Friday, April 24, 2009

Is "Mobile" Limiting Our Discussions?

Lots more mobile learning discussions this week... On Monday I presented at the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association Conference, Tuesday and Wednesday attended the Design4Mobile Conference virtually as well as attending the Mobile Learning Innovation: Healthcare Leads The Way webinar by Ambient Insight, and on Thursday discussed mobile learning on the Masie Consortium call (with over 250 registered participants.)

Starting the discussion of mobile learning is often difficult because of existing perceptions about what it is, let along what it can be. With the K-12 audience it tends to be more about policies that prohibit the devices, than about the potential of having ubiquitous digital access to the world.

Most people unfortunately think of mobile learning--or mlearning--as elearning on a small screen. I think that a definition of “learning at the point of need” used by Dr. Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher may make more sense.

Should we drop the word mobile? Is it keeping us from discovering the potential?

I depend upon my always-available, always-on mobile devices throughout the day whether I am on the road or in my office, and continue to find more benefits. We are carrying a powerful multimedia computer in our pockets and purses. Isn't it really more about the capabilities, availability, connectivity, useful applications, and convenience?

The power of always-available access to learning materials for review, expert assistance, updates on what I have already learned, or new learning when I need it (or can find the time) can’t be underestimated.

What do you think, should we come up with another term for this powerful continuous learning tool? Would that help to change the discussions about the potential for the future? Please leave your comments below.


  1. I absolutely agree with the sentiment, but I think the term "mobile learning" will continue to be relevant whilst we still have to make concessions in our media in order to be able to be able to deliver the content that we have.

    When the content or the devices are smart enough to 'just work' regardless of the content or the device, then it will be time to drop the 'mobile' prefix.

    A similar conversation seems to be going on in the learning industry over terms like 'eLearning' vs 'Learning' and vs 'Training'.

  2. Hi Judy, great post! Mobile, ubiquity and other words just seem to give "some" people an excuse to make money for nothing exploiting the web and confusing potential users with hype, rather than an honest exploration of what / how /where we are, what we do, would like to do ... context ...access...when mobile, which professionals such as yourself are seeking to address.

    Having said that, its really exciting to see some of the innovation as people have experimented. Not just the devices but all the different connectivity - I am still nowhere near attempting to build a mobile device or work out what a mobile web presence is (I don't think it exists) but kind of moving in my thinking towards - not even devices - do I actually need one - just little pieces of different connectivity - connecting to people as well as actual physical or virtual connections through physical or virtual networks, information requesting, access for different contexts, situations. Sorry this is a bit vague!


  3. I agree with Steve's perspective, and I'll go farther. I think we definitely need to retain the concept of "mobile learning" and likely will need it for many years to come. There are too many limitations and unique characteristics that current handheld devices impose on learners and learning content to not have a separate concept for it. The screensize factor, the limited memory, the lack of Flash on most of the devices, inconsistent tracking back to LMSes, and many more -- all of these add up to needing a concept for learning delivered to mobile people via devices with these attributes. Regular "formal e-Learning" delivered on laptops or desktops doesn't have these issues. And ditto for performance support systems delivered on laptops or desktops.

    Bob and Conrad's alternate definition won't do, because that doesn't define by essentials for what we are talking about here. Bob has been talking a lot in recent years about "learning at the point of need" -- and rightly so, because we need more solutions of that kind. And the company he works for provides exactly such "performance support" solutions. But that doesn't mean the definition of the concept we reference with "mobile learning" should be stretched beyond the scope where it applies. There really are unique, important attributes to "learning delivered on mobile devices". We are likely to need this concept for many years, as Steve noted, until such time as the learning content, user experience, and tracking is roughly the same whether you are using a laptop/desktop computer or a Blackberry/iPhone/other handheld device.

  4. Great comments. Thanks.

    I really believe that these devices are much different than the desktop/laptop and the learner doesn't have to be away from their workspace for them to be valuable.

    What the success of the Apple app store has shown is the power of small specific capabilities. In fact, there are unique things which involve location, camera, or communications we can do on these devices, that we can't do on a desktop.

    These devices are a part of a total learning environment for continuous learning. I believe that they can be of tremendous value for both mobile and non-mobile workers. Thus my questioning the word mobile.

  5. Ahh, thanks for that clarification Judy. I've always taken the "mobile" in "mobile learning" to be short-hand for "mobile device-based learning" -- and not to imply "learning while moving" or whatnot. I wouldn't want to see "mobile device learning" take off because that is a mouthful. And yet, I think we need a word/phrase for this important concept, and I don't think that Bob's definition adequately defines the concept in question. This concept is important for a wide range of people (IDs, Vendors, others) to differentiate both the user experience and the content involved from traditional e-learning and traditional EPSS.

    So either we need to shift the understanding of "mobile" in "mobile learning" to mean "mobile device-based learning" or we need to replace it with another word/phrase that does the same thing.

  6. There are many examples of these devices being used in physical classrooms or events which enhance the participation and learning. I just was concerned that they were not being targeted only at the mobile worker in discussions and planning.

    I often use words like ubiquitous, always-available, convenient or enabler when discussing mobile learning. These devices are also rapidly becoming our personal agents or advisers.

    The initial purpose of this post was to encourage group thinking about the word "mobile" so as to not limit the potential for continuous lifelong learning that constant access to digital content enables.

    Thanks for the comments! Any other thoughts?

  7. Hi all

    I agree with Steve that the "m" in m-learning is a powerful term today, but will become less significant as time passes.

    But I don't agree that it is just about the media formatting. Learning on cell phones (for example) offers learners entirely new tools and approaches that e-learning did not.

    Yes, you are restricted in what media you can view, but you can also do new stuff in new ways and new places. You can communicate with classmates who are far away.

    If e-learning was truly about "learning with technology" then all of these things would be included in the mix. But sadly, it has distilled into a very particular type of "learning on a PC connected to the web", which although useful, does exclude some of the other rich and rewarding tools technologies.

    This is why "m" is important. It is a reminder that there are other types of technology that will help learners that don't fit the current standards.

    In time I hope "e-learning" embraces this wider range of technologies, and awkward devices. When that happens we won't need to talk about "m-learning" anymore.