Debunking the Screen Size Myth

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I have seen a number of blog posts and comments from folks in the mLearning space who claim that the size of the screen on a mobile device is a “disadvantage of mobile learning.” Others have called this a limitation or a challenge as if it must be overcome.

I believe these statements are misleading and counterproductive.  In many ways this is like claiming that a disadvantage of the automobile is that it can’t fly.  Just as cars weren’t designed to be airplanes, mobile phones weren’t designed to be desktop or laptop computers.  That having been said, it doesn’t mean that a car isn’t an effective mode of transportation, nor does it mean that a mobile phone can’t be an effective tool for learning.

The key is to embrace what mobile devices were meant to do: be mobile!  Is the screen smaller than a desktop monitor or a laptop LCD? Are there fewer pixels and less resolution? Of course, but that doesn’t necessarily imply a disadvantage or limitation.  When thinking about mobile learning, we cannot forget the “mobile” part.  Think about what information your learners need to access when they are on the go.  It probably isn’t a 50 page PDF, but rather a 2 page summary of the 50 page PDF.  Maybe it is a how-to guide or information about a particular location.  Mobile phones are small so they can be with us all the time and be easily accessible without being cumbersome.  More often than not, the information we need to access is small also, so the size of the screen needn’t be an issue at all.

There are two very good examples to drive home this point.  The first is SMS (text) messaging.  Text messages are limited to 160 characters or about 35 words.  In a world where we can create email messages with attachments that are literally hundreds of times larger, why is SMS the most widely used form of person to person electronic communication in the world today?  The answer is because today people have found they don’t need to write a book or a doctorial dissertation to communicate a basic thought.  Most of the time 160 characters works just fine.

Another example is what IBM is doing at the Almaden Research Center.  A team led by Jeff Pierce is looking at ways to make mobile email better.  While not specifically mobile learning, this work focuses on making mobile email more usable by looking at the differences between how people treat email on a mobile device vs. what they do on their desktop.  As the project description points out, most mobile email clients are designed to simulate desktop email clients.   However, email users work very differently when they are at their desks than they do when they are on their mobile devices.  Desktop users tend to spend more time reading and writing emails while mobile users tend to “triage” their messages to see what must be addressed immediately, what is spam and can be deleted and what needs to be reviewed and taken care of later.

As a result, Pierce and his team are working on developing an email client designed specifically for how mobile users think and work.  The project description is very informative and offers some great insight for how to appropriately design mLearning experiences.

So, before we think of the small screen size on our mobile phones as a disadvantage for mobile learning, maybe we should think of what a disadvantage it would be if our phones were all as big as an iPad.

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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.

» Mobile Strategy » Debunking the Screen Size Myth
On June 11, 2010
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