Learning in a multi-device world

Does m-learning really work?

20 September 2016 | Rosalind Scott | , ,

We’ve all heard the arguments for m-learning many times: people spend two hours, three hours, five hours… on their mobile phones every day. They expect to transition smoothly from a computer to a phone. We’re not making the most of the new technology if we don’t make courses available on phones. We’re not understanding our learners.

This may all be true, but it ignores the big question, which is how?

Yes, studies may show that we spend two hours a day on our phones, but it’s harder to find statistics on how long we spend looking at the phone each time we pick it up. The infographic shown here suggests that we spend an average of 17 minutes per interaction with a smartphone, rising to 30 minutes for a tablet, and 39 minutes for a PC/laptop. Most e-learning courses are currently between 30-60 minutes, which does not seem to fit in with the way people currently use their smartphones.

PHONE edited

I am discussing e-learning delivered via smartphone here, rather than on mobile devices in general, since if we’re going to make m-learning work, we must tap into the usage of smartphones as this is the most widely-owned mobile device.

So how do we use our smartphones? Apart from the obvious, checking emails and social media, we might, for example want to check a fact on Wikipedia because of an interesting discussion we’re having with a friend. Or we might remember that we forgot to pay a bill and whip out a phone to pay it. Or we might do a bit of shopping. It is, of course, in the interests of commercial businesses to make it as easy for us to buy things with a phone as with a computer - we can now ‘impulse buy’ wherever we happen to be.

Ideally, we would like to make learning this accessible too. If you have it on your phone there’s no excuse, you can do it anytime, anywhere…but will you want to? There’s a big difference between checking a fact on Wikipedia and undertaking a training course, after all.

So what’s the solution?

One solution that e-learning companies have attempted, and it seems to be the one that is suggested by this infographic, is to use something like Adapt to make the same training course available on multiple different devices. So the learner can begin on their desktop in the office, then continue from page 13 on their smartphone on the train, and then finish at home on their laptop.

The problem with this solution, however, is that the learning itself must now be scaled down. The limitations of the technology mean that only the simplest solutions can be offered - the kind of text-and-image, linear PowerPoint presentation-style solutions that we have been moving away from over the years. We long ago realised that this type of learning bored learners, so why would they think it any more fascinating just because it’s on a small screen that they can carry around with them? And if the learner does happen to do the learning on a computer it will seem simplistic and dull, which isn’t likely to go down well with the client either…

So what do we suggest?

At Walkgrove, we believe that mobile learning will become part of the learning experience and we’re keen to embrace its possibilities. We suggest m-learning as part of a blend, perhaps with a computer-based e-learning course or some face-to-face training. The truth is that people are only likely to look at their phones for a few minutes at a time, so let’s fit some learning into those few minutes. We’ll use brief articles and top tips (using the natural scrolling navigation that learners are used to on phones, rather than clicking through pages) as just-in-time learning for busy people on the move. Videos are also easy to view using mobile devices, so we suggest content is delivered this way. Similarly, podcasts are mobile-friendly, and don’t require the learner to navigate through page after page using fiddly little buttons.

Another key component would be fun, timed quizzes. These could be tracked, or could just be brain trainers to ensure that key knowledge is embedded, so that the e-learning or face-to-face training can focus on more complex scenarios and roleplays, which wouldn’t suit an m-learning format.

Blended Learning

The end-to-end learning is delivered elsewhere, but the mobile learning plays its part by delivering bite-sized supporting materials, which deepen the learner’s knowledge and creates a far more effective learning experience overall. In this way we can capitalise on the strengths of the mobile device (chiefly, it’s mobileand information will be available whenever the learner needs it) but not compromise on the overall experience.

So, while I agree that yes, we live in a multi-device world and expect information to be at our fingertips whenever we need it, I don’t agree that this means we should create one learning experience and try to make it fit every situation. As always we need to put the learner first, and see m-learning not just as another way to deliver information, but as another way to give the learner what they need to be successful.