mLearning Round Table
Matt, Raf and Brenton discuss the considerations and unique characteristics of mLearning in our first eLearning round table conversation.
“People are still trying to just replicate eLearning on a mobile device and not looking at mLearning as a completely new kettle of fish…
Actually I like the term ball game, can I replace kettle of fish with ball game?”
Is mLearning simply eLearning on a mobile phone?
Raf Not really. I think when you move into that different environment there is a lot of considerations that need to go into the design of the end product. I think that is why one of the biggest traps a lot of organisations fall into is assuming that eLearning becomes mLearning just because it is played on a different device that is mobile. I don’t think that is the case. You might be doing some eLearning on a mobile phone that could be detrimental to the experience. mLearning is something specifically designed for a purpose and that purpose is to be a consumable; outside of the traditional environment where learning isn’t done on the fly.
What makes a good piece of mLearning?
Raf The biggest one would be ease of use. If you’re outside of that traditional environment where you’ve got time to sit down and consume something; the biggest thing you can give a learner is to make that learning as easy to access as possible. You know they’re going to have distractions and working on a device that potentially isn’t ideal. They may literally be on the move. You have to take these things into consideration and provide them with the easiest experience possible.
What design considerations need to go into creating good mLearning?
Brenton Design-wise, mLearning and traditional eLearning are two completely different things. It’s a problem we see with using an iPad for courses that were designed for computer. You start to see big issues just in the interface. For instance, there are activities in standard desktop eLearning that have an indication when you hover over something that it is clickable. That completely goes out the window of mLearning. Buttons, margins, drop downs, any activity has to be rethought when designing for touch screen, a different style of input or a different device.
Are there similarities between the two?
Brenton It’s all learning! The instructional element of the course doesn’t change all that much, apart from taking into environmental considerations, as Raf mentioned. The content remains much the same, it is just the way in how it is presented, the activities the user is faced with and how they complete it.
Raf I think the overall approach to designing is the same. If you’re designing a piece of eLearning or mLearning you’re still going to go through the same stages, you’ve just got different considerations that drive the end solution. I guess in that way there isn’t a clear-cut line in the sand between mLearning and eLearning, it just comes about organically after considering what the user is going to be doing, what they need and where they will be consuming it. You will end up with different motivations for how something is going to be designed and laid out. So there isn’t really a clear line in the sand between eLearning and mLearning.
Depending on what they are doing; if you had to design for a learner who would be completing a course on an iPad while on a plane, a request I’ve had in the past, it would probably be blurring that line between mLearning and eLearning. It is in a fixed environment and there is dedicated time towards it, so at that point it goes back to what Brenton was talking about; interface and interaction. It is an interesting space from that perspective.
Matt I think there are other design considerations that you can make as well. There are things you can do with mobile that you can’t do with desktops. So when there is talk about mLearning, it is often about things you can’t do with mobile that you can with desktop; for example, as Brenton mentioned, like hovering and screen real estate. A lot of blogs I see say “you can’t do this with mobile learning” and they will often talk about mLearning as eLearning lite; a diet version of eLearning.
But mobiles can do a lot of things that most desktops can’t do, or be impractical to do with a desktop. A really great thing about mobiles is that you carry them everywhere! You can have location-based training, depending on the branch you go into it could prompt you. You could use bluetooth or iBeacons and learn about different parts of a building as a part of an induction. You could get notifications when you go into certain spaces. If you go into the cafeteria for the first time, it would bring up the ordering process for you; so you’re learning it right there and then, when you actually need to know that. Maybe it could even sense that you’re wiggling around because you need to go to the toilet; it could prompt you and says “the toilets are this way!”.
But on a more serious note, if you’re working in a big university or campus, you don’t want to sit down and learn where all the different things are. You’ll forget all of it. But if you have an app that prompts you when walk around the campus saying “you can check out this and do this”. That’s really cool.
Augmented reality is another really cool one. It’s really impractical to use the webcam on your laptop and move it around everywhere, trying to peer around and look at it; you can’t do it. But with mobile learning, it is really fantastic. If you’re in a dinosaur museum, you could hold up your phone and it could show you the skin of the dinosaur or point out cool things about it. In a workplace, it could show you parts of a machinery you should or shouldn’t touch and give you instructions there.
Then there is virtual reality. When you think about things like Google Cardboard, where you stick your phone into a cardboard box and stick it in your head, that’s a really lightweight VR solution. There is social learning as well, where you can make mLearning apps for social learning. It is something that I think has a lot more benefit when compared to desktop because you have your mobile with you. You could be more inclined to talk to someone when you’re on the train to work, rather than being at work where you may be too busy to have a social conversation about something you are learning.
There is user-generated content as well. You might want to get a case study from a customer or interview a colleague. Phones are really good for that as well; there are apps that can collect all of that information. These are apps on mobile phones that I don’t think everyone has really utilised or thought about and people really should be thinking about them. 99.9% of people in workplaces will have a smartphone. That stat is completely made up but it is probably pretty accurate. I think cost is a big obstacle but if you are smart about how you make it and use it, you can get some really good solutions.
Brenton You know that people have this whole suite of sensors. With a desktop, you know someone will have a monitor, a mouse and a keyboard, but that’s it. But with a phone you know that they will have a front and rear-facing camera, accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, Bluetooth; all of these things that you can access which open up a lot of possibilities.
With technology shifting to mobile devices, how does that affect the learning we create?
Raf All of a sudden learning can be different. The design can be different, it really can be accessed anywhere, the style changes and it can be very location-based as Matt mentioned. For safety purposes, you can imagine going around a warehouse and into safety areas. Your device can let you know and tell you to do some training so you know exactly where to walk and what to do. I think the biggest shift, and one that is a barrier for a lot of organisations, is that learning becomes so much more on demand and less structured. Organisations tend to see eLearning as very structured; you will do training on this day, then this day, then this will happen. That is thrown out the window with location-based learning. The training could happen all in one day for one learner, and over a period of a week for another, all depending on what stage they access different areas of the workplace.
It begins to become much more on demand and responsive to learner’s needs. From a reporting perspective, it is much less structured. Organisations can be so hung up on structure and reporting that they may not be willing to adopt a full on mobile strategy. So the shift from a technology perspective is happening quite quickly, but in a holistic view that transition is very slow. People are still trying to just replicate eLearning on a mobile device and not looking at mLearning as a completely new kettle of fish… Actually I like the term ball game, can I replace kettle of fish with ball game?
Raf Excellent. It is a whole new ball game.
Matt This won’t be edited at all. That statement is going to be the feature quote.
Notifications and distractions are something that really need to be considered. When designing eLearning you have to consider that people may stop it and come back to it later; but in a 10-15 minute piece of eLearning people might only leave once or twice because they received a phone call. They might even do it while talking on the phone. But in mobile learning, you’re doing it on your actual phone. If your phone rings or if you are getting text messages or if you get a retweet, the learner might think ‘Oh! I might just jump into that’.
You need to design something that is sticky; something engaging that the learner will really want to go back to. This is especially important in mLearning. Giving people a sense of progress is important too, they need to know exactly where they are, particularly if they might leave the course at any time. They could be interrupted with a two hour phone call and come back later; the learner needs to know exactly where they are and what they have done. Phones are always distracting us, that is the whole purpose of a phone now.
Does this affect the length of an mLearning course?
Brenton Because of that distraction factor, you should break things up more. I could be in the middle of doing something I need to do on my phone, but as soon as I get a call or a notification, I could be gone for 20 minutes. You have to break things up to capture people’s attention, even if it is just for a minute or two at a time.
Raf Absolutely. In standard eLearning you can probably assume that the last 7 minutes of what you have communicated to the learner will be fresh in their minds. With mLearning and all of the distractions, this needs to be picked up and dropped easily without relying on their short-term memory recall. Otherwise someone could pick it back up and have no idea where they are in the learning.
Are there any other considerations?
Brenton Delivery is very important too. eLearning is traditionally delivered through an LMS or a weblink, but delivering something on a phone suddenly becomes very different. You could give someone an app package on an iPhone that they can’t load. There needs to be thought around if it can run well, or if it runs at all.
Raf With eLearning on a desktop, bandwidth and drop outs are really not something you consider, but in a mobile environment it becomes a part of the equation. If a learner was to complete this in a remote location with a 3G connection, or even something weaker, the learning would have to be quite light. There could be less reliance on videos, images might be taken out completely. The location and environment impact is massive. For instance, Google Maps will change its background colour depending on the time of day so it is easier to see at night. This technique could be applied to learners who are completing training during a night shift. If learners are completing the training in a dimmer environment, you need to accommodate for it. All of a sudden you have multiple considerations you need to take into account.
Matt Just touching on delivery, a lot of LMSs have an app that eLearning can run through, so that can kind of solve that problem. But the discussion around native or web-based stuff is interesting. You’ll always get a much better experience with native, but that relies on everyone having the same phone. So unless a company has corporate iPhones or a certain type of android device, it would require a massive budget for a company to design for all Windows, Apple and android. The advantage mLearning has is that it is really new. If done well, the first piece of mLearning a company gives to its learners will create a whole heap of excitement and buzz. This means users down the track will be more likely to adopt mLearning and not show the sort of resistance you can see toward eLearning.
Raf It will be interesting to see if there becomes a point where traditional desktop eLearning is overtaken by mLearning. At home, there are people who don’t even have a desktop, but might have one, two or three devices like iPads and tablets, because that is the sort of device that they need. For them, a mouse could be a more alien device than what a tablet would be for a traditional desktop user. Accessing information on a desktop could become more foreign to them compared to using a smartphone or a tablet. I think this is what is really pushing mLearning and it is exciting. More and more organisations will have to think about this because it is becoming the more intuitive way to provide learning.
Does that mean mLearning will be the death of eLearning?
Raf It is more of an evolution of eLearning. At the end of the day, eLearning is electronic learning. This will still be electronic learning, it is just an evolution. For the moment, mLearning and eLearning are categorised so we can easily distinguish between the two. Moving forward, it will all become learning.
Matt mLearning is really a sub-category of eLearning. At the end of the day, it is all the same.
Brenton I think it more speaks to the death of the desktop, rather than the death of eLearning. The desktop is becoming more rare to people, and compared to a tablet, a mouse will be a foreign to a lot of people. I think the tool set needs to improve drastically before we see the death of desktop eLearning. The two options are to design eLearning with the tools we already use, or to design an app. I think there needs to be some middle ground where you could publish out an app that was very native and fluid that could use many sensors of the device.
What is your favourite example of mLearning?
Brenton Duolingo, for me, is perfect. It takes advantage of a suite of sensors that comes with smartphones. Duolingo picks up what you speak into the microphone and can tell you if you’re pronouncing words correctly. It has a fantastic rewards system and it is delivered in 2-3 minute chunks. You can use it once a day and just integrate it into your daily routine. Suddenly, you’re on your way to learning another language. The interface is beautiful and really easy to get around, too. I think it is genius.
Matt While brain training apps have been proven not to help you become more intelligent or any of the things they claim to do, but instead improve your skill of completing brain training, some of the apps have some fantastic interactions. They are often quite well designed and eLearning designers can learn a lot from the way they use gestures and interact with those things. Google’s marketing app Primer is really well designed too. It is really simple and not overcomplicated. It is largely text-based and not too flashy, but it really well made.
Raf I’m not at the point of having a favourite yet. Nothing has really blown me away. I’ve seen good desktop apps transferred to mobile, but I’ve not seen anything where I’ve thought to myself, this is amazing and has really been designed with every mobile aspect in mind. I’m still waiting. Plenty of desktop apps that have been adapted for mobile, sure, but nothing that has me talking about it.
Brenton I think that is a problem with the eLearning industry in general; often we see Powerpoint slides simply copied into Storyline. It is the same problem. It comes from people not having a good enough idea of what good training is.
On the flipside, what is the worst example of mLearning you’ve seen?
Raf [Laughs nervously]
I’ll probably put a lot of noses out of joint, but I think there is a lot of cheering and back-patting when they create solutions that are responsive; that work on multiple devices. I think it shows a lack of understanding about what eLearning is compared to mLearning. It is one of Captivate’s features, that if you design it once it is all the same and will work on any device. Same principle as Adapt. For me, it is frustrating because it is focussing solely on technology and not on the actual structure and content of the course.
If it was originally designed for desktop, the user should be able to commit to it for a decent chunk of time, they have less distractions, the interactions could be richer and so forth. That doesn’t directly translate to mobile. That is what I find most challenging; the assumption of eLearning to mLearning is purely a technological transition. It’s not. It is a methodology, a way of thinking, a design transition.
Brenton I’ve seen apps designed for desktop shrunk down to fit mobile on a mobile screen, without any consideration on how it would be used on a smaller device.
Matt I’ve not really seen too many examples of mLearning, but I’d like to touch on companion apps. A lot of companies will give employees a massive bunch of information to learn and expect them to remember it and this often occurs at the beginning of a new employee’s time. Everything is crammed into one session, then the employee is sent out to work and not a single piece of information is used ever again.
If you instead completed some face-to-face training, along with some eLearning and then had a companion app that could prompt you at any time. It could quiz you and ask you different questions at various times. This is something universities should be doing. Companion apps could match the planned lessons; a couple of days after a lecture the companion app could prompt you with a few questions about what you had just learned. A few days before a test, it could ask you some questions. This could be used in the corporate environment too.
Touching on what Brenton was speaking about the suite of senses, manual data entry could be used really well too. I have an app on my phone called Reporter and it measures anything I want to measure. Our phones already measure our steps and how far we walk and things like that. By asking us questions like how we are feeling, or if we have had a coffee in the last hour, data can be compiled over weeks and months to understand what makes us feel more productive. We can be presented with all of this information in graphs and stats. In a corporate environment, we can look at these stats to help improve processes and productivity. I could see that if I have enough sleep I will feel happier, or I could feel sadder every time I’m near Brenton. This could be used to measure how people are feeling throughout training courses too, and alter courses according to that information.
Raf On that, blended learning is a big topic at the moment. But blended learning is usually different formats of learning, one thing after another. By using that example, you can use a facilitated session where the participants could use their phones to indicate their comfort around a topic. By looking at that data, the facilitator could make decisions during the course to talk about a topic people aren’t 100% sure about. Alternatively, they could move through topics more quickly if the audience indicates they are already familiar with a certain topic. You then have a blended solution by using mobiles to influence live face-to-face training sessions.
Matt Many conferences also use things like Twitter to allow participants to ask questions using a certain hashtag. Even during political debates, you can see the worm going up and down, reacting purely to a live audience. Using mobiles to interact during a presentation or a session is a really good application of mLearning.
In summary, mLearning has the potential to really make an imprint on the eLearning landscape. But for that to occur, the mentality toward mobile learning needs to change. This is not just a technology shift, the thinking and design that goes into courses needs to change. Many considerations need to be made for an effective, engaging mLearning piece to be created. In other words, it’s a whole new kettle of fish ball game.