The concept of mobile learning, or ‘m-learning’ is not a new one. For some time now, learning technologists have speculated about the potential for small, hand-held devices to bring learning content to that portion of the workforce that doesn’t work behind a desk – the engineers, salespeople, doctors and drivers, the members of the armed and emergency services, and many others. However, until recently, the reality did not match up to the hype; low-powered devices with poor connectivity and very limited memory just weren’t capable of delivering on the promise. But a great deal has changed very quickly: PDAs (personal digital assistants) and mobile phones have converged to create powerful smart phones that double as media players, cameras, satellite navigation devices and much more; the memory capacity of mobile devices, whether solid state or magnetic, is growing at such a rate that futurists envisage the day when all the music that has ever been recorded could be stored on a single phone; at the same time 3G (third generation) connectivity has enabled mobile devices to connect with the internet and with an employer’s intranet at broadband speeds (with super-speed 4G networks around the corner).
A modern smart phone is as powerful a computer as a desktop PC was just a few years ago. True, the screens are small, but getting larger as touch screens and slide-out keyboards mean that less of the footprint of the device is taken up with buttons. The display is ideal for photos, diagrams, flowcharts, videos, slide shows, animations and limited amounts of text. The input devices are suited to most forms of interactivity, as long as this doesn’t involve large amounts of typing.
So, how could mobile devices be used to support learning at the point of need? Possibilities include the use of video to provide demonstrations of tasks, providing instruction with animated slideshows and podcasts, consulting experts using forums and simple mobile telephony, and the use of intelligent troubleshooting guides and decision aids.
Don Taylor describes how just-in-time performance support can make an impact in the most surprising ways. Goalless after 120 minutes of open play, 2009’s Carling Cup Final was decided on penalties. Manchester United beat Spurs 4-1, but the real winner was mobile learning, as the Red’s goalkeeper Ben Foster revealed afterwards in the Daily Telegraph: “Me and [goalkeeping coach] Eric Steele looked at a little iPod before the penalties were taken. It had a video of their penalty takers. It’s a new one for us. When Eric came to the club I’d never seen anything like it before. I don’t think any of us had. It’s a fantastic tool for us.” Minutes later, Foster saved Jamie O’Hara’s spot-kick.
Mobile learning is:
- at its best when designed for small screens and modest input devices, when accessible in small chunks, when supports offline and online delivery;
- best avoided when over-complex, slow, requires too much text input.