m-Learning: where is it taking us?

More and more learning providers (and even some non-learning companies) are offering m-Learning (mobile learning) as a solution to learning needs in organisations. Because this is a relatively new area in learning, and it’s become a bit of a buzz word that clients seem to have caught on to, there are a number of different definitions for m-Learning. There are also a number of benefits and disadvantages to using mobile learning, and these have to be considered before we develop a mobile learning solution. Fortunately, there are reasonably practical steps we can follow when implementing this type of learning.

What is m-Learning?

Depending on who is asking and what the context is, different people mean different things when they refer to mobile learning (Laouris and Eteokleous, 2005) and there is still no one definition that seems to satisfactorily encompass all that mobile learning is. Perhaps that is because it is dynamic area and innovations are constantly being made. Having said that, in general m-Learning or mobile learning refers to any learning that can take place using mobile devices. While this definition is strictly correct, it doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, is m-Learning merely e-Learning that takes place on the smaller screen of a smart phone or tablet? Or is there more to it than that? Clearly a more encompassing definition of mobile learning is needed, although it will probably never be a static definition.

Why m-Learning?

So why the sudden interest in m-Learning? What are the benefits?

  • Learners are able to complete learning where and when time permits – a quiet moment at work while waiting to update software on a laptop, in the airport waiting for a transfer, or in the back of an Uber cab on the way to a conference.
  • The ease of use and flexibility means learners are more likely to complete their learning.
  • M-Learning is a great solution for specific types of content.
  • Well-suited to on-the-job training or just-in-time (JIT) learning when a specific problem needs to be solved or a learner needs an update.
  • Good for providing quick reference guides and checklists at the point of need.
  • M-Learning gives us the opportunity to embed learning in our working lives wherever we are.

But mobile learning should not be thought of as a silver bullet to replace all other types of learning, including e-Learning. There are disadvantages of m-learning too:

  • Different software may need to be used to develop different types of learning (e-Learning vs m-Learning). That can become costly.
  • Hours of development and testing is required to ensure that the mobile learning solution works effectively on all targeted devices.
  • An organisation’s existing LMS may not support the mobile solutions.
  • M-Learning is not e-Learning lite! An updated learning strategy is required to successfully implement mobile learning solutions.
  • E-Learning designs can’t simply be transferred to m-Learning. A new design, that takes into consideration the size of the screen, needs to be created.


Is mobile behaviour different to other online behaviour?

People treat their mobile devices differently to their laptops or desktops. Their behaviour using their phones and tablets differs substantially from how they behave with their computers.

  • When we use mobile it’s generally for short bursts. We open our phones, do something, and put the phone away (Lentz and Carson, 2012). For example, check Twitter, share on LinkedIn, or comment on Facebook.
  • Mobile users move between devices quickly. How often have you found yourself sitting with your tablet reading an article online, having a conversation on WhatsApp and responding to email using your laptop (maybe all in from of the TV)? As learning designers, we need to understand that people are not focusing all their attention on a single device, but rather multi-tasking, so their concentration is limited.

This short attention span type behaviour, where people spend small chinks on time on numerous activities, shouldn’t frighten us off when it comes to creating an m-Learning design. Instead it should inform our thinking around what will work best for mobile learners.

How do you approach m-Learning?

So, you’ve been asked to meet with your clients to discuss the design and development of an m-Learning solution. What will the discussion look like?

  1. When your client asks for a mobile learning solution, ask them what they mean by mobile. As we’ve seen, the definition of m-Learning is not clear cut. There is room for interpretation, so make sure you and your client have the same understanding and expectations when it comes to mobile learning.
  2. Examine your client’s need. Your client may ask for mobile learning because they’ve been mandated to invest in researching this avenue of learning, but it may not be the best solution for their need. Is your client looking to provide content-heavy solutions to learners at work? Or are they looking for performance support for learners on the go?
  3. Consider who your target audience is and conduct a mobile analysis. Are you learners likely to take-up an m-Learning solution? Are they technophiles or technophobes? Do they currently rely on mobile devices for work? It will also be necessary to assess management readiness for buy-in. Does the company have a traditional classroom-based learning culture, or will learners be open to using new technology?
  4. When designing, ensure you engage your learners. They are loads of ways to ensure m-Learning is engaging (despite its functional limitations). For example, instead of trying to make tiny screens more interactive with minuscule roll overs and pop ups, why not engage learners using video clips or animations?


So, what now?

It’s clear that mobile learning is not going to go away – and nor should it! It offers learners more flexibility than traditional e-Learning, but it in no way replaces e-Learning. M-Learning is best suited to Just-In-Time learning requirements and on-the-job performance support, but there are also challenges that must be considered before diving right in and developing an entire m-Learning solution. People use their mobile devices differently to the way they use their notebooks or PCs – so it makes sense that mobile learning should be designed differently to the way we design e-Learning.



Laouris, Y & Eteokleous, N. 2005. We need an educationally relevant definition of mobile learning. http://www.mlearn.org.za

Lentz, M % Carson, B. 2012. Designing Content for Multiple Mobile Devices. http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1018/designing-content-for-multiple-mobile-devices?_ga=1.15176370.507818224.1434630175


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