From E-learning to Mobile Learning

Mobile devices are changing corporate learning with bite-sized lessons, just-in-time training, videos and games.

By Bill Roberts Aug 1, 2012

August CoverSince 2008, the 75,000 associates in North America for Austin, Texas-based Keller Williams Realty Inc. have used smart phones and tablet computers to view two- to three-minute video lessons that augment and build on the content they learn in the corporate classroom. They access each lesson as streaming video or a downloaded podcast. Some classes are followed by certification processes, which will soon be available on mobile devices.

As independent contractors operating on a franchise model, the associates "want to learn on their own schedule–and they primarily live in a mobile world," says John Paul Lewis, Keller Williams' director of media production, who leads the effort to revamp existing and create new video content for online and mobile. "We need to better serve the agents who want to learn on their own time, even in the middle of the night."

The transformation has just begun, but at Keller Williams and elsewhere mobile devices are irrevocably changing corporate learning. The physical classroom and its virtual surrogate, the webinar, are not going away. Nor will formal e-learning courses disappear. But the mobile explosion is requiring corporate training staffs to rethink their offerings and delivery of those offerings and to create entirely new learning activities for smart phones and tablets.

"Within the next five years, we are going to be not just changing but transforming how we train and educate based on mobile," predicts Daniel Burrus, chief executive officer of Burrus Research Associates Inc., a Hartland, Wis.-based consulting firm. Burrus is author of Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible (HarperBusiness, 2011). "Mobile learning is a bigger deal than most organizations realize. It represents an amazing disruption and opportunity in how we educate."

Content, Reconfigured

Indeed, mobile learning is on the rise. In a study of 40 large companies in various industries conducted in the fourth quarter of 2011, Boston-based Aberdeen Group found that mobile devices were used by 55 percent of those companies for internal online communities or forums, by 48 percent for informal learning activities and development, and by 42 percent for formal learning and development. This reflects an increase over the results of a 2010 study reporting that mobile devices were used by 30 percent for online communities, by 43 percent for informal learning and by 21 percent for formal learning.

The results suggest that mobile devices represent a "strategic part of the formal learning plan," Mollie Lombardi, Aberdeen's research director for human capital management, wrote in a January report titled Learning on the Move.

To tap the potential of smart phones and tablets, Lombardi and others suggest that training staffs:

  • Dice content into small nuggets or "course-lettes."
  • Study how learners interact with content, and seize opportunities for just-in-time learning based on role, location and performance needs.
  • Incorporate social technologies, which promise formal and informal peer-to-peer learning not previously possible, including coaching, mentoring and finding subject matter experts online.
  • Apply video gaming principles to learning content.

A Simple Start

Mobile learning is in its early stages, Lombardi says. The most common mobile learning content currently in use is simple delivery of existing Word, PDF and PowerPoint documents to mobile platforms.

CompuCom Systems Inc., a Dallas-based provider of information technology services with 14,000 employees nationwide, supports business users of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and other technology vendors. Its employees use mobile devices to access instruction manuals for the hardware and software they support, says Ed Rankin, leader for learning and development. "If an associate or service technician is on a customer site and runs into a problem they're not accustomed to, they can access manuals online."

CompuCom employees have used laptops and notebooks for wireless connection to this material for several years. Now, smart phones and tablets have grown in popularity, as they boot up quicker and tend to be easier to use, Rankin says. Under the company's bring-your-own-device policy, workers can acquire smart phones–the iPhone is the most popular–or tablets and are reimbursed for the cost and the monthly wireless account, Rankin says. He estimates that 20 percent of employees have an iPad and about 50 percent have a smart phone.

Many employees don't work in central offices. "One technician might have accounts in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa and spend most of his day driving," Rankin says. If the technician needs information about a specific device or software app, he or she accesses it wirelessly.

Rankin cannot determine how much each device is used, but wireless use of content is on the rise, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this is due to tablets and smart phones, he says. "The fastest way to get to [the information needed] is through an iPad, not a laptop," he notes.

Mobile learning is broadening the delivery strategies available, Lombardi says. "We are seeing organizations adopting a broader mix of formal and informal learning," she says. "Smart phones are especially geared for the informal learning, for just-in-time learning and collaboration."

Video Tutorials

Corporate learning organization Keller Williams University (KWU) primarily offers classroom instruction in salesmanship, building a real estate business and the like. In 2004, the corporate university launched for online e-learning; much of it involves video that associates view on desktop or laptop computers. "It has always been a heavy-use site," Lewis says.

The in-class courses at the corporate university in Austin and regional centers have always been augmented by video. During class, five-minute videos were used as breaks from the teacher's efforts. Each class had hours of video for follow-up learning to support what had been taught in the class.

Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, and by 2008 it was clear to the staff of KWU that associates wanted video on smart phones. It soon became evident that simply making existing video available would not work. Even the five-minute "break" videos were too long, Lewis says. Associates want videos on smart phones that deliver an educational takeaway in a couple of minutes.

"We reshot many of the videos because the market changed and the lessons changed," Lewis says. "Mobile video is an extension of the classroom. We provide supplemental material through mobile, turning the classroom experience into a blended-learning experience."

The corporate university offers 18 courses, each of which is supported by about 15 short videos that are viewable online or on mobile devices–in English and many in Spanish–for use after the classroom experience.

And, the Keller Williams' technology road map includes even greater use of mobile learning in the future.

Associates want videos on smart phones that deliver an educational takeaway in a couple of minutes.

Games They Will Play

"Gamification" describes the application of video gaming principles to learning. In naturally competitive aspects of business, such as sales, games on mobile devices seem to have a bright future.

SAP AG, an enterprise software company based in Walldorf, Germany, with 60,000 employees, has adopted gaming as part of a broader mobile learning strategy that includes many of the other tools already described, according to Mary Sibley, SAP global vice president and "dean" of the corporate university for sales training. SAP launched its first sales simulation game for the iPad around the first of the year.

"We have created The Road Warrior, an interactive game that simulates sales cycles," Sibley says. "We have editions of the game for different aspects of the SAP portfolio. You start easy and win or lose, but once you win, it opens a harder territory. Once you get beyond that, it gets harder." There's a leader board to show how everyone is doing, and SAP conducts tournaments that pit salespeople and regions against each other.

SAP retained a gaming company to help the in-house training development staff understand game design. Feedback has been positive. "Our Millennial employees are excited," she notes. "But you must provide a very strong business case to receive funding for gamification. It is key that you clearly articulate the business benefits that gamification will drive."

More broadly, SAP has moved toward mobile learning because employees asked for it, Sibley says. Many employees are constantly on the road and need training they can take with them. They also asked for shorter learning segments. Modules "have to be less than 10 minutes and must be usable on mobile," Sibley says.

SAP was an early adopter of the iPad. More than 25 percent of SAP's employees have an iPad financed by the company, she says. Users can download an enablement application that gives them access to repurposed learning content. About 70 percent of the iPad users have downloaded the app, she says.

Your Own Mobile Content

Vendors of content and learning management systems are redesigning courseware–software developed for educational training–to mobile-appropriate form, length and content, and delivering tools to help corporate learning staffs develop their own mobile content.

"Since the Internet started, there have been probably tens of billions of dollars dedicated to building content that runs on computers. You don't just push a button and make it work on a phone," explains Josh Bersin, chief executive officer and president of Bersin & Associates LLC, a research and consulting firm in Oakland, Calif. "There is a lot of relearning going on."

SkillSoft Ltd., an e-learning services provider based in Nashua, N.H., is repurposing its courseware and revamping its learning management system. Its online Books24x7 business and training books have been available for e-readers since 2006. SkillSoft uses HTML code, so the books are available with a browser through a mobile-enabled website. The advent of tablets has accelerated the use of that content, according to Pam Boiros, vice president of product management for Books24x7.

SkillSoft will soon release a tablet version of the Skillport learning management system and its 500 courses, according to Tim Hildreth, director of product marketing. Skillport will offer mobile versions of its off-the-shelf content, including some courses that were shortened to better fit tablet platforms. A complete makeover of Skillport, coming later this year, will take advantage of tablets' features, Hildreth says.

SkillSoft is using new HTML5 code for its next release. "Otherwise, you have to build separately for every device. HTML5 support on mobile devices is great right now. Where it poses a bit of a challenge is on the desktop. For SkillSoft, we have to continue to develop desktop-specific and tablet-specific code. We expect HTML5 will become standard on desktops, and then we will develop once and access from anywhere," Hildreth says.

Kenexa Corp., a Wayne, Pa.-based developer of talent management software, offers Hot Lava Mobile. It provides a plug-in that allows content developers to use the familiar PowerPoint environment to develop learning content that includes text, images, audio and video. Behind the scenes, Hot Lava Mobile automates the creation of an application for the desired mobile operating system–whether that's an iPhone, Android, BlackBerry or other device, says Melonia da Gama, director of product marketing for the learning team at Kenexa.

M2execution Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm, offers a mobile-based coaching service built with Hot Lava Mobile.

Clients said "it would be so valuable to give them mobile coaching to reinforce a strategy right before they handled sales calls," says Maureen Haga, president and founder of M2Execution. After analyzing development platforms, she selected Hot Lava Mobile. Her mobile coaching platform offers "analytics and reporting capabilities, including user polling after each coaching tip."

With each new generation of tablets and smart phones offering more power and features, these devices are quickly replacing personal computers, including laptops and notebooks, for many computing chores. It is only natural that there will be increased demand for learning activities on mobile devices. Hence, HR decisions about how fast to move–and what to do–should be driven by business needs.

The author is a technology contributing editor for HR Magazine and is based in Silicon Valley.

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