Learning on the Go: Mobile Learning as It’s Lived

Adapt mobile learning design to accommodate the evolving nature of how we learn

By Rob Keery Dec 8, 2014

Developing learning content for mobile requires more than understanding the basics of HTML5 or shrinking ex­isting e-learning solutions to fit on a smaller screen. Mobile fundamentally changes the way learning intersects with learners’ workflows, behaviors and practices. Packaging learning to fit in your pocket and still deliver a memorable, valuable experience requires a new way of thinking about what learning might mean.

Mobile usage occurs in numerous short, frequent sessions throughout the day. Learning solutions and interventions optimized for engaging mobile contexts should comple­ment, not challenge these user habits.

Five Ways Mobile Changes Learning Design

Ways mobile reconfigures both the form and con­tent of learning delivery as it has been traditionally understood:

Performance support. Twenty-four hour access to key data, placing essential facts, figures and notes on best practice at learners’ fingertips.

Chunking. Micro-sized learning interventions accessed via mobile to complement a wider campaign of learning/organiza­tional change.

Push learning. Targeted, scheduled delivery of brief organization-wide announcements, updates and reminders.

Video. Size/configuration of mobile screens and user habitua­tion privileges visual over textual information.

Responsive design. Online learning content design rethought from the ground-up in anticipation of its final home on a pocket-sized mobile screen.

Emergence of Personal Learning Networks

How do we find out how to do our jobs? When you need that piece of essential information to overcome your cur­rent challenge, where do you go? There are several potential answers to this question.

Perhaps it’s your organization’s learning management system (LMS). Perhaps it’s Google or YouTube, or perhaps you rely on the colleague sitting beside you. All of these methods of discovery have their benefits, but also their limitations; the information they give you may be too task- or process-oriented; or too “hard” and factual for situations requiring nuance and soft skills.

Increasingly, the best (fastest, most reliable, most diverse/unbiased) solution to these obstacles is found in the personal learning network (PLN). A PLN is an infor­mal grouping of personal and professional contacts con­nected via an individual’s social platform(s) of choice. When a problem needs solving, today’s connected mobile learner reaches out to their PLN and asks for guid­ance, advice or a good old-fashioned quick fix.

The net­work responds to the learner’s query, offering a rich range of solutions drawn from their wide breadth of individual experience. The network is enabled by social and mobile media technologies, but sustained by mutual need and the powerful incentives of group recognition and reputation.

The members of the network might be on different continents or sitting right across from you. They might be a newcomer with a fresh insight or an acknowledged expert who’s seen it all. Traditional communication/participation barriers collapse within the supportive environment of the PLN—a globalized study group that evolves from question to question, project to project.

These advantages do not have to be confined to the individual learner either. The principles of social learning can easily be scaled down to focus on a particular project or challenge, or scaled up to inspire cultural change across an entire multinational organization. Enterprise platforms are now available that bring these benefits and advantages in-house, creating environments within the organization where solutions to difficult problems can be worked out in collaboration, across far-flung teams and offices. Informa­tional silos and expertise can be freed up by applying the principles of the PLN to localized micro-networks within the organization, which cross team boundaries to bring disparate individuals and skill sets together, unlocking knowledge and experience to drive innovation and effective learning throughout the business.

xAPI – Connecting Our Online and Offline Lives

The experience application programming interface (xAPI)—initially known as Project Tin Can—is an open source software specifica­tion for managing e-learning data. Released in 2012, the xAPI was designed to better manage the various forms of data not covered by SCORM, the e-learning industry’s previous specification stan­dard, and reflects the major, largely technology-driven changes in the way people learn in the workplace:

*Via multiple, usually mobile devices (smartphones and tablets).

*Through a mix of formal online learning courses and informal, often learner-sourced resources.

*In a variety of online and offline experiential contexts.

The xAPI’s strength and potential for revolutionizing learning technology lies in the simplicity of the format it uses to describe complex data. What­ever learning experiences you might encounter—from a conversation at the water cooler to a multi-part massive open online course (MOOC)--xAPI condenses it into a simple string of code that can be stored, quantified and analyzed.

Experience application programming interface data statements are formed of just three core elements:

[actor] [verb] [object]


[I] [did] [this]

For example:

[John Smith] [attended] [a training seminar]

From the starting point of this deceptively straightforward formula, xAPI can capture any amount of information about someone’s experiences and store it for later analysis. The range of information is limited only by the sophistication of the capture and recording tools. This means a training seminar can be recorded on the learner’s phone, turned into xAPI data and stored for later inspection and assessment.

In a world where learning is increasingly mediated by digital technol­ogy, xAPI makes the borders between online and “real” life more porous than ever.

Personal Learning Capture

Perhaps the most significant application of mobile tech­nology to the way we learn now and into the future comes from its potential to alter the learner’s place in the tradi­tional top-down learning ecology. While we are already seeing the rise of bring your own device (BYOD) training events, reflecting the relative sophistication of learners’ personal mobile technology over that commonly supplied by their employers, the potential for disruption goes a step further.

The data capture and sharing capacities of the smart­phone, combined with radical new learning technology standards like xAPI (see inset box), have the potential to rewrite the circuitry of learning, putting the learner truly in the driver’s seat. The technology in our hands today does not just offer us new ways to request the information we need, it empowers us to discover, capture and share our own learning experiences—to decide for ourselves both what we need to know and how we wish to find it out.

For example, imagine a learner on the way to a meeting who needs to refresh their knowledge of e-mail marketing. Pulling out his or her tablet or smartphone, they log on to the corporate LMS to find an e-learning course that’s five years old—out of date and practically useless. With a smartphone and xAPI, they can find their own learning resources.

A quick Google search gives them instant access resourc­es from industry experts, detailing the most up-to-date e-mail marketing methods—insider tips and hints honed by real testing and experience. Within a matter of minutes, the gaps in the learner’s knowledge are filled.

But, before closing their browser and putting their new learning into practice, they click a button in the browser toolbar. Experience application programming interface powers this new “bookmarklet” browser button, which is already hooked up to the company LMS or learning system. So as the button is clicked, a new learning experience is recorded and saved.

The meeting goes well, and the client says something about the way they’re using the product, which stops our learner in their tracks. The learner asks them to repeat it; but this time they have their phone ready, and they film the client saying it. The learner uploads the video to the LMS and shares it with his enterprise PLN, and the whole team understands this new, previously unheard of insight even before returning to the office. They have a whole new perspective on their work, which in a pre-mobile learning world would have been impossible to capture and harness in a meaningful way.

This scenario isn’t fiction. Next-generation learning sys­tems are already supplying this kind of functionality, allow­ing learners to generate and share their own learning re­sources. The technology we all carry around in our pockets changes not only the way our learners learn, but empowers them to take control of their learning and become creators, consumers and curators of the best learning content to support and optimize workplace performance.

Rob Keery is community manager with next-generation learning experts Brightwave.

This article is reposted from the November 2014 issue of Workforce Solutions Review, published by the International Association for Human Resource Information Management.


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