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.
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
- Reminders and checklists
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)
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.
- 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.