to see if your views have shifted since February. You can reach me via email here:

Mike Sharples said...

There have been many breakthroughs in learning with mobile technologies: schools where children are using tablets and PDAs to support their studies; the OOKL system that enables children to create their own rich media experience of a museum visit that they can share back in the classroom; WildKnowledge that suports field trips. But these start from real learning needs, not devices, and they are based on learners as creators as well as consumers of content.

meldet said...

Thanks for an interesting post and some good comments too. In Australia the use of mobile phones in education has been trialled in Vocational education and training for a few years with some success. Used for short sharp interactions or to gather evidence for assessment mainly. One device called the QTImplayer is used to upload assessment tasks onto a PDA or smartphone and used in the field by the trainer who can add video, image or recordings to the file and then send as an integrated file directly to the educational student management system. I agree too that there is a barrier with some people over using their phone as an education tool. Also the quite high cost of phone plans is a barrier
thanks for a great blog site - very interesting