An Interview with Dr. Clark Quinn

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In this month’s newsletter, we present an interview on mobile learning with Dr. Clark Quinn.  Dr. Quinn is an internationally recognized speaker and scholar in the field of learning technology.  He is considered one of the pioneers of mobile learning.  He has an extensive publication and presentation record, and has held positions at the University of New South Wales, the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, and San Diego State University’s Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education. Quinn earned a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California, San Diego, after working for DesignWare, an early educational software company.

Quinn’s new book Designing mLearning: Tapping into the Mobile Revolution for Organizational Performance will be published in early 2011. Float’s managing partner, John Feser, sat down with Quinn at DevLearn in San Francisco last month to talk about his new book and several other mobile learning topics.

John: First, could you just start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background with learning and specifically mobile learning?

Clark: I saw the connection between computers and learning as an undergraduate.  I designed my own major since my university didn’t have one [that fit] and I got a job out of college designing and programming educational computer games.  I got interested in the issues such as how to design things like the interface properly and I read an article about cognitive engineering – taking what we know about how people think and using that to design a system. I went on to do my PhD with Don Norman, but my twist was how to design systems for the way people really learn.

Along the way I have looked at various learning theories: behavioral, cognitive, socialist, constructivist. I have even looked at machine learning just to see what implications there are.  And I’ve always been a sort of a technology geek.  It’s actually Marcia Conner, at; she asked me to write an article on mobile learning, so I wrote a thought piece. But it was back in 2000, and it was one of the first articles out there, so I got notoriety. That led me into some mobile stuff, and I’ve been increasingly thinking about it ever since.  I’ve had the chance to do some mobile design and some mobile strategy.  With the trajectory that things are taking where Google is now designing for mobile first and then maybe for the desktop, you see that increasingly these are devices everybody has with them and are intimate with and have lots of opportunities to say, “Can we use these to our benefit?”


John: How would you describe mobile learning to someone who isn’t familiar with the concept?

Clark: The first thing I’d say is that it is not courses on a phone.  There are situations where that makes sense, but that’s not the way to start thinking about it.  The way to start thinking about it is like accessorizing our brain.  We’ve used levers and cars and clothes and things as ways to adapt the world to us, as opposed to genetically adapting ourselves to the world.  Well, we can also use tools to leverage our brain.  Our brains are really good at pattern matching and really bad at doing rote tasks and complex calculations.  So mobile is augmenting our ability to perform.   Judy Brown has a nice way of defining mobile learning. When she talks about it she says, “It’s a device that’s with you all the time, that you are familiar with and is personal.  Anything you do with it to improve your ability to learn or perform is what mobile learning is.”  And that to me, is what it is as well.  It’s more about performance than learning.  I have a broad view of learning.  It is “learning” with a big ‘L’, where it includes performance support, social and informal learning as well as formal learning.  And really, I see mobile learning as hitting the performance support and social and informal learning more so than the formal learning but it is a powerful adjunct, at least, to formal learning and can even be a formal learning solution itself.


John: You have a new book coming out on mobile learning.  Can you tell us about your book? Who is the audience and what people can expect to get from the book?

Clark: It’s specifically designed for people who have to do mobile learning.  It includes some arguments about why you should explore mobile learning and how to convince executives.  But my book is really about helping people who have to create mLearning, figure out how to take advantage of it and how to make a serious business impact.  The book has a bunch of examples.  First, it has an introduction, “Thinking about mobile devices” and it’s got an introduction to learning, thinking and performing.  Then it goes through some examples and it gives some different ways of thinking about mobile.

One of the mantras that a number of us in the mobile field talk about is that you have to think differently and get out of the formal learning mindset.  So there’s a collection of ways to think differently that are really relevant for mobile.

The book then talks about the design process.  It is really the one you should pull off the shelf when you are ready to go and take advantage of mobile. If you need some ideas, need to understand the design process, this book is for you. I’ve tried to write it timelessly so that there are no specifics to particular devices that are out right now; there is no mention of specific tools to use as a developer. Instead, the book focuses on this theme: “if you get the design right, there are lots of ways to implement it. If you don’t get the design right, it doesn’t matter how you implement it.  So my book talks a lot about development issues,  bandwidth, and other mobile considerations like whether you deliver content over the mobile web or through a specific app. I don’t talk about specific technologies that exist today.  I’m hoping that’s a plus, not a minus.

John: Can you expand a little bit more on your definition of design?

Clark: My book is not really for the developer, it’s for the designer. There are a number of elements that have to go into mobile learning design.  Your user-interface issues are different than a desktop.  You have to deal with portability, the small keyboards, the small screens, and in many instances, touchscreens.  But you also need to think about the context in which the learning is going to happen.  I’m a big believer in experience design, and thinking about the performance context and what do people really need. I like the least assistance principle: “what’s the least I can do to make somebody more effective in the moment?” And how do we make that available in ways to make them more productive? So mobile learning design is very much focused on performance.  How do we get people doing things in ways that are better, more effective and have an impact on the organization? And to me, that includes instructional design, graphic design, and information architecture.


John: Right. So when will your book be available and will there be an e-version of it?

Clark:  It should be available in January of 2011; which is fortunately just a few months away. There will be an e-book version of it and I’ve made a website to go with the book where I hope to put anything I forget (  When I did my first book on Games for Design I realized I had to talk about games as an evaluation or assessment channel, so I added a little bit on the side. I will be pointing to sites like your blog and other resources that are available. And of course there will be a link to buy the book and all those good things.


John: What advice would you give to somebody looking to introduce mobile learning to their organization?

Clark: The first thing I’d say is to recognize that a lot more people are mobile than you think, it’s not just the sales service and the field service folks. For example, everyone here at the conference is a mobile performer because they probably have to still stay in touch with their offices and yet they’re here. There are people on the road to visit job sites.  People telecommute, or they have commuting time. There are lots of opportunities for even the people you typically think of an office staff, who are not your typical mobile workers. Some statistics show that 70% of the workforce is mobile in some way. So, I would tell people looking to introduce mobile learning not limit themselves in who they are thinking about.

Also, I would remind people that there is a tradeoff of convenience over quality. Like when you’re listening to a podcast while you’re driving, it’s not as great as listening at home or in a perfect sound auditorium.  But, there’s lots of time where you may have downtime and say, “I’m bored. I’m going to do something to be productive.”  Think of those opportunities. But also think, what are the times that people who are out, performing and they are mobile, what things end up taking time? Do they have to go back to the office to fill out the sales forms? Do they have to go back to the office to pick up the trouble-shooting for this device because they didn’t have the right one with them? All those situations, what can we do to help them?

What can we do, before a person walks into a place; like the salesperson who is about to walk into a business? You know what is on the schedule, so you know who they’re visiting. Could you send them information right before they visit; for example, an update on the business that has just been published in Bloomberg, or something? Can you provide quick little guidelines about how to conduct a good sales call like: “Don’t forget to ask lots of questions and establish a relationship before you immediately start trying to show the product”? Whatever it is, think about what small bits of information could make a difference. Go look at the places where people are performing. I think most learning folks don’t spend enough time thinking about organizational outcomes. What are we trying to measure, what are we trying to impact? Increase sales, decrease costs and how could we do that with just a small thing?

John: Are there other considerations when thinking about mobile learning?

Clark: I like to talk about the four C’s: content, computing, capture and communicate. Content – what information can I make available through job aides or a resource? Computing – for instance, can I make a sales calculator that allows me to calculate up the bill and give to somebody right there the amount their product or solution will cost? Capture – can I capture a picture of a situation that I can share with somebody so that they can give me advice on what they see? Or can I capture a situation that I want to share?  Gina Schreck and Jane Bozarth both have great examples of people running out with cameras or video-cams capturing information that turns out to have been really important to share with others. And finally, Communicate – who can I connect with right now that then help me with what I need? Think through those four C’s and what can be done with them to improve how people work and operate. Be systematically creative, it’s not an oxymoron.


John: I agree. What challenges can someone expect to encounter when trying to implement mobile learning? And what can they do to address those challenges?

Clark: The very first challenge is: devices.  Will you be providing for a specific device or will you be trying to provide for all the devices that are out there? That’s a real challenge today. Increasingly, we’re seeing some cross-platform solutions that will work reliably on a majority of devices. But it’s a tough call. If it’s not critical if it’s a “nice to have,” then you can say, “We’re making it available; we will support these devices,” for those you know how to build for and you can do it easily and cheaply.  You can take the next step and say, “If you want one of those devices we will subsidize your purchase of it.”  Or you could say you absolutely, must have it. For example, FedEx has their bar code scanning devices that they use to keep track of packages.

Another challenge is IT. How are you going to introduce mLearning so that IT doesn’t “freak out” about security and maintainability? In some respects, they have a right to, it’s their job. But, there are solutions to these issues. And they can’t use that as a barrier if there’s a real business proposition there.


John: What type of device do you carry and what’s your favorite app?

Clark: I carry an iPhone, and I have an iPad. I used to carry a laptop but I haven’t with the iPad.  My favorite app…well email actually. I still use it a lot.  Many people don’t. They say email is so last century. But, probably email and TweetDeck, tweeting is big.  There are also others that have turned out to be really important. I love my GPS.  I never would have paid for it or wanted it. But it’s fabulous when you need it.


John: How can people get in touch with you if they want to learn more about you and your company?

Clark: is me. You can go there, and that points to everything: the blog, my first book’s site, the new book site. But is the way to find me.  You can also follow me on Twitter, @Quinnovator.

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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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On December 8, 2010
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