Category Archives: Performance Support

An idea whose time has come? Reusable Learning Objects.

Introduction: A brief history of learning objects

When I was in school in the early 2000s, one of the trendy ideas in the field of educational technology was reusable learning objects (RLOs). Learning objects were a heavily promoted idea in the 1990s and early 2000s. The idea came out of US military-funded training research, focused on two goals:

  • To standardize multiple, mutually incompatible eLearning formats used by vendors to the armed forces so as to improve inter-operability of training content, and
  • To design materials using small, self-contained, meta-tagged modules to enable reuse and thus reduce development time and cost.

The name “learning object” comes from the computer paradigm of object-oriented programming, where small, self-contained code structures model objects and entities in the real world, their properties and their inner structures, and their interaction between objects and entities. This was a paradigm allowing faster development through modular design, re-usable libraries of code, and encapsulation of object data within the objects.

Learning objects try to carry some of this success from software design and development to the design and development of eLearning.

What is a learning object?

A learning object is a short learning piece, usually digital, from a few minutes up to as much as an hour in length, though usually on the shorter side. The learning piece is focused on one learning objective. It will generally include an introduction, explanation and/or demonstration, activities for the learner for practice and / or consolidation, and an assessment. It is an irreducible element of knowledge, an atomic nugget of learning.

It was expected that eLearning objects would use a standard format such as SCORM for metadata attached to the objects. This would enable the learning object to be interoperable with different delivery platforms (LMS).  The idea was for the object to represent instruction for a small nugget of content related to a specific objective.

The purpose of this was to enable re-use of training materials for faster, more efficient development of future content. Usually, when we want to reuse a body of training content as part of a new course, we need to break apart the old course, extract useful bits, and then assemble what you want back together in a cohesive fashion.

The idea with the learning objects is that they represent some small sort of smallest learning objectives. The related objects are already broken down. All that is left when building a new course is to identify what you need to teach, finding out what is already built, evaluate it, and then either re-use or re-purpose the content.

To maximize this re-usability, the learning object is supposed to be as free of specific context (audience, place, type of organization, etc) as possible. For example, if multiple audiences would want to study toward this objective, media or examples used should not be limited to only one audience.

New courses could, in theory, be built by collecting, and sequencing various learning objects, with an overall introduction and conclusion and some linkages to join it all together.

Critiques of the Learning Object concept

While learning objects were a trendy topic in the -90s and -00s, the idea was not without its critics.

There are several critiques of the learning object concept:

  • The idea of learning objects was pushed primarily by the military and for its own concerns of operational efficiency and cost savings rather than any sense that it would produce more better learning. The concerns are quantity of output and efficiency rather than quality of education
  • The idea mainly focuses on eLearning, and specifically eLearning for one solitary self-paced learner. Where social sorts of learning involving cooperation and collaboration fits within this was not clear
  • If context is removed, it is harder for learners to relate to it on a concrete level. Media and graphics and examples are generic, or some wide range. The media and examples don’t speak closely to their particular reality. As such, you risk losing the attention and motivation of the learner, because they may not see the relevance clearly.
  • If context is removed, it is harder for learners to make meaningful connections between the content and other content unless the developer puts in extra effort to put this connective material back in. Statements like, “as you remember from module 1,” or, “you will learn more about this in the coming module,” or “this is related to these other topics” would be mostly removed from learning objects to maximize reusability. Learning these sorts of connections is an important part of learning new material, and is part of what makes new learning stick together cohesively in the learner’s mind.
  • When assembling courses from smaller learning objects, it is not a matter of just sticking together lego blocks or assembling IKEA furniture. Remember that all that context that serves as a connective tissue of sorts for the objects has been stripped away to allow the reuse. To make it most effective, you need to add contextual glue/mortar in between the pieces to improve flow and relevance. This cancels a lot of the time savings that are advertised.


So up through the early and mid 2000s there was a lot of hype about learning objects, When I was in my Educational Technology program at that time, the concept was talked about, and readings were given, including critiques of the concept. Some large companies, schools, and educational networks did a lot of work in this field, with some of these projects still continuing. But the idea never took off broadly as advertised.

eLearning continued to gain broader acceptance in the academy and in industry. SCORM standards for eLearning content metadata and inter-operability went forward and became commonly used standards supported by authoring tools and Learning Management Systems. eLearning authoring tools became increasingly sophisticated, allowing simple eLearning to be developed more and more efficiently.

But the strict learning object idea did not continue to be top of mind for practitioners, who grew disillusioned by the concept as they experienced the limitations and difficulty, witnessed lots of bad eLearning content, and found the time savings and re-usability to be much less in practice than advertised.

The term learning object faded from common conversation.

In the meantime…

Life went on, technology advanced. Broadband internet became more widespread with faster speeds. This allowed easier upload and download of multimedia content, even video content.

The Web 2.0 era of user generated content came about. PHP discussion boards. Wikipedia. Youtube. Social media like Facebook. Question and answer sites like eHow and Quora. A Web where content could easily be generated by users, tagged for search, and uploaded.

This was furthered with the mainstreaming of mobile internet devices. The iPhone 3G appeared in 2008. The explosion of the smartphone market followed. This led to a proliferation of mobile apps on sophisticated pocket computers with cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Tablet computing went mainstream, with the iPad in 2010. With these mobile devices came touch based computing and context aware computing. The widespread rollout and development of high speed mobile networks enabled voice, audio, and video transmission. Smart, small, lightweight connected mobile devices mean that the user almost always has on hand.

In the field of educational technology and training, there is an increasing emphasis on informal learning such as job aids, performance support systems, and just-in-time learning.

Finally, eLearning authoring tools have become much more user friendly, making it easier for experts to build their own content and distribute it. This broadens the development pool and makes it easier to generate content.

All of these developments and change have come over the past ten years. We start to see a very different landscape from what it was when this learning objects concept originally peaked and then faded in the early 2000s.

When you look at all these developments together, and reflect, you start to wonder if maybe that old idea of learning objects might have renewed relevance in today’s environment.


So what’s changed?

So putting it together, what is different today?

Cell phones and inexpensive but powerful recording equipment let us easily record content. Easy to use authoring software lets us easily assemble media into small but meaningful packets of learning material. Ubiquitous network connections and sharing features in apps let us easily upload content from almost anywhere.

Platforms like Youtube, Soundcloud, Facebook, and others give us a place to upload and organize content, share it with others, see what others have shared, and further pass content along to others.

To keep up with the rapid pace of the age, these pieces of content are short and focused. In line with trends in informal learning and continuous learning, a lot of learning materials are posted on these sorts of platforms and on company intranets, so learners can access brief, relevant material as needed on the job rather than taking a formal course. There is also the trend in microlearning, focusing on short learning pieces of a few minutes in length.Short learning pieces also work better with the usage patterns of smartphones

Responsive web design and responsive eLearning design allow content to be developed once, hosted in one location, and accessible from different devices, at any time, wherever the learner may be.

New standards technologies such as TinCan API/xAPI make it easier and more flexible to track learning on materials accessed and hosted in different locations and in a wider variety of different formats.


And so we see a lot of elements of this original vision of learning objects being realized thanks to these many separate factors coming together.

And though it is a concept that has its valid criticisms, learning objects may offer an interesting an useful model to help manage and guide this new world of content production and sharing.

The earlier discussions of 10-15 years ago may give useful insight as to how to design, structure, and build short content. As well, it may guide us as to how to meta-tag, store, and search for these materials. And, finally, these earlier discussions may give us insights into how to repurpose and combine these learning pieces into larger, cohesive learning experiences, both online and blended learning, for both individuals and groups.




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Instructional Design and Technical Writing


What is the relationship between Instructional Design and Technical Writing? In what ways do these roles and skill sets overlap, and in which ways are they distinct?

Though Instructional Designers and Technical Writers will often work under the same roof or under the same team, and may collaborate on projects, they have typically been viewed as distinct jobs with distinct roles. However, recent developments in communication tools and changes in the way we think about learning have caused the boundaries between the disciplines to become fuzzier and more porous than they might initially appear. This article will look at some of the overlap and difference between the two fields, recent trends of convergence between the disciplines, and possibilities for the future.

Technical Writing and Instructional Design: a Comparison

Technical writing, as the name implies, traditionally involved writing manuals or documentation to support hardware or software. This included writing user, operation, or maintenance manuals for equipment, formal documentation of standard operating procedures (SOPs), or documentation of APIs or libraries for software. The Technical Writer engages with hardware/software developers and engineers to document key information about the systems and products.

Instructional Design on the other hand focuses on:

  •  Identifying goal performances
  • Identifying performance, skill, and knowledge gaps between what is expected and what is
  • Identifying training objectives
  • Designing training interventions to close gaps, including instructional strategies, media approach, and training delivery method, and
  • Designing assessments to measure learning.

To get needed information, the Instructional Designer engages with subject matter experts (SMEs) in the relevant discipline.

Technical writing has typically focused on text-based written materials with still images, photos, graphs, and charts. The intended media has often, traditionally speaking, been print, though in the more recent period, this has shifted to include digital texts as well. The end product has been mainly text-based resources meant to be used by people involved with a company’s hardware and software products as on-the-job or on-task references.

The products resulting from Instructional Design processes have run the gamut from written materials, classroom lessons, workshops, eLearning, and blended learning, and has involved various media, including still images, photos, graphs, charts, videos, and animations. The end result has been learning resources meant to be used as part of a formal training course, to either help learning, allow practice of what is learned, or test how well the student learned.

Technical Writing and Instructional Design: A Convergence?

So this seems relatively clear cut, and probably, historically speaking, it was. However, ongoing developments in the past decade or so have served to erode some of these distinctions.

Some describe the difference between the two fields as being that Instructional Design focuses on promoting learning and performance improvement and measuring achievement, while Technical Writing seeks simply to inform. However, on close examination, this does not seem to hold up. After all, if the Technical Writer is being paid to inform, it is obvious that it is toward some intended end of learning or performance support. There is at least implicitly some understanding that the user is supposed to learn and better his use of the documented product through the reference.

Some might not think of technical manuals as learning materials, since they aren’t used as materials in a course, and users don’t take a test after using them. Most users utilize manuals as references. When they have a question, they look up the relevant section, and find out what they need to know. This is a form of learning, however. It is simply a different form of learning called informal learning. Informal learning is the learning that takes place outside of formal courses, often in an ad hoc, unplanned, task and needs-based manner. A learner, often an adult learner, though not necessarily, has a question. The person looks up a reference in one of the resources available at hand, whether from computers or people. The person gets the question answered, and gets back to work.

This is “just-in-time” learning within the workplace and within the normal workflow rather than “just in case” learning  carried out away from the workplace in a course. If you think about it, this is actually our natural tendency in learning. When we are stuck with something, be it a game, a piece of software, a piece of equipment, we don’t tend to look for some formal course. We seek out quick focused resources that will answer our question. This could take the form of some sort of quick reference document or a person whose knowledge and experience you value.

Informal learning is less well understood than formal learning, but is ironically how most of us do most of our learning, by far. Instructional Design has always been embedded within the larger field of Human Performance Technology, which is a generalized approach for diagnosing performance problems in organizations and crafting interventions which do not necessarily involve training.

In recent years, the Instructional Design field has begun to look more seriously at informal learning tools, in particular performance support systems, electronic performance support systems,  and job aids as more effective alternatives to formal training for many aspects of workplace learning.

Instead of always designing lengthy courses to be taken by learners at a separate time and place from their work, increasingly, learning materials are designed in smaller instructional pieces indexed and searchable on company intranets. When workers need to learn how to do some task, or are stuck, or need a reminder, they look up their question in the company system, and locate some reference material. They check out the material, and when they understand, they return to their task. The whole experience might take only a few minutes, at the work desk.

Parallel to this, the scope of Technical Writing has expanded to include wider modes of reference and support documentation beyond traditional written manuals. Technical Writers do not only write manuals, but are also called on to create online help files, FAQ banks, and knowledge base items. There has also been a push, as streaming online video has become easier to deal with, for Technical Writers to use video tutorials as a more engaging method of product documentation. Explanatory or demonstrative videos, taken either with cameras or screen capture software like Camtasia, are hosted either on the company knowledge base or sites like YouTube. Technical Writers can also find themselves involved with internal wikis, or blogs. In some cases, this has even included direct interaction with the user community and even curation/management of user generated content, whether on discussion forums or social media.

There is a powerful overlap appearing here between Technical Writing and Instructional Design as applied to informal learning materials.

The question comes as to whether there is a sort of convergence going on and to what extent. Are these ultimately different jobs, or just different points on a spectrum of a common domain of technical communication? A common shared skill set can be seen, including such skills as:

  • Communicating with subject technical experts to get needed information
  • Understanding the characteristics and needs of the intended user and their work environment
  • Being able to rapidly assimilate new information
  • Coming up with ways to explain this information in a simple, well-structured, easy to understand way attuned to the needs of the audience
  • Implementing these explanation, delivering it using whatever tools are available.

On one hand, Technical Writers have been known to sometimes cross over to Instructional Design or Course Development positions.

The tools of Technical Writers have expanded in recent years to allow modes of explanation that might previously have been the domain of Instructional Designers. Recent editions of Adobe Framemaker, a popular Technical Writing tool, have allowed incorporation of video, 3D models or animations, flash presentations, and audio. As books move from something made to print on paper to something used on an e-reader or tablet, it is no longer necessary to stick to static images for support documentation. With the explosion of ebooks on media capable devices like smartphones and tablets, the very definition of what a book or manual is has come into question.

As books are increasingly consumed through electronic screens rather than on paper, old restrictions need not apply. A book can become a multimedia presentation, with different media used as appropriate to bring across different points to the reader. An interactive 3D model from AutoCAD files embedded in a manual can communicate the 3D structure of a system or piece of equipment better than a static image from one fixed perspective. An embedded animation can better bring to life a process or flow. An embedded video can bring to life a maintenance procedure in a much more compact way than through text and static graphics. The decisions involved in deciding when to use what form of media are precisely the sorts of skills traditionally used by Instructional Designers in choosing a media strategy for instructional multimedia.

Meanwhile, job descriptions for some Instructional Design openings read more like Technical Writer jobs, with emphasis on manuals, help files, FAQs, and wikis. Designers in such positions will use more “Technical Writer” oriented development tools such as Camtasia, Robohelp, and Dreamweaver. The need to document systems that go through increasingly shorter cycles of development and update has made it harder to keep up with this pace with traditional Instructional Design via formal courses. This has led to more use of shorter, informal learning resources hosted on company networks.

Key Differences Between Technical Writing and Instructional Design

It’s important to note however that while the sorts of projects and documents that Technical Writers and Instructional Designers are called to work on are overlapping more and more, there are important differences in skill sets.

Instructional Designers, particularly those with formal training, tend to have more developed formal guidance for needs analysis. They also have more formal grounding in the psychology of learning and in systems thinking and analysis. They also tend to have experience with designing for a broader range of media and interaction types. Instructional Designers also have more experience with assessment of learning.

Technical Writers, on the other hand, tend to have much more refined skills in verbal communication.This includes:

  • Clarity, simplicity, and conciseness of expression
  • Descriptive and explanatory skills
  • Document formatting skills to ensure improved aesthetics and easier visual processing, and
  • Editing skills such as spelling and grammar.

Though these skills are rooted in the written or printed word, much of it transfers well to other media of verbal expression, particularly audio narration scripting. Often, Technical Writers have formal training in writing, whether in Technical or Creative Writing.


So clearly the two skill sets are not completely interchangeable. There are large overlaps, but with specific areas of focus and expertise. For the time being, it is more appropriate to consider the two roles as complementary. On a larger project, the two would probably work together, with each involved in different aspects. It is an interesting question though how this will evolve and play out in the future. As Technical Writers expand their horizons toward a broader range of media, and Instructional Designers expand their focus to include informal learning and performance support, will the two fields undergo a certain amount of convergence as facets of a general field of Technical Communication? And what impact would that have on professional development within the two disciplines?

Comments? Critiques? Please feel free, whether on the blog directly, or via whatever social media channel through which you came across the article.

Concept: Promoting persistence with exercise equipment through video gaming


Fitness is a big business.

In the US, for example, as of 2009:

  • Health clubs: $20 billion a year, 45 million memberships.
  • Consumer fitness equipment: 3.2 billion

At the same time, there is a lot of concern about public health from diseases related to obesity and lack of exercise.

People spend a lot of money in particular on home exercise equipment. Devices like treadmills, rowing machines, elliptical trainers, and exercise bikes. But people don’t tend to stick with it. The initial motivation comes, but the motivation often doesn’t persist. A common story is that families will buy these for Christmas as part of some intended New Year’s Resolution. More often than not, the box is opened, it’s set up in the basement, it’s actively used for a few weeks or months, and then it’s forgotten about again.

What can be done to help this? Is there a solution to this performance gap?

Gaming and Motivation

One area that excels in creating and then sustaining motivation (persistence) and intensity of engagement is video games. People will spend hours and hours on games, sometimes to the degree of forgoing food, sleep, other activities, and human contact. Games achieve this with a range of different mechanisms: fun and variety, a mix of long term, middle term, and short term goals (game completion, boss or world completion, and minor task or level completion),  continuous informational feedback and rewards in the form of scores and achievements, competition with other gamers, and social communication tools to allow discussion of game strategies and mutual social based motivation.

Could this power of video games be harnessed to encourage people to make more frequent and more effective use of their home exercise machines? Namely through fitness based games that make use of and incorporate the use of the exercise machines?

A solution: fitness based games using the equipment

Fitness based games are something that already exist. There are a number of titles for Wii, Xbox 360 with Kinect / Xbox One, and PS3/PS4. Often, these will make use of the motion based controllers. For the Wii and PS, this involves a handheld motion controller, while for the Xbox with Kinect, this involves simply moving in front of a sensor that captures body movement. The problem with these is that they just involve you moving or jumping around in your living room. There is not a lot of space. This works for people that like yoga and aerobics, but not so much for people that like to bike or run.

As far as I am aware, there aren’t any titles that make use of home exercise equipment. This is, in my mind, a gap just waiting to be filled. Microsoft, the manufacturer of the Xbox, would be in a nice position for this because their Kinect controller doesn’t require you to hold something in your hand to use it.

Microsoft could partner with the exercise equipment manufacturers to build free to download Xbox One game apps that make use of the Kinect sensor and the use of the equipment as part of fun, engaging games.

For example, a biking race game where you control the game, through the Kinect, by pedaling the exercise bike, and there’s nice HD scenery as you go along the race course, any one you like. Mountains, beside the ocean, beside a river. Ort famous race courses like the Tour du France. Ideally displaying in stereo 3D. You could have a training mode and a racing mode, which could offer either a short track race or a longer road race.

Or a running game / road race trainer game tied to major treadmill models. Go for a run by yourself or in some chosen scenery, either in nature or in some city. When you want to test yourself, you play a race mode that puts you in a famous road race course like a big, renowned 10k or the New York or Boston Marathon. Again, 3D rendered and ideally displaying in stereo 3D.

Or for the elliptical, it could be cross-country skiing.

Or a rowing game using a home rowing machine with well known scenes or race scenarios. For example, a game scenario where you train with the Harvard or Cambridge crew, row on an Olympic course, or relive some big race on the Seine in Paris from the early 20th century.

Make sure there’s an interactive display layer menu the user can access for exercise and training analytics. Also with some sort of virtual coaching, maybe something using interactive avatars. In addition, ideally a social network layer to share “achievements” or get encouragement from friends that are also on an exercise program. A space for monitoring vitals like heart rate over time and tools to manage diet and nutrition and suggest meals would also be useful.

Ideally, Microsoft would want to have someone working with the equipment designers and manufacturers to incorporate wifi connections or Bluetooth in the equipment so that the Xbox game, via the Xbox software, can wirelessly control the exercise equipment within some manufacturer and user set safety tolerances. Also, the other way, so that the equipment can wirelessly send the current setting to the game. So, for example, if you’re playing your running game, and you’re on the last kilometer of a 5 k race, and you want to sprint for a PB or to catch someone, and the software calculates that you’re not over-exerting for your age and fitness level, the system raises the speed of the treadmill automatically to match your attempt to go faster. Or for the bike or treadmill to automatically adjust the inclination when the game gets to a hill on a training or race course.

It would also be good for the games to be multiplayer, ideally multiplayer over the internet. Then people could go on at the same time and race each other on their equipment over the Internet. This could help additionally with social based motivation.

With the right gamified elements and incentives and feedback, you could help people make more effective use of fitness equipment in their lives, help them persist at it, and get fitter. The machines would be better used, and health outcomes could be improved over the longer term.

I could even see a nice marketing strategy for Microsoft for the Christmas holiday season. Make a joint marketing arrangement with the major home fitness manufacturers and TV manufactures and the electronics and home appliance stores.

Arrange to set up displays in store. Have the exercise equipment set up facing the biggest TV screen in the store, with the TV hooked up to the Xbox One at an appropriate distance from the exercise equipment and with a well positioned Kinect hooked up to the Xbox. Have some game running in multiplayer mode. People could try it out and have a little low intensity friendly competition right there in the store. And by juxtaposing the Xbox One, the TV, and exercise equipment in a way that shows them working together, you might well increase the sales of all three, benefitting the manufacturers of the devices and the store that sells them. Everyone wins.

Further Reading

Concept: A different form of “Blended Learning”


For today’s post, I’d like to present an idea for an interesting approach to instruction blending aspects of e-Learning and Instructor-led classroom learning.

Instructor-led and e-Learning are two common methods of delivering instruction, each with their respective strengths and weaknesses. Because of these respective drawbacks, it’s common to use a “blended” approach that combines the best of both worlds while trying to avoid the respective drawbacks. The approach I’m describing today is a different take on the idea of blended learning.

As a refresher and introduction, though, I’d like to review a bit about the pros and cons of Instructor-led classroom and e-Learning. (Feel free to skip to the “Blended Learning” section if you’re already sufficiently familiar with these pros and cons.)

Instructor-led classroom


  • Learning costs less on the front end to design and develop and lesson plans and classroom aids.
  • Tends to make it easier to engage students and to read the student mood or level of attention and adapt accordingly, on the fly.
  • More flexibility in terms of assessment methods. Instructor can grade free-form texts and other presentations, and observe student demonstrations of skills, giving more fine-grained feedback.
  • Students have the benefit of face to face interactions with the teacher and other students.


  • More expensive per student to deliver the learning on a marginal cost per student basis. There is also the cost of the classroom space and whatever support staff are needed to keep the classroom in order.
  • The learner has no control over the pace of the lesson or the content taught.
  • The pace will often be determined by the slower students, who might take up time with questions about material others already understand, and hold back how much can be covered.



  • Lower marginal cost of delivery per student.
  • Easy to scale – it doesn’t make much difference whether the course files are served up to 50 students versus 5000, aside from added costs for server capacity and technical support demands. (And these additional costs are generally included in the per-student fee)
  • Can be entertaining and hold the students’ attention if the students if multimedia presentations with the right mix of flashy and informative are used.
  • Can engage the students if making use of strategies like storytelling of examples or using creative interactions like running through interactive case study scenarios or simulations.
  • Can potentially adapt to students or give flexibility so that they can skim faster or skip material they’re already familiar with.
  • The learner can go through the materials anywhere with a good internet connection and at any time they want.


  • Substantial potential upfront and yearly maintenance costs if using a commercial Learning Management System (LMS) to register students, serve up class content, and track student progress. (Part of the student fees would need to contribute to covering these costs).
  • Substantial development costs for new e-Learning materials. Good e-Learning can take on the order of a few hundred hours of labor per hour for full analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.
  • Often the entertainment and engagement potential of the medium is not realized due to budget limitations.
  • Isn’t as adaptable to the learner’s mood and attention levels while the student is taking the material, because currently no way to effectively measure this over the web. (Though, potentially, in the future, tech such as learning software using input from devices like the MS Kinect sensor could track facial characteristics and body language of boredom or confusion and pause on the fly to pause, offer some remediation, offer to go back, go into a more detailed explanation, or suggest good web-based materials to review.
  • Student can feel alienated and alone if there are not good social elements allowing interaction electronically with someone for help or with other students.
  • Difficulty with holding motivation to complete the course.

Blended learning

The relative strengths and shortcomings of these two methods of course delivery led to the idea of combining the two approaches. This gave the idea of “Blended Learning.”

Blended learning is another approach which aims to try to get the best of both worlds by having some elements taught by a live instructor and other parts using e-Learning. When this works, you get a “whole better than the sum of parts” effect. Blended learning can take different forms.

For example, a learner might watch a video presentation at home online introducing the subject matter in an interesting way and then come to class and spend the class time participating in group discussions or other activities or to ask questions to the instructor. (The format known as the flipped classroom is a good example of this)

Or, theoretical portions of a training course could be covered in e-Learning, modules while hands on practical exercises could be carried out with a live instructor in the lab or classroom.

Another approach is to use the web as a communications and collaboration platform within which the instructor can do synchronous presentation of content to a live web audience. Learners are able to ask questions during the presentation and communicate and work together with other students. These web platforms are called “virtual classrooms. ” One examples of such a platform is BigBlueButton . The virtual classroom takes a lot of the functionality of the live classroom experience, but delivers it through an online platform.

Another variant of this uses some of the same tools as the last, such as Blackboard / WebCT and also Moodle. Here, the class is taught in the classroom by an instructor (sometimes, but not always with video recordings of the lectures archived online for later reference). The online platform is a space that houses a lot of the administrative aspects of the course. This is the place to review the class syllabus and class schedule, download pdfs of course readings, see documentation about assignments, complete computer graded assignment sets or quizzes, read course announcements, and even submit soft copies of assignments. Typically, there are also communication tools like discussion forums, mail systems, and internet messaging / chat, where students can discuss and interact with each other about course content. Usually these are called Course Management Systems or Learning Management Systems.

e-Learning within the classroom: An alternate approach

I want to talk here about another option that blends e-Learning and the classroom. Whether this option would strictly be called blended learning could probably be disputed, but I’m making the argument based on the loosest possible literal definition: a solution that blends elements of e-Learning material and classroom learning in a synergistic fashion. In any case, the name is less important than the idea.

The idea is to use the e-Learning content as a teaching aid or frame for the lesson plan within the classroom. The e-Learning lesson is presented using an internet connected computer hooked up to a digital projector and speakers. The e-Learning module can present information in an entertaining way and help to set up and support classroom activities led by the instructor.

The e-Learning content here would in effect become another form of classroom multimedia. Much like an instructor would present video or animation or audio content to liven the class and show something in a more effective way than speaking and using the blackboard, the instructor uses the e-Learning as a classroom presentation aid, framing and scaffolding the flow of the lesson.

The e-Learning module would have the advantage that once the module is open, it ties together all the media you want to use within the lesson flow in one presentation, one package, everything already sequenced and cued up, ready for use. It simplifies and reduces the number of things to fiddle with during the class. An instructor could alternatively do something superficially similar with a laptop and a bunch of open windows on the desktop to play the different media files one by one. But it would be an added load to deal with all this, with the hassles and time wasted in searching for and finding the right item to bring up, of switching windows and then starting it up. This is attention and energy an instructor could better spend watching and interacting with the students. In the setup I’m describing, the sequence of materials would already be set up, and the instructor could flow from one piece of media or instructor-led interactive activity simply by clicking “Next.”

The menus and the navigation and control elements of the lesson presentation would also allow some customization by the instructor. The instructor could pause a video or multimedia presentation to add some clarification or further details. If the facts on the ground on that particular day of class required a deviation from the lesson plan, the teacher could use the lesson table of contents or slide menu to skip over sections or go back to a particular slide.

In effect, it is a computer supported pedagogy (andragogy).

Some might say that a PowerPoint presentation could also be a possible container for this sort of presentation. However, some sort of e-Learning package would allow better control of embedded slide media through player controls and allow better options for navigation through the material.

An example of how it might work

So how would this work? There are multiple possible instructional strategies and lesson structures that could be used. Let’s take a look a couple of examples of how it could work for different subjects.

 Example One: A history classroom

The teacher welcomes students to class and starts the presentation. The courseware shows the students a video describing the background scenario of some key event during the time period the students are currently studying. The video would ideally include period film footage (if recent enough) or music or photographs of people or buildings, or paintings, with narration over top to tell the story and the basic facts. This would then set up some critical moment where a group or a leader had to make a decision that shaped the course of events. The video would end with a segue to an in-class activity where the learners role play different key figures.

One or two static slides would be presented establishing the instructions and ground rules for the assignment.

The teacher would take over and lead the students in the activity. The students would discuss what they, as different characters in the historical events, would have been thinking, what would have been their goals and motivations, and their thought processes of what they perceived of the others’ motivations, and on what to do next. The teacher facilitates this discussion.

Once the discussion wraps up, the instructor clicks next to resume the presentation, which would continue on with video discussing what actually happened, what the key actors actually did, and what they thought and said about it, as recorded in primary documents. The video would then segue toward another in class activity, where the students discuss how what they predicted or suggested differed from the actual reality. The teacher could facilitate the discussion.

The courseware could support the activity again by presenting static visuals of some key questions to ask and consider.

Example Two: A science classroom

A science classroom could also use this approach to handle the combination of presenting concepts and looking at applications. As well, for the combination of demonstrating problem solving concepts and applying these concepts.

Again, the teacher could welcome the students to class and then start up the presentation. The presentation would go to a video with multimedia explaining a particular science concept. The abstract concept could be explained in an engaging, visual, concrete fashion. The video could then segue into a live classroom demonstration set up previously by the teacher. One of the benefits of having the courseware present the concept is that the teacher can use that time to make sure all the final details are ready for the demonstration.

The teacher gives the demonstration presenting the concept. There could be interactivity here, with the teacher asking students for their ideas of what will happen, and then, after carrying out the demonstration, the class could discuss the differences between what they thought would happen and what actually happened.

Then, the teacher could click to restart the lesson. The presentation could transition back to the courseware leading the way, showing a video or animation introducing an important formula related to the concept. The video could also set up and then solve a word problem related to the concept. The video would then close with a segue to a classroom activity where the students can try out a few similar problems on their own.  The courseware could display the wording for the problems on the screen.

The learners would work on the problems, while the teacher circulates, and giving help and feedback.

Benefits of the Approach

If executed properly, this approach allows a seamless blending of these two modes of delivery, web and instructor led. The two would complement each other, and flow from one to the other and back again during the classroom presentation.


There are a few challenges to this approach.

First, and most obviously, the classroom needs a solid, dependable internet connection, particularly if video content is to be used within the presentation.

The e-Learning presentation also has to be set up with this instructional strategy and use case in mind. It should include introductory audio and images and/or video to segue into in-class activities and provide visual reinforcement of instructions for the activity. The presentation also has to include built-in “pause points” where it switches from watching a presentation to doing an activity.

Another criticism could be that using e-Learning as a classroom media or media and lesson container is that it would seem to miss the whole point of e-Learning. That is, you justify the usually exorbinant costs of the front end development of e-Learning by delivering to a large number of students. However, I’d respond to that on two fronts.

First, there are a number of rapid development tools out there that can make the process of e-Learning development quite straightforward, similar to that of making a nice PowerPoint, or even allowing the option to import and existing PowerPoint presentation and then use tools to augment the presentation. Some of the Articulate products, such as Studio and Storyline make things very simple and visual. A teacher or, for example, a subject based department in a high school could get a license for the software, and together build shared presentations. This would allow departments where multiple teachers with differing styles of teaching and differing levels of experience are teaching the same course to standardize a bit the presentation of the course material.

Second, another application would be for a company to build these sorts of presentations for different subjects in different courses and sell them to teachers or school boards as an off the shelf “lesson/unit/curriculum in a box.” This would give pre-packaged lesson plan structures, with media and in class activities ready to go.



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.

Performance Support and Formal Training

Is formal training necessary? Is it always the answer for our learning needs?

So much of our continuing, lifelong learning is informal. We are doing our thing when we run into some roadblock or confusion. We don’t quite know how to proceed. What do we tend to do in these situations? Do we seek a formal course to sign up for? Not usually. At least not as a first, second, third, or probably fourth resort. Usually, unless we know absolutely nothing about the skill or tool, whenever we have a question, we seek out an answer, either from people we know and trust or from online search. We will usually seek out one or more informal sources of learning. For example, we might:

  •  Ask a friend
  • Check out eHow
  • Look on YouTube
  • Check out the helpfile of the software, whether embedded or online
  • Check out the FAQ section of the company website
  • Go to the user forum of the makers of the software to consult the user community for an answer
  • Check out the internal corporate knowledge base or wiki

We quickly get our answer, and then return to what we were doing before we got stuck. We don’t look through a course catalogue, we don’t register for a set course with a curriculum and syllabus and schedule and sequence of fixed topics and tests at the end. We are missing some specific skill or piece of knowledge, so we seek it out. Researcher definitions of informal learning vary, but at heart, the idea is the same. Informal learning is learning that takes place outside the strictures and structures of an organized course. This is the natural way we tend to learn in life. Most of our learning is informal; some research indicates 80-90% of all our learning is informal.

Knowing this from our own experience when we need to know something, we can reflect a bit as Instructional Designers about the solutions we craft for our clients. Is formal training really the answer for the client’s needs? The answer is not always yes, not always no. We must examine this case by case in a critical way to see what meets best the training and performance improvement needs of our clients.

For many things, why take learners away from their workplace, away from productivity to take part in lengthy beginning to end formal training if learners could  potentially just get specifically what they need, when they need it, with a minimum of time, and would actually prefer it this way? Instead of building a course, why not build selected snippets, FAQs, short how to guides or screen capture videos, wikis, help files, Q&As? Put them on company web space, make the most recent or most frequently used questions prominently visible and make the archives easily searchable. This intentional, organized sort of effort to provide of online tools to help the employee in the course of their job is known as electronic performance support.

This is taking the self-paced, as needed promise of eLearning and learning objects and taking it one step farther. If the users don’t find what they need, they can get in touch with someone in charge to make a request. These requests become a source of areas to work on next.

Now, this reasoning should not be taken to exaggerated conclusions. I don’t mean to argue, as some simplistically do, that all formal training can be replaced by informal learning or performance support. Some sorts of skills or subject area you probably still need full formal documentation and training. Where safety is an issue, or government regulations must be complied with, or the learners will be using big, expensive, multi-million dollar equipment, formal learning may be a necessity to ensure that learners were exposed to and tested on all relevant objectives and teaching points.

This may be the only way to ensure standardized, compliant performance on the job right away. When lives and dollars and equipment are at stake and a “get-your-hands-dirty” playing with it and getting support on the fly doesn’t work or will lead to incomplete or unsatisfactorily uniform levels of learning or proficiency. Or when there needs to be a formal assessment as a gateway for formal certification. Simulation-based formal training may be a better solution in such cases, allowing a supported, learn by doing approach without risking real lives and real equipment.

And with many things, even if a lot of the formal training can be replaced by informal learning and performance some level of formal training will still be useful, whether classroom, eLearning, Blended Learning to establish support, formal training on certain basics may be needed before turning the learners loose again. A lot of formal training courses, much of the content could be heavily stripped back to such essentials. Give the learners an overview and enough basics to get a good start with the equipment and software, some warnings about big mistakes to avoid, and then let them go to it. Then the rest of the material can be chopped up into bite sized pieces, reworked to just-in-time, as needed, on-request online support or reference material.

Within an organization, performance support materials, as informal learning, would not be on the LMS, but the usage levels of different materials could still be tracked by whatever content management system in which they are stored. New developments in eLearning tracking data standards such as the Tin Can / Experience API allow easier tracking of such non-traditional forms of learning materials. Impressions level evaluation data can be collected relatively easily from learners, giving feedback on how useful the support information was and how easy it was to find. Furthermore, if completion of materials was tracked, correlations could potentially be made with on the job performance to try to evaluate the effectiveness on a higher level.


Principles for Effective mLearning





The rise of use of mobile computing and communication devices like smart phones have dramatically changed our ways of life. How we navigate our environment, how we search for information, how we read, how we consume digital multimedia, how we browse the web, how we take photographs, how we communicate with others.

In recent years, this has come to include learning and training as well. Mobile Learning and Mobile eLearning (or, mLearning) have become popular buzzwords in training and learning circles in the past few years.

What we have to remember however, as designers, is that mobile devices are not just “another screen” on which to view content. Effective mLearning is not just a matter of shrinking your screens down and putting your existing content on a smartphone or tablet.

Mobile devices have certain characteristics as devices that enable certain usages within the context of education. They have strengths and weaknesses, things they do well and things they don’t. They key is to recognize the strengths of mobile devices and how they are most naturally used. Then to take certain appropriate content and certain appropriate types of activities and deliver those and only those through mobile devices.

The purpose of this post is to look at some of the characteristics of mobile devices and look at some useful principles for designing learning materials and learning strategies for mobile.

Mobile device capabilities

Mobile devices have a number of capabilities that can be drawn upon for learning and training purposes.

Network Connectivity

Mobile devices can be connected to the Internet over both cellular and Wifi connections. Connection speeds vary based on the technology:

  • 3G (up to 7 Mbps)
  • HSPA+ (up to 21 Mbps)
  • LTE (up to 100 Mbps)
  • Wifi (5-20 Mbps)


Interactions with content

Mobile devices offer many ways to interact with content- tap, double tap, tap and drag, swipe, pinch to zoom, two finger rotate, accelerometer based tilt/rotate of device, shaking of device

Interactions with other learners

Interactions with other learners can include both synchronous and asynchronous for communication and collaboration:

  • Synchronous – phone call, SMS, Skype VOIP, video conferencing like Facetime, Skype video calling, IM
  • Asynchronous – email, SMS/text, discussion forum, YouTube upload and commenting, Wikis, Cloud document storage and editing, Instagram/Pinterest photo sharing, Reddit link sharing and discussion, social media sharing and discussion on FB/Google+,Twitter,Tumblr.

Content consumption methods

Mobile devices include a number of ways, either built in or through third party apps, to consume content:

  • Text content – Web browser, ebooks/reading apps (Adobe pdf, Kindle)
  • Audio content – podcasting, music / audio players, Soundcloud
  • Video content – YouTube viewer, built in video viewers and 3rd party viewers like VLC
  • Mapping for location related content

Content capture, editing, production

Mobile devices include a number of tools to help learners / users capture, edit, and produce their own content:

  • Photo capture and editing
  • Video capture and editing, mobile movie making
  • Audio capture and editing
  • Text capture – Word processor, Notes apps
  • Drawing / sketching – sketching apps, stylus. Notes

Search and Navigation

Mobile devices include a variety of capabilities for search:

  • Web search
  • On device search
  • Navigation, mapping
  • Local based search – what’s around here?
  • Text search and voice search

 Organization, planning, and tracking

Mobile devices also have a number of tools to help with getting organized and keeping track of dates and times for tasks to do:

  • Calendars, including shared calendars
  • Notifications
  • Reminders and checklists
  • Alarms
  • Note-taking


Strengths of mobile devices

Mobile devices have particular strengths as devices to be used for education and training:

  • Portability / mobility – small sized, light weight, easy to hold and carry. This makes it easier for learners to always have these devices with them, making them an excellent potential device to use for learning and training.
  • Connectivity – devices can connect to other devices and to networks over micro USB, Bluetooth, Wifi, WiDi, cellular, NFC and can receive signals from GPS. Multiple modes to communicate and collaborate with others. High speed cellular internet means that the learner almost always has access to the internet to access content. The learner does not need to be chained to a desk or trapped in a classroom to have access to learning materials, whether formal or informal.
  • Location, position, orientation, and context awareness – sensors such as GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer tell the position and orientation in space of the phone, it’s motion through space, and data about the environment around such as pressure, temperature, light levels. Combined with the connectivity, this enables the device to “know” where you are and what else is in the area.
  • User personalization – mobile devices have a lot of data on device about the user, are cloud connected to various sources of data about the learner, and can “learn” over time the patterns of the user.


Limitations of Mobile Devices

Remember however to keep in mind some of the practical constraints and limitations of mobile devices:

  • Small screen sizes
  • Battery / power limitations – this will vary from device to device and will depend on features that use a lot of power such as use of the screen, networking, and processor intensive operations
  • Processor limitations – this is getting better in recent years with high powered multi-core processors, but mobile devices still tend to be less powerful than modern laptops and desktops
  • Multi-tasking is somewhat limited compared to desktop operating systems
  • Limited on-board storage. Some devices have microSD ports to take a memory card, but this is far from universal. Cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive can somewhat compensate for this.
  • Data plan limitations – when the user is not connected to Wifi, internet connectivity is through the cellular data connection. Cellular data usage is often limited to a certain maximum amount per month, with heavy overage fees.

Principles and Tips for mLearning Design

The capabilities and limitations of mobile devices lead to a number of principles to guide mLearning design.

Use a Primarily Touch-Based Design for Navigation and Interaction

People are used to interacting with and navigating through mobile apps with taps, double taps, swipes and gestures. As a designer, you should try to build this into any mLearning. Also be careful to adjust instructions in terms of the language you use to describe what to do. Tell learners to “tap” or “push” instead of “click.”

Design for touch and gestures. Touch shouldn’t just be an afterthought, but should be the primary mode of input and interaction. Remember that for now touchscreens don’t enable the “hover state” you see with mouse based interfaces. So any design where additional cues or material are reviewed when the cursor hovers over an area need to be modified.

Design to the size of the target device. Make scale sized templates to get used to the actual size and how much can legibly fit on the screen. Make sure any controls and buttons are an appropriate size for easy touch interaction. Keep interactive areas within easy reach of thumbs in the ways users usually hold the devices.

Use Other Modes of Interaction

Also, thanks to the different sensors in mobile devices, other creative modes of interaction could also be possible, including speech inputs, tilting or rotation, shaking the device, or taking a picture.

Consider Using Games / Gamification to Make it Fun

Gaming is one of the most popular applications of mobile devices. The number of hours spent playing games on popular mobile platforms like iOS and Android are similar to the number of hours spent on home consoles like Xbox, Playstation, and Wii. Consider using Serious gaming or gamification to increase learner engagement  and make the learner more likely to use the learning materials during spare time between other tasks.

Give Opportunities for Communication and Collaboration

Mobile devices are network connected and allow many types of synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration options. We know that interactions with other learners plays an important role in learning. Enabling learners to have contact and interaction with each other should be a part of an effective mLearning strategy. As mentioned earlier, there are a range of synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration tools that can be used.

Make Use of Mobile Content Capture Capabilities

Still and video cameras, microphones, styluses, and virtual keyboards on cell phones allow learners to collect and create material, whether text, audio, video, sketch for project based work out in the world that can be shared with others. For example, they could visit a site and collect digital “artifacts” to document noteworthy points related to their learning onsite. Learners can then comment on each others’ work.

Make Materials Short, Digestible, and Findable

Usage of smart phones for learning, tends to be for short periods, 5-10 minutes in between other activities. This may be better attuned to just-in-time information for support on the spot rather than sustained periods of learning. You could use text and images, audio such as a podcast, or a short video. This use case for smart phones has instructional design ramifications –  it suggests that you should design in smaller, self-contained bite sized chunks. This is in line somewhat with the older idea of learning objects.

Keep in mind that smaller pieces means more pieces, and that these pieces need to be easily searchable and findable. Remember as well that any interfaces for searching for content need to be simplified and rescaled to work within the limits of the mobile device screen. You may also want to tag content for smart phone appropriateness, so that smart phone optimized content comes up first in search.

Tablets tend to be more comfortably used for longer, browsing content while sitting in a chair or on the couch, for example. Still, the ideal is for shorter, bite sized chunks of content that can be easily digested on the go.

Be Conscious of Screen Sizes

Mobile devices come in a range of sizes. These range from around 4-5 inches for cell phones to 7-10 inches for tablets. This has consequences on how content can be presented. You will need to rework interfaces and the layout of items on the screen. There are resolution and screen aspect ratio issues. You may want to use scalable vector graphics rather than bitmapped, and relative sizes (percentages) for screen elements and sections rather than absolute (pixels)

Alternatively, you can use HTML and responsive web design, so that the presentation of the content and the screen layout changes according to the device and screen size.

Mobile devices tend to fall into 3 broad size groups that overlap somewhat.

  • Smartphones (4-6 inches)
  • Large smart phones and smaller tablets (6-8 inches), and
  • Full size tablets (9-11 inches)


Keep in mind that due to the small screen, it may be hard to make out small details in complex graphics, even with higher resolution “Retina” type screens. Detailed imagery is probably better viewed on a tablet than a smartphone. Tablets, because of their larger screens are more comfortable to read from and can be used for more sustained periods.

Smart phones however are an attractive target for training for a few reasons. First, smart phones are light and portable, and are something people always have with them. This cannot necessarily be said for large tablets, which take up more space and are heavier, requiring a bag to carry around.

Depending on the type of clothes people wear, certain smaller tablets such as 7-8 inch tablets (e.g. Nexus 7, iPad Mini, Galaxy Note) may fit in pants pockets, or, for women, a purse and still be portable. Some telephones, such as so-called “phablets” (e.g. Galaxy Notes, Galaxy Mega) also sit in this in-between “sweet spot” around 6 inches. Devices this size make a decent compromise between generous screen real estate and portability.

A thorough learner and context analysis during the Analysis phase of a project can help you to identify what sort of devices the learners will be using.

Keep Connectivity and Data Issues in Mind

In contrast to tablets, which are most commonly purchased in wifi only versions rather than wifi+3G/4G versions, smart phones include cellular data connectivity by default, with the majority of users subscribing to a data plan through a cellular provider. As such, smart phones are generally always available, always on, and always connected. This makes smart phone technology supportive of a “Just-in-Time” learning approach where learning can potentially be fit into any spare moment during the day, at the learner’s convenience.

However, keep in mind the user’s data access limits – the limits of cellular data plans and cost, availability of cellular signal, and the availability of wifi. You want to find ways to make any content “lighter” in terms of how much data has to be transferred.

This cuts down on potential data plan use and makes it easier to deal with any connection speed issues. In many urban areas today, cellular connection speeds over 4G/LTE can actually be substantially faster than home or office broadband, but you should not count on this in designing the content.

Data limitation issues are another reason why content presented in short, discrete chunks is ideal for smart phone based learning.

Consider a Multi-Screen Approach

An alternate way to consider the “m” in mLearning is multi- rather than mobile. As in, multiple types of screens and devices. Rather than making all content viewable or usable on every device, use a multiple screen approach where you use each available tool for the content for which it is most appropriate.

You can teach different parts of a body of content and carry out different activities with different devices, based on which devices are best for which tasks. Truly mobile devices like smartphones and smaller tablets may be better for reinforcement and on the spot performance support or informal reference rather than for sustained study of formal content.

Large tablets might be better for sustained, formal use due to the larger screen.

Large tablets however can also be useful as a performance support tool, especially when you want the user to be able to browse documents with detailed diagrams. An example would be for maintenance workers on site.

Delivering mLearning: Web Apps vs Native Apps

There are two potential approaches to delivering applications for mLearning:

  • A native app based approach. An app is developed for whatever target platforms (Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Windows Phone Marketplace, Blackberry Marketplace, etc)
  • A web application approach using HTML, JavaScript, CSS, server side scripting, etc, with content delivered through the device web browser.

The chart on the following page breaks down some of the pros and cons of these two approaches to mobile applications:

Type of App

Web App (HTML, JS, CSS, server-side   scripting) Native App Store App
  •   As long as you keep to what is relatively standard across browsers, the course materials will work on any platform. Develop once, and it can be used   anywhere.
  •   No   need to develop a separate app and distribute through the web store. User simply logs into a website.
  •   Developers   control the updating of the web app since the app runs off their servers. User accesses updated app by visiting the site
  •   Faster/cheaper   to develop and maintain
  •   With   responsive web design, can easily adapt to the range of different screen   sizes on phones and tablets
  •   Every   user, regardless of platform, can access the materials and has essentially   the same experience.
  •  Easier to enable capability to download when you have a connection and then view later offline
  • The fact that the app runs off the local machine itself, and is able to tap into machine specific optimizations can lead to smoother, improved performance for some types of apps and content.
  • More secure for the user in general, because apps are screened at submission by central app store.
  • Have more control access to device hardware due to ability to hook into OS-specific APIs. Allows more interaction between the app and device hardware.
  •   Harder   to set it up to download content for offline viewing, but possible
  •   If   content can’t be downloaded and stored for offline viewing, it will be potentially   more data intensive to use the app. Each viewing of a case will incur data   use. This is not a concern over wifi, however.
  •   Notifications   about new content for download would have to operate separately from the web app itself. They would have to go through email
  •   Web app doesn’t have nearly as much potential access to the hardware of the phone   such as camera (usually for security reasons).
  •   Formatting won’t follow distinctive native look and feel of the specific phone’s / tablet’s OS. Will be more general. On the other hand, material will look roughly the same   on all platforms.
  •  Multiple app stores to navigate
  • Have to build multiple versions of the app to hit whatever app stores are desired.
  • Even for the same app stores, need to add development time to customize, in the case of iOS or Android, for smart phone vs. tablet use. (Since phone optimized apps look ugly with lots of wasted space when simply ported without adjustment to tablets)
  • Involves using multiple development platforms and multiple languages
  • When app is updated, depend on users to download the update. They will be notified of an update, but they have to choose to download.


Tracking Mobile Learning

One of the important aspects of an organizational learning strategy is the ability to track the learning activities and achievements of workers / learners. For traditional eLearning, this involved an LMS serving up content through a web browser. The LMS records enrolments, grades, and course completions for the purpose of certification or career development within the organization. One of the challenges, until recently, with respect to mobile learning activities is that the dominant standard, SCORM, only tracked formal courses hosted on an LMS and taken through  a web browser. Mobile apps or serious mobile games would not have been trackable.

However, the latest incarnation of SCORM, called Experience API or “Tin Can” API is better equipped to handle a more flexible variety of learning activities, formal or informal, mobile or desktop. For more information, check out my earlier post , which includes a basic overview of the Tin Can API and links to primary sources with more information on details of the standard and implemention.



This post looked at some of the capabilities of mobile devices, pointing out some of the basic strengths and weaknesses of such devices. With this as a basis, we looked at some basic principles to use for mLearning design.

These were:

  • Use touch-based design
  • Make use of other modes of interaction
  • Consider using games / gamification to make it fun and improve engagement
  • Give opportunities for communication and collaboration
  • Make use of mobile content capture capabilities
  • Make materials short, digestible, and findable
  • Be conscious of screen sizes
  • Keep connectivity and data issues in mind
  • Consider a multi-screen approach

We also looked at the pros and cons of web apps vs native platform apps for delivery of learning content.

Finally, we discussed issues related to tracking mobile learning activities and achievement using the Tin Can API.