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Mobile comes of age

This post was written by Piers Lea and first appeared on the LINE blog on 17th March 2010.

piers Piers Lea, CEO of LINE Communications, gives the reasons why now is the moment for mobile learning and communications.

To say that mobile delivery for learning and communications is a hot talking point at the moment is not to say a great deal. Mobile had been a hot talking point in e-learning circles for at least the last five years. And LINE has been designing and delivering mobile solutions since 2001. M-learning has had many false dawns.

However, recently we have begun to see a new momentum behind progress towards using mobile platforms for delivery of learning and communications. At the time of writing, we have at least three serious programmes with imminent delivery dates that use mobile devices; two for iPod Touch and one for touchscreen tablet.

In fact, our view is that the underlying drivers for mobile learning and communications are now so strong that there are positive dangers for organisations that fail to take it into account when planning their learning strategies. Already we are beginning to see organisations having pain points around multi-platform delivery as they prepare for a world in which the deskbound PC begins to lose its dominance. Along with the opportunities, come threats!

So why do we feel that the need to take mobile seriously is now so pressing? Well, a confluence of several different streams has now brought us to this moment of decision, foremost among which have been a series of changes in user behaviour.

User acceptance drives technology adoption in learning

As a company that had been at the forefront of technology-supported learning and communication for the last 21 years, LINE has lived through many a hype cycle. We have seen technologies come, we have seen them go. We have also, occasionally, seen them re-emerge from the wilderness for a second go around (I’m sure I’m not the only person who looked at the iPhone on its first appearance and saw a reincarnation of Apple’s original Newton concept!).

What we have learnt from this history is that what really drives technology adoption is user acceptance. Video succeeded as a learning tool because it was familiar to ordinary people, who had stacks of VHS cassettes at home in their living rooms, among which will have been exercise videos, or even language courses. Once a new communications technology becomes firmly embedded in consumer behaviour, it tends to win easy acceptance as a medium for workplace learning.

E-learning only really took off when computer use became commonplace in the working environment. More recently, social media was much talked about at conferences and on guru blogs as the ‘next big thing’ in learning, but it was only when social media sites such as Facebook achieved critical mass among mainstream users (to the point, in fact, that it began to become a workplace problem for HR!) that we began to see this type of learning used in earnest within organisations.

For this reason, we monitor developments carefully in the adoption of mobile technologies – and the evidence is now really quite compelling.

The smartphone explosion

We have seen a drift away from deskbound PCs so marked that Gartner predicts mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access devices worldwide by 2013. Web traffic  from  mobiles  is  already  estimated  to  be  growing  8  times  faster  than that from UK  PCs  (source: Deloitte, May  2009).

iphone mobile deviceFueling this growth is a change in the devices available, and the introduction of the smartphone. Mobile penetration has long been high in this country, and is currently at around 84%, but it is the smartphone segment that is growing particularly rapidly. Smartphone sales in North America  grew by an impressive 69% in 2008, and by 2009 accounted for roughly 20% of cellphone sales (source: Gartner, March  2009). Smartphone penetration naturally increases use of the mobile internet. Over 8 million people in the UK (16% of adults) accessed the internet on their mobile phone in the first quarter of 2009, up 40% on a year previously. Ofcom data suggests that by the end of 2008 the total number of UK 3G mobile connections had risen to 17.9 million, an increase of 5.4 million (42.9%) on a year previously.

Why is all this significant? Because internet smartphones with their bigger, better displays, and higher processing power, have the potential to be serious platforms for learning, in a way that previous generations of handsets never did.

Evolution of devices


One of the biggest factors that held mobile learning and communications back for so many years was the devices themselves. For a start there were too many of them, from different manufacturers, with different operating systems and with diverse range of technical specifications. Also, due to rapid product development, the devices had limited shelf-life. With so many models on the market, and people changing their phones on a two-year cycle, how were developers expected to keep up? Lastly, displays on the devices were often cramped, and had graphic limitations, and web browsing at sub-3G speeds was an unsatisfactory and often a frustrating experience.

Apple changed all this, at a stroke, with the release of the iPhone and iPod Touch. Opening the device up to third party development, enabling the creation of the App Store, was a seriously mold-breaking idea. Tech analysts expect that this will give the iPhone far greater longevity – perhaps as much as ten years. There are competing app stores, but Apple’s has achieved unrivalled dominance, creating a more market-stable platform for developers. Rival appstores have adopted a similar logic, and content has become separated from devices – which is to say that developers no longer have to develop for a particular hardware platform, but for an appstore. Increasingly these will become portable across devices and manufacturers, as with Android, Google’s smartphone OS. With fewer formats to develop for, and greater longevity in those formats, the mobile content development market is beginning to grow very rapidly.

Learning on Smartphones

It is possible to read a book on an iPhone (more e-books are read on iPhone, worldwide, than on any of the specialist e-reader devices such as Kindle). And when Apple’s iPad and E-bookstore come on stream, e-reading will become even easier.  But it is already possible to do far more than just read a book on the iPhone.

The UK’s highest-grossing app is Jamie Oliver’s ’20 minute meals’ a stunning proof-of-concept piece for just-in-time learning. Much more than a cookbook, the App hand-holds you through the preparation of meals steps by step with handy videos on particular processes, and even prepares shopping lists of ingredients which you can tick off as you toddle down the aisles at your local supermarket. Portability, plus convergence, plus web connection gives us a device which is ideal for learning on the move – and has also, due its outstanding popularity with users, provided the template for the new generation of competing handheld devices.

apple ipad mobile device

I don’t want to get into the great iPad debate currently raging, but one really significant aspect of Apple’s recent launch of this touchscreen tablet is that Steve Jobs has evidently spotted a gap in the market for a device somewhere in between mobiles and laptops, into which e-reader devices were beginning to flood. Needless to say, we will watch this space with interest!

Mobile in the blend

The third significant driver of m-learning is the growing acceptance and sophistication of blended learning. For as long as e-learning was felt to be solely about stand-alone modules of PC-based instruction, a course-based model inherited from CBT, and before that from the world of traditional stand-up training, mobile would always look like a poor cousin, providing a media-poor, less immersive experience.

But the world has changed, to embrace a more expansive vision. A recent blend we designed for a global multinational that wanted to change its learning methods began with PC-delivered webinars and short e-learning nuggets, continued through a series of face-to-face workshops and concluded with FAQs and refreshers delivered by Blackberry.

Mobile takes its place as a powerful weapon in the expanded learning arsenal, where each delivery method plays to its strengths.

Winning hearts and minds

Above all, what has changed decisively in the world of mobile-enabled learning and communications is that practitioners now get it.

Increasingly, new online programmes that we develop are designed and configured with mobile as well as PC delivery in mind. Existing programmes, especially those that address non-deskbound workforces – e.g. cultural awareness for soldiers serving in Afghanistan – are being revisited for mobile delivery, now that the conditions are, for exactly the reasons I have described above, more propitious.

Mobile has not only come of age, it is also not something that can be overlooked. It is increasingly becoming not only where the learners’ eyeballs are, but also their hearts and minds. So if you want to win those hearts and change those minds – you need to be there too!