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The Fact and Fancy of Mobile Learning

Bob Little 

October 16, 2015

Man is taking photo of appleOver the last five years or so, mobile learning (m-learning) has developed to the point where it now has its own “week.” This year, Mobile Learning Week (MLW) was observed during the last week in February.

UNESCO designated that particular week as MLW and its highlight was a conference, held in the French capital of Paris. The event explored how mobile technology can be leveraged to improve education. It attempted to show how newly affordable technologies — from basic mobile handsets to the newest tablet computers – can open doors to educational opportunities.

In a way, UNESCO’s MLW typifies the current state of m-learning. Thanks to the rapid growth in mobile devices, m-learning should be receiving a major boost purely because the devices “out there” can be used for learning – even if it’s for informal, performance-support learning rather than formal, qualification or compliance-based e-learning.

Yet, so far, m-learning doesn’t seem to have caught either the corporate or the individual worker’s imagination. Maybe those with mobile devices are more interested in using them for entertainment than for education.

Hence the need to promote m-learning as a “serious” learning delivery technology and raise its profile by giving it its own “week.”

According to David Patterson, of Learning Light, the UK-based market analyst specialising in the online learning technologies and educational technology (edtech) sectors, “Both apps and videos have become more common terms in the e-learning world over the past three or four years. Apps, in particular, is a term used widely as shorthand for delivering e-learning to tablet devices and smartphones. Apps have been the drivers for m-learning.”

David is one of four authors of a major report, called ‘A Review of the e-learning markets of the UK, EU and China 2014’, published last year by Learning Light. Another of the report’s authors, Gillian Broadhead, also of Learning Light, comments, “M-learning is a key e-learning delivery mechanism, especially via smartphones and iPads. However, many organizations don’t have the resources at present to commission, develop or deliver e-learning content to these devices.

“Few organizations will provide their learners with smartphones and tablets unless this is closely aligned to a business need. They won’t provide workers with these devices purely for accessing learning materials. Therefore, the interoperability of e-learning materials across smartphones, iPads and other tablets will be key to vendors achieving a premium price for their e-learning content.

“Thanks to Google, among other sources, a great deal of information is freely available. However, ‘bad’ free content can often drive out ‘good’ premium content. Pricing is, therefore, a function of cost savings and confidence in the quality of the learning content.”

In preparing this report, the Learning Light team interviewed a number of organizations – throughout Europe and the U.S.A., as well as in China – to gauge attitudes to various learning delivery methods. Patterson says, “Overall, large firms in the financial services sector, in the West, support all things to do with e-learning – although they tend to feel that m-learning is some way from being a mature learning delivery mechanism.”

Similarly, he says that firms in the legal services sector appear ambivalent towards m-learning. While they don’t believe that mobile phones are suitable devices via which to deliver learning materials, they’re open to using tablets as learning delivery devices – although, in general, these aren’t being used in this role.

However, when it comes to membership-based organizations, it appears that offering face-to-face, classroom-delivered learning is proving less popular with their members, who’re finding it increasingly difficult to get away from their workplaces to attend courses. So, e-learning, and especially m-learning, are growing in popularity – as is social networking to share knowledge.

While the money for instituting mobile learning in the professional services sector has been available for some years, employers are wary of committing to this delivery mechanism because they believe that many technical issues are yet to be resolved. At present, they’re investigating supporting m-learning via Android, Apple and Blackberry for senior members of their organizations, as well as looking at apps for client insight services.

When it comes to welfare-to-work providers, Learning Light found that social network learning – via blogs, Twitter and Facebook – is well used. There appears to be no m-learning in use – or, indeed, planned to be used.

Turning from the Western markets for online learning materials to look at the Chinese market for the first time, Broadhead reports that Learning Light’s researchers found that, “there’s evidence that Chinese companies are looking to increase their engagement with technology in order to improve worker performance. They’re looking to develop learning pathways that are supported by e-learning content, video sharing, blogs, and e-books.”

“Mobile learning also focuses strongly in their plans,” says Patterson. “Some 40 percent of companies in the country have recently expressed an interest in developing content for mobile devices. It’ll be interesting to track this development because our experience in Western markets has seen m-learning be a slow-burner exercise.

“M-learning has been talked about for many years in the West but it’s only recently that we’ve seen greater strides being made in this area.”

However, m-learning is beginning to have an impact on the L&D function in terms of contributing to “big data” about learning activities and preferences. According to a report published, in June, by international e-learning think tank The Company of Thought (TCoT), stakeholders are realizing that market success is connected to having a personal approach to the customer (learner).

Croatia-based TCoT member Iva Matasic explains, “Based on data we get from learners, we can forecast their future activities. Big data has the power to impact the future of e-learning and revolutionize the way we analyze and assess all forms of the e-learning experience.

“Personalized e-learning and data analytics play major roles in tracking the learning results and ROI. And, as wearable technology gains more traction, it’s starting to take hold in the education market. Analysts at Morgan Stanley believe wearable technology will become a $1.6tr business in the near future.”

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