In April of 2010, Float published its first monthly newsletter, in which I proclaimed that mLearning is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device.
The topic arose as a response to many who primarily – and in our view, simplistically – considered mobile learning a new delivery method for eLearning, or simply “teaching an old dog new tricks.”
Over the course of the last three years, this piece has consistently been one of Float’s most read and most commented posts.
In recognition of this, we decided that we would post an update to this topic and highlight how the thinking related to eLearning and mobile learning has evolved over the past three years.
I defined mLearning in my original article from 2010 as:
the use of mobile technology to aid in the learning, reference or exploration of information useful to an individual at that moment or in a specific use context.
The article went on to state that the primary differences between mLearning and eLearning fell into four main categories: timing, information access, context and assessment.
Jumping ahead to 2013, what is different and what has changed?
First off, much of what was written three years ago is still very much applicable today. The biggest evolution in thinking involves a slight change to the definition of mobile learning, and an expansion of the original four categories to add three more: performance support, unique affordances of mobile and user-generated content.
Defining Mobile Learning
Our April 2010 definition of mobile learning focused on “the use of mobile technology.”
Three years ago, we talked about cell phones being ubiquitous and pervasive in society, but it was also in the same month that the Apple iPad first went on sale. The explosion of tablet devices and the miniaturization of laptop computers over the past three years have greatly blurred what we typically think of as “mobile technology.”
In fact, we are now every bit as mobile in our homes and offices (check out the number of mobile devices in any conference room meeting) as we are outside of them.
So, how does this affect our definition of mobile learning?
The biggest change is that it is not the technology or device that puts the “mobile” in mobile learning, but it is the combination of learners themselves and the approach to learning.
As a result of this, the pedagogy is completely different.
What makes mobile learning different from other delivery channels for learning content is that it can happen at any time, anywhere, and in ways that are vastly different from what can be achieved in a classroom or traditional eLearning in which a single learner sits and interacts with a computer.
Mobile learning is able to combine the best aspects of self-teaching, with group learning (as in a classroom setting), with the technological aspects and advantages of eLearning and more. It is the combination of these areas that makes mLearning both unique and distinct.
Now, let’s take a look at the three additional categories we added to the original four.
The accessibility of mobile devices has not only decreased the need for rote memorization, but has increased our ability to capture and share information.
This is huge when it comes to on-the-job performance support.
Whether it is having access to the latest information, such as a UPS or FedEx driver knowing the latest traffic information on their route, a doctor being able to quickly access a formulary to determine drug contraindications, or a company’s sales force making real-time updates into a CRM system aided by inline help and performance support aids, people are now able to be more productive at work. This is a result of their ability to find and communicate information that helps them do their jobs.
Since communicating valuable and useful information is the basis of all learning, performance support clearly falls into the space of mobile learning.
The Unique Affordances of Mobile
Many of the mobile learning enhancements over previous learning tools have been made possible by technologies that simply haven’t been available or practical in classroom and eLearning.
Features such as geolocation, cameras, accelerometers and other sensors turn our mobile devices into multi-purpose tools (can the tricorder be far off?).
But more than that, these devices are also computers that can be programmed and, in turn, help program us for performance.
Take, for instance, State Farm’s Driver Feedback app. This tool uses the sensors in an iPhone to assess how a person is driving. It records how fast the car accelerates, corners and brakes – all useful information for helping someone become a better driver. While an eLearning module can certainly teach someone about the importance of not accelerating or taking a corner too quickly, mLearning can actually help someone recognize when they are doing it!
Traditional eLearning is primarily unidirectional: a person sits at a computer and receives the information that was placed in the course module.
In most eLearning there is little or no feedback from one learner that can be shared with others, except for the occasional “smiley” that accompanies the course.
This is a weak assessment, given that it is basically feedback to the course authors and doesn’t really contribute to the learning process.
However, the social and collaborative nature of mobile devices changes all of this with mobile learning.
Sticking with the Driver Feedback app, as an example, the ability for people to share their personal experiences with others provides a means for people in a common situation to connect and learn from each other.
Imagine an entire high school driver’s education class using the app to improve their driving and then sharing their experiences. This is learning occurring, being shared and affecting behavior – jumping from Kirkpatrick level one or perhaps two to level three in a very real and measurable way. The assessment occurs, but in a very different way than you may be accustomed to.
Mobile learning certainly is not a replacement for instructor-led learning or eLearning. Both still have their place.
Furthermore, there are many legitimate reasons for making eLearning content accessible on mobile devices.
But it has only become clearer as time has progressed that the mere act of publishing eLearning on a mobile device is not mobile learning. True, newly conceived mobile learning has its own unique qualities, characteristics and pedagogy.
It’s not a case of trying to teach an old dog new tricks, but an entirely different animal together – one that can often teach tricks to itself with just a little push.