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I’m not big on change: an experiment with mobile tech

This post was written by Pete Brown and first appeared on the LINE blog on 9th June 2011.

Pete Brown, Learning Designer at LINE, conducted an experiment using QR codes to investigate the use of mobiles for learning in a work environment.

I don’t like new stuff. Old age and cranky genes make me cynical toward change. I’ve seen too many technologies fall, whimpering, off the back-end of the Hype Curve. Mobile technologies for learning? Pish posh!

But fighting my natural urge to rail against progress and the desire to take the easy, dismissal route, I gave it some thought. Maybe there is something in mobiles for learning. Not by shoehorning conventional e-learning into a smaller form factor, but by using mobile for what it is good for, i.e. having it with you in the field, where and when it’s most needed.

If we consider a simplified constructionivist learning approach for a moment, you could say that some sound, self-paced learning can take place if people are given information coupled with a meaningful context. Indeed, as learning designers we spend a lot of our time taking raw SME materials and putting them into a pseudo-realistic context, having faith that the audience will join the dots and have a learning experience.

If we do believe that the union of information and context is a powerful one, then if people were given information on a mobile device in the micro-environments in which they operate, standing in front of the tools, equipment, papers, etc to which the information they are given applies, then the context half of the equation takes care of itself. Assuming the person doesn’t work night shift at a morgue, then there may even be a built-in element of collaboration as they learn side-by-side in the field with their peers. It seems that just moving the learning experience to the point of actual need may tick two of the boxes that experts cite as critical for learning, but are often difficult to incorporate.

And this got me thinking about the much-touted 70/20/10. It can be difficult to move learning from the 10 (formal) and into the 20 (observation) and 70 (on the job). This mobile model seems to move some of the information delivery into the 20 or 70 camps too. Interesting. Perhaps this warrants a closer look.

I decided to do an experiment

I started to get a bit excited, but then my genes kicked in. People aren’t going to use their mobiles in a work environment to get answers to questions. Or would they? I decided to do an experiment.

I made nine QR codes, each containing a clue to the answer to a single question. Some of the QR codes bounced out to a blog which held a clue, and others just rendered a textual clue. The information that popped up when the codes were scanned read something like:


This is clue 3 of 9. Each clue results in a letter. Collect and assemble all 9 to find out who’s the cleverest of them all!
Clue 3: The third letter of the answer is the first letter of the French word for ‘three’.

The assembled clues made PETEBROWN (each of the nine clues yielded a letter of my name), not for egotistical reasons, but I figured that if anyone cared enough to uncover the answer they’d come to me and ask what it was all about and I’d get some feedback.

Early one Monday morning, before anyone came in, I stuck the nine QR codes around the London LINE office; two in reasonably obvious spots in the main thoroughfares and the rest in more obscure places.

Would people notice the codes? If they did notice them, would they know what to do with them? If they did scan one of the codes, would they care enough to look for others? Would seeing one person scanning a code prompt others to do the same? Would there be any office cross-talk around the sudden appearance of these mystery swatches?

I waited, and I watched …

What happened?

On the first day nothing happened. I knew it! No one would care. But then on the second day one intrepid soul scanned the code they spied on the side of the microwave while preparing their porridge. That prompted them to hunt for others. Then on the third day there was another person who I saw poking into corners looking for clues. As the days ticked by a few worked in small, informal teams to find or share clues, and others didn’t know what QR codes were – but do now and have a QR code scanner on their phone. People were going into parts of the office where they probably hadn’t gone for months – remarkable when you consider how small it is – or at least looked in corners that they hadn’t paid any notice to before.

The experiment was as much social as it was technological. The clues were easy, and the information people got wasn’t useful, but it highlighted something to me. If you want people to get involved then don’t spoon-feed them information. Spread the information so it’s in their best interests to collaborate. And try to make it a game.

Remember, no one was prompted to do anything here and there was no motivation other than solving a mystery, yet a good number of people got involved directly, or were at least aware of this mysterious event going on. I bet if a chocolate was on offer at the end there would have been a few more participants.

One person, bless them, told me it was fun. Wow!

One thing that seems obvious in hindsight but wasn’t (at least to me) initially, is that the more obviously placed codes in the thoroughfares didn’t seem to catch people’s eyes as well as those less obviously positioned at spots where they had to wait for a minute or so. People moving in a thoroughfare evidently aren’t in the frame of mind for picking up on new detail as much as when they are, for example, standing idly waiting for a microwave to go Ping!

What did I take from this?

The ‘game’ (is it too grand to call it a fact-finding exercise?) could have just as easily been done on a desktop computer, having people chase around websites or a virtual office for the clues and answers. But I don’t think it would have worked as well, if at all, and it would have taken a lot more time, technology and expense to set up.

I believe that one of the things that helped this work was the real-world context. It somehow enlivened the inanimate work environment; the familiar, mundane office itself was giving the participants the clues, and they were working with it to get the answers.

Maybe this could be particularly useful for things like corporate change management communications and similar, where you want people to discuss, share and compare information about the work environment or things contained within it.

I could see, too, how having learners access FAQs, blogs or wikis etc about a particular piece of equipment in the workplace by scanning a QR code could be a useful addition to a more conventional learning initiative about it. There are three possible benefits here:

1. The initial, conventional learning may not have to be as long or involved, or maybe wouldn’t be required at all
2. The learning would have tendrils that last longer than the original 30 minute, one hour or one day learning event, and reach into the physical workplace itself
3. You’d be giving any information you’re providing in the ultimate contextual setting.

Maybe, too, it could be a nifty way to deliver the narrative to an Alternate Reality initiative?

In conclusion

The experiment wasn’t particularly scientific, comprehensive or rigorous in its approach, but it did help demonstrate how a tiny viral chain reaction could be started by leveraging people’s curiosity and sense of fun. It was also interesting to see how flexible something as simple as QR codes could be, and how easy it was to set the experiment up. Maybe with a little imagination similar techniques could be used for more constructive learning or communication goals.

I’m not a over-zealous convert to m-learning, wanting to turn every intervention into something that people can access on their mobile device, but I can certainly see how there are some circumstances that would really benefit from mobile.