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Some articles on MOOCs

I wanted to share some informative articles on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from University Affairs, a Canadian Higher Education publication. Has a nice balance between widespread accessibility and a nice critical approach. I’m including links to six articles here going back over the last two years.

The most recent one is probably the best of them. If you only have time for one article, read this one. It features an interview with Canadian researcher George Siemens of Alberta’s Athabasca University. Dr. Siemens, along with Dr. Steven Downes (formerly of Athabasca, now at Canada’s National Research Council, in New Brunswick) is considered to be one of the pioneers of the original MOOC concept. (Yes, MOOCs, a Canadian invention!)

It gives a lot of fascinating insights into the origins of the concept, where it has gone as it has gone more corporate and mainstream, and where it may be going in the future.

The other articles are great too, and give some insight into how the landscape has evolved over the last couple of years.

I hope to write something more substantive about MOOCs, with additional resources, including from research literature, sometime in the next couple of weeks. Currently reading a lot about this topic, and looking forward to sharing what I’ve found.

In the meantime, enjoy.








Concept: Using Natural User Interface technology to enable live adjustment of e-Learning presentation

Introduction: What good teachers do best…

One of the ways in which an instructor in the classroom soundly beats e-Learning is the ability to monitor the words, body language and facial expressions of the students. Skilled teachers are always, as it were, running multiple processes in parallel, paying attention, consciously and sub-consciously, to many things at once:

  • They are presenting the content of the lesson, coordinating modes of presentation, modifying emphasis and tone of voice to better explain a concept to that particular group.
  • They are monitoring the time used and time remaining and assessing in relation to where they are in the lesson
  • They are thinking about the part of the lesson they are in and preparing for the next
  • They are monitoring the class for disciplinary issues (in an elementary or secondary classroom)
  • They are monitoring the class for signs of interest, confusion, boredom, or frustration

Good teachers then use these cues to in real time calibrate and re-adjust the style and content of the presentation.

It’s a tiring load to balance, and takes a special skill set. But it’s the sort of task on which humans still far outperform machines. Multiple simultaneous tasks of a high level of dense, subtle, multi-faceted complexity in parallel. This is something that computers can not yet approach. (Though with the relentless exponential march of technology and research, AI experts would probably say it’ll get there sooner than we may think or be comfortable about)

Simulation of this using Natural User Interface technology

However, a very rough approximation of some of this sort of adaptive delivery could potentially be used in e-Learning in the relatively near future using available sensor technology. Learning software could potentially use input from natural user interface  devices like the MS Kinect sensor which comes with the Xbox One video game platform. This sensor has stereo-cameras to track user movements and face expressions and microphones to record user speech for game control.

When people are interested, bored, confused, or frustrated, these are all internal affective (emotional) states, but they manifest externally in facial expressions, spoken language, and body language in a relatively uniform fashion from person to person. This is what enables a human teacher to recognize these states in learners.

Software could use the SDK for the sensor and plug into APIs of the sensor. In that way developers could make applications that track user words, facial characteristics, and body language based on data read  by the sensor. These APIs are available  for professional use, and for research purposes. The learning delivery software could then analyze the input audio and video data based on certain criteria to try to identify (with a sufficiently high degree of probabilistic confidence) the emotional state of the learner.

Once the emotional state of the learner is identified, the software could respond by altering the flow of the presentation in an appropriate way.

This could take different forms.

  • The software could slow down the presentation, or speed it up/skim.
  • It could segue into a repetition of the confusing material or switch to a more elaborate explanation audio track.
  • It could pause the presentation.
  • It could present another optional example from a bank of examples to further clarify a topic.
  • It could ask one or two knowledge checks from a bank of questions. An NUI based system could also ask questions of the learner in a relatively natural voice (text to speech) based on an algorithm.
  • It could simply give a verbal prompt to confirm if the learners are following and if the material is moving too slowly or quickly and then wait for and interpret the user response.
  • It could offer some remediation, such as offering to take the user back one slide.
  • It could suggest good web-based materials to review.

Now, supposing such software were developed and incorporated in some way into learning management and delivery platforms, there is the question of what sort of efforts it would take for an Instructional Designer to develop some of these items (banks of examples, multiple explanations at different levels of depth / detail, questions, and narration tracks for all of these). As well, to what extent that development process could be streamlined or automated (using more improved future text to speech capabilities, for example) to prevent the development from being unwieldy. Also, if this software was incorporated into Learning Management Systems (LMS) or Learning Record Systems (LRS), which track learner session data, there might be concerns about privacy, as to whether at least some high level affective state data from the session should be kept on record. Designers might find this sort of data about how student reaction invaluable for evaluation purposes. But learners might find it creepy.

But, these questions aside, the fact is that the sensor technology with the capabilities to collect the needed data to support such a thing exists. At this point it would simply be a matter of a knowledgeable team or teams doing the hard work of writing the algorithms. And if used, it could potentially lead to much more adaptive and user-customized delivery of e-Learning, living up to the e-Learning marketing over-promises of yesteryear.

Microsoft Kinect for Windows Development

Microsoft’s Kinect for Windows development pages include access to the SDK (Software Development Kit).

The SDK with Kinect for Windows APIs is free to download and to use (no direct software licensing fee) to develop Windows apps that use the Kinect for Windows sensor.

Microsoft sells the special Kinect for Windows sensors (distinct from and somewhat more capable for commercial applications than the sensor used by the Xbox gaming platform) separately for $250. (There are apparently discounts for students and educational institutions.)

Microsoft also includes Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) with this package.

Research studies along these lines

In writing this article, I was pleased to discover that researchers are already looking into ways to use sensors and algorithms to automatically detect affective (emotional) states of learners relevant to attention and learning. Here is some further reading for those who are interested:

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.


The Flipped Classroom

One method of instructor led classroom training that has drawn a lot of attention in recent years is the “flipped classroom.” This relatively new approach to classroom teaching has been used at the high school and university level. But what is the flipped classroom? What is the all the fuss about? What are the pros and cons of this method? What technologies are needed to support the method? And what are some potential applications in the world of training. This post takes a look.


What is the flipped classroom?

The flipped classroom is probably easiest defined in terms of traditional classroom instruction, which this method in effect, “flips on its head.” In the traditional classroom, the instructor is the “sage on the stage.” The instructor delivers learning content through a lecture during class time, and is the center of attention. At home, meanwhile, the learners study and do homework exercises on their own.

The flipped classroom inverts this basic structure. At home, or in a computer lab, students watch video presentations of material the instructor would otherwise have lectured. In class, the instructor supports learners as they take part in activities to deepen understanding. Here, the instructor, in class at least, becomes more of a facilitator,  a “guide on the side.” The activities in class could include case studies, discussions, solving problems (for math and sciences), further reading or research, or experimental/lab/discovery work. The learning of basic concepts now takes place at home, while the in depth activities that build on this, activities that would typically have been done as homework, are done in class.

This method originated with two American high school teachers, Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams. Initially provided videos to help support absent students. Videos became popular, and ultimately shifted towards having all learners use the videos at home and take part in activities in class.

One of the well-known examples of materials that are used to support a flipped classroom type classroom structure is the videos of Khan Academy, usually the math and science exercises.


What the flipped classroom is not:

The last point talked a bit about what the flipped classroom is. It is also important to realize what the flipped classroom is not. There are some common misconceptions:

  • A synonym for online videos – the classroom activities that follow the videos watched at home are essential, where the most important learning takes place.
  • A replacement for classroom teachers. Instructors are still essential to lead and facilitate the classroom follow up activities. And again, this is where the real learning takes place. The instructors play a different role, but are still key.


Pros of the flipped classroom:

There are a number of benefits to the flipped classroom. These include:

  • More learner engagement in class, less boredom, more meaningful
  • Enables more one on one contact between instructor and students because one to many content / theory broadcasting is handled in videos
  • Enables individualized learning. Fast learners can pursue additional or deeper knowledge in class or can consolidate learning by helping to teach others. Students needing more help can get instructor attention
  • Ability to harness peer teaching / learning support. Some learners will pick up and grasp the material easily on the first pass through watching the videos. These learners can help explain to others in the classroom, offering peer perspective. This is valuable and effective from Vygotskyan / social constructivist perspective.
  • More productive use of instructor time, energy, and talents as an educator. Instead of spending time repeatedly lecturing the same material, do it once and then let the computer do the work of playing the lecture. The instructor can then spend his time, energy, and skills on designing creative classroom activities and interacting with learners.


Challenges of the flipped classroom

The method is not without its challenges, however.

The method requires solid access to solid high speed internet at home. If the learner can’t see the lecture at home or before the class, the method won’t work. The learners need access to quality speed internet. This is an issue of concern when you`re talking about K-12 and low-income urban (socio-economic barriers to access) or rural (technological barriers to access). School libraries or computer labs or community libraries can help with this, but the number of computers is usually limited, as is the time of access.

 Another challenge is the additional work required by the instructor. First there is work required to prepare the lecture videos. Second is the work to prepare alternate activities for the classroom. If the instructor is settled in his career, he may already have a full portfolio of lesson plans and lectures built up. He may be at the point where he knows his lecture material well enough to operate almost on autopilot. The new approach requires that the instructor rework his way of doing things, to replan to make use of the extra time in the classroom.

What technology is useful to support the flipped classroom?

Implementing a flipped classroom requires certain technologies.

  • An afforadable but quality video camera
  • Camtasia or other screen capture technology
  • Video editing software like Final Cut Pro or Windows Movie Maker
  • Sound editing software such as Soundforge
  • A computer station for video and audio editing
  • A platform to host video, whether Youtube or private web hosting (depending on sensitivity of the training material)


Possible applications

I mentioned earlier that the flipped classroom has been used in high school and university classrooms. But could the idea be applied to job training?

One potential candidate for the flipped classroom would be aviation pilot recurrent training. Or, more generally, for any sort of recurrent training for complex equipment operation. Recurrent training is training given to operators some period of time following initial training. One of the common complaints of such training is the boredom factor. The trainees are obligated to take the training for certification purposes. The traditional format of the training is to present a stripped down version of the initial course. With the novelty of the initial learning gone, this training can be rather boring. Even for the instructors, the process can be somewhat of a chore. However, there is a good reason for the training. Complex skills need retraining to preserve skills and prevent bad habits and short cuts from taking root. It also offers pilots / operators a chance to compare notes with other pilots / operators and ask more specific questions after some time on the real equipment.

The flipped classroom could offer a more engaging option for recurrent training.

Record a strong classroom instructor giving the classroom instruction. Have learners need to watch this on their own at their hotels, what not, with this perhaps delivered and tracked through an LMS. Then spend classroom time doing other activities, such as running through scenarios that apply knowledge about the aircraft systems.

Applying the flipped classroom in this context would require some upfront work to secure buy-in from instructors. Mainly to reassure that the idea of the methodology is not to replace the instructor with a video, but quite the contrary, to free the instructor from simple transmission of information, allowing the instructor to engage in more engaging activities with the trainees during the valuable classroom time.


Further References



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.


On Learning Theories: A Pluralistic Approach

As aspiring educational technologists discover in their university studies, there are many different theories that talk about human learning. Each one brings a somewhat different take on the broad phenomenon of human learning. And while each theory has its partisans and arguments, it is important to resist getting caught up too much in that. It is important to remember that it is not a matter of a contest for “one true theory to rule them all.”

There are some that think like this, or at least talk like this, and in such striving to elaborate particular learning theories and in such trying to argue for the maximal potential application of one’s pet theory are careers in academia made. But this is not the best approach for the practitioner, who is less interested in proving or justifying an ideology or dogma than in pragmatically figuring out what works best in practice for the particular task, the particular teaching point at hand, given the context at hand.

The reality is that learning is multi-faceted. There are many different aspects to it. There is an aspect of learning that consists in modifying external, observable behavior. There is an aspect of modifying internal cognitive structures. There are ways that learning can be improved by paying attention to sensory modes and structuring of information so that it’s easier to process. There are ways that learning can be improved by understanding learners’ prior mental structures and by working to modify and build on them. There are aspects of motivating learners to give them that initial push to engage with learning materials. And there are aspects of helping learners to have the volition to persist with the efforts through to the end when things get hard. There are aspects of learning that are shaped by the individual’s interaction with content to construct meaning. There are aspects of learning that are shaped by learners’ interactions with other people to construct meaning. There are ways that knowledge is situated in activity in context, with learning mixed up in recognizing and mastering the affordances of the environment and with the learner’s efforts to become part of a community of practice. There are principles for teaching young learners, and principles for teaching adult learners. And there are meta-cognitive strategies, where learners can learn to monitor and improve their own learning and abilities to learn.

Different theories individually shine light on particular facets of learning. They have applications in certain areas. A zealous focus on one theory, one aspect of learning is not going to be useful. Better to take a pluralistic sort of approach that sees the relative truths in all of these learning theories, and the specific domains where each is the best tool for the job. By putting these insights together, you can gain a more cohesive and comprehensive view of learning.

  • Behaviorism gives insight in training in its reminder to focus on observable end performance, on what you expect the learner to be able to do differently at the end.
  • Cognitive information processing theory reminds us to be mindful of the limits of human processing power and short term memory as we try to deliver instructional content without overloading the learners.
  • Schema theory reminds us that people are not blank slates, and that the ease of new learning is influenced, for good and bad, by the mental structures that are already there. Correct beginnings of understanding are scaffolds we can build on to make our jobs easier. But misconceptions form barriers to understanding that must be actively grasped and torn down before we can begin to build.
  • Motivational Design / ARCS reminds us of the importance of using motivational elements, when appropriate, in training, to push learners to engage with the training and stick with it.
  • Individual constructivism reminds us of the importance of not just delivering passive instruction, but rather allowing learners a chance to interact actively with the learning environment so as to test their developing knowledge structures. This prompts us to design rich, interactive materials so that the learners can engage, test, and refine their knowledge.
  • Social constructivism reminds us of the value of letting learners interact with each other and how much learners can learn from fellow students who have just learned the material. This prompts us to enable opportunities for communication, discussion, and collaboration.
  • Situated cognition, meanwhile, reminds us that learning is tied up human activity in the world, in social/cultural context and physical space. This prompts us not just to create training that is not abstracted away from really, but to build rich, situated activities like case studies and simulations with realistic scenarios.

If we allow ourselves to be reminded of all these points, we can hopefully become more rounded, more effective instructional designers as a result by consciously and selectively applying the insights of various learning theories. In this way we can support more completely, in the training we build, the varied bases of learning.


Shared post on Keller’s Motivational Design (ARCS)

I wanted to share this post from another blog.

Dr. John Keller’s ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction) model of Motivational Design is one of those theories that always stuck in my mind and carried with me from university studies in Learning Theories. The ARCS acronym is very easy to remember, and it sums up nicely the key considerations for improving the motivation of the learners taking your course.

The post includes a brief overview of the ARCS Motivational Design model. It also includes a nice link to another site further explaining the theory. There is also a great YouTube video featuring an interview with John Keller, which I’m embedding below. In the video, Keller talks about the origins of the ARCS Motivational Design theory and the expansion of the theory to include volition, the learner’s persistence with the learning.