Learning on the Fly

By Sep 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, September 2007Choose the right tools to deliver learning content to employees anytime, anywhere.

When the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services (SCDPPPS) began to mobilize its workforce in 2000, managers quickly recognized the inherent challenges. On any given day, the department’s 800-plus employees could be in any one of 56 locations or in one of 46 courtrooms. “Our agents have to be working almost constantly. How do you get information to these people when they have time to look at it?” asked David O’Berry, the SCDPPPS’s director of information technology systems and services. “How can we continue to deliver training without [employees] always being attached to a LAN [local area network]?”

The answer for O’Berry—and for an increasing number of employers—is mobile learning. Also known as m-learning, on-demand learning or disconnected learning, it represents the next generation of e-learning: delivering learning content on a variety of devices, wherever and whenever the learner has the time and the desire to use it.

“The idea has been around forever, but it really hasn’t been that viable until the last five years,” says Ed Cohen, chief learning officer of Plateau Systems, a learning management software provider based in Arlington, Va. Now, with the explosion of bandwidth availability and the expanded capabilities of common devices, more employees are going mobile—and taking learning with them.

The Next Generation

At SCDPPPS, employees access learning whenever and wherever they want, via their department-issued wireless ThinkPads. More than 400 different e-learning courses are available, some developed internally and some provided by the Dell Learning System.

But mobile learning is not just about pushing e-learning content over a wireless connection. While that approach may work with a laptop-equipped workforce, much traditional e-learning content is not well-suited to the screen size, resolution, speed and storage capabilities of other mobile devices like cell phones and personal digital assistants.

Instead, managers in learning organizations can play to the strengths of those smaller devices: accessibility and convenience. Mobile learning “is hot because people want quicker access to their training information,” says Chris Howard, vice president of research at the Oakland, Calif.-based learning and talent management research firm Bersin & Associates.

Just as e-learning hasn’t eliminated the need for classroom-based training, mobile learning isn’t going to replace other delivery methods. “Mobile delivery is always going to back up another delivery system,” says Kris Rockwell, president and CEO of Hybrid Learning Systems, an e-learning content developer in Lemont Furnace, Pa. “It’s always going to be in some way a blended learning approach.”

Learning Where They Are

To take advantage of mobile learning tools, think creatively. “Think about where people use these devices,” says Ted Forbes, chief learning officer at the McLean, Va.-based financial services company Capital One. “Then, design learning tools so they meet your audience where they are. You can then capture time that would not otherwise be used for learning.”

At technology giant IBM, mobile devices transmit just-in-time information to a mobile sales force. “There’s a huge opportunity to fill someone’s mind with something that is contextually relevant—some piece of information or training about a competitor’s new offering, a new price point, something that makes a difference to that sales call,” says Christopher von Koschembahr, worldwide mobile learning executive for IBM. With mobile delivery, employees can access that information between sales calls or while waiting in an airport.

At Capital One, employees can listen to podcasts to prepare for instructor-led courses, or use a wireless device to access Flash files from the company’s on-demand executive speaker series. Employees are “going to access it on the fly, get the gist and then get on about their business,” says Forbes. Experts say that podcasts are particularly popular with salespeople and field workers who spend a good part of their days in cars.

Short, Sweet and Specific

On-the-go employees have busy schedules, so keep mobile learning modules short and sweet. Segmenting content into bite-sized pieces will increase participation and may shorten completion time. “If an m-learning [program] has to be an hour, chop it up into six 10-minute [pieces],” says von Koschembahr. “All of us would find more 10-minute blocks of time than a full hour. In the end, I’ll complete that hour of training sooner.”

The short time frame is also a nod to mobile devices’ limitations. “It’s hard to stare at a small screen for an extended period,” says Rockwell. “No 45-minute lessons—they should be 10- to 15-minute lessons.”

The content also must have a clear benefit to the employee. “Just because you make it easy to get [training], if I don’t want to consume it, I won’t,” says von Koschembahr. “It has to be relevant, something I need or want.” Content might be relevant because it helps an employee make a sale. In compliance-driven industries such as health care, financial services or commercial airline travel, content may help an employee prepare for a certification requirement. For security or emergency response personnel, it may provide critical decision-making information.

Be aware that not all content will be appropriate for mobile learning. Soft skills require more-personal interaction, and highly technical material or content dependent on simulations, animation or graphics demand higher screen resolution and faster connection speeds.

But in some environments, mobile learning offers immediate, hyper-relevant training that would be impossible with any other type of delivery. Sales associates can use hand-held devices with bar-code scanners to obtain product information on the sales floor, and point-of-sale registers or kiosks can provide learning modules to associates before or after hours, or between customer transactions. “It’s still mobile learning,” says von Koschembahr. “The traditional way was to have people sign off and go into a back room to a learner portal. The problem is, they are off the floor. There are huge opportunities for learning between customers. And learning at the point of product is a much better learning experience.”

Mobile devices can also be used to support learning in other ways. IBM sends text messages or e-mails to employees to notify them when new, relevant content becomes available on the learning portal. Employees enrolled in a course can post questions or comments to the instructor or other learners via their mobile devices, and receive notification when they get a response. “It’s all about keeping them engaged,” says von Koschembahr.

Simplify, Simplify

Although the technology behind mobile learning may be complex, content doesn’t need to be. In fact, the simplicity of content is one of its benefits. “You can get information out even faster,” says Howard.

Simplicity also helps guarantee that employees will be able to access content and view it on their hand-held devices. Aside from issues related to resolution and screen size, content delivered on hand-held equipment becomes subject to the vagaries of wireless access. “The wireless signal, even in the upper strengths, is slower than wireless on a laptop,” explains Rockwell. That means that file size must be kept to a minimum to ensure that users can access content quickly.

Capabilities will vary by device, so understand the limitations before the design process begins. “One of the biggest challenges is to get content to function on the wide array of devices,” says Rockwell. “[There are] cell phones with Java and small screens, phones with larger screens that use Windows, [there can be differences in] network speed, processor speeds, available memory.” Even when employee devices are deployed by the company, there can be a variety of models in use at one time. “It’s a technical challenge, no matter what type of content you’re developing,” says O’Berry. “If you don’t pay attention to all the potential issues, including IT, you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.”

Device capabilities will also dictate how mobile learning is managed by the employee and people in the learning department. If the device has enough bandwidth and storage, employees can download content to their mobile devices and save it for later offline use. In some environments, mobile access to a learning portal can be managed through a learning management system to track participation, completion rates and test scores.

A number of tools help learning professionals develop and deliver mobile learning content. IBM’s web lecture services allow users to upload PowerPoint presentations to a secure site; speakers then call into a voice response system to record the audio overlay. There are a number of podcast services available as well. And some learning management systems now support mobile learning development and delivery.

The Cost Benefits

Mobile learning is an affordable option, as it takes advantage of devices that have already been deployed. “The cost of this has plummeted,” says Cohen. “Businesses are leveraging standard-issue hardware. There’s no incremental cost.”

Even development tools are affordable: Most web lecture and podcasting services are provided through an application service provider model. This means small and mid-size companies can take advantage of their capabilities for monthly fees, with no startup costs or concerns about infrastructure.

Plus, bringing learning to employees, rather than the other way around, can be an inherent cost savings. “The overall reason [our clients are doing this] is cost savings,” says Rockwell. Mobile learning joins a growing list of technology-enabled tools that can minimize the need for on-site classroom training and expensive and time-consuming travel.

Though mobile learning opportunities are still fairly new, employees are taking advantage of them and already reporting benefits. At IBM, some 2 million web lectures have been viewed. At Capital One, some 4,000 employees have listened to a podcast. In a recent survey, 95 percent of users said mobile learning opportunities were a worthwhile investment of their time and increased their overall job satisfaction. SCDPPPS is still implementing and assessing its m-learning, but managers are confident that it will continue to grow.

Experts expect mobile devices to become more robust as the trend to disperse workforces continues. According to Insight Research, a telecom market research firm in Boonton, N.J., a majority of industries will move away from fixed and location-centric work environments during the next five years. In this time of rapid change, learning organizations need to leverage every opportunity to demonstrate the value of training and keep employees engaged. “[Mobile learning] is one more tool,” says Forbes.

Jennifer Taylor Arnold is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Can Podcasts Deliver an Earful of Training? (SHRM Online HR Technology Focus Area)

SHRM research: Blended Learning (E-Learning Series Part II)

SHRM toolkit: E-Learning (SHRM Online Global HR Focus Area)

Web site: The American Society for Training & Development

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