The Google Plus logo

Mobile gets scary

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on 10th February 2012.

mobile gets scaryIn the first installment of a two-part report, John Helmer wanders the aisles of Olympia at Learning Technologies Conference and Exhibition 2012 – and gets the fear.

Still glowing with pride at being named the company people felt they had the most profitable conversation with at Learning Technologies in the exit poll, LINE people are looking back on a great show this year. The stand, a towering Bauhaus-inspired construction, was rammed both days, the talks went down brilliantly, and many new exciting programmes and relationships were undoubtedly kicked off.

But enough about LINE – what was everybody else saying doing, seeing and thinking at this indispensible event in the learning calendar? What’s the hot gossip, and what are the important industry trends? What did we learn about learning at #LT12UK?

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

A feature of the last few years that became especially evident this show was the increasingly globalised nature of our industry. The more tech-focused companies, like Edvantage (recently acquired by Lumesse) and Outsell, have always been multi-territory. Likewise, product-focused content companies such as Skillsoft and Atlas Knowledge. However, the more service-orientated, bespoke development players like Epic, Brightwave etc. have tended in the past to replicate somewhat the parochial nature of the conventional training industry by staying largely within the frontiers of the old country.

All this is changing. LINE opened a German operation this year, following the success of its Swiss office, and is considering developing-world opportunities. Epic has an operation now in Brazil (The opportunity offered by the BRIC countries featured in many a presentation this year). Kineo was hosting a meeting for several of its international franchisees at the exhibition: I met the representative from Kineo China. As recently as four years ago, barriers of language and culture were felt to be showstoppers for even European expansion. All that has changed, it seems (let’s just not talk about France).

It’s an interesting question whether this expansion outside the UK is what’s fuelling the apparent healthy growth in the sector. The major bespoke providers all report good sales in 2012 (LINE is not alone in this regard, and our recent release to this effect, we believe, confirms our market leadership by UK turnover). I heard several complaints about running out of office space. Do providers have to look overseas, because the domestic market isn’t big enough, and is this where their success has come from? Personally, my feeling is that it’s more a case of the global nature of client companies drawing suppliers into export markets. When you’re a service company, you have to be where the customer is.

An Apple for the teacher

Being where the customers are – in fact, frequently being two or three jumps ahead of them – was always a unique skill of the late Steve Jobs. As one of his parting gifts to the world of consumer electronics, Jobs created a new mainstream product category with his introduction of the iPad. Launched two years ago, it was quickly named the fastest selling gadget of all time – and e-learning seems to have taken to it enthusiastically. iPads were everywhere at Learning Technologies this year.

Apple had given learning people plenty to talk about in the run-up to the show, announcing its best ever quarter – in which its profits outstripped Google’s revenue – and launching its new textbook-of-the-future initiative. This was no doubt an especially hot topic at the Learning without Frontiers event next door (the fact that you could walk through to the ‘free festival’ from the Learning Technologies exhibition floor made it seem larger and buzzier than ever).

Though some doubt whether Apple has any real commercial ambitions in the learning space, other than shifting a few extra iPads, its products are fast becoming a critical feature of the landscape; a fact that must be slightly galling for those who are heavily committed to Flash-based tools. On the Atlantic Link / Kaplan stand, I felt slightly sorry for the salesperson who answered my queries about device compatibility. Android, sure! Blackberry: hell yeah! Big smile. To her credit, there was no discernible drop in its wattage as she told me that that iOS devices are not supported. Meanwhile, one of the largest corporations in the world, I hear, is considering equipping all its training centres with iPads as standard equipment. It’s easy to end up being wrong-footed by technology, when it moves so fast.

… Not that mobile has always moved particularly quickly in e-learning.

For many years, it was little more than an interesting topic to give talks about. Nobody was actually doing anything. Then it got real. And then, this year, it began to get slightly scary.

Mobile learning: beyond the app

The source of this fear, for practitioners, is realising how big are the implications of this change. Organisations are experiencing a real upward push from many of their learners to have a style of e-delivery that matches the way they use and access information in 2012. They want it instantly, 24/7 wherever they are, personalised to their needs, and they want it interactive and engaging. Just in time, just enough, just for me.

Consequently, every floor seminar that had the word ‘mobile’ in the title was rammed. But clearly, commissioning a few apps, or repurposing some desktop-based modules the company bought five years ago, was not going to be the whole of the story.

This was the year the information arrived: it’s not enough to treat mobile learning as if it were something on a par with a browser upgrade. At far faster a rate than anyone really expected, that hoard of desktop PCs that clutter up your offices is going the same way as your CD collection. A company like Epic might give a really slick presentation of their mobile authoring tool (they might, if they could get a decent internet connection) but as we learned from the days of Rapid, it takes more than just a good tool. As Epic’s Jonathan Satchell so rightly pointed out, mobile gets board attention. Any day now you are going to be required to build a fully scalable infrastructure – and an architecture – for mobile learning. And you’d better hope the provider community is there to help out with a broad enough vision, because this has implications for design, for technology and for content management.

To judge from the exhibition floor, the provider community is eager to help. 90 providers in the show catalogue were offering mobile learning solutions of some description. On every stand, devices were being brandished; sales pitches sharpened. And yet, a certain unease stalked the aisles. All those ‘droid phones and iPads seemed to carry menus full of learning – but was there really anything behind the menus? Were they in fact, just menus? Where was the beef? And who really had the experience to handle the catering on the scale that was looming into view?

And what about content management? Clearly it’s a central requirement now, in this multi-device future where we need to disaggregate, dice and slice, mashup and recontextualise content like never before. Do I, as a Head of Learning and Development who started out fronting up a flipchart in a corporate learning centre, really have the skills and knowledge not to get slightly disaggregated myself, when I start delving into arcane subjects like meta-tagging and tin can triples? Where can I get expert help and advice: who can I trust?

LINE has answers to questions like these, naturally, which I’d like to cover in part two of this report from the bleeding edge of learning technologies, when we will be looking in some detail at What Dominic Mason and Andrew Joly of LINE had to say about mobile and learning architectures. Clearly LINE’s are only one set of answers – however, they are the answers to what LINE believes quite strongly are, at least, the right questions. And not everybody, on the evidence of what I gleaned from Learning Technologies this year, is asking the right questions.