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100 Years of Mlearning Innovation

Andrew Joly looks at the opportunities learning designers now have in creating learning for mobile devices and puts M-Learning in its ‘historical’ context.

Design for Mobile Learning – where are we?

M-Learning. It’s the topic of so many learning articles and blog posts right now – quite a few of them on this blog. From a design perspective, I’ve seen and been involved in mobile solutions for more than 10 years. Some ideas have come and gone, and some have influenced the next steps we’ve taken. It’s been an interesting journey, but what might recent changes in mobile technology mean for the future of mobile learning design?

What have we learned so far?

It seems that the birth of mobile learning happened not in the last few years, but around 100 years earlier in 1909, when (according to Wikipedia) Linguaphone released a series of language lessons on wax cylinders. Mobile? Mmm… Learning? Sure. But honestly, mobile learning has been around a while. I remember learning ‘walk’n’learn’ Spanish on the Walkman 25 years ago; I worked on children’s educational games for the BBC on the first Nintendo Gameboy in the 90’s, and Palm mLearning at LINE in 2001.

Were these mobile learning? I think so. These were all examples of mobile media playback devices. They got smaller, better and more mobile, and so could be integrated more usefully into people’s lives. And, providing the designers understood the media with which they were working, they were pretty good – though I’m afraid I never had the patience to get anywhere with my Spanish course because, frankly, it was too boring.

The lesson here was to keep with the quality – a well produced audio experience, fun and engaging, was worth sticking with. A badly thought-through game, however new the technology, wouldn’t stick.

While this was all happening, mobile phones were getting smaller and more powerful. We reached a point where most people had a reasonable playback device in their pocket. Sadly, design was still often approached in an old-school design framework. We tried to deliver smaller versions of existing programmes. When, finally we had a mini PC in our pockets (a PDA), we still often missed the point. We tried to deliver mini-versions of our PC content, with often disastrous results (from a design point of view).

The successful PDA learning programmes looked at what the devices did well and exploited only these features – simple quizzes or summary information, simple Apps, simple visuals. The lessons for us today: ditch (or at least let go of) the design thinking that went before; exploit what the device does best now and don’t overcomplicate design just because you can.

What now?

The real shift that is driving new design thinking, is the joining together of:

  1. A high definition playback device that is available everywhere/ anywhere
  2. An always-on broadband data and two-way communications device
  3. Powerful computing combined with a raft of other peripheral devices

So how do we respond from a learning design point of view? In fact each of these capabilities gives us its own interesting possibilities for mobile learning design.

High definition playback anywhere

Despite the issues we used to have in attempting to put rich media experiences on the small screen, we really can do it now. We can deliver excellent video, audio, animation and interaction – so we can now think about delivering deep and engaging learning experiences – like games, scenarios and simulations – onto mobiles for downtime learning. Reading from a small screen is also accepted. (In fact, am I the only person that thinks PowerPoint presentations look better on the iPhone than on the big screen?)

I realised the change in this area when we took Cultural Awareness (a PC-based programme we developed for the MoD, that relies on video, text and complex interaction) and developed a version for the iPod Touch and iPhone. With a high definition touch screen and good video playback it really works. Soldiers can now do their cultural awareness learning on the flight into Afghanistan, on their phones.

Always-on = Just-in-time

There are plenty of reasons why it’s not useful to present acres of information in e-learning form for when it might come in handy. So we’ve been designing just-in-time learning for a while, but it wasn’t truly just-in-time for many learners if they still had to be at their desk to do it.

Mobile technologies now really do allow just-in-time learning. In fact they allow on-the-spot knowledge and learning.

Consider the following scenario: The Army has an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) to deploy a new vehicle to Afghanistan. A precise servicing schedule is critical for all vehicles, and when we are talking about deployment ‘in theatre’, a vehicle malfunction could be a matter of life and death. The solution to date involves comprehensive training, manuals and checklists.

Imagine a hand-held Aide Memoire – an up-to-date checklist tool, a service record, a full glossary of actions, tools and spares, the ability to check off each step in a service schedule, cross-reference error codes and see specific video instructions of key maintenance procedures. All in the palm of the hand.

LINE has developed this programme for delivery on the iPod Touch, and it’s about to go on a six-month tour in Afghanistan.

From a design perspective, this is the perfect blend of an electronic manual (not so innovative in itself) with the presentation, communication and computing power of the mobile device. This is a combined solution that could have huge potential for saving current training budgets and even change entirely the way that information and training is delivered.

So – from a design point of view almost the exact opposite of scenario design – this delivery provides on the spot, immediate, easily accessible knowledge – with little context (who needs context when you’re there?).


We’ve already started using the peripheral devices and capabilities that smartphones now offer, but the possibilities are opening up further by the day. As innovators we are constantly looking at how we can integrate these new functionalities into effective learning programmes.

Here are just some of the other things we are looking at:

  • We have developed a multi-player classroom gaming solution using tablets for one of our defence clients – and now implemented it onto the iPad
  • We’re looking at mobile networking and communications tools (even SMS messaging) to support workshop programmes: using voting, notification and knowledge sharing tools to make collaboration work on a new level
  • We are now using the video (and audio) recording capabilities of mobiles for user-generated content in blended learning and workshop situations
  • We’re looking closely at how we can use Augmented Reality (and experimenting with bar code generators and readers) in retail training
  • We’re looking at Quicklearn Apps and DIY App builders for smartphones
  • We’ve developed our own Mobile Learning Framework for delivering different types of M-Learning content quickly and efficiently
  • We’re looking at how we can integrate gaming on mobiles into broader blended learning strategies
  • As yet, we’ve not found a learning application that uses the iPhone accelerometer, but we’re still thinking…!

Another 100 years?

The list will no doubt extend fast – we have at least half a dozen clients very interested in what mobile learning can do for them. Questions of why, how and when mobile learning will become significant seem already irrelevant – there is barely a project now for which we don’t consider mobile channels in our solution development. Pretty soon we’ll consider the days of PC-only e-learning as much ancient history as the Linguaphone cylinders.

100 years is a long time, and difficult to put in perspective when it looks as if – in the world of mobile learning design at least – we’ll see more new thinking in the next single year than in the whole of the last 100.

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