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The Pulse of Mobile Learning

A faint pulse today

Most of what is said and written about mobile learning and support touts potential and points to the future. Current studies confirm a faint pulse for mobile in enterprise learning today.

I first noticed this enthusiasm-action gap when colleague Jim Marshall and I surveyed workplace learning professionals about their learning technology practices. To our surprise, even in this professionally active sample, only 4% said they were using mobile to deliver learning and support in their organizations. So low was that number that I confirmed it with several large audiences, including one at a conference devoted to mobile learning. “Are you offering programs that rely on mobile for delivery of learning and support now?” Most were not. Only a very few hands hoisted proudly.

ASTD’s 2011 Annual State of the Industry (SOIR) Report found even punier use of mobile for learning and support. The SOIR reported that respondents now rely on mobile technology for fewer than 1 percent of available learning hours. ASTD’s 2011 Learning in the Palm of Your Hand report identified the same halting progress, accompanied by little action on mobile strategy or investment.

Elliott Masie recently released his mobile study. The Masie team continues in the very same vein:

Interest in delivering learning on mobile devices is high but implementation is in the very early stages of development. Approximately 80% of organizations reported at least a moderate interest in mobile learning. So far that interest has primarily translated into projects to explore and test mobile learning and developing some content designed for mobile devices. At the same time, less than 30% of organizations have an enterprise strategy for mobile learning.

The Masie group pointed to employees as the advocates for mobile learning and support. They note that IT departments are not leading the way and that security looms as the number one concern for potential mobile users.

An Educause study of mobile IT in higher education described unimpressive forward motion. The Educause infographic reveals a group that is waiting for institutional leadership. While 90 percent expect mobile enablement to rise over the next three years, responding IT professionals do not see it as a priority.

The blood does flow

Some mobile initiatives offer hope.

Khan Academy recently announced it will bring its 3600 instructional videos to the iPhone. While this mobile app is only a first try that lacks the the richness that comes from assessment and tracking, it is nothing to sneeze at. Access to learning assets in math and science will be available worldwide on mobile devices for free. Think about that. Think of the benefits, habits and expectations. While some raise questions about the quality of the pedagogy that drives Khan’s programs, I like the increased access to STEM education and that the effort is catalyst for conversations about quality in technology-based learning.

The Worldbank’s number one trend for educational technology in developing countries is tablets. They put it this way: “tablets, tablets, tablets.” One of their other trends affirms how pervasive mobile technology will become. In developing countries, prior technology-based learning programs targeted high school aged youth. Now, programs for countries like Russia, Turkey and Thailand, are shifting their mobile investment to the very young and their parents.

Mobile is coming to workplace learning. People in a position to make mobile programs happen are tuning in to mobile devices for learning and support.  Chief Learning Officers from Dallas Childrens’ Hospital, Comcast, YUM, Time Warner Cable, PWC report that they are moving forward on the opportunity, while cognizant of the risks. Review of their sentiments yields this conclusion about mobile for enterprise learning and support: not there yet, but soon indeed.

Making mobile happen 

I could whomp up a ten step process for how-to-get-started in mobile. Could, but won’t. Useful resources already exist: Judy Brown, Clark Quinn, and David Metcalf are just a few who are contributing. ADL’s Jason Haag places mobile learning in context, reviewing influential ideas and arguing for the ability of mobile devices to deliver on that attractive anywhere, any time promise. Educause’s Rick Oiler wrote of the future possibilities for mobile in higher education. Of course, the elearningguild’s mobile learning conferences are a great place to launch.

Net, net, the only way to do it is to do it. Two suggestions.

1.  Write mobile into your strategy, but not because you want to boost the sale of mobile devices and apps. Do it to advance your strategy, such as:

  • moving resources closer to where they will be needed
  • making it easy for employees to go where they need to go, untethered by a work station
  • using mobile to reiterate, remind and standardize
  • using mobile to think a fresh thought, reach for another opinion or example, seek somebody unexpected or distant
  • capitalizing on mobile to move to blended systems
  • leveraging down time for learning, communion and support
  • boosting career self reliance
  • assuring more and even location based opportunities for coaching, conversation and community
  • encouraging development and reflection that happens all the time, everywhere, every whichaway

2.  Do something, even a small thing.

New programs are making it easier to go mobile, even if you are not an HTML 5 programmer or lack the funds to hire one or many.

Take a look at Yapp, now enjoying a round of seed funding from Kleiner Perkins and others. Yapp makes it easy to create an event app, no fuss, no bother. It won’t be long before that same technology is extended to practices, assessments, checklists and reminders. What of using omnipresent mobile devices to find out what’s going on in the heads of your students? That’s what understoodit.com is all about. John Park recently blogged about alternatives for mobile development. He describes the pros and cons of a continuum of development options: mobile web sites, mobile web apps, hybrid apps and native apps. Finally, Blueprint is favored by Mayra Aixa Villar for its ease of use and library of mobile templates and widgets.

Easiest of all is to incorporate existing apps into established programs, of course. Leader development is an example. We reviewed a dozen mobile apps for leader development. While they aren’t quite ready for prime time, they demonstrate that publishing companies see the possibilities and are moving to enhance leader courses and materials. QR codes, MentorMob, Essaytagger, and I Tell a Story stand at the ready for integration into existing learning and support experiences.

If it helped me, why not your enterprise?

At lunch today, a friend and I shared our reliance on mobile devices for our fitness programs. She likes Garmin; I am using Nike Fuelband. We’re happy with how these small devices have added goals, metrics, transparency, tracking, and community to the nooks and crannies of our lives. Oh, most important of all, we have been pretty darn successful since we turned to mobile to improve our exercise outcomes. Committed to performance improvement for instructors, customer service reps, drivers, auditors, engineers, and first line supervisors? Consider mobile. Why not commence a pilot project now?


More from Allison Rossett about mobile, apps and performance support–



  1. I feel honored that you have referred to one of my posts here. This is a great overview of the current state of mobile learning. Many thanks!

  2. To add to your list of educational endeavors in the field of mobile learning I would like to add the name of WizIQ ( http://www.wiziq.com/mobile/ ). Its app now makes it possible for the students to attend live online class on iPad. It already runs online classes successfully and now with these facility more and more students will be able to get connected with teachers in live online classes where they can interact with the teacher freely.

  3. Perhaps my remarks won’t be the most welcome ones…but I’ve long felt that mobile learning is in some ways a solution in search of a problem.

    It’s probably important for me to mention that I don’t include delivery of learning to tablets in my remarks but to mobile-phone-type devices.

    In some ways I am buoyed that learning professionals have not simply rushed to put currently available titles onto phones in order to satisfy the hype. In some cases I think teams around the world may have resisted their clients by asking them to show value for investment in making this change simply because mobileis the next new thing. If so…bravo!

    Don’t get me wrong, there ARE scenarios for delivery information at the absolute point of need where mobile makes PERFECT sense. In scenarios where mobile learning promotes value creation – let’s, by all means, push forward. In all other scenarios let’s remember that we are about value creation NOT technology promotion.

  4. Brian Heath says:

    Great article Allison. Mobile is definitely not a fad. The technology still makes it difficulut to “author once” and publish for many devices so this is seen as an incremental cost. It also makes the concept of the blend a bit more complicated but as strong performance support rises then you will see amazing learning resources on mobile devices. Mobile is also well positioned to support the other key trend which is “social”. All you need to do is watch Gen Y do Facebook on their iOS or Android phone and you get the picture. Mobile will make learning VERY sticky.

  5. Hey Allison,
    Great post. I think mobile learning has potential, but again, it requires thoughtful planning on behalf of the instructional designer or teacher. Mobile learning can improve access to resources, engage learners through gesture-based movements, and create augmented realities where learning happens real time in the environment you are in (http://majortechnicality.com/learning-2-0-2/mobile-devices-in-the-classroom-to-byot-or-not-to-byot/).

    You bring up some great suggestions about using mobile learning to plan for the future, which is excellent since that seems to be the direction education is headed. Something as simple as creating a mobile site is a good first step to reach employees, customers, and students (http://mwf.ucla.edu/). In my work as an instructional designer, it has been interesting to watch companies hold fast on the idea of training through videos, while rejecting the idea of building an app. Yet, if a team is working on a project, having the app in hand to use as a job aid is much more efficient than going online to watch a video (these of course can be combined – i.e., a job aid with a video).

    I look forward to seeing when the interest in using mobile learning is even with the actual use of mobile learning for training.

  6. Allison, I totally agree with your strategic and tactical approach to starting with mobile learning. There’s no doubt that success depends on a long term outlook and immediate practical experience. And there are very good reasons to start immediately. Although your survey says only 4% are using mobile to deliver learning and support, we know that almost everyone has a mobile phone, a large number of which are smartphones, and people are using them every day to learn and for performance support. In other words, employees are doing it for themselves. The need to start today with mobile learning is urgent otherwise L&D risks being left behind.

  7. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you should write more about this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but usually people don’t discuss these topics. To the next! Kind regards!!


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