Mobile E-learning on the Brink

Mobile E-learning on the Brink

Only Technology is Holding Back the Absolute Explosion of M-Learning

Technology analysts predict that, by the end of this year, 2.6 billion mobile phones will be in use. That immense popularity is laying the foundation for mobile learning.

Back in 2001, Brandon-Hall Research published a report titled “How to Determine Your Readiness for Mobile E-Learning.” The introduction noted: “With their level of functionality increasing, mobile devices are now entering the world of e-learning. Because mobile e-learning is so new, we are only beginning to see the potential of mobile devices in training and performance support.”

Eight years later, hand-held devices are everywhere, and mobile learning is going mainstream. New mobile learning initiatives are popping up almost daily.

For instance, the Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET), for instance, describes itself as “the biggest and most diverse implementation of mobile learning in the UK, and probably the world.” Results have been encouraging, with teachers involved in 32 projects reporting that mobile learning has helped their students in 73 percent of the cases reported. Only 2 percent said that mobile learning did not contribute to learning.

A New Paradigm

A number of business factors are influencing how mobile learning is being adopted in the workplace, including the fact that the workforce itself has become more mobile in the last decade. Training opportunities in the office or those requiring classroom facilities are becoming less frequent, and staff members often have little time for formal training or e-learning that requires a computer and an Internet connection. Mobile learning allows businesses to provide training to mobile staff members and to distribute materials quickly. It also is a way to use short periods of time when a staff member is waiting or traveling.

“More and more, I’m seeing people walk around with smaller netbooks like those made by Acer that cost as little as $299,” observes Rajeev Arora, vice president of marketing and strategy for Elluminate. “They are fairly full-pledged PCs based on low-power processors that last for several hours, about the size of a hardcover book. You can do pretty much anything you want on these things.”

RJ Jacquez, senior product evangelist for e-learning at Adobe, asks two pertinent questions. “Should mobile learning follow the path of computer learning today, whereby the institution sets up the structure and defines the content? Or is mobile learning meant to be something very different?”

The ability of learners to upload information to Web-based tools, interact with the tools using mobile Internet, integrate Web 2.0 services, and share mobile learning resources using digital mobile devices can facilitate the construction of a “mobile, social ecology” surrounding a mobile learner. This connected network can support the learner’s preferred learning styles, sources and settings, and parallels the way in which knowledge today is distributed across networks of individuals, not held in the mind of one.

Many Websites either support integration with, or are completely designed for, integration with mobile devices — particularly mobile phones. For example, a well-known Web 2.0 tool, Flickr, provides a site for users to upload photographs directly from mobile phones, complete with text annotations and even geospatial data, identifying the exact location at which the image was taken. This geospatial data can be used by any “mobile” learner to access images relating to particular locations and contexts. Peers, mentors, teachers and professionals in an area of learning can create informal groups in Flickr, and can add comments to each other’s entries to support and guide the construction of knowledge.

“We’ve got to go beyond stationary learning and into mobile learning and create course material and resources for today’s worker,” says Elluminate’s Arora. “Otherwise, we pigeonhole ourselves. If workers can consume training resources wherever they are, training will be more relevant and workers will be more liable to consume whatever we create.”

He cites the example of an auto servicing technician who may encounter a problem for which he does not have an answer. So, from the service bay, he dials the home office and accesses a schematic that tells him exactly what he needs to know to finish the job.

“What I call ‘just-in-time training’ is needed for a lot of different corporations,” says Arora. “Your brain can only hold so much, so if you’re connected to the ‘mothership,’ you can get answers to questions and problems.”

Technological Change

One challenge surrounding online learning is rapid technological change. This is especially true with mobile learning. Mobile devices, like computers, quickly become outdated and are then replaced. “Smart” phones, PDAs and netbooks cannot yet mimic all the features of full-sized desktop PCs or even laptop computers. But the emphasis is on the word “yet”; most experts agree that it’s just a matter of time.

According to the Brandon-Hall research, mobile phone companies are finally seeing cell phones as miniature Web-enabled computers in people’s pockets rather than as portable telephones. Smart phone sales are soaring while sales of personal digital assistants (PDAs) without phone capabilities remain static. The key difference is conductivity.

“The biggest challenges exist in content authoring and development tools, platforms, and ever-changing commercial devices,” says Adobe’s Jacquez. “One of the main questions we have to answer is, How do you sort of communicate in a small-screen real estate what typically gets communicated in a browser and fully functional computer?

“Every device and phone vendor has different specifications. People have to adjust to the size of the screen, to make that migration from big screen to small device.”

Other Challenges

Mobile learning, or m-learning, has not evolved for every circumstance.
“Deploying learning on mobile phones and media players is best used in a complementary role where video or audio is used to reinforce learning or as pre-requisite material, says Ted Cocheu of Altus Learning. “RSS feeds can be a simple way to feed materials for small mobile devices.”

The other challenge is a lack of simulation and lack of interactivity, according to Jacquez. “Most mobile content is very passive — demonstrations as opposed to simulations. It’s a limitation today, and end-users will have to live with it for a period of time. E-learning professionals will have to adjust in the way they approach e-learning for mobile users.”

The Market

According to a report from Ambient Insight (, despite the current financial crisis, the U.S. market for mobile learning products and services is growing at a five-year compound annual growth rate of 21.7 percent. Revenues reached $538 million in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available.

“In the last 12 months all the major educational publishers have launched mobile content,” notes the Ambient Insight report. “There has also been an explosion of new technology products being launched by the leading learning technology suppliers. Now that the major players are on board, the tipping point has been reached. Yet the demand is so large, and the barriers-to-entry so low, that new suppliers are entering the market at a steady pace.”

Here are other trends that the report identifies:

>> Private equity and venture capital investment surged in the 2006-2008 period, accelerating the release of new products.
>> All the major education publishers are now selling content in mobile formats and porting new content at an accelerated rate.
>> The “off-deck” retail sales distribution channel for mobile learning has increased significantly in the last two years with Apple, RIM, Google, Nintendo, and Amazon altering the competitive landscape.
>> The renewed demand for ebooks is a catalyst accelerating the demand for educational ebooks.
>> Hand-held Decision Support is the top-selling content type, followed by mobile edugames and health-related titles.
>> Custom content services are in high demand throughout the forecast period.
>> Tools, installed platforms, and SaaS platforms were very scarce two years ago, but there are now dozens of new technology products on the market.


If e-learning is in its infancy, then m-learning is in its embryonic stage. Depending on the ability of suppliers to keep technology fresh, and depending on the ability of learning professionals to formulate strategies that promote m-learning, the sky is the limit.


“All mobile strategies embed assumptions about technology evolution, so it’s important to identify the technologies that will evolve quickly in the lifespan of each strategy,” says Nick Jones, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “[These] technologies will have broad effects and, as such, are likely to pose issues to be addressed by short-term strategies and policies.”

1) Bluetooth 3.0 will likely include features such as ultra-low-power mode that will enable new devices, such as peripherals and sensors, and new applications, such as health monitoring. It is intended to support three bearers: “classic” Bluetooth, wi-fi and ultrawideband (UWB).

2) Mobile User Interfaces (UIs) have a major effect on device usability and supportability. They will also be an area of intense competition in 2009 and 2010, with manufacturers using UIs to differentiate their handsets and platforms. New and more-diverse UIs will complicate the development and support of business-to-employee (B2E) and business-to-consumer (B2C) applications.

3) Location Sensing will make location a key component of contextual applications in the future. Location sensing will also enhance systems, such as mobile presence and mobile social networking, but exploiting it may create new privacy and security challenges.

4) 802.11n boosts wi-fi data rates to between 100 Mbps and 300 Mbps, and the multiple-input, multiple-output technology used by 802.11n offers the potential for better coverage in some situations. 802.11n is likely to be a long-lived standard that will define wi-fi performance for several years.

5) Display Technologies will include active pixel displays, passive displays and pico projectors. Pico projectors enable new mobile use cases (for example, instant presentations projected on a desktop to display information in a brief, face-to-face sales meeting). Good off-axis viewing will enable images and information to be shared more easily.

6) Mobile Web is emerging as a low-cost way to deliver simple mobile applications to a range of devices. It has some limitations that will not be addressed by 2010 (for example, there will be no universal standards for browser access to handset services, such as the camera or GPS). However, the mobile Web offers a compelling total cost of ownership (TCO) advantage over thick-client applications.

7) Cellular Broadband with high-speed downlink packet access and high-speed uplink packet access, combined with attractive pricing from cellular operators. The performance of high-speed packet access (HSPA) provides adequate connectivity to replace wi-fi “hot spots.”

8) Near Field Communication (NFC) provides a simple and secure way for handsets to communicate over distances of a centimeter or two. NFC is emerging as a leading standard for applications such as mobile payment, with successful trials conducted in several countries.


Gartner, Inc. has identified eight mobile technologies that will evolve significantly through 2010, impacting short-term mobile strategies and policies.

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