In my last post I briefly mentioned my skepticism about the demand for mobile learning in the workplace. We in the learning industry talk about it a lot in conferences, and blog about it, but relatively few of us are doing anything substantial with mobile learning “on the ground.” I renew my contentions that providing device-agnostic content, not to mention evaluating it, is tricky on the small screen of a smartphone, and costly in a world where companies are not always providing all staff with handheld devices.
But it seems that I am wrong, because a little research shows that, while industry seems not to be broadly leveraging mobile technologies to enhance its own training and educational programs, it’s partnering rather successfully with governments to address issues related to migration, youth education, and other topics of concern.
In December 2011, UNESCO conducted a Symposium on Mobile Learning, where “officials from Ministries of Education, international experts and practitioners in mobile learning, as well as representatives from major partners in the field ... [shared] innovative ways of learning with, and through, mobile technologies, and of using them to achieve the Education for All goals and improve the quality of education." In the developing world, where sustained electricity, let alone internet connectivity, is unreliable, the number of cell phone users has increased exponentially. According to the World Wide Web Foundation, 90% of the world population has access to a mobile telephone device*, with over five billion subscribers. And Morgan Stanley Research estimates that, worldwide, mobile internet users will surpass desktop internet users by 2014.
*Access may not constitute ownership or subscription.
Worldwide, countries are leveraging mobile technology to increase literacy rates, enhance learning with more engaging content, or even to overhaul their educational systems. A few examples:
- South Korea has a plan to convert all of its elementary education materials from print to digital by 2015. The government plans to invest $2.4 billion in computers, smartphones and tablets to deliver the entire school-age curriculum.
- In the Philippines, almost 57,000 5th and 6th grade public school students are using 3G-enabled mobile devices to access learning aids in math, science and English.
- A pilot program in Pakistan involves sending SMS messages to learners in order to improve their reading and writing skills.
- Children in Senegal benefit from an interactive whiteboard program called CyberSmart Africa, which runs on a solar-powered battery, making technology accessible to large groups of students – even in schools without electricity.
- Argentina, in conjunction with Stanford University, is implementing the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE), an application that allows students to create, answer and rank multiple choice questions via mobile phone, which can then be monitored and followed up by the teacher.
So the good news is that innovative solutions are out there, and are, to some extent, being put into the hands of those who most need them. But why isn’t business capitalizing on these solutions?
A few thoughts:
- Necessity is the mother of invention. If you live and work in a country that has reliable internet service, a desktop on every desk-top, and an educated, tech-savvy workforce, you don’t need to think outside the box. It’s already easy to disseminate basic information, and training initiatives can be reliably and economically delivered via intranet, Wiki, Electronic Performance Support Systems like Robohelp, YouTube, and so on. There are more effective ways of reaching people than by mobile phone. Note that the iPad and other tablet devices may change the playing field, but for now, these devices are still not widely available enough to count on to deliver corporate information.
- Return on Investment. Here my inner cynic rears its ugly head. A technology firm would be wise to support initiatives in developing countries that would ultimately increase its market share in the global economy. For example, a tech company that supports a government initiative requiring the purchase of mobile devices for use in schools stands to profit twice: once with the initial sale of the technology, and again when a better educated, more productive workforce has disposable income to spend on future technology. Not to mention that, by supporting such government initiatives, they indirectly support the development of infrastructure that could create a more sustainable environment for public consumption of their products (e.g. reliable electricity production, broad internet access, etc.).
Conversely, return on investment in training is challenging for companies to measure. While many acknowledge the value of human resource development, few companies are prepared to analyze ROI on an asset as “fuzzy” as a well-trained employee. For more information on evaluating ROI, check out my colleague Barbara’s informative post: More on Re-evaluating Evaluation – Jack Phillips and ROI.
- Resistance to change. An age-old phenomenon, we all resist change. We know what to expect from a training program comprising a few web-based level-setting tutorials, followed by detailed instructor-led training, perhaps with a database of reference information thrown in for good measure. It’s a risk to try something new: say, short snippets of learning delivered via mobile app to people’s smartphones. We have a tendency to stick with what we know.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to keep resisting. The future is here, and if we hope to remain competitive we need to stay nimble and embrace technology. If you don’t believe it, I humbly submit the following:
- Marc Andreesen, millionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of Netscape, informs us that “software is eating the world.”
- David Kirkpatrick, in an article for Forbes claims that Now Every Company Is a Software Company.
- Clive Thompson blogs about Coding for the Masses.
- And Venkatesh Rao, also for Forbes, contemplates GitHub and the Democratization of Programming.
This requires a bit of a paradigm shift for those of us who consider ourselves, first and foremost, instructional designers as opposed to IT gurus. Indeed, I write this with a tiny seed of dread that I’m dutifully trying to quash in favor of optimism about our glorious utopian technological future, that is, before the machines rise up against us.
To quote the Alien in Gilligan’s Island: The Musical, “CHAAAANGE YOUR WAYS OR YOU ARE DOOOOOMED! (THAT IS ALL!)”
Fortunately, as technology advances, so do the tools that ease its use by "the rest of us." In my next blog I'll discuss some of the challenges related to mobile learning development, and suggest some solutions.
In the meantime, line your hat with tin foil and keep an eye out for UFOs.