Thursday, January 26, 2012

M-learning – be careful – a 7 point primer

Warning – market’s a mess
Anyone who says cross-platform, m-learning content development and delivery is easy, is lying. A wander round the Learning Technologies exhibition induced a rash of promises that were at best economical with the truth. Mobile leaning vendors seem addicted to the word ‘YES’ in answer to any question. It ain’t that simple. Walk into any mobile shop, such as Carphone Warehouse and witness a fragmented market. Latency, bandwidth, screen size, methods of display, methods of input and the lack of universally adopted or agreed standards – that’s your technical environment. A quick glance will reveal iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Symbian and Palm. It’s all a bit of a mess. So be careful about what’s phones are promised.
Learning limits
Early research on mobile learning showed something that is conveniently ignored by mobile learning evangelists. Attention and retention may be seriously affected by small screen size. Few watch movies, read entire e-books or perform long pieces of linear learning on their mobiles.More worrying is research by Nass & Reeves that shows that retention falls rapidly with screen size. This pushes m-learning towards performance support, recording performance and collaborative learning, rather than courses. So be careful about what type of learning you want to deliver.
Technical complexities
Most serious developers use a tool that creates core code then cross-compiles to create native apps across a range of platforms. This is not easy as these things are difficult to write but the apps will be fast. A variation is to use a VM (Virtual Machine) which may be a bit slower but gives you control and flexibility. Or, more commonly, they will create web applications as browsers increasingly cope with worldwide standards such as HTML 5, Javascript and CSS 3. So be sure that you understand the means of mobile production as it will affect speed and options.
Content complexity
How complex will your content be? The three letter word ‘app’ covers everything from a simple text feed to complex geo-location, camera integrated applications with serious internal logic, interactivity, games and media manipulation. This is not easy in web apps, so be clear about the exact functionality of the apps you want to deliver. You may end up with some very limited options.
Managing through LMS/VLE
You have to consider whether you want integration with your LMS/VLE such as Moodle, Totara or Blackboard? M-learning isolated from your LMS/VLE may be difficult to justify and participation in the LMS/VLE functionality may be desirable. Do you want SCORM compliance?
Performance portal
Do you want the device to control and record performance in more ‘learn by doing’ or vocational applications? This evidence may need to be fed into an e-portfolio. Do you want to use the camera or GPS as part of the learning experience?
Collaborative learning
Is collaborative learning required? Do you want to integrate social media into your app? Or does the device already do this through their normal phone activity?
Take these seven issues seriously and you’re in a position to make a serious decision about whether you want to enter the m-learning market. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is now happening and would encourage participation. But you have to think context as well as content. Mobile learning may be more suited to some target audiences than others, younger not older, mobile not static, vocational not academic. Go into this with your eyes wide open or mobile will simply mean they take your money and run.


Andy Tedd said...

Hi Don

Having now completed the research into future VLE for BU I have to say I am very skeptical about mobile as a platform for delivering large chunks of content. The students just didn't seem that bothered about it and said they would use their laptop or computer if they had serious work to do. They love the idea of recorded lectures - but on a proper screen please (tablet penetration is very low).

They were very keen on the promise of apps or proper mobile websites on mobile devices to make the bogs and boilers side of university life easier - timetables, maps, is there a hot desk or collaborative space free etc etc

But beyond a couple of minute youtube 'how to' video (I can see applications for this kind of content in corporate life, but its not why you go to uni, hopefully...) I think there are a lot of people getting excited over what is likely to be a development nightmare.

When people sit down and properly think about the limitations of the device AND its huge benefits - context due to being location aware - then we may see more exciting stuff.

But for now a lot of it is 'elearning on a phone'...

Donald Clark said...

Couldn't agree more Andy. I was trying to inject a dose of realism having heard a lot of hyped sales talk from bright young things at LT. Can't blame them but structured e-learning content is not how I learn on the move. Hence my previous post.

John Curran said...

I agree wholeheartedly that m-learning is much easier to talk about than to actually do. Clearly the enormous range of mobile devices presents a challenge but the context is also important - when would you choose to learn something on a mobile device rather than on something with a decent sized screen? Clearly the trend with m-learning is shorter chunks of content but sometimes these are so short that it's hard to call them learning at all.

However mobile devices could perform a useful role as 'learning companions' directing learners to activities (social and content based). Online learning works best using a combined 'push' and 'pull' approach. I recently downloaded iTunes U and am reviewing an Open University course and this uses the mobile device really well.

One final small story. A senior exec at a client recently tasked us with ensuring that all the online learning content we were developing would work on an iPad. When I pressed him a bit more on his 'new' requirement it turned out he doesn't have an iPad or indeed any intention of buying one. He just instinctively knew it was the future. That I guess that is the trouble with shiny new gadgets from Apple.

Anonymous said...

Loved your blog post Donald - as one of the exhibitors on the other side of the conversation, I actually had a number of L&D professional visit our stand to ask categorically if we could provide all our content via mobile, that their new strategy was learning via mobile devices as the very best way to deliver online learning. Many would engage in a conversation around context and where mobile has strengths (such as revision and job aids, push updates to fast changing topics, course alerts, podcasts and short video case studies etc) and where it's weaknesses lie (screen size and visual comfort, limitations in interactivity, integration issues etc).

As a conversation starter, the buzz around mobile actually helped kick start some richer conversations around the nature in which people learn and how learning best integrates into working life. So online learning becomes a way in which you can support people along a learning journey, both by the quality of the learning path and the resources provided to engage with a topic, but also by the choices in delivery mechanism that increase engagement. So although there is most certainly hype, the topic itself highlights the importance of learning design.

However, I remember one conversation in particular - When explaining that our view is that mobile needs to be considered in the learning mix and has certain limitations as well as some useful applications as a learning aid, to be used judiciously as part of a learning path.

To this the response was that all their research suggested desktop and laptop based learning would be dead within 3 years, tablets not practical and if we could not support mobile only versions of complete course content then our view was categorically wrong.

I did offer him some chocolate in order to diffuse the situation, don't know if it helped, but i certainly felt better :-)

Donald Clark said...

Every time something new arises you get Taliban type responses. Your measured approach seems sensible. I'm a fan of mobile learning but to ignore context is to ignore real learners and learning.

Jinen Dedhia said...

Don, i really enjoyed reading your post and the issues highlighted by you. Being one of the mLearning vendors in India since half a decade, we have seen the mLearning experience from not-so-rich Java phones and to the days of Smart phones and ofcourse tabs.

Just for the readers, I am adding what has worked for our customers below.

a. Contextual videos shared with segmented audiences
b. Making the content more relative before being shared with the users.
c. We made our customers choose only particular OS (Blackberry, iOS and Android) to give them a seamless experience.
d. Internal thoughts from organisation (successful peers get a chance to share their learnings with others)

Hope it helps,