Going mobile is all the rage. It’s the technology of choice and organisations are falling over themselves to get into the game. And why not. It’s a technology that consumers love. Be it iPhone or iPad (or even, at a push, a Blackberry), the uptake of hardware has been phenomenal, and the creation of an astonishingly vibrant and active developer community incredible. The level of competition for prominence in the field of content development is intense, both in the free App market and the paid for content. A viral effect is strongly in play, as well as exponential returns once a certain critical mass is hit (the Angry Birds effect?).
Implementing a strategy for mobile learning within an organisation needs to take account of three key factors, each of which can be identified from the above. We need to consider the technology platform, the content that we build and the people that will use it. Each of these factors are obvious, and yet complex. Behaviours and successes that we see in other areas will not necessarily translate into the business world for learning applications.
Technology in itself is not an answer. It’s a facilitator. Technology didn’t create the behaviours that we see, it simply enables users to act in ways that fulfil their desires and needs. Content may fulfil those desires and may, indeed, create them. It’s a complex merry-go-round of factors, each feeding or facilitating the others, ever faster, ever more sophisticated.
And at some point, we want to jump on.
When considering technology, one of the factors that organisations need to consider is to what extent they want (or need) to own or control it. Historically, it’s been the pattern that businesses like to own things. Networks, intranets, VPNs, all of them fall under a span of control and are usually defined as much by the things that you can’t do as the things that you can. Whilst we can mock it, it’s usually for the very good reasons of security and reliability, although occasionally for the purposes of control and petty power games.
The challenge comes in that the user experience has, reasonably often, been slightly poor. Not always dreadful, but quite often less than you would accept from a shop or a supplier. Again, this is fair enough for the past, but expectations are changing now. It used to be the case that i was content to put a tape into a cassette player and wait fifteen minutes whilst it beeped, hissed and warbled to load a game into my Commodore, but not any longer [Kids: tapes are what we had before CDs and had the benefit of being one of the few bits of technology that you could repair with Selotape and rewind with a BIC biro. You can probably see one on the internet or your local museum].
Expectations change over time, and it’s no longer necessary for organisations to maintain the actual hardware. Devices like Blackberrys and iPads are inherently far more stable than laptops. They start quicker, respond quicker and can be remotely wiped in an emergency. Whilst i don’t want this to turn into a detailed investigation of IT policies, the fact is that many organisations are allowing and enabling us to utilise these newer devices and, in the process, delivering a significantly enhanced user experience. We need to ensure that we don’t subsequently compromise that experience at the next step: content.
Content for mobile needs to be different from typical online content or e-learning. People interact with these devices in fundamentally different ways, and we will be doing a disservice to our users if we fail to recognise this. Sure, there are some clear differentiators, such as the ‘just in time’ nature of many applications (checking train times, converting currency, playing a game whilst waiting for the train). Mobile devices allow you to take a chunk of your online life with you everywhere. It’s certainly not a widescreen, surround sound, armchair experience, but it’s highly portable, highly responsive and delivered on demand. It’s highly unlikely that existing content will port satisfactorily into this space. The dynamics of interface design, the nature of the content and even the technology within which it was built are all likely to deliver challenges.
As organisations take their first steps into the mobile arena, they typically express two desires: to create something new, a ‘showcase’ solution, and to port across their back catalogue. Bringing across the back catalogue is, in this context, risky, for all concerned. It’s going to be far better to say ‘we’ve got three hours of first class mobile learning’ than it is to say ‘we’ve got a hundred hours’, but for the hundred hours to be a very long and very poor experience.
We need to look to the marketplace to take our leads. In a dynamic and hungry market, innovation and promotion are the keys to success. It’s not enough to have a great idea: you need to apply that idea and execute it superbly. Technology can give us geolocation for devices, or tilt switches and accelerometers to know what the device is doing and where it is in the world it is, but it takes innovators and creatives to actually do something useful or fun with these features.
From an organisational perspective, the technology and solutions need to be relevant. The ‘point’ of mobile is to be relevant and immediate. It’s not so much geared up to long term, detailed and considered tasks, but rather much more to immediate, mobile and fulfilling activities. There is very little deferred gratification when it comes to mobile.
It’s going to be much better to ensure that the user’s first experience of ‘corporate mobile’ fits into the highly applied and highly relevant category than the technically sound but tedious content area.
And then there are the users. You, me, even my mum. Everyone’s mobile and everyone’s an expert, but we all utilise the technology in different ways. It’s the ultimate chameleon, because you can colour and shape it yourself. From the case that surrounds it, to the wallpaper on the home screen, to the Apps that you load, your phone says as much about you as your trainers, your shirt and your haircut. Mine has social media Apps dominating the first page, a guitar tuner and chord App on the second. Several photo Apps and some travel ones on the third and ones for Wagamama and Starbucks on the fourth. There’s even one for checking the wind whilst sailing. My iPhone charts my life: it’s the ultimately configured handbook for me.
But we need to listen and react to users. People exhibit new and unpredictable behaviours in their interactions with mobile. We need to observe these and understand how they are using these devices and how we can use this in our learning design. Ultimately, we need to understand how all of this fits alongside the full pantheon of learning media and channels available to us, from books to workshops to coaching and mentoring.
So here we are, with our three factors: technology, content and users. We need to learn, to observe how these three interact in the social sectors, the entertainment arena and the utility market. How do people use them to work, rest and play? What steps can we take to ensure that the first experience of formal learning is engaging and effective? The answer won’t come from one of these areas in isolation, but rather through a deep understanding of all three and a willingness from each of us to learn. To accept that some of what we know if still valid, but that the field of mobile learning is new, and that it will require a new methodology and strategy to make it work. The opportunities are almost endless if we grasp them with curiosity, enthusiasm and a spirit of adventure.