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eLearning Blog

Mobile Learning: More than just Mobile + Learning

Mobile learning seems to be creating a lot of excitement in the learning community these days. According to a report published by Ambient Insight Research, the US market for mobile learning products and services reached $958.7 million in 2010. They project that revenues will reach $1.82 billion by 2015.

They cite a “perfect storm” of catalysts that are driving the adoption of mobile learning, including:

  • The increase in number of content distribution channels (such as App stores)
  • Rapid evolution of wireless handheld devices
  • Growing number of mobile learning tools and platforms
  • The sharp increase of new learning content and apps
  • Growing number of buyers and users



So everyone wants mobile learning. But… what is it, exactly? Elliott Masie’s Learning Consortium defines mobile learning quite broadly:

“We define mobile learning… as ‘knowledge in the hand.’ It includes the use of mobile/handheld devices to perform any of the following:

  • Deliver education/learning
  • Foster communications/collaboration
  • Conduct assessments/evaluations
  • Provide access to performance support/knowledge”

And in Defining Mobile Learning, John Traxler posits a mobile learning definition as follows:

“Mobile learning can perhaps be defined as ‘any educational provision where the sole or dominant technologies are handheld or palmtop devices."

But then Traxler points out some of the vagaries of defining mobile learning, (as only an academician can do):

“However, any such definitions and description of mobile learning are perhaps rather technocentric, not very stable and based around a set of hardware devices. Such definitions merely put mobile learning somewhere on e-learning’s spectrum of portability and also perhaps draw attention to its technical limitations rather than promoting its unique pedagogic advantages and characteristics. The uncertainty about whether laptops and tablets deliver mobile learning illustrates the difficulty with this definition.”


Portability: eLearning vs. mLearning

I confess that I’ve been guilty of defining mobile learning in this technocentric way, and as a result have been skeptical of its potential for learning. The small screen size on mobile phones seems limiting. It doesn’t seem very cost-effective for a company to supply devices to their employees to make mobile learning accessible. And speaking of accessibility, there’s the issue of developing “device-agnostic” content to accommodate Android, iPhone, and other platforms. Given the pace of technology’s advances and the fact that developing content is fairly tech-heavy process, it’s easy to get lost in the technology as opposed to the actual learning.

See? Techno-centric!

But instead of focusing on the technology (and its perceived limits), we in the learning community should think about the huge potential of mobile learning to engage the user, and provide “just in time” content in manageable, “bite-sized” packages. Back to John Traxler:

“People use a variety of words to describe the nature of learning when it is mobile. Many of these characteristics are the core of what separates mobile learning [from] e-learning… and these characterize mobile learning as

  • Spontaneous
  • Private
  • Portable
  • Situated [meaning that learning takes place in the same context in which it is applied]
  • Informal
  • Bite-sized
  • Light-weight
  • Context aware”

By focusing on the advantages mobile learning provides, we can begin to think proactively about how to leverage mobile learning strategy to capitalize on these benefits.

Here’s an example:

Eric Tremblay published a study in the Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching [29(2), 217-227. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.] entitled Educating the Mobile Generation – using personal cell phones as audience response systems in post-secondary science teaching. In it, a cell phone-based audience response system (ARS) was used in a science classroom by students as part of the lecture. While this study was conducted in a university environment, I think it’s likely that the results translate to the corporate:

“Survey results show that students who either used or watched others using such a system enjoyed the activity, reported less boredom in class, found the activity made the class more interactive and were more emotionally engaged in the classroom. In addition, the activity was not considered to be a waste of either the students’ time or learning time. From an instructor perspective, the resulting change of pace and the renewed student attention during a lecture was a positive outcome of the cellphone ARS.”

In another example published in Elliott Masie’s 2008 report, Merrill Lynch launched an initiative called GoLearn, which offered three mandated courses via BlackBerry. Over a seven-week period the learning materials were sent to over 2,100 investment bankers and support staff.

“The outcomes exceeded the goals. Higher scores were obtained in half the time. Bankers who completed the training did so in 54 [fewer] minutes and tested higher on the final assessment tests than the remainder of the firm. Mobile users also completed their training twenty days earlier than those who trained via MLU [Merrill Lynch University]…Overall the mobile learners obtained a 12% higher completion rate in 30% less time than the control group.


170 employees responded to a survey indicating:

  • 99% felt the format and presentation supported the learning
  • 100% would complete more training in this format
  • More than 75% praised the benefits of convenience, time management and training with no distractions

The challenge for our industry is to capture these advantages in the constantly shifting world of technology. But it may be that very shift that keeps m-learning so interesting and engaging for users. By focusing on the advantages that mobile learning can provide for learners rather than on the limitations of the technology, we can capitalize on learner engagement inherent in mobile technology to provide learners with the best and most convenient learning tools possible.