Mobile Learning Management Systems: a spectrum of choices

Pedagogy and Learning Comments (8)

Computer-based learning management systems have been available since the 1960s, but really took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the speed of change that is happening in the world of education and training software, it is not surprising that some learning management systems are starting to look stale and worn. At the same time, many LMS companies recognize that their market is reaching a limit of saturation and are looking for new ways to sell their intellectual property. Just-in-time, along comes the mobile learning revolution, presenting new opportunities for learning management system companies to market their wares. How they have done that, however, varies greatly.

Some LMS companies have simply added the word “mobile” to their offerings without much change at all. Others have done cosmetic changes, redesigning their interface to fit on a small screen. A few companies have gone beyond this to have mobile learning management systems actually work on smart phones and tablets. Some have even developed stand-alone LMSs that do not need to be connected to a non-mobile LMS. And finally, a few LMS companies have dipped their toes into the waters of innovation and tried to create something new.

In reviewing mobile learning management systems, I have identified five levels:

  • Level 0 – LMSs not ready for mobile learning
  • Level I – LMSs graphically redesigned for mobile devices
  • Level II – mobile extensions (“plugins”) for existing learning management systems – the extension only works in conjunction with a non-mobile LMS
  • Level III – stand-alone, self-sufficient mobile learning management systems
  • Level IV – innovative mobile learning management systems that use some of the new affordances of mobile devices such as location or cloud computing

If we place some of the available mobile learning management systems on a continuum from Level I to Level IV it might look something like this (this is not a complete list of mobile LMSs, just examples):

The four levels of LMSs

The LMS spectrum

As you can see, a few of the open-source learning management systems have been designed with mobile computing in mind. For example, the Moodle interface consists of a three-column layout that is very mobile friendly. Sakai, another open-source learning management system, has a group of developers that is producing features that make this LMS mobile-ready. But, these LMSs are not very different in their mobile and non-mobile versions.

Another approach is to design “plug-ins” or “extensions” for existing learning management systems (Level II). Moodle has several plug-ins designed for it including MLE-Moodle and MOMO (Mobile Moodle). Blackboard has an extension for their Learn 9.1 platform called Blackboard Mobile that lets users receive notification of updates to their Blackboard courses, including new assignments, course content, study group updates, community discussions, and their grades/assessment results.

At Level III, there are stand-alone mobile learning systems that manage learning materials for users without needing to reference a non-mobile LMS. Examples are BlackBerry Pushcast (formerly Mobile Chalkboard) which runs only on the BlackBerry platform and is mostly used for delivering training to users (hence the emphasis on “push” in the name). It features text, graphics, video, and audio, and will handle surveys, call requests, or e-mail requests. It administers tests, and tracks results and content usage. Similarly, KMx from Knowledge Management Solutions provides development and delivery of e-learning courseware, knowledge management, and collaboration tools for mobile devices with full conformance to the shareable content object reference model (SCORM).

Another contender in this category is Cellcast from OnPoint Digital. This mobile learning program allows users to create, notify, deliver, and track audio and video learning content on a wide variety of smart phones, tablets, and netbook computers. It also allows for the delivery and tracking of mobile web content, web and PDF files, videos, animated narrated slide presentations, and spoken word and text-based assessments. Cellcast is fully integrated with OnPoint Digital’s learning management system, but can operate independently without reference to any LMS.

Unfortunately, there are no mobile learning management systems that I would classify as having reached Level IV. However, there are signs of innovative new solutions that will transform the world of mobile learning management systems, and not simply rehash the concepts of desk top LMSs. One example is the mEKP mobile learning management system from Net Dimensions that delivers a full featured learning management system on a USB stick. This allows students to go off-line, do their work, and have it tracked without a connection to the Internet. They simply take their USB stick with them and plug it into an Internet-connected computer at the first opportunity.

The results of their work are then uploaded to a full Net Dimensions enterprise learning management system. This approach shows that Net Dimensions is moving towards the new definition of mobile learning – a definition that is about the needs of the learner on the move, not about mobile technology, per se.

Finally, Giunti Labs in Italy has been experimenting with a novel wearable learning management system called eXact iTutor. It is described on the Giunti website as “the world’s first wearable, wireless mobile learning platform.” It is location-based and voice/gaze controlled for workplace delivery of crisis management instructions and just-in-time training materials. Unfortunately, in speaking with their North American representatives, I learned that this mobile LMS is just a prototype, and is not yet in production. However, it is definitely a step in the right direction in that its design is using some of the unique possibilities of mobile learning that have not been available before.

(Editor’s note: Since the original research for this article was completed, Giunti Labs has been rebranded as eXact Learning Solutions. iTutor continues to be in development as wearIT@work.)

The examples of mobile learning managements systems of any kind are few and far between. Of the several hundred LMSs on the market, only three or four actually have any features that support mobile learning. In the next year, watch for many more mobile LMSs to come on the market, as they jump on the mobile bandwagon. At the same time, pay attention to the market leaders described above – they will have the most experience in this new category of learning software.

If you would like more information about which mobile LMS would be best for your organization to use, please contact us today.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On September 16, 2011
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8 Responses to Mobile Learning Management Systems: a spectrum of choices

  1. Martin Brown says:

    Thanks for a very insightful article Gary. Interesting that the Saba, SumTotal etc. still don’t even rate a mention … do you think they even care about mobile? Also given the declining sales of PC’s due to tablet devices, and the rampant adoption of smartphones I’m not sure I agree with the comment “This approach shows that Net Dimensions is moving towards the new definition of mobile learning – a definition that is about the needs of the learner on the move, not about mobile technology, per se” – looks more like backward thinking with the tethering to a PC required enable the learning experience!

    Cheers, Martin.

  2. Geoff says:

    Well put, Gary. As pointed out by the previous comment, the most worrying part was your last paragraph which pointed out the vast majority of learning platform have done nothing at all!

  3. Robert Gadd says:

    Hi Gary,

    I appreciate the article as well and thank you for the attractive placement of our CellCast Solution offering in the progression too. That said, I’d argue that our offering actually sits better in the Level 4 classification than as indicated in Level 3. First off, MOST of our enterprise customers already have an LMS and it is via “the cloud” that we connect our system into these other independent training systems and legacy LMS platform using SOAP/WDSL/RESTful connectors each time. True, our platform performs much of the work to create, transcode, deliver and track learning and performance support on the actual devices but the results are all seamlessly synced back to the customer’s system of record via that Cloud.

    Second, we are strong believers in the App concept and our approach to connecting the mobile learner equipped with a PC or laptop actually leverages a native Windows or OSX-based App installed on the learner’s platform versus simply permitting web access via a browser from a PC or laptop. This approach has several benefits including (1) it takes the hardware accessory (e.g., USB drive) out of the equation, (2) it allows for cross platform access and delivery via PC or Mac, and (3) it fully synchronizes the learning experience across all devices any learner might have be it from their handset, tablet or computer today (and their intelligent display tomorrow). Apps are truly “front and center” thinking these days as evidenced by Microsoft’s own Windows 8 announcements last week. And the Cloud is the glue that connects each learner and every device they have into that experience at Level 4.

    Thanks for the great article and the open ear.

    Robert 😉

    • Gary Woodill says:

      Hi Robert,

      I think that CellCast is very leading edge, but I was reserving the fourth category for those companies that are trying to break the mold on how learning materials are made available on mobile devices, by doing things that could only be done on mobile devices, and not on other forms of computing. That is not where the market is, but where the future is going.



  4. […] Mobile Learning Management Systems: a spectrum of choices: Float … Computer-based learning management systems have been available since the 1960s, but really took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the speed of change that is happening in the world of education and… Source: […]

  5. Alex Poulos says:

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for the mention. Nice post with an open perspective & some interesting comments. The key point here, and what you stated so clearly in your post, is that mobile learning is about the needs of the learner on the move. It is not about one technology or another device. This is what vendors keep forgetting again and again.

    Our product philosophy is about delivering products and solutions that work for the learner and that’s how mEKP came out. And we recognize that there is no silver bullet here. So, we keep approaching mobile learning from a number of different angles & solutions, always with the end user in mind.



  6. […] Mobile Learning Management Systems: a spectrum of choices: Float Mobile Learning Computer-based learning management systems have been available since the 1960s, but really took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the speed of change that is happening in the world of education and… Source: […]

  7. […] and early 2000s. With the speed of change that is happening in the world of education and…Show original LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

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