Learning on the Small Screen

I’ll admit it. I can’t stop checking my phone. There is something about seeing those little notification icons that fills me with a combination of anticipation and dread and I can’t resist. As I walked around the expo floor at the eLearning Guild’s mLearnCon 2012, I could see I was not alone. All week long, the only people who were not looking down at a mobile device for longer than 5 minutes were the presenters in the various sessions. And most of them were using mobile devices to present! Of course, this being a conference dedicated to the concept of mobile learning, this behavior was not only tolerated, but encouraged.

I did manage to pull myself away from my phone long enough to see some really amazing things. I also was able to absorb some reality checks as well. When you are immersed in a world dedicated to mobile and surrounded by people who think almost exclusively about mobile, you can be convinced that simply everyone is delivering and accessing learning via mobile devices. The truth is a bit more mundane.

One statistic that I saw continuously throughout the conference was the one from Nielsen stating that the U.S. had finally crossed the 50% threshold for smartphone adoption. More than half of the mobile phone subscribers in the United States are using smartphones. It’s a pretty impressive statistic, although from looking around the conference, you would not be faulted for thinking that number should be somewhere in the 90% range.  But that number is less impressive when you look at it with a filter of reality, which I give to you now: Both of my parents have iPhones.

That’s right; my 75-year-old parents have iPhones. I’m not saying that there aren’t 85-year-old business people out there using their smartphones to change the world. I’m just saying I know my parents. My dad uses his iPhone to occasionally call my mother from the golf course to say he’s running late, or to play solitaire. I received one solitary text message from my mother after she got her iPhone. Actually, two. The second one was to tell me that the first one was from her, my mother.

The point is that, anecdotally speaking, a good chunk of that 50.4% Nielsen is talking about is probably using their smartphones in much the same way they used the feature phone they had two years ago. Although I sat in on some mind-blowing sessions about what is possible with mobile, I also sat in on some more 101-like sessions. To hear the questions from the audiences in these basic sessions is a refreshing dose of reality. Mobile learning is basically still a toddler, and you still have time to wrap your head around what it means for you and your business.

It’s a party – BYOD

There has been much hand wringing over the past few years over device fragmentation and what that means for mobile devices in the corporate setting. Companies have been struggling with mobile because they don’t want to build content for each of the different devices and operating systems that exist. It’s too expensive to give everyone their own corporate approved device, and people don’t want it. They are not going to carry around a business phone and a personal phone. Most of the ideas at mLearnCon have moved past this, and the smartest choice at the moment is to say, “Bring your own device,” or BYOD.

Most content is being delivered via the web, where mobile browser enhancements and HTML-5 are making for richer experiences. But the native app issue is being addressed with what are basically device sniffers. You download the learning app on your device, and the software knows what device and operating system you have. It then renders the content appropriately, right down to the proper screen resolution. This means building mobile content once, and delivering it to anyone on any device.

Tin Cans, No String

I mentioned I saw some mind-blowing stuff. If you haven’t heard yet, the newest buzz around eLearning is the Tin Can API, a new standard being developed as the next generation of SCORM. While it may be enough that the standards are being updated, this is poised to be a game changer.  It was on full display at mLearnCon, and I cannot do it justice in the space of this blog. Just know that it will break down many of the barriers presented by SCORM when it comes to using new technologies, especially mobile. Until now one of the biggest drawbacks to mobile, social and informal learning has been the inability to track those events. The Tin Can API addresses that. It also allows learning to be delivered and tracked in disconnected environments, on any device, from any server and even outside of the browser environment.

Essentially, anything that can be considered a learning event can be tracked with the Tin Can API. That includes reading a book or asking someone a question. Those are events that can be tracked by this API and converted into useable, interoperable data.

Technology continues to advance, and the time of mobile learning is clearly upon us. The attendance for mLearnCon, a conference solely dedicated to mobile learning, increased by more than one third over last year. We are at a point where the technology and the learner requirements are lining up nicely. There are vast possibilities for those who have the technical know-how and many benefits for those that don’t. If you are in the latter group, don’t be intimidated by what mobile learning has to offer. The people in the former group are making it easier every day.

David Wentworth

Brandon Hall Group

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