mLearning: ‘Using Your Senses’


Much of mLearning has to do with repurposing existing content or building modules similar to other eLearning modules. I see the value in that particularly for compliance training and other types of information dissemination. Sometimes learner’s needs are met by simply having content available in multiple places (i.e. desktop and mobile device). So I don’t discount the value of mobile courseware, I just think that the design community often forgets to think about the differentiation between mobile devices and desktop computers. Besides the always on, always connected, always with you nature of mobile devices, they also have a number of different sensors that we can utilize in our learning design.

Through the browser, you have access to geolocation through the devices location sensors (GPS and WiFi can be used to access the location of the device And with native applications, you can access the camera, accelerometer, GPS location and any other sensors on the device.

So how can you start to use these in your designs? That’s my question to the reader. Obviously, there are several considerations when building a mobile learning application. You may have some great ideas for sensor usage, but you may not have the staff to build the application or maybe you are building the application yourself (like me) but you know you’re going to have to build a web app so multiple devices can access it outside of an app store. These considerations are just a few of those contributing factors to your design. But let’s not throw away the idea of using sensors in our design. Instead, consider how the user would benefit from the use of sensors for contextual relevance, documentation, interactivity and engagement. From there, you can walk your design back to the realities imposed by the resources you have to work with from a development and implementation standpoint. My hunch is that you will find that if you consider these additional sensors at the beginning of your design process, you will end up with a better mobile design in the end. 

So the question again: How would you leverage sensors for your mobile learning design?

Here are a few developer resources to get you  started if you have to use the browser for your mobile design. Native applications can access the sensors through their native programming environments like iOS and Android:

accessing accelerometer in the browser:

accessing the camera roll with ActionScript 3 (Adobe Flex and AIR)

accessing the camera with other scripts:

And technologies like PhoneGap and Titanium also provide for access to some sensors and you can build native applications using web technologies with PhoneGap and Titanium. 


Addressing Mobile Security with What Else? An App!

While most of us in the learning community are more concerned with engaging the learner and providing effective learning content to our mobile learners, there are a lot of people who think of one thing when you mention mobile learning and that is security. The lack of real security options on mobile devices is one reason so many decision makers look at mobile learning as a “cute” novelty and not a real solution.

The fact that an organization’s data could end up on a mobile device scares many leaders. We’ve all seen the headlines about data taken from stolen or lost mobile devices and the recent phone hacking scandal at News Corp’s News of the World . Those events lead many to believe that they can’t provide content to a mobile device because the risk is too great to justify the reward of situated, contextually driven learning.

When I give a presentation on mobile learning, there’s always someone who questions the security. I normally provide a very simple answer and it goes something like this: “There are a lot of really smart people at well-funded organizations working really hard on that one”. So if you get this gist of it, my answer basically comes down to, “they’re working on it”. And we all know that when someone says they’re working on it, they really mean that it’s not done and who knows how long it will take to finish.

All the big companies, McAfee, Symantec, etc. are working to provide security solutions for mobile devices so data is safe and secure. Blackberry has traditionally held the crown of “most secure phone”, and security remains one of their strengths. However, with more individuals adopting devices running iOS and Android, those operating systems have become hot spots in the mobile security world.

So far, several high-profile government agencies here in the US and around the world have started to embrace mobile technology. The US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Veterans Administration are just a couple of organizations currently building mobile learning applications and all sorts of performance support applications to deliver to their learners (following some serious pilot programs like the Army’s CSDA – check out the videos in the multimedia section to learn more).

The leadership in those organizations must have confidence that the security issue will be worked out, especially if the organization’s data is going to end up on mobile devices. One reason they have confidence is that new apps and systems are coming around to address security. One new security app is Mobileworks DE, built by a company called SteelCloud located in Ashburn Virginia. This article at Information Week explains some of the details. The application will provide military grade security features so decision makers can sleep a little easier at night.

I look at the security issue as one of the last remaining obstacles for mobile learning. As security restrictions become as common place on our mobile devices as they are on our desktops, we will sigh and hopefully be somewhat satisfied that we at least have the ability to target the devices in our enterprise learning architectures to provide content. But it may be a slightly different world. Companies like RIM, maker of the Blackberry, and others are focusing on systems where your personal life is separated from your corporate life and free from the security restrictions your employer provides. But there will always be some thought of big brother watching me if I choose to allow my company to control anything on my mobile device. As with anything, we make trade-offs and compromises to have our cake and eat it too. Let’s hope in this world, security doesn’t make it feel like someone else owns our device (unless they do of course!).

The bottom line for me comes down to the fact that companies and organizations are aggressively dealing with mobile device security. Leadership at these organizations are embracing mobile technology and mobile learning. We can finally start to feel like it’s really here and no longer feel like mobile learning is “coming soon.”

What the Army is Doing in Mobile Learning

I’ve been trying to keep up with all of the latest in the US Army’s Connecting Soldiers with Digital Applications (CSDA) program. The big idea behind the program is to leverage mobile devices to deliver information, training, performance support and even intelligence to soldiers to increase their situational awareness.

As someone who works in the learning world, it’s significant when any organization with hundreds of thousands of learners decides to equip their entire workforce with mobile devices and applications. I think it’s even more important when that workforce is widely dispersed. It’s important because it allows us to see how learning can be applied over great distances with lots of technical, cultural and geographical barriers.

This article in Defense Industry Daily notes several initiatives under the CSDA umbrella of programs. Basically, the Army is doing some field testing and they’ve decided to make training and education one of the early uses of the technology. The article lays out a few of the applications that can be looked at as training applications. The TRANSTAC program is pure for performance support to soldiers needing to communicate with foreign speaking civilians:

From the article:

“An English speaker talks into the phone. Automatic speech recognition distinguishes what is said and generates a text file that software translates to the target language. Text-to-speech technology converts the resulting text file into an oral response in the foreign language. This process is reversed for the foreign language speaker.”
These kinds of applications can be extremely powerful and can only be used in context with a mobile device. This is the kind of mobile “learning” (translated as performance support in this case) that shows off the strengths of mobile devices and their ability to be at the hands of the learner when conducting an activity.

In the long run, it looks like the Army is even going to push commercial mobile devices  (iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 devices) into combat situations as long as they can figure out the security. Security is a very hard problem to solve, but it’s being worked on by several big and small industry players at the moment and it’s on everyone’s mind. It sounds like the Army and other agencies are grappling with how much security is enough and is there such thing as too much? But I’m confident that governments and industry will settle on some standards for security in smartphones and tablets, just as they did with PCs. Remember, it’s taken a long time for PCs to evolve to the security and restrictions they have today. I think the trip to a “secure” smartphone will be much shorter now that we have some consolidation in operating system deployment and versions.

Obviously, there’s lots to come with the CSDA program. The Army has made a commitment and bought into the power of the mobile device as a gateway to training and information. This quote from Lt General Vane sums it up quite well:

Again from the article:

“We have a number of pilots inside TRADOC…but we now have several theater commanders asking for these capabilities to deploy with them in combat….If we can figure out the smart cost/benefit way of doing this, it probably makes sense [to give every soldier a smartphone] in the long run.”

Is Mobile Learning Too Shallow?

Diver from a high distance

Conversations about mobile learning are happening all over. One community asking questions about mLearning is the community of instructional designers who are wrestling with how to approach mobile learning. As ISD’s, our tendency is to provide the learner with the most information we can as long as we can find it to be relevant to the learning need. However, the prevailing knowledge we have about mLearning suggests that we provide less content, not more. But is that really the right way to approach it? Is the reality that we have to provide less content, or is it more a matter of structuring and access to the information that should drive our design decisions?

We make a lot of assumptions about mobile learners and their behaviors (i.e. they are traveling on a bus/train, they don’t have any time, and they’re not looking for a vast body of information just an answer to a simple question), but are those assumptions right? And even if they are right, do we know that users will always be in those situations and unable or unwilling to access more content and add to their depth of knowledge about the subject.

I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but I am of the mind that we can provide deeper knowledge to meet the needs of our “typical” mobile learner, AND support their possible desire to learn more about a topic.

I do think we should focus most on addressing the learner’s perceived immediate need. But I also think that we can provide more knowledge to deepen the experience if we think critically about the navigation and media we provide.

One example I can think of is a simple mobile learning application about driving a car. You could structure your navigation to make the basic, most immediately necessary content about steering, speed and how to use the turn signals available as the storefront to the application. You could also provide a set of short videos demonstrating how to do each of those activities.  However, beyond that you could provide additional links and navigational components on each video page to give the learner an opportunity to see the inner workings of a steering mechanism or a link demonstrating how speed ratios effect braking.

My example is very basic and we know that a lot of complex content will have to be covered in mobile format. But I don’t think we should hold back on content that can provide depth, we simply need to think of how to allow the user to get to it without bogging them down with too many distracting choices that will inhibit the effectiveness of your learning product.

Any ideas about how you could structure your content for easy access to the most necessary information, while maintaining the learner’s ability to dive deeper?

The Concept of Immediacy in Mobile Learning


Harris Interactive recently did a poll for (article provided by Mobile Marketer) to reveal answers to questions about how mobile users really use their devices to find information. One thing that stuck out was that users really want their information fast and they are often searching for specific answers to specific questions rather than large macro-level topics.

Some interesting facts from the poll:

  • “66 percent of mobile users said they are more likely to ask timely questions when they are not in front of their computer”
  • 81% of 1500 respondents said they expect information immediately
  • “30 percent—of smartphone users leverage their mobile phones to access the Web more than they use their computer to access the same information”
  • “Forty percent of smartphone users indicated that they are more influenced by users’ opinions given within the last day than users’ opinions that were given a month or so ago.” – That number goes to 67% for 18-24 year olds

Polls like this indicate that we are dealing with a very different learner in many cases than the learner we educate on the desktop or in the classroom. This learner is often not looking to learn “how to ride a bicycle”, rather the learner wants to know “how to push the pedals” (I know the analogy could be better, but I hope you get the point).

It’s tempting for us as instructional designers and developers to want to provide more context to our learners so they have a broader and deeper understanding of subject matter. I think that we are taking the right approach by leaning toward giving our learners knowledge and depth rather than tiny granular pieces. However, if we do that we may also show a lack of respect for our learner’s needs at the time. Mobile learning should be about giving the learner the content they need in a timely fashion so they can get the job done, we should not be making decisions for our learners.

BUT… we also know that learners often want to learn more about a subject if that information is easily accessible. We can give them what they need, while also providing them with what they want in the form of greater context. Think about how the immediacy of information can drive your learners to your learning application, but also how you can take advantage of the fact they are there. Take a look at a few mobile sites on your device and see how they do it.  Some recent mobile learning sites recommended to me are:



American Express:

These sites are not perfect by any means and they are not learning sites, but they may lend some ideas to you for your next mobile learning application. A