Mobile Learning in 2014

Clark Quinn is a long-time advocate of the use of mobile technologies to support learning efforts. He’s also been a very public presence in trying to help the learning and development community (and anyone else who cares to listen to the conversation) that the BEST use of mobile phones is NOT eLearning. He has written and spoken numerous times on this topic. I responded to his recent post with this comment:

How did the name “mLearning” even get started? I agree with you 100% – the best use of the Smartphone is as a support tool. It seems, then, that the appropriate nickname is mSupport or mResource rather than mLearning. Phones are awesome “find and locate” tools that can help you research something on the spot – something you may not necessarily need to remember after you’ve located what you need, used it in the moment, and then moved on.

My comment was actually a lot longer than the above, but in essence, I noted that our challenge is that the term mLearning has become very entrenched (look at the name of the mLearn Conference), but I believe it is the wrong term. When the L&D community talks about the “mLearning” trend, we’re talking about a trend that is just… not.

But phones are EVERYWHERE! What do I mean?

Yes, mobile devices are prolific. A recent Pew report indicates a whopping 91% of us now own a mobile phone. Everywhere you look you see people on their phones – in restaurants, shopping malls, airports, sporting events, cars (cringe). People are ON THEIR PHONES. But…according to our own industry reports, they are not on their phones doing eLearning courses. Only 1.39% of the 2013 ASTD State of the Industry report respondents indicate they used mobile as a distribution method. ASTD’s reports run a year behind (e.g. their 2013 report relies on 2012 data), but if we are generous and assume a 100% increase in the use of mobile we are still way under 5% of respondents indicating they are using mobile devices as a distribution strategy for delivering learning solutions (okay – ASTD don’t call use the term learning solutions, they use the term training).

What ARE they doing with them?

According to a 2013 report published by Harvard Business Review, our largest usage of the phone is for “me” time (46% or 846 minutes of our time in a month) and “social interactions” (19% of our time or 410 minutes per month). The use of our phone for “discovery” or learning new information is only 4%, which translated to 47 minutes.  Here’s what each of the buckets included:

  • “Me” time included playing a game, checking out “gossipy” websites, or watching a funny video online.
  • “Social” time meant interacting with other people. I assume this would be via Facebook or Twitter but it wasn’t specified the way “me” time was.
  • Discovery time included seeking news and information.

What should L&D practicioners make of this?

I suggest these things:

  • Stop trying to use mobile technology to mimic what you have done via other technologies. We do this ALL the time. When video came out, we shot videos of people talking to mimic the live instructor lecturing to a class. When virtual worlds came out, we held virtual events and did virtual PowerPoint presentations – something we used to do live. When eLearning first came out, we put text onto a screen, slapped an image in, and had people click NEXT to continue.
  • Start paying attention to how people actually LIKE to use their phones. Consider whether there is something of value you can do that resonates with what people like to do. Ripe opportunities include mobile games that actually help people learn something while they play or  videos that people may enjoy while learning  something. Some are trying to create. Another opportunity to consider exploiting is the creation of podcasts or audio books.
  • Consider how to nurture and enable people to use online social communities for learning. People like using their phones for social interactions. Help people become proficient with social tools – and let them explore ON THEIR OWN rather than trying to figure out how to track “informal learning.” (If you are tracking it….it is NOT informal.)

Food for thought

I brainstormed a list of things that I think make a mobile phone a powerful and/or unique tool from other things we have available. Your job is to figure out what this means for the phone’s potential as a support tool to people in the workplace:

Phones are powerful and/or unique because…

  • …of their near constant presence. If we don’t have the phone in our hand already, it’s in our pocket, purse, or beside us.
  • …they keep us continually connected to the Internet and give us access to billions of bits of information at any moment in time.
  • …we focus on them very, very frequently, but in short bursts of time (60 seconds to a few minutes).
  • …the information we find on them is “in-the-moment” information rather than information we want to retain for long periods of time.
  • …if we DO want to retain the information over time, we push it to a repository on the phone (e.g. our Contacts or apps such as Evernote that allow us to document/store information we can retrieve later.) We don’t attempt to remember – we know we can find/locate later.
  • …we bookmark things we find valuable and we search out apps that support things we care about. I have a Fitbit app on my phone as well as a Grocery List app that I use constantly.
  • ….we like apps – but we only use a very few of them routinely. Most apps purchased are used for 10 days or left and then trashed or forgotten.
  • …we use our phones to play – quite a bit. Mobile gaming is exploding and some games have a high, high addiction rate (Angry Birds was a huge phenomenon a few years ago. Candy Crush was the big winner in 2013.)
  • …we prefer to watch stuff on them than to read on them. Videos are much easier to consume on a phone than large amounts of text are. Audio books and podcasts are wonderful to listen to while exercising, walking, or doing other mundane tasks that don’t pull our brain’s attention away.
  • …we like to create content with our phones. Snapchat has skyrocketed in popularity in recent months as people take pictures of themselves, attach a line of commentary and send to a friend. The message is gone as soon as the recipient views it. Twitter has found its greatest potential in partnering with television. It’s discovered that people like to treat TV watching as a live large group event where commentary flies via Twitter as the TV show or live event unfolds.

So… while people are currently talking about “mLearning”, to me it is the trend that’s NOT happening. The trend that COULD be happening if we think strategically and creatively is ‘mSupport.’ Perhaps true mLearning can come (I do love my audio books and podcasts and I learn from them), but I don’t think it will be something the masses employ or enjoy.