mLearning, or mobile learning, is not really something new. The origins of mLearning trace back to the 1970s or even before, when people took courses using audio tapes. Today, the evolving technology has made it more feasible and effective to deliver a richer learning experience through mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers. Some companies even have started offering various series of training courses using employees’ iPads.

mLearning offers exciting possibilities, but there are some basic considerations and differences that I think learning professionals need to consider or understand.

Start with the Learner

With newer and better mobile computing devices coming on the market every day, it’s very easy to become distracted by the technology side of mLearning. Remember, mLearning is still learning and the needs of the learner still need to be the first consideration.

You must ask the all-important questions: who is your audience? What do they need to learn on the go? Why do they need to learn it? The learners who choose mLearning usually do so because their workplace is not a fixed location, or their work environment doesn’t provide a good setting for learning.

Also keep in mind that many learners today prefer to learn small pieces in short intervals rather than take one long course. This is especially true for mLearning fans and it requires courses to be structured differently than conventional learning offerings. Additionally, mLearning can’t always be highly interactive or media-rich, but it has to find the right balance so that it meets the learner’s needs and expectations.

Learning about mLearning Technology

Now let’s look at the technology side of mLearning – the facet that is changing nearly every day. There is a huge variety of mobile devices and many variations in their capabilities; these facts can make developing mLearning quite challenging. For example, you can view your eLearning courses on a 10.1” Android tablet without a problem. But, the same course won’t look good, or even be readable, on a 3.5” Android smart phone.

Another issue is the media players that are standard on mobile devices. As you probably have already heard, your existing library of graceful Flash-based courses won’t work on Apple mobile devices such as the iPhone or the iPad. But they will work, at various levels, on the Android devices. You may have also heard that HTML5 is a “replacement” for Flash.

It’s important to understand the current state of HTML5. HTML5 could eventually be a solution to develop and launch courses that work across mobile platforms without dependency on the players. However, right now HTML5 is still immature and it has a long way to go before it becomes standardized and functional enough to be used in the way that Flash is used today. I offer this as general view of the current state of HTML5, and only to emphasize that right now this technology is not in a position to do what many have heard that it does…or could eventually do.

Another consideration is the way that touchscreens operate mobile devices. This is a very different method of user input compared to the more traditional mouse and keyboard input methods around which most eLearning is currently designed. In most cases, course developers and designers will encounter new challenges in developing mLearning interactions. Touchscreens also introduce unique usability issues. For example, the buttons have to be big enough to allow finger touches or movements and these bigger user controls therefore have an impact on the available screen real estate. The bottom line is that existing eLearning courses cannot really be “converted” to be effectively delivered as mLearning offerings. Because of the differences in learner needs and expectations combined with the different capabilities of mobile devices, courses need to be developed or redesigned specifically to function as mLearning offerings.

Finally, let’s look at the security issues. Many of the corporate eLearning courses and talent development curricula contain confidential or proprietary information. They cannot be pushed to the learners through the public app stores as conventional mobile apps are. It’s difficult to say much more in general about security concerns with mLearning other than to point out that the considerations can change once learning products go mobile. Essentially, learning and IT professionals need to consider what (if any) security risks are presented by introducing an mLearning offering, conduct appropriate testing, and take actions to make sure the required level of security can be maintained.

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