The importance of Learner and Context analysis for m-Learning design

I’ve talked before about tips for m-Learning. Mobile devices have become, or are becoming the dominant means through which people access online content, and the need for mobile delivered learning and support materials as part of an overall training solution has become increasingly apparent.

It’s become so much part of the culture now that whether to make materials available in a mobile-friendly format has ceased to be the most challenging question, because it’s no longer a question to puzzle over, but almost a given. Making training content available to mobile becomes a default expectation. It has gone mainstream as a component or means of delivery of training.

Mobile has also gone mainstream in terms of how we think about presenting content and how we structure interactions with e-Learning. The mobile app aesthetic has become a key influence in the design of look and feel of e-Learning presentations. This aspect of the design is becoming almost subliminal, just part of the culture. We start to just think in terms of stripped back, less visually busy screens with less text, and graphics that will look clear on a 5-10 inch screen.

Now the attention, in any training organization should be moving on to a more subtle and nuanced question. Namely, what parts of the training solution should be directed toward which of the multiple screens in the learner’s work environment and life?

A fully thought out and realized training solution designed for the specific combination of performer-job-context will consist of multiple components.

The multiple screens to which the learner has access, including work desktop, home desktop, smart phone, tablet, and connected TVs each have their own particular quirks in terms of portability, resolution, how you use it or interact with it, and where you can look at it. The primitive sort of approach to this in many organizations has often involved very blunt solutions. “Customers have iPads. customers like iPads,” says the upper management. “So put the training on iPads.” So the “mobile strategy” has often consisted of “put it on the iPad.”

Now, I don’t mean to slag this completely; at least it got development teams working on thinking about, and making, mobile friendly content. But a more nuanced solution is needed.

Different aspects of a training solution will fit best or more naturally with particular of these screens, depending on the needs of the worker, the work context, and the strengths and weaknesses of the various screens. As a result, different parts of the training may well need to be targeted toward different of the devices used by the learners. This underlines with renewed vigor the importance of a rigorous needs analysis, particularly learner and context analysis for m-Learning.

There are some questions that the designer needs to answer:

  • Where is the learner doing his job? At a desk with a desktop computer station? In a fixed location in a warehouse or factory floor? Is the person out of the office, for example, a salesforce professional, a sales engineer, or an onsite repair or installation technician? Does the worker spend a large percentage of the time travelling?
  • What sort of computer technology does the user have at his workplace provided by the employer? A desktop computer? A laptop? A tablet? A company cellphone? What sort of technology does the user himself have? Smartphone? Tablet?
  • Are there any data security or regulatory concerns that would preclude users accessing training materials on their own devices?
  • Does the workplace have training on the intranet and are the users openly and consistently encouraged to take training during appropriate moments on the company time?
  • Will the worker’s performance and transfer of learning benefit significantly from having a quick reference on the job?

Let’s highlight this with a few examples.

For example network access level on the job. If a worker has access to high speed wifi, then you can safely have more rich content coming through the mobile devices. If the workers are on their own cellular connections, you should stick to a less rich presentation for any mobile component. You need to be cognizant of bandwidth limitations. In the second case, perhaps the more useful solution for the mobile device is high level notes. Reminders that the worker can look up in a handy and simple fashion on the fly. The user can whip the phone out of the pocket, look up the simplified reference, put the phone away, and get back to work. Bullet lists or simple graphical reminders are ideal in this case.

Or for home tablets, is the worker going to want to watch work related training material on the couch on the iPad at the end of the day? For the average worker, maybe the motivation is not there. But if the person is a highly motivated individual interested in professional development training to improve or accelerate promotion prospects, then he quite likely would find the iPad availability attractive.

If an employer as a matter of policy allows and encourages workers to take professional development training during lulls in the work day, then a delivery through the work desktop would seem to be in order.

Is a person at a desk all day? If so, materials accessible on the desktop could well suffice.

If the person is in a job where he is constantly mobile, like a service or installation technician, mobile is the perfect platform for performance support tools.

Similarly someone in sales that has to travel to meet customers or potential customers. A mobile application can be an ideal way to top up product knowledge before meetings.

Also for employees who travel frequently. A tablet is the ideal size and form factor for use on a train or airplane or in a taxi.

On the other hand, if someone is at a fixed location in a factory setting, there may well be fixed stations with desktop computers, but the technical specs of the computers in that setting will probably be substantially lower than those of the phones in people’s pockets or a tablet. In this case, mobile support aids may be more usable.

So the basic takeaway is that we as designers have to understand the workers and their work flow and environment, look at what devices are available at what times, look at the training solutions we can offer and want to offer to help them learn and perform, and then decide which of these solutions are best delivered through which devices.

Rather than some across the board decision about desktop vs mobile, we need to take a more nuanced, component by component look at what to deliver, and where.

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