Mobile learning – is anyone using it?

Mobile learning is loved by its devotees. The question is though – is anyone using it for serious learning?

One of the things you have to accept when developing mobile learning content, says Stephen Walsh, co-founder of Brighton-based e-learning consultancy Kineo, is that people won’t always access it on a mobile device – so there.

While this may seem contradictory, it validates mobile learning’s place in the learning landscape. It demonstrates the importance of providing learners with choice when it comes to how and when they access their learning.And, in theory, nothing extends this choice or liberates the learner more than mobile learning.

Mobile learning, or m-learning, has been around for several years, but the ubiquity of delivery devices such as the iPod and sophisticated mobile phones has brought it into sharper focus.

That said, it has been accompanied by a level of hype similar to that which surrounded e-learning when it first arrived, which has led to cynicism about mobile learning. This is also fueled by the fact that while content such as podcasts are seeping into learning strategies, it is still easier to find industry experts prepared to talk about the theory of mobile learning than it is to find companies thatare actually using it.

Early days

But it should be remembered that m-learning is still in its infancy. Many organisations using it are at the pilot stage where, typically, avid mobile device users are experimenting with them.

“Large organisations want to go down their own road and experiment. It is not being driven by learning and development,it’s more informal than that,” says Ron Edwards, managing director of Ambient Performance. He also organises the Seriously Mobile Summit and workshops.

The speed with which mobile content can also be created means that departments don’t necessarily need the support of the rest of the company to experiment. “The big advantage of mobile learning is that the cost of development is low,” says Walsh.

Producing bite-size pieces of learning, such as podcasts, that address a specific need at a particular time has long been seen as one of the benefits of e-learning and is another driver of the mobile movement.

Mobile and e-learning content management producer Giunti Labsis producing nuggets of learning or what it calls ‘LearnPills’ for BlackBerrys, which users can download from its Learn eXact Lobster portal.

It is also working with Microsoft and Google Maps on ‘GeoPills’, which it describes as just-in-time, just-when-you-need-it, location-based learning.

Virtual reality

Speaking at this year’s Seriously Mobile Summit, Giunti Labs’ chief executiveFabrizio Cardinali said that this could be used to teach someone how to cope in an emergency. He added that Giunti Labs is also blending GeoPills with virtual reality to offer remote coaching.

“The learner is at a location, equipped with GPS. The coach is remote but can interact with the learner via a virtual world thatfaithfully reproduces the actual location,” said Cardinali at the Seriously Mobile Summit.“The technology already exists. What is beginning to develop is the vision to apply this to technology for mobile learning.”

Learning and development departments must accept that innovation in the area of mobile learning may well come from outside their department. But this doesnot mean that they can’t play a part in harnessing this innovation for wider use within an organisation.

Where they will be left behind, however, is if they don’t see the benefit in getting hands–on with such technology themselves. “Get out there and try it,” saysEdwards. “Being in learning and development is all about keeping one foot in today and another in tomorrow.”

Case study: Royal Bank of Scotland

The challenge

To find ways of making personal development and learning as easy and accessible as possible.

The solution

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has been piloting and experimenting with various forms of mobile learning for more than a year. It has now introduced MP3 players as part of the induction experience within one of its divisions.

The support tool includes a key message from senior management, information from the induction workshop and motivational tips. It is also introducing ‘phonecasts’ as an alternative to MP3 downloads.

“We record the information required and place the recordings on freephone telephone numbers, which are communicated to our employees,” says an RBS spokesperson. “The phonecasts still provide the flexibility of MP3 and can be accessed anytime, anywhere.”

RBS’ original pilot enabled individuals to access learning during their commute to work. It embedded key messages from existing training material into MP3 downloads to create a suite of learning ‘bites’ specifically aimed at three audiences within NatWest Retail in London.

RBS says feedback from NatWest business managers was 100% positive on the use of MP3 players for training.

The outcome

RBS says it will continue on its journey to identify new ways of providing choice when it comes to learning. “Embracing new technologies and learner choice are important to us,” says the bank. “The style is relaxed and informal, providing everyone involved in these processes access to information at the point of need.”

Case study: Cable & Wireless

The challenge

To arm the Cable & Wireless salesforce with the latest product knowledge.

The solution

Ensuring the sales team have the information they need to do their jobs effectively is an ongoing challenge for any high-tech company. This challenge is confronted head-on by Cable & Wireless, which is changing the ethos of its learning to performance support and making use of new delivery mechanisms such as mobile devices. The idea is that employees can go and find the learning they need, when they need it, and then get back on with the job, explains head of e-learning Mike Booth.

Podcasting and vodcasting (a video version of podcasting) have become central to this performance support strategy. These have been created by e-learning consultancy Kineo. “We decided to take a chat-show approach,” says Stephen Walsh, co-founder of Kineo. “I acted as the non-technical person asking the technical and marketing teams questions about how the product was different.”

The podcasts were downloaded to employees’ iPods, MP3 compatible mobile phones, as well as laptops, and could be accessed as and when they needed them. Cable & Wireless’ learning objects reside within the company’s internet-based learning portal, iLearn.

The outcome

The podcasts have received good feedback, and vodcasts have also been used within Cable & Wireless to disseminate corporate information and messages from senior management.

Case study: BT

The challenge

As part of mandatory compliance training for its workforce to communicate information relating to a restructuring, BT had to find a way of delivering the training to 30,000 on-the-road engineers.

The solution

After discounting various options because of practical or logistical reasons, BT worked with global learning provider Saffron Interactive to develop a mobile learning solution.

Based on Saffron’s branded iCast platform, the training would be delivered by phone and could be accessed from anywhere, including a van. The only hardware required was a telephone and keypad. Speech recognition software built into the solution would also enable the user to provide spoken answers to test questions.

For speech training to be effective, Saffron’s instructional design team leader and chief technology officer, Nick Simons, says the learner must be able to process the information immediately, as you are dealing with a completely different attention window.

“Content must be crystal clear first time, so it is important that we keep it simple with short sentences and as little jargon as possible,” he says. “You must also find exactly the right voice both in the tone of the content and in selecting the person who will recite the script onto the audio file.”

The interaction provided by the speech recognition software was one of the ways used to maintain the learner’s attention.

The outcome

The 28-minute learning programme was rolled out in 2006 and was accessed by nearly 30,000 engineers. “Telephone training enabled BT to conduct a thorough and well-received training intervention on a potentially high-risk subject across a large and mobile workforce,” says Laura Reid, head of regulatory compliance training, communications and culture at BT.

She says she would definitely consider using m-learning again. “It enables me to really target my training investment and focus in on the specific training needs of particular groups of employees.”

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