The Disruptive Nature of Mobile Learning – Part 2

November 2010 Newsletter

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There is no question mobile technology is taking the world by storm.  For well over a year now, mobile phones have held the distinction of being the most prolific electronic technology mankind has ever seen.  Smartphones continue to sell at an ever increasing rate, resulting in a global society that is becoming more and more connected in many different ways.  One of the most significant implications of this surge in connectedness is in how people access information and how they learn.

Last month, the October Float newsletter introduced the idea of mobile learning being disruptive.  In that article, disruptive was defined in the context of mobile learning and explanations were given as to how mobile learning is both similar and different than other forms of disruptive technologies.  In addition, the article went on to offer four specific ways mobile learning is disruptive: 1) mobile devices are ubiquitous, 2) mobile learning is challenging traditional views of teaching, 3) mobile devices are enabling more self-directed learning, and 4) mobile devices are changing how and when information is accessed.  This month’s newsletter looks at the effect this disruptive force of mobile learning is having on companies and organizations, and in particular, how HR and training departments are impacted and what they will have to do in order to adapt.

How should organizations and their HR and training departments react to the disruption caused by mobile learning?  The high-level answer to this question is straightforward: keep an open mind and get smart.  As was discussed in last month’s newsletter, mobile learning represents significant differences from the approaches used in traditional learning.  These traditional approaches have been in place for many years and are an ingrained part of how training developers think and work.  Helping organizations see the potential in mobile requires a change in how people view learning and a fundamental shift from the idea that the instructor is in control to one where the learner is in control.  Unless training managers and developers understand this critical point and are willing to give up this control, the power of mobile learning will never be fully realized.

Where should those interested in embracing mLearning spend their energies and resources?  The answer lies in moving beyond your comfort zone and thinking differently.  The pace of change today is not just filling peoples’ pockets, offices and living rooms with new gadgets, tools and toys, but it is also changing how people think, learn, and interact.  Understanding and embracing these sociological and behavioral changes is every bit as important as the rapid improvements in technology.  As companies look at how to incorporate mobile learning into their learning and development needs, the following ideas should be in the forefront of their thinking.

Significant opportunities for mobile exist, but they are not always immediately obvious

Organizations considering mobile learning must come to grips with the idea that mobile learning represents opportunities for learning and performance enhancement that previously never existed.  However, identifying these opportunities is not as straightforward as one might think.  While there are always a number of situations where benefits can be easily found, these are often too generic to be practical or too specific to apply to another organization’s needs.  The reality is that successfully taking advantage of a disruptive technology like mobile learning is an iterative process requiring both an understanding of the technology and at the same time being in tune with the business needs of the organization.  By focusing solely on the technology, companies risk a situation where they have a “solution looking for a problem.”  On the other hand, ignoring the technology until “someone else figures it out,” is not the best option either.  The most effective answer is recognizing that the best opportunities will not present themselves all at once, but will materialize over time as an organization’s experience with mLearning grows.

As an example, digital video recorders (DVRs) represented a disruptive technology to the hugely popular video cassette recorder (VCR).  When DVRs first appeared on the market, there were a number of features and benefits that gave them an advantage over VCRs, but they were largely seen as an upgraded technology to what already existed.  Then along came TiVo, who got creative and identified numerous opportunities for providing benefits to their customers.  Features such as the ability to recommend similar shows to what a user normally records, the ability to request a program be recorded remotely from the internet, the ability to transfer recorded shows to a mobile device and the ability to automatically extend the recording time of live television shows are all examples of ideas resulting from a disruptive technology, but they did not come all at the same time.

HR and training departments must change how they view and create learning

Mobile devices are changing traditional views of learning from a directed experience defined by the person creating the training, to a self-directed experience where the learner is in control.  This idea will have a profound impact on the role of HR and training departments in most organizations.  In the past these groups have had to focus on the content that needed to be learned: curriculums, courses, job aides, etc.  With mobile learning, the focus is not just simply on what needs to be learned.  Now, there must be consideration given to factors such as, when the information will be most useful, how to provide easy access to information and presenting content in a way that matches the context of the situation where the learning is needed.  Essentially, trainers must move from the idea of telling people what they need to know to helping them learn what they want to know.

A related impact is the working relationship between learning developers and those departments who will benefit from the learning.  Much of mobile learning is about delivering information at the moment of need, in the context of the situation and in bite size chunks.  As a result, training developers will be forced to work more closely and collaboratively with those groups or departments who are requesting the learning to be developed.  In many ways, traditional forms of training, where information is pushed to the learner, are much simpler to develop because there are only two key variables: the audience and the content.  With mobile learning, these two variables still exist, but now there is a third variable: context.  Adding this third variable requires a much more thorough understanding of the situation in order for effective learning to take place.  As a result, a much tighter working relationship between learning development and other parts of the organization must be developed.

Organizations must recognize the new efficiencies and limitations associated with accessing and sharing information

Vast improvements and changes in how people communicate with each other are having a profound impact on how learning happens.  Those responsible for delivering training must find ways to leverage these improvements.  Traditionally, learning content has been static, once delivered it would not change.  Content developers could fix on a format, a delivery method and to a certain extent the environment and be assured that anyone accessing that content would receive it in the way in which it was designed.  With mobile technology and many more ways to access information, learning content providers must plan for a myriad of ways that their information can be accessed and passed along.  An obvious example of this is the various screen sizes and technologies associated with mobile devices.  For instance, most PDF documents look great on an iPad, are very difficult to read on a mobile phone and only show up in monochrome on a Kindle.  The de facto standard for publishing documents on a computer is not nearly as useful on many mobile devices.  On the flip side, better connectivity between people can enhance learning in ways which were never before possible.  Think about a doctor looking at an MRI trying to diagnose a patient’s condition.  Instead of trying to research the situation in books or online, the image can be sent to a colleague across the globe who can provide advice and suggestions simply by looking at an image on her phone.


The disruptive nature of mobile learning provides tremendous opportunities for organizations willing to embrace this new method of providing information and performance support.  But make no mistake, mobile learning is disruptive, and to take advantage of this disruption a proactive response is required.  By stepping outside the box of traditional instructor-led training and eLearning, HR and training departments can provide tremendous resources.  But doing so will require a commitment to thinking differently and trying new ideas.

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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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