With the proliferation of mobile devices and the increasing capabilities of today’s smartphones, mobile learning, or mLearning, has been getting a lot of press. Given the similarity between the terms eLearning and mLearning, one might be tempted to assume that mLearning is little more than eLearning on a mobile device. This assumption could not be further from the truth.
Clearly we don’t use our cell phones, Kindles®, and iPods® in the same way we use our desktop or laptop computers, or even their technological predecessors, the book and the CD or tape player. So it follows that the type of learning that is appropriate on a mobile device is very different than what we do at our desk. In fact, the differences between mLearning and eLearning are at least as great as those between eLearning and instructor-led training. The differences between those two deployment paths are so significant that it requires a completely different approach to instructional design, graphic and user experience design and information presentation. So, what makes mLearning so different from eLearning and why is mLearning such an important development?
Understanding the differences between eLearning and mLearning begins with first defining mLearning. While there are many opinions and ideas surrounding this, the Float Learning definition of mLearning is:
“mLearning is the use of mobile technology to aid in the learning, reference or exploration of information useful to an individual at that moment or in a specific use context.”
The primary differences between mLearning and eLearning fall into four main categories: timing, information access, context and assessment.
Timing The first major difference between eLearning and mLearning is the time when learning is expected to take place and the anticipated duration of the learning session. Most eLearning is designed for the learner to sit at a computer and progress through a specified amount of material for a period of time. The length of time required to complete a particular eLearning module varies, but generally the duration ranges anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. Because the instruction is designed to run on a desktop or laptop computer, a specific time is usually chosen to complete the module.
But mLearning, by its very nature, is untethered and can be done anytime and anywhere. In addition, the small screen sizes of today’s mobile devices means individual interaction sessions, and by extension, learning sessions are much shorter in duration. Individuals don’t want to spend an hour staring at their phone just to complete one learning objective. Instead, mobile learning is ideal for conveying smaller chunks of information that can be absorbed while waiting for the bus, standing in line at the grocery store or located on or around a job site.
An example of this type of training is a quick reference guide. Imagine a new salesperson who has just completed her company’s online sales training course. The course was comprehensive, covering a lot of material, including the company’s custom sales process. Now she is on her first sales call. Arriving fifteen minutes early, she pulls out her smartphone and reviews a checklist of the 5 key elements of a successful sales call. Seeing that the number one element is to know the name and title of the person she is calling on, she quickly checks her notes and reviews the information about her sales contact. This sort of just-in-time experience exhibits the value in making your learning content mobile.
Information Access When taking an eLearning course on a topic, such as a sales training or a new product introduction, two key learning objectives are comprehension and retention. Because the information being learned will be applied at a later time, it is critical that the material be understood and remembered until it is needed. MLearning, on the other hand, is more about accessing information at the moment it is needed. This implies that successful mLearning is more about easy and convenient access to information and less about committing information to memory. Take healthy eating as an example. A lesson on the benefits of healthy eating would make for an excellent eLearning topic due to the amount of information and the level of compression necessary to convey the key points. This type of learning would most likely not be appropriate for a mobile device. On the other hand, learning whether the Caesar salad or a bowl of black bean soup has more calories at a local fast food restaurant via a simplified interface tailored for the device is an ideal application for mobile learning.
Context There is no doubt that mobile devices are being used for tasks that extend far beyond talking on the phone and sending text messages. The capabilities of these devices extend across a wide spectrum from geolocation to photography to internet access. As a result, our context drives how we use our mobile devices. If it is lunchtime and we are in an unfamiliar city, we may use a mobile application or the internet to find a suitable place to eat or relax at a park.
Context is one of the key areas where mLearning is distinguished from eLearning. With eLearning, as with instructor-led sessions, it is critically important to establish the context so that the learner understands the importance of the subject matter. For instance, take an eLearning module about the importance of performing a safety check before using a piece of equipment. You would most likely start the instruction with a discussion of why safety checks are important and specifically how they relate to the particular piece of equipment being discussed. Once the context has been established, information on the actual safety check process can be presented.
With mLearning, however, the context has already been established. For example, the defense company, Lockheed Martin has recently developed an iPhone app that includes a full pre-flight checklist for the C-130 Hercules Transport plane. The app contains a rotatable, zoomable image of the plane as well as a visual step-by-step guide to each task required prior to flight. The idea is that a visual checklist is easier to use and interpret than a written document. When you add in the ability to clearly see close-ups or levels of detail that simply wouldn’t be possible in a traditional checklist, the value in leveraging the context of being next to the item you are inspecting or using becomes obvious.
Assessment With eLearning the gap between when learning occurs and when it is applied in practice can be significant, especially when compared to mobile learning. As a result, the methods of assessment are very different for the two learning styles. While Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning evaluation are applicable to both eLearning and mLearning, the approach to evaluation is different.
When assessing an eLearning module, it is relatively easy, through a series of questions to determine the success of Level 1 – Learner Reaction (what the learner felt about the training) and Level 2 – Learning (the resulting increase in knowledge or capacity). However, with Level 3 – Behavior and Level 4 – Results, it becomes much harder to assess the impact of the eLearning. This is not to say that Behavior and Results are hard in and of themselves to measure. But so many other factors can influence a person’s behavior or an organization’s results, that it is difficult to tie these changes specifically to eLearning.
The time span between when mobile learning actually occurs and the application of that learning is usually very short, often it is immediate. As a result, it is much easier to assess mLearning’s impact on both an individual’s behavior and the ensuing business results. In addition, because mLearning is less about comprehension and retention and more about easy access to the right information, Level 1 and Level 2 assessments are less important if the behaviors and results are appropriately changing.
Different Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better The differences between mLearning and eLearning may suggest that one learning style is better than the other. They are both appropriate in the right situation. For instance, no one would want their cardiologist to need a refresher on the different valves of the heart prior to doing surgery. But you might feel a little bit more comfortable if your doctor pulled out his iPhone to confirm all the side effects of a new blood thinning medication that had just been developed while he is readying to prescribe a new course of treatments for you. Similarly, an eLearning module on the history of Chicago may be both interesting and educational. The depth of content that could be revealed could require multiple viewings, with each one bringing forth a myriad of fascinating details. But a walking tour of Chicago that uses the GPS feature of your phone to point out and explain important landmarks based on your current location is much more engaging than learning about them at home sitting at your desk.
The point is the capabilities and features of today’s mobile devices are now allowing us to create entirely new ways of learning than previously possible. When you start thinking about your phone or other mobile device from this perspective, you’ll be amazed at the creative ideas that will start to flow and the many ways to enhance the learning process. The key in transitioning the learning objectives and content lies in your ability to assess the learner’s goals and understand their context and the delivery methods you have available to you as the learning creator.