Designing for mobile learning. Considerations and constraints.

Tomorrow i’m facilitating a seminar on ‘Designing for mobile learning’, so i thought that today was a good opportunity to think about it before opening my mouth. Consider this my rehearsal.

When we think about mobile learning, we can consider four strands: the learner, the subject, the technology and the environment. Whilst this is true for any learning, things like technology and environment are more significant in the case of mobile and, because we love shiny toys, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the technology, sometimes at the cost of considering the learner or the materials.

There is a contract that exists between the learner and the organisation. We ask for time and commitment from them and they ask that we produce something engaging, coherent and worthy of that time and effort. In other words, what we produce had better be good, or we are breaking the deal and wasting everyone’s time. To fulfil our end of the deal, we need to understand the context for the learning and consider the multitude of other factors that are impacting on the learner. For example, it’s not unusual for people to have to engage with multiple simultaneous training programmes, each in different areas. Part of the landscape against which we have to design is what these other programmes are about.

For example, if we are delivering a skills training programme at the same time as people are going through a change programme, our messages may be diluted, because the reality for individuals is that they may be concerned about their job, or feel disengaged from the business.

We also need to consider the fact that people are, to an extent, quite similar. I don’t mean that we all like the same things, but rather that we are similar in our desire to do things we like and avoid things we don’t. This applies to learning as much as cooking and cleaning. We are discerning consumers of media and experience. If we are going to engage with this audience, we need to produce something that stands out from the crowd. We need to be the one they pick off the shelf, the one they remember, the one with most relevance and appeal.

The mistake that’s made here is to categorise people into big groups, to say ‘this populations just want facts and figures’ or ‘this group won’t do anything over fifteen minutes’. Sure, people may be under similar pressures within a group, but i bet they home and watch films of an equal length (if those films are good enough), and they all read the same books. It’s a case of making the learning highly engaging and appropriate, not trying to reduce it to some imagined lowest common denominator.

When we come to consider the subject, the biggest factor to think about is ‘what do we need to cover’. This may sound obvious, but frequently there is a great deal of fluff within a training programme. From a learners point of view, if we can make the learning 55 minutes rather than 60, then that’s significant. If the subject can be covered in 45 minutes rather than 50, then that’s what we should aim for. I find that the best approach here is to read out loud what we’ve written. A kind of audio storyboard through the learning, then listen to it yourself or pilot it with a small group. The chances are that if you are bored, then they will be too. The other thing you pick up when you read something out loud is the amount of repetition. Repetition i say! Yes, i’ll say it again, repetition, because we tend to repeat things in individuals sections, then again in the next section, and nothing gets more tedious than repetition.

The other factor around ‘subject’ is whether it’s suitable for mobile learning in the first place. Some subjects are just more suited to the more deeply reflective environment of being at your desk or at home, rather than sat in a cafe or on the bus. Some subjects need space and time, neither of which are strengths of mobile.

Technology is, naturally, the most exciting part of mobile. It’s metallic and reflective, it beeps and it makes you look more cool than your parents. Technology needs to be the facilitator for learning, but it’s not the reason for learning. Technology in itself can just deliver a message, it’s not the message. This relates to the point of ‘is the subject suitable for mobile’. As organisations move into the mobile space, the drive is often to get something up there, not necessarily the most suitable thing.

There is also a question of how much you need to build to make it successful. I’m a big believer in a lean approach, where you utilise light, cheap and flexible solutions, changing the hardware and software easily over time, rather than investing in significant infrastructure that will just be redundant anyway. This is particularly relevant when we look at creating online communities, where the software is almost incidental. You can set up your community in LinkedIn or Facebook, or on a blog or a host of other spaces. Do you really need to invest in software? Sometimes the answer is yes, but if that’s the case, the first person you should speak to is a usability expert. So many sites and application are poor to use. Don’t let yours be one of these.

Finally, environment. Yesterday i travelled by car, by taxi, by train and by foot, and sat in several long meetings. At every stage i was engaging with my iPhone and iPad, in all of those environments. I was checking emails, playing an annoyingly addictive game, writing, capturing some thoughts, taking photos and texting a friend who was sunbathing in Tenerife. At each stage, the environment was different. Sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, sometimes cluttered and sometimes obstructed by coffee cups.

Whilst the beauty of mobile is that you can access it anywhere, the impact is that the environment is hugely significant. We need to consider both the structure of the learning and the way that people interact with it far more than would be the case with traditional e-learning.

So there we go: four strands of thought around designing for mobile. Consider the pressures on the learner, their everyday reality. Consider the subject, how is the story told. Consider technology and infrastructure, how does it facilitate the learning, and consider the environment and the impact this may have. And did i mention not to repeat things too much?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Apps, Barriers to Learning, Design, Instructional Design, Learning Design, Learning Methodology, Learning Technology, Mobile Learning and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Designing for mobile learning. Considerations and constraints.

  1. Chris Wall says:


    I just participated in the Webex you conducted for RWD’s MMS group, and I wanted first to thank you for spending the time with us. It’s good to stir up the pot this way.

    I did have a question, though, about one of the points you raised on slide 10 of your presentation in which you state that we learn differently. I’d like to make the case that we learn differently depending on the content we’re supposed to be learning. In other words, there’s a lot of evidence out there that learning styles don’t really exist ( The point Dr. Willingham makes is that the learning activity should be designed around the type of task being taught.

    I believe this idea echoes your comment above that mobile learning should be used on tasks and activities that are suited to the technology, and, frankly, if you’re an instructional designer who’s not doing this, then, well, let’s just say you might have opportunities to learn.

    Thanks again for your presentation today. The wheels are turning.

    • julianstodd says:

      Hey Chris – thanks – and yes, i totally agree about learning styles. I think we learn differently depending on content and CONTEXT. I do believe you can take a reductionist approach and identify different styles, but that is not a predictor about how htat person will learn in a different context, or with different content. Best wishes


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