Innovations in Mobile Learning

Having an effective mobile learning strategy does not include simply repurposing existing content, say experts.

By Andrew R. McIlvaine

Mobile learning may have gotten off to a slow start, but it seems the trend is now getting some momentum.

The latest Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey report shows mobile-enhanced process adoption grew by 30 percent last year compared to 2013. Survey respondents plan to double their use of mobile this year compared to 2014.

A white paper released by Tagoras, a technology consulting firm in Carrboro, N.C., finds 89 percent of 200 respondents to a survey for its Association Learning + Technology report saying their organizations offer some form of e-learning, and a third of them (37 percent) offer a mobile version for at least some of that content. Another 28 percent said they had plans to offer mobile learning this year.

One of the most interesting mobile-learning trends witnessed by Steve Fiehl, chief innovation officer at New York-based e-learning provider CrossKnowledge, has been the "mobile first" strategy: Conceptualizing learning experiences for mobile devices first, rather than designing them for the PC and then transferring them to mobile. In some cases, he says, organizations are going "mobile only."

"Two years ago, only 5 percent of our rollouts involved mobile devices," says Fiehl, whose company counts a substantial number of Europe-based multinationals among its clients. "That's moved up to about 25 percent today and will probably be at 50 percent within two years."

Organizations that simply modify their existing e-learning offerings for mobile are missing a major opportunity, say experts.

"Many companies say 'Let's just convert our e-learning to a mobile-friendly format,'" says Sean Bengry, a senior principal for learning strategy at New York-based Accenture. "But we're discovering that that's not the best way to do mobile learning."

By its very nature, mobile learning can help employees learn new tasks while they're performing their jobs, he says-unlike instructor-led classes or traditional e-learning. Mobile learning, Bengry adds, is serving as an eye-opener for what learning really is.

"You used to go to training and learn something and then go back and perform a job-related task," he says. "Learning and work were two separate things."

In reality, he says, learning happens all the time. And when employees can simply turn to the mobile device of their choice-be it a smartphone or a tablet-and access information when and where they need it, learning becomes "part of the puzzle" rather than a separate piece. 

"Learning is not a sequential journey, it's a web, and having a learning strategy means figuring out where mobile fits into that," he says. 

Employees' ability to access mobile learning on their own devices is another argument in its favor, says Bengry. "Let people choose what works best for them."

Having a device as personal as a smartphone is "almost like having a personal assistant," he says. "It knows who you are, what you're doing at that time, and it lets you share all these things at a moment's notice. It can be a very personal window to the individual worker. If you can leverage that, that's where the real potential is for HR."

Mobile devices are inherently social, making it very easy for employees to share information with their colleagues via a one-to-many model, says Bengry.

Mobile learning apps allow organizations to more readily determine whether employees understand what they're studying and pinpoint potential problem areas so they can get remedial help, says Mike Broderick, CEO of Youngstown, Ohio-based Turning Technologies.

Turning Technologies' original business was supplying portable devices that allowed course instructors to conduct instantaneous polls of students to see whether they understood what was being taught. Today, the company offers apps that perform much the same function by letting students take pre-tests and post-tests to measure their progress, says Broderick.

"The instructor can see which students may not be 'getting it,' so they can spend more time where they need to and less where it's not needed," he says. "The instructors can see and recognize problems in real time, regardless of whether everyone's in the same room or sitting in individual offices."

Employees can see their results and compare them to others, says Broderick.

Learning is increasingly being distributed asynchronously, but that's a trend that began with computer-based learning, not mobile learning, says Broderick.

"I don't think the traditional instructor is going to go away, and apps such as these can strengthen the assessment portion and strengthen student engagement, regardless of how you wish to deliver the courses," he says.

For companies that are changing their strategy from, say, product-oriented to service-oriented, mobile allows them to push out training content directly to employees' mobile devices so they can listen while driving in to work, says Fiehl.

One of CrossKnowledge's clients, a global food-services company, is using videos delivered to mobile devices to help its employees understand and embrace its new customer-focused strategy, he says.

Another client, a fast-growing European hair-salon chain, distributed an iPad to each of its 500 locations so its hairdressers could not only learn the specific behaviors the company wanted them to practice with customers, but also share their own insights with their colleagues based on their interactions with customers.

"They've created a social learning community in which a hairdresser watches a video on how to sell a product or a service, then the following week posts something about 'I tried it that way but found it works better this way,' " says Fiehl. "For the first time, these employees were sharing information with one another. And it proved much less costly than face-to-face training."

The key to effective mobile learning is video-video that is extremely short and "extremely social," he says.

"Give employees a way to make their own videos and a platform so it can be easily shared with colleagues," says Fiehl.

A common mistake HR makes is assuming that content originally created for a PC format can simply be customized for mobile, he says. "It just doesn't work-the way you use your finger, for example, is totally different."

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Jan 13, 2015
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