mLearning Is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device

April 2010 Newsletter

Mobile Strategy, Newsletter Comments (34)

With the proliferation of mobile devices and the increasing capabilities of today’s smartphones, mobile learning, or mLearning, has been getting a lot of press. Given the similarity between the terms eLearning and mLearning, one might be tempted to assume that mLearning is little more than eLearning on a mobile device. This assumption could not be further from the truth.

Clearly we don’t use our cell phones, Kindles®, and iPods® in the same way we use our desktop or laptop computers, or even their technological predecessors, the book and the CD or tape player. So it follows that the type of learning that is appropriate on a mobile device is very different than what we do at our desk. In fact, the differences between mLearning and eLearning are at least as great as those between eLearning and instructor-led training. The differences between those two deployment paths are so significant that it requires a completely different approach to instructional design, graphic and user experience design and information presentation. So, what makes mLearning so different from eLearning and why is mLearning such an important development?

Understanding the differences between eLearning and mLearning begins with first defining mLearning. While there are many opinions and ideas surrounding this, the Float Learning definition of mLearning is:

“mLearning is the use of mobile technology to aid in the learning, reference or exploration of information useful to an individual at that moment or in a specific use context.”

The primary differences between mLearning and eLearning fall into four main categories: timing, information access, context and assessment.

The first major difference between eLearning and mLearning is the time when learning is expected to take place and the anticipated duration of the learning session. Most eLearning is designed for the learner to sit at a computer and progress through a specified amount of material for a period of time. The length of time required to complete a particular eLearning module varies, but generally the duration ranges anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. Because the instruction is designed to run on a desktop or laptop computer, a specific time is usually chosen to complete the module.

But mLearning, by its very nature, is untethered and can be done anytime and anywhere. In addition, the small screen sizes of today’s mobile devices means individual interaction sessions, and by extension, learning sessions are much shorter in duration. Individuals don’t want to spend an hour staring at their phone just to complete one learning objective. Instead, mobile learning is ideal for conveying smaller chunks of information that can be absorbed while waiting for the bus, standing in line at the grocery store or located on or around a job site.

An example of this type of training is a quick reference guide. Imagine a new salesperson who has just completed her company’s online sales training course. The course was comprehensive, covering a lot of material, including the company’s custom sales process. Now she is on her first sales call. Arriving fifteen minutes early, she pulls out her smartphone and reviews a checklist of the 5 key elements of a successful sales call. Seeing that the number one element is to know the name and title of the person she is calling on, she quickly checks her notes and reviews the information about her sales contact. This sort of just-in-time experience exhibits the value in making your learning content mobile.

Information Access
When taking an eLearning course on a topic, such as a sales training or a new product introduction, two key learning objectives are comprehension and retention. Because the information being learned will be applied at a later time, it is critical that the material be understood and remembered until it is needed. MLearning, on the other hand, is more about accessing information at the moment it is needed. This implies that successful mLearning is more about easy and convenient access to information and less about committing information to memory.
Take healthy eating as an example. A lesson on the benefits of healthy eating would make for an excellent eLearning topic due to the amount of information and the level of compression necessary to convey the key points. This type of learning would most likely not be appropriate for a mobile device. On the other hand, learning whether the Caesar salad or a bowl of black bean soup has more calories at a local fast food restaurant via a simplified interface tailored for the device is an ideal application for mobile learning.

There is no doubt that mobile devices are being used for tasks that extend far beyond talking on the phone and sending text messages. The capabilities of these devices extend across a wide spectrum from geolocation to photography to internet access. As a result, our context drives how we use our mobile devices. If it is lunchtime and we are in an unfamiliar city, we may use a mobile application or the internet to find a suitable place to eat or relax at a park.

Context is one of the key areas where mLearning is distinguished from eLearning. With eLearning, as with instructor-led sessions, it is critically important to establish the context so that the learner understands the importance of the subject matter. For instance, take an eLearning module about the importance of performing a safety check before using a piece of equipment. You would most likely start the instruction with a discussion of why safety checks are important and specifically how they relate to the particular piece of equipment being discussed. Once the context has been established, information on the actual safety check process can be presented.

With mLearning, however, the context has already been established. For example, the defense company, Lockheed Martin has recently developed an iPhone app that includes a full pre-flight checklist for the C-130 Hercules Transport plane. The app contains a rotatable, zoomable image of the plane as well as a visual step-by-step guide to each task required prior to flight. The idea is that a visual checklist is easier to use and interpret than a written document. When you add in the ability to clearly see close-ups or levels of detail that simply wouldn’t be possible in a traditional checklist, the value in leveraging the context of being next to the item you are inspecting or using becomes obvious.

With eLearning the gap between when learning occurs and when it is applied in practice can be significant, especially when compared to mobile learning. As a result, the methods of assessment are very different for the two learning styles. While Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning evaluation are applicable to both eLearning and mLearning, the approach to evaluation is different.

When assessing an eLearning module, it is relatively easy, through a series of questions to determine the success of Level 1 – Learner Reaction (what the learner felt about the training) and Level 2 – Learning (the resulting increase in knowledge or capacity). However, with Level 3 – Behavior and Level 4 – Results, it becomes much harder to assess the impact of the eLearning. This is not to say that Behavior and Results are hard in and of themselves to measure. But so many other factors can influence a person’s behavior or an organization’s results, that it is difficult to tie these changes specifically to eLearning.

The time span between when mobile learning actually occurs and the application of that learning is usually very short, often it is immediate. As a result, it is much easier to assess mLearning’s impact on both an individual’s behavior and the ensuing business results. In addition, because mLearning is less about comprehension and retention and more about easy access to the right information, Level 1 and Level 2 assessments are less important if the behaviors and results are appropriately changing.

Different Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better
The differences between mLearning and eLearning may suggest that one learning style is better than the other. They are both appropriate in the right situation. For instance, no one would want their cardiologist to need a refresher on the different valves of the heart prior to doing surgery. But you might feel a little bit more comfortable if your doctor pulled out his iPhone to confirm all the side effects of a new blood thinning medication that had just been developed while he is readying to prescribe a new course of treatments for you. Similarly, an eLearning module on the history of Chicago may be both interesting and educational. The depth of content that could be revealed could require multiple viewings, with each one bringing forth a myriad of fascinating details. But a walking tour of Chicago that uses the GPS feature of your phone to point out and explain important landmarks based on your current location is much more engaging than learning about them at home sitting at your desk.

The point is the capabilities and features of today’s mobile devices are now allowing us to create entirely new ways of learning than previously possible. When you start thinking about your phone or other mobile device from this perspective, you’ll be amazed at the creative ideas that will start to flow and the many ways to enhance the learning process. The key in transitioning the learning objectives and content lies in your ability to assess the learner’s goals and understand their context and the delivery methods you have available to you as the learning creator.

If you’ve realized that you need to port any of your eLearning content over to mobile, please contact us right away to help begin developing your mobile learning strategy.

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John is the Managing Partner for Float Mobile Learning. He has over 18 years of experience in helping clients change to be more successful and helping those clients navigate those changes. He works with Fortune 500 organizations to help them define and design learning strategies with a focus on mobile learning. His client list includes Caterpillar, Anheuser-Busch, Museum of Science and Industry and Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.

John is a member of both the E-Learning Guild and ASTD where he is active in speaking about both eLearning and mobile learning topics.

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34 Responses to mLearning Is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device

  1. Michael Portman says:

    Hi jfeser,

    A very thorough analysis of the topic in the above Blog. I liked the examples you used for the immediacy of mLearning in the workplace.

    i am currently writing a research paper on the topic for an industry training organisation and would like to know whether I might quote you when referencing this topic.

    kind regards,


  2. […] further reading: mLearning is not eLearning on a mobile device by Float mobile […]

  3. Dianne says:

    I’d also add that mlearning is accessed at moments when you have time and are bored so immediate need doesn’t always enter into it, though of course relevance is always a factor. Case in point–I used my mobile to play with Google Earth tools while I was walking the dog and he was pondering the mystery of a patch of grass and that patch seemed to be very mysterious…In the case of this scenario, the engagement level of mlearning may need to be higher since I don’t have that immediate need so I’ll likely go to an app/website with more edutainment value…another argument, that games and mlearning also have a strong synergy.

  4. Telmea Story says:

    Great analysis. I think you are correct in saying that mLearning and eLearning are not the same, as different as eLearning and instructor led learning. That is true insofar as people have tried to make eLearning as much like f2f learning as they can to the detriment of both. The 50 minute lecture was never really demonstrated to be pedagogically superior to smaller bits, it was just a compromise between the maximum attention span and a industrial workplace view of how long tasks should last. As the internet becomes more portable and handheld, eLearning can be much more suited to the type of just in time and untethered learning.

  5. […] least I think it’s an interest in m-learning.  I worry that I may fall into the trap that this post tells you to avoid. My smartphone is so smart that it is really a pocket computer running a […]

  6. Yes, Yes, Very useful and provocative to my thinking.

    A key difference for me is that I can do mobile learning at my desktop but it is different if I do mobile. Depending on the context mobile can be better. Right Here- Right Now.

    Another advantage of learning on a mobile devise is that the learner control their learning more. On a desktop at work, many organisation block access to so much. They can’t do that on a personally owned and controlled tax deductible device.

  7. […] mLearning Is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device » Float Mobile Learning – Mobile Learning Strat… True I suppose in the same sense that online learning is not distance learning on a computer – or at least it should not be. Some thoughts to ponder for our mobile project. (tags: mLearning usqict) […]

  8. Kinjal says:


    I liked the examples given to explain each of the point, very nicely crafted!
    And I also agree with Dianne, that mlearning is also considered when we have time but nothing concrete to do. Yes mobile gaming should also be considered with mlearning.

    Kinjal Vora

  9. What intrigues me about mLearning is the potential of learning to become an extension of self – I’m going to come at this from a K20 angle, but I think it applies to all learning – Perhaps when artificial barriers to learning (i.e. classrooms, bells, content-driven curricula, one-size-fits-all instruction) are broken down by the context-driven and apprenticeship-like learning mobiles promise, we will see a democratization of learning that will develop more natural, lifelong skills. When distributed knowledge is leveraged for just-in-time and on-demand needs, meaning will be experienced and internalized on the learner’s terms. Surely this increased sense of agency will transform institutionalized(?) learning into a more deeply personal and character-building act.

  10. hewa says:

    Nice article, like to add few factors.

    there is an overlap area between e-Learning and m-learning. this has lead many people to present e-Learning through mobile devices as m-learning. even so called m-learning def. given as wikipedia m-learning page, “Any sort of learning that happens when the learner is not at a fixed, predetermined location, or learning that happens when the learner takes advantage of the learning opportunities offered by mobile technologies” gives wrong impression.

    simply, every learning that takes place through mobile devices is not m-learning.

  11. Michelle says:

    Thank you for the very nice summary. I know I can fall into the trap of using new technologies to do what I’ve always done just on a different platform. This post helped me to crystallize some of the unique advantages to using mobile devices. As a small example, I know I am a lot more likely to look up an unfamiliar word when all I have to do is move a cursor on my Kindle rather finding my laptop or, even worse, a dictionary. While I am not looking to encourage the path of least resistance, I think the more learners realize they have the power to find information quickly and easily, the more likely they will be to develop the habit of doing so. At least that is what I would hope. The issue still remains of how to encourage the pursuit of life-long learning in chunks (deep content) when bites (instant information) are so appealing.

  12. Amit Garg says:

    John, Good article.

    We often meet clients asking for e-learning that works on both desktops and mobile devices. It is so critical to get the difference between the two. Like you, I see mobile learning more relevant for just-in-time learning or performance support. Earlier in December I wrote about 3 ways to use mobile learning in workplace learning, which is very much in synch with your thoughts above.

    I also think, the reason for this confusion could well be vendors’ claims about mobile learning. To my surprise I found a couple of incorrect definitions being propagated at the Learning Technologies Expo in London earlier this year – by vendors. I wrote this quick article to highlight some non-examples of mobile learning.


  13. […] moment Het artikel was een post van John Feser met de titel mLearning Is Not eLearning On a Mobile Device. Het artikel gaat eigenlijk over de verschillen tussen eLearning en mLearning en geeft daar een […]

  14. I find this distinction between elearning and mlearning unneccessary and artificial. Who says elearning has to involve a computer … thats one narrow definition.

    Is a student completing an assessment in Goodread with their iPad on a train doing elearning or mlearning? What about someone participating in an online tutorial, posting in a forum, reading an ebook on their phone?

    I do agree with the closing section. Mobile devices are just another array of tools which students can access their learning and we need to think about cross-platform solutions to make them possible. Our learning should be broken into smaller chunks for mobile participants.

    • John Feser says:


      I see your point and in theory I agree. In reality though, most people have a fairly narrow view/perspective of what eLearning is. By and large, eLearning is still primarily viewed as “courseware.” What we are trying to point out in this article is that many effective forms of mobile learning are not about courses but are about context.

      I like to think of it this way, with traditional eLearning as instructional designers, our job is to create the context for learning. For example a course on conducting a safety inspection prior to operating a particular piece of equipment will focus on the context of safety.

      With mobile learning, context drives the need for the learning. For example, a mobile safety checklist would be used in the context of someone getting ready to use said piece of equipment.

      In general, eLearning prepares you for a need, whereas mLearning is available at the time of need. Both are learning and both are electronic, it’s just our perceptions of the two are different.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope this distinction makes sense.


  15. […] between the two: timing, information access, context, and assessment (for details see here: The point he makes, though, is fundamental to anticipating the future of m-Learning. Feser […]

  16. […] mLearning Is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device: Float Mobile Learning With the proliferation of mobile devices and the increasing capabilities of today's smartphones, mobile learning, or mLearning, has been getting a lot of press. Given the similarity between the terms eLearning… Source: […]

  17. Hap Aziz says:

    The distinction between eLearning and mLearning is a critical one to make. While eLearning involves the move to the digital from the analog world, mLearning is more about pedagogical changes with the context of digital learning. We are actually seeing changes in process rather than changes in content delivery. Of course, my statement waters the issue down tremendously (and Feser’s article states the case very well), but I find that it is handy to have the “elevator speech” handy for those moments I have the opportunity to bend the ears of people at the institutions that I visit.

  18. scktt says:

    I see that this article is from 2010, and have to wonder if the author has rearranged his thinking on the distinctions laid out here.

    Mobile learning is increasingly less context-driven and very much so designed for process, retention, and “courseware.” Consider the abundance of teacher training and language-learning courses now delivered by SMS throughout the world (BBC Janala, EDC, and others). Are these to be considered “context-driven” and not designed for retention? At times it seems you are suggesting that it is the process of being led by an instructor (pedagogy vs. heutagogy), but there an exponentially increasing number of mobile programs designed for this as well.

    I agree with David, above; the distinction is artificial, unnecessary, and entirely unstable. The quantifiable measurements you mention for distinguishing m- and e-learning seem equally blurry – what amount of time on task constitutes which? You use the term “tethered” – what does this mean to you? If a person is completing tiered tasks on a smartphone, using a home or public wireless connection while sitting in a chair, which type of learning is that?

  19. Richa Anand says:

    A very thorough and practical view on the subject. Indeed a nice post.
    Event though you wrote it in 2010, I think despite all innovations and developments in mlearning. It still holds true. Tablets have a perfect ecosystem to reproduce the same learning experience a user will have on a desktop elearning course. Their screen size is lends itself for a smooth user navigation and there are lesser interrupts.(your boss can’t call you on your ipad while you are taking a course) In case of a Smartphone, the screen size is too small to have a smooth learning experience for about an hour long course. What would work for a smart phone would be smaller practical apps that just give you snapshots or main pointers of a course while you are on the move.

  20. […] Until I completed my reading, I thought that mlearning and elearning were relatively the same. “mLearning is the use of mobile technology to aid in the learning, reference or exploration of inf… […]

  21. […] approach to instructional design, graphic design, user experience and information presentation” (Float Mobile Learning, 2010) and make decisions from the learner´s point of view more than ever before. Why? Because mLearning […]

  22. […] “mLearning is the use of mobile technology to aid in the learning, reference or exploration of information useful to an individual at that moment or in a specific use content.” — […]

  23. […] Feser, John (April, 2010.) – mLearning Is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device. Dostupno na: […]

  24. […] John Feser articulates so elegantly, and furthered by others such as Clark Quinn, m-learning is more than just […]

  25. […] John Feser articulates so elegantly, and furthered by others such as Clark Quinn, m-learning is more than just […]

  26. […] it comes to mLearning, it is necessary to completely rethink “our approach to instructional design, graphic design, user experience and information presentation” (Float Mobile Learning, 2010) and make decisions from the learner´s point of view more than […]

  27. […] John Feser articulates so elegantly, and furthered by others such as Clark Quinn, m-learning is more than just […]

  28. I agree with all the pertinent points raised here. A lot of developers attempt to create mobile-enabled solutions without keeping in mind the specifics of the mobile platform. This strategy often falls on its face because developing learning solutions for the mobile platform warrants a separate approach. We have shared the ways how prominent learning theories can be molded for creating a suitable mobile learning strategy – Hope this adds on to the learning!

  29. niti mittal says:

    I’m doing research in the field of m learning and this is the most insightful blog i have come across.
    The illustrations used to make the matter more comprehensible, is really superb.

  30. […] This is an informative article about the use of mobile devices as educational aids (mobile learning – mLearning) as opposed what we have been discussing in this course as online learning or eLearning.  The article explores difference between mLearning and eLearning through four categories – information access, context, assessment and timing. The article can be found here. […]

  31. […] from desktop computing to mobile computing required a new approach in regards to learning (see here and here), so too does the transition from traditional mobile devices to smart glasses and other […]

  32. […] be able to remember or things that I should remember and just don’t:) Just like the article mLearning Is Not eLearning on A Mobile Device (Links to an external site.) discussed, the learning is more immediate and I can take action right away with mobile learning […]

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