The idea of mobile learning has been talked about seriously for only about 20 years, but the dream of using mobile electronic devices to communicate is at least 100 years old. In the past two or three years, there has been a rapid increase in both the visibility and publicity surrounding mobile learning. What is driving this recent surge in interest?
One obvious answer is the explosive growth of mobile phones, particularly smartphones, in recent years. The number of mobile phone subscribers has far outstripped the number of Internet users since the mid-1990s. There are now more than 5 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide (via Ericsson). Eighty-five percent of that growth has come from emerging markets such as Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India and China. In these countries, many people cannot afford a computer, but often they can afford a mobile phone. In North America, it is the dramatic growth of the use of smartphones and tablets that has allowed mobile learning to become widespread.
Another driver for mobile learning is the fact that people are more and more on the move. In 2008, the Economist magazine published a special report on “The New Nomadism.” Because of our increased mobility, people are less likely to want to stay in one place in order to attend school for training in a specific location. With the new possibilities of connectivity to information from wherever we are, there is no need to hang around home base.
This new ability to move using improved transportation systems has led to the creation of entire categories of mobile workers, especially those in field services, and in sales. As well, our ability to move has led to people live at an increased distance from their workplace, making telecommuting very attractive. The shedding of permanent full-time jobs and their replacement by temporary and part-time service jobs that can be done at home or by virtual teams has also increased the attractiveness of learning from any location at any time.
Of course, much as been made of the new generation that is entering the workforce in terms of their intimate knowledge of computers and mobile devices. But I think that this is been overblown as a driver, in that the use of mobile learning needs to make business sense rather than simply catering to the desires of a new set of workers. Yet, there’s no denying that many of us, and all ages, become very attached to our mobile phones and tablets. There’s even a psychiatric condition called “nomophobia” to describe those who become anxious when not in the presence of their mobile phone, or when their batteries run out. The British Post Office has actually done a research study on this condition.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the corporate training audience, there are solid business reasons for the adoption of mobile learning. First, the widespread deployment of mobile phones means that an infrastructure for mobile learning is already in place. This means that there is already a communication device in the pockets of most workers, with access to email, texting and the Internet.
Mobile learning, when properly designed, can be described as “just in time, just enough and just for me.” Researchers have found that it improves retention in learning, because what is learned is relevant to the situation at hand. Mobile learning has the potential to leverage the “idle time” of workers on the move, who would likely otherwise be unproductive. On the other hand, people need time off, and the use of mobile learning can be seen in some situations as a way of unfairly increasing workloads without compensation.
Mobile learning has potential to change the way people work together. It can result in increased collaboration and sense of community, and give employees up-to-date information that they need in their jobs. At the same time, such information can be personalized and contextualized according to each person’s work situation. In short, mobile learning has “come of age.”