The Google Plus logo

Mobile: it’s personal, even at global scale

This post was written by Piers Lea and first appeared on the LINE blog on 28th June 2013.

According to analysts , the smartphone has seen the fastest adoption rate in tech history, outpacing that of PCs in the 80s, the Internet boom in the 90s, and even the rise of social networking in recent years.

Those of us who have worked to further technology-enabled learning for the last two decades might look enviously at such a rapid rate of acceptance. However, the dizzying speed with which smartphones and other mobile devices have become vital to our ability to function as human beings ought, I think, be a source of considerable rejoicing for all learning professionals.

Here at last is the final brick in the wall (or the killer app if you like) – that will cement technology into the fabric of learning in the 21st Century. Learning is, after all, a very personal thing – and no piece of technology that we use (aside perhaps from a pacemaker or a hearing aid) is more personal to us than a mobile communication device.

The impersonal PC?

We’ve heard a lot about the barriers to using technology for learning over the years – IT infrastructure, cost, lack of top team buy-in, etc. But perhaps the biggest barrier of all was right under our noses all the time and we just didn’t realise it – the desktop PC.

In the office or in the home, a PC is always on a desk. Part of the furniture. And because it is so much part of the furniture of work, we can’t help but associate it with work, and the rhythms of work.

Now that mobile is increasingly being rolled out at scale as a means of learning delivery – and showing engagement rates of five times that experienced with PCs in some cases – it suddenly seems obvious. People have a completely different relationship with their mobile devices; one that is far more personal, and one that moves easily across the boundary between working and personal life in a way PCs never could. Arguably, this makes it uniquely suited for learning.

Neither are we constrained any more by a stark contrast between the desktop PC, with its large screen and greater computing power, and mobile phones of old with their cramped displays and teeth-grinding latency issues. A huge variety of mobile devices are now available, covering a spectrum of different form factors and viewport sizes, and with computing power that would once have filled an entire room at IBM. Our smart devices now seem almost as smart as we are; smart enough, in fact, to learn something from.

It is widely accepted now that not all the learning we do involves deep, individual immersion with knowledge and concepts. At least twice as much comes through interacting with other people; with peers or with mentors – and an even larger proportion, perhaps 70%, is about taking new knowledge into the working situation and applying it, interpreting it through action.

Mobile technologies move with us as we make that transition from the immersive phase of learning to its social and active dimensions, helping to complete the learning continuum. In this way, the addition of mobile to our learning and communications armoury is allowing us finally to deliver on the full promise of e-learning; highly personalised, just-for-me learning experiences that translate knowledge into action and business results.

Learning to the rhythm of life

At the same time, mobile technologies are making a change to the rhythm of learning that can bring it into closer sync with the changed rhythms of work and life. We use our time differently when we have access to always-on devices that can be pulled out in an instant, wherever we happen to be. The way we learn should reflect this change.

There is a lot of downtime in many working occupations; time spent travelling, for instance, or waiting for someone to turn up for a meeting. This is the type of time that we have become increasingly used to filling with our mobile devices, and it can provide great opportunities to catch up on learning. Using small blocks of as little as 15 minutes here and there, you can quickly amass quite a lot of learning.

Mobile also brings learning directly into the context of work, collapsing the traditional time lag between acquiring knowledge and applying it. Learn about a new car you are wishing to buy (or sell) in the car show-room, rather than boning up on it beforehand. Learn more about technical equipment you are maintaining and repairing while, as a technician, you are actually in the field repairing it. As a border guard, check on border control legislation while you are actually at the border, rather than relying on memory. Learn about procedures and processes while you are actually undergoing those processes. Taking this a step further we are now creating ‘learning’ apps to deliver business tools and live data relating to the subject. This means it becomes an app to help you do your job better that contains learning – and vice-versa. This is where we can all start getting creative. Let’s be realistic, this is learning that is often far more likely to happen – when we can access knowledge at precisely the moment when the need for more knowledge is experienced.

And while we move, in our personal learning journeys, from an introspective, reflective mode to a more externally-focused, active and social mode, at the same time a contradictory movement takes place. The knowledge and skills that we sought to acquire – which seemed like things external to us – move inside and become part of us; part of ‘muscle memory’. We can act on them without thinking any more about underlying principles. Our learning has become internalised; something personal to us.

Towards more personal learning experiences

At LINE, this vision of more personal learning experiences is at the heart of what we do, and chimes with our core values as an organisation. This is the reason why we have been involved in mobile learning since its earliest days, and why we continue to lead, innovate and inspire in this exciting, emerging field.

We believe that learning – and communications too, if they are to be really effective – have to be felt as highly personal to the individual. You cannot engage people in learning or communications that do not make some kind of appeal to the deep values and emotions that motivate them as individuals. It has to be personal. And when you use technology to help you in this endeavour, it helps to use highly personal technology; technology that people feel comfortable with and which functions almost as an extension of their own limbs, senses and intellect. Mobile technology is increasingly coming to play this type of role in our lives.

However if mobile brings greater intimacy to learning experiences than desktop, it is no less able when it comes to realising the number one benefit sought from technology-enabled learning, that of scale. Making it personal at global scale is the great challenge that many organisations are looking to technology to address – and one aspect of that challenge in particular is emerging as critical.

Global versus Local

Corporates with geographically dispersed workforces face well-documented problems in ensuring the consistency of training across all territories. However, just as keenly felt is the importance of catering for local variations in practice and differing needs on the ground. Often this leads to perceived conflict between what is mandated from the centre and what is needed at the periphery. A ‘not invented here’ attitude can prejudice uptake and engagement.

Technology platforms often fail to take account of the need for local variation in design and content. As mobile learning and communication solutions begin to be rolled out at scale, there is danger that this vital dynamic gets overlooked. At LINE we see this as an important thing to get right, which is why our own mobile authoring and publishing solution, LINEstream, has an architecture that can cater for these differences, allowing the addition of locally relevant content alongside what is created by the centre.

A practical guide to getting results

In a nutshell, the vision of future learning and communications that I am outlining here is increasingly personal learning experiences at enterprise scale. Adding mobile to our armoury brings this vision one step closer to reality.

Already we are seeing these sort of business results with the use of mobile technologies:

  • 17% increase in pass rates, year on year
  • Training time increased by four hours a month
  • Many weeks saved in time to competency
  • Potential savings of £Ms from a suite of small JIT apps
  • Development time down to weeks from months

In focusing on the lustre of the prize, however we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge. The reality on the ground is that the practicalities of fulfilling this vision within organisations is not widely appreciated or understood.