Mobile Learning: day four – the triumvirate of mobile learning

Working all through this week on my new book on ‘mobile learning’. I’m sharing some sections as they are completed. Having covered the technology and the emergence of ‘mobile’ as a learning channel, today i am working on the triumvirate of mobile learning: three things we need to consider to get it right. People, Environment and Subject. In this excerpt, i look at people.

The triumvirate of mobile learning
We’ve already looked at technology: considering what mobile learning is, how it differs from other forms of learning and the ways in which people use mobile devices. We have thought about the technology from a features perspective, but now i want to consider the triumvirate of mobile learning, working across three threads: people, environment and subject. To develop a successful infrastructure to deliver learning and to create a strong methodology for designing the learning, we need to understand and master all three areas.

People have better things to do than learn: we want to hit targets, go for nice meals out, have a drink with friends, read a good book, do some gardening, bake cakes, paint the hallway and, as Freddie Mercury said, just ride our bicycles.

People have an everyday reality and the things we want them to learn may not form part of it. A foundation of learning is to understand the learner, to understand what their everyday reality is and to ensure that whatever learning experience we are trying to craft fits alongside that, or, at the very least, is not in conflict with it. If i don’t understand what is important to you, then i’m not going to be able to create something that resonates with you.

This can be a simple thing to achieve. Take length of the learning. Many pieces of e-learning are too long. Unnecessarily long. Why? Because they are created by people who are more interested in what they have to say than in thinking about what people want to hear and because they make the fatal mistake of thinking that there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’.

People are wonderfully different, but amazingly the same. If i read something and think that it’s boring, too long or full or errors, there is a reasonable chance that you will too. We may differ on the details, but as a rule of thumb, people are discerning consumers of media. In other words, in our own time, we choose what to read, what to watch and what to listen to and we ditch the rest.

I watched a drama on the tv two days ago: it was dreadful, the script sounded like it was being read from a page. The plot was paper thin and the casting poor. That was part one. I couldn’t tell you if it got better in part two, because i spent last night reading my book instead. It had it’s chance to prove itself worthy of my time and attention and it failed. I’m not being unduly harsh, i mean, i’m sure lots of people liked it, but the reality is, my everyday reality is that there are any number of things that i can do with my evening and i’m going to spend that time where it gives me the greatest reward. If the drama can’t hold my attention for one evening i’m simply not going to give it a second chance.

We have to produce learning that is of a high quality: we are operating in a commercial space.

Understanding the everyday reality of the learner can mean understanding the pressure that they face everyday. Once i designed a project to be delivered to people who worked in a bank. We were very careful to ensure that the learning broke down into chapters as we knew that this group would have to put the learning down when customers came in. Great efforts went into ensuring that the bookmarks were easy to use and that the narrative worked in small chunks.

When we launched the project, i was amazed to see that the learning was being completed in long stretches. People were spending up to two hours at a time focussed on results. I went into several branches to see what was happening and got a lesson in common sense.

It turned out that most of the branch workers were part time mothers. The organisation had a good reputation as a place to work if you needed to get away for the school run at 3.30. When i spoke to them, they told me how difficult it was to focus on the learning in small chunks with customers coming in, especially when you worked a short day. So they organised themselves. They would all cover for one member of the team who would go out the back, into the office, and have some uninterrupted learning time. Once that person had completed it, the next person would go the next day. They were amazed that people kept trying to get them to learn in small chunks when they really wanted to just get their teeth into it.

So i learnt a lesson there: understand the everyday reality of the learner. Why? Because i was trying to solve a problem around one project, solving it once. This group had solved the problem long ago. I had just failed to ask them what worked.

Ok, so this one may be down to my inexperience, maybe you wouldn’t have made the same mistake, or maybe you’d have made a different one. The point is that people are complex and we need to understand what matters to them

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that we should only tell people what they want to hear: far from it! But it does mean that we should understand if the message is at odds with their everyday reality, with what they want to hear. It’s better to be direct and say ‘we know this is a big thing to ask, but we have to do it anyway’, rather than to just not acknowledge the challenge.

We use technology in all sorts of different ways in our social lives. Smartphones and tablets exist to serve our needs, they are there at our beck and call to retrieve information, to support our needs and desires. They are convenient tools that are reasonably effortless to use. There is a natural dynamic to reaching into your pocket to pull out the phone, it’s the first step in many forms of communication: texting, email, phoning or jumping into a social space. Where we used to put on our shoes and walk out of the door, driving to work, today, we just reach into our pockets.

As we sit here, in the first part of our triumvirate of people, environment and subject, we need to think about the ease of this, how effortless it is to do most of the things we want to do with our mobiles. Now think to how we typically design or access learning: often there is a sign on process to a learning management system. Sometimes there is a legal disclaimer screen. Frequently you need to choose courses and then sit through learning objectives, title screens, introductory messages from a guy in a suit who you’ve never met and, finally, an index page.

Contrast the user experience of learning with the user experience of playing Angry Birds, or using Facebook. Which one is easier and which one do you want to deliver?

The joy of mobile is that it moves us out of the classroom and into the everyday world of the learner. The downside is that, as we move into the real world, into these commercial spaces, we will be judged by different rules. No longer do we own the environment. In commercial spaces, we will be judged by commercial rules and our work needs to stand up to that scrutiny.

Be quick or be dead. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of Apps that i’ve ever installed on my iPad remain unused, or rather used only once. This is the reality, my everyday reality. I have neither the time nor inclination to put up with someone else’s poor design or lack of care and attention. We have to design for a discerning and fluid audience who has choices. We want people to engage because of our superb quality, not because we threaten them with compliance or assessments.

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.
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2 Responses to Mobile Learning: day four – the triumvirate of mobile learning

  1. I’ve been out of my Blogland loop so am only just catching up with your posts. As a mature student working through the OU I cannot even begin to tell you how much this post resonates with me. Can I just say that I am so pleased that there are folks like you Julian out there who really get this stuff . I’m no expert in learning but I am expert at trying to fit learning into my busy life.

    If I may I would really like to re-blog this post. I was cheeky enough to email the Open University – Platform website and asked if they would make me blog of the week. Impressed by my get up and go they did it and I have pride of place on their website. So, if I re-blog your post now then there is a significant OU audience who can access it – which would be no bad thing.

    Having come back to learning later in life I have found that slowly, with experience, I am much more selective – and I have realised that in accessing distance learning materials this is significantly influenced by poor design. I would have seen the day where I would have gone with it but now I don’t and would much rather source what I need elsewhere. This takes time though.

    I’m a mum with a full time job, and I’m also a carer and so I don’t have heaps of time to do this. Your insights about learning have been an eyeopener for me and I would like to pass these on to other students if you are happy for me to do so. I will of course link this directly to your blog.

    Maybe you could let me know what you think. Many thanks and keep your insightful posts coming.


    • julianstodd says:

      Thanks Jacqueline and i’d be very happy for you to repost. I think that so often learning is designed ‘in the abstract’, without taking into account the reality of the learner. Your own experiences illustrate this perfectly!

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