When Mobility Meets Learning

Here Are Questions to Ask Before Considering Whether To ‘Go Mobile’ No matter where we are, we are surrounded by people who are connected. Some are talking on the phone, while others are checking e-mail, tweeting or text messaging. No matter their age, gender, national identity or socio-economic status, being connected is clearly an expectation of life as we know it today. As consumers embrace each new development on the mobile network, equipment and services fronts with growing enthusiasm, the value of deploying these same mobile networks, equipment and service in support of learning, training and performance support is increasingly obvious and self-evident. The growth of mobile phone subscribers is a worldwide phenomenon. Last year, the International Telecommunications Union estimated approximately 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions in 2009, up from 1 billion in 2002.With the Earth’s current population of approximately 6.8 billion people, this suggests that more than 60 percent of the world’s population is carrying a cell phone! ComScore, Inc. recently reported on key trends in the U.S.mobile phone industry for October 2009 to January 2010. During this period, 234 million Americans were mobile subscribers. It noted that 42.7 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones, up 18 percent from the previous three months. The Apple iPad release has been described by various mobile industry pundits as a revolution waiting to happen. The promise of finding the sweet spot for computing power, connectivity and ease of use has re-sparked interest in, and possibilities for, tablet computing. Colin Gibbs recently noted that, from a mobile developer’s point of view, the iPad’s 9.7-inch touch navigation screen simply can’t be duplicated in the world of phones. Some have suggested that the iPad’s use of the iPhone’s operating system promises to extend that experience to tablet form. And because
iPad runs the iPhone OS, it automatically opens the App Store’s 140,000 offerings to a brand new medium, giving developers a fantastic opportunity to draw attention to their titles on Apple’s App Store shelves. SLOW LEARNING ADAPTATION However, the reality of mobile learning adoption has been slower than anticipated. There are a number of legitimate reasons for these delays: >> The complexity of the technological infrastructure required to achieve a meaningful level of consumer and enterprise adoption has certainly contributed to the problem. >> Network robustness has been uneven, and the availability of broadband network capacity continues to be variable in many parts of the world (including parts of the U.S.). >> The lack of necessary processing capabilities available in most hand-held, portable digital devices such as telephones, smartphones and game consoles has constrained the quality of the digital experience each of these devices can provide. >> The lack of content aimed specifically at the learning communities had made it harder for organizations interested in trying a mobile learning solution to give it a shot — at least not without making significant investments in efforts that may or may not offer any significant returns. Nevertheless, the promise of personalized learning experiences at one’s fingertips have motivated learning professionals to look beyond the limitations and liabilities and focus on the unique affordances that mobility enables. This “looking beyond the limitations” approach is what Clayton Christianse would call the sign of a “disruptive innovation”— an innovation that may not work very well in its early adoptions but eventually completely transforms life as we know it. The primary reason that mobile learning continues to be so attractive is because the more mobile we become as a society, the more we need our information and performance support resources to follow us wherever we go.Mobility is now being seen as a solution for responding to the on demand learning needs of connected citizens in an information-centric world. And it is being demanded by people on the go. ENTERPRISE MOBILITY In order for mobility to deliver on its promises, mobility must be a part of a comprehensive enterprise strategy built on a foundation of business success metrics. But in its current form, enterprise mobility represents a strategic conundrum for many companies, agencies and institutions looking to support the needs of its distributed stakeholders. Technologies needed for enterprise mobility include wireless networks,mobile
applications, middleware, devices, and security and management software. The technologies involved in supporting enterprise mobility are complex. For instance, there is confusion over which wireless networks need to support specific kinds of enterprise mobility needs, particularly when considering relatively new technologies like WiMAX and 802.11n. Enterprises also want to know the pros, cons and development issues associated with various wireless network options (WLAN, public wi-fi, WiMAX, EVDO, 3G, 4G, etc.). Along with increased interest in new types of mobile applications, there are corresponding concerns about who should have access to them and how to cost-effectively deploy and maintain these applications. Network requirements represent one of the crucial domains that must be considered. Equally as confusing is the wide array of devices with which users can connect to the wireless network(s).Many IT executives are confused about which mobile devices to support, which mobile platforms to use, and how to address changing requirements associated with the evolution of mobile devices. The range of devices and platform options becomes even more varied as employees bring personal mobile devices to work, further blurring the lines between personal and corporate activities. And all these decisions have an impact on the security of corporate information. Additionally, current high-speed cellular services are still not providing universal coverage in most markets. The cost of base stations keeps the cost-per-byte on these networks high. The fact that mobile users must still manually choose a network (AT&T? Verizon? Sprint?) that will provide adequate coverage and speed complicates matters. Clearly, the current technology environment must continue to mature to attain the level of reliability needed to ensure that connections truly are available. The relatively good news for learning professionals is that mobile technologies provide the means to the end rather than the end, thus making the selection of these various moving pieces a more focused pursuit. Instead of worrying about network attributes, learning professionals worry about engaging experience.Mobile learning needs to be as rich and vivid—as immediate, direct and engaging to our senses as possible. Kevin Mullet has noted that the closer we are to the action, the more authentic the experience will seem, encouraging far more user engagement. In the often hands-free and eyes-free environments where mobile learning is most appropriate for just-in-time learning support, complicated key controls and difficult-to-read screen presentations will be tolerated only under certain very limited conditions. For broad and long-term mobile adoption, the experience really does matter. A rich mobile Web experience includes the following attributes: >> Ubiquity: How widely available is the media player that will be required to see the application on the device display? (Note to non-techie readers: This is why the Apple-Adobe Systems standoff over Flash on iPhones and iPads is an important development for all of us who want full access to resources available on the Internet.) >> Access: How widely available is the wireless network that will distribute the mobile content? (The recent Verizon “map” campaign forced AT&T to respond with its 3G penetration campaign, making all of us subscribers a lot smarter about network speeds, feeds and services). >> Richness: Do pages load quickly? Do animations play smoothly and seamlessly? Does the streaming media (media that is consumed while it is being delivered) flow at a sufficiently rapid rate? >> Efficiency: How fast will the application load and play? >> Flexibility:Will the application be viewable on a variety of devices? Can content designed for one kind of device or operating system be played on other devices with some expectation of comparable quality? >> Security: Is the interactive mobile device protected from worms and viruses? Is the shared content protected from being intercepted by unintended recipients? >> Reliability:Will content be displayed consistently, regardless of the browser, device and screen size? >> Interactivity: Does the application allow users to interact freely with the content? THE FIRST STEPS Because mobile telephones are already ingrained in today’s social practice, mobile learning is the anticipated “next big thing” in technology-mediated learning. Unlike
most other technologies used to support enterprise learning, there is very little extra effort required to get people to adopt user friendly mobile technologies such as iPods, mobile phones and e-book readers. Giving people more things to do with these devices to which they are already attached and with which they are already reasonably competent promises to jump-start the rate of mobile learning adoption. And the more that people depend upon the convenience of their phones and portable storage devices, the more they are wondering what else could be done with these connected applications, if only there were a little more power, a little more screen real estate, a few more productivity tools. The question may not be whether to look for opportunities to try a mobile learning initiative, but when it’s actually time to “go mobile.”When thinking about adding mobile services to your enterprise’s learning technology portfolio, it is useful to give some serious thought to why a mobile learning initiative makes sense. Without establishing a baseline for assessing and evaluating the costs relative to outcomes, the likelihood of being able to demonstrate value and impact will be compromised. Ask yourself these questions: 1) Why amobile learning project? What is it that amobile learning project will allow you to do that you could not do before? 2) What do you really want to do? Is the fascination with something new and different? Are there people in the field who won’t have the resources they need without a mobile learning solution? Are you simply curious, and just want to see what happens? 3) How you know when you have met your goal? How will you know if your mobile initiative made a difference? 4) What unique result do you want your mobile learning effort to achieve? 5) What technologies do you need to get started? What devices will you support? What network will you use? What carrier will you choose? Will you establish strict selection policies, or will you try to integrate everyone’s devices regardless of operating system? 6) For whom is your mobile initiative intended? Will it be for everyone, or will you focus more on the needs of traveling staff, or will it be aimed more at remote, distributed and field based personnel? 7) What will your stakeholders need to be successful? Will they know what is expected?Will they need training or orientation sessions? 8) How are you going to fund it? How are you going to sustain it, and for how long? 9) How will you evaluate your effectiveness? What will you tell your sponsoring executives when you go back for next year’s budget request and they ask you to justify your program? A BRIGHT FUTURE Although mobile learning certainly brings its own unique challenges, the good news
is that many of the antecedents of mobile learning have prepared learning technology stakeholders for the journey ahead. With online learning and e-learning, we’ve discovered how to extend the boundaries of the enterprise and the institution. We’ve found ways to take advantage of connectivity, connections and content- distribution capabilities to give learners alternatives for pursuing their professional development ambitions via online courses and programs. Learning objects helped us consider ways that we could disaggregate courses to use content elements as components. We’ve accepted the premise that modularity makes it easier to update outdated or inaccurate sections of a major work. We’ve seen great possibilities for customization and personalization of learning experiences. In some quarters, mobile wireless devices are described as “tools of mass disruption” that are going to help spark a period of innovation for learning technology stakeholders of all kinds. While these devices may not yet be completely ubiquitous, reliable or rich, it is already clear that mobility is changing life as we know it. Our challenge as learning professionals is to make mobile learning so compelling that stakeholders continue to see possibilities, not problems. —Ellen Wagner is a partner and senior analyst for Sage Road Solutions, LLC (www.sageroadsolutions.com), where she is responsible for industry intelligence and enablement services. She is also executive director of WCET (www.wcet.info) and a vice president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. She is the former senior director of worldwide elearning, Adobe Systems, Inc. and was senior director of worldwide education solutions for Macromedia, Inc.

Leave a reply