They’re here, they’re there, they’re every flippin’ where, mobile phones, mobile phones. But what makes them and their hand-held cousins vehicles for learning?
Mobile phones, much to the chagrin of some, are almost ubiquitous, and the proliferation of other devices such as PDAs, BlackBerries and iPods means that tens of millions of people in the UK now use mobile technology. No surprise then that mobile learning is making an impact.
James Foster, director of development at Mezzo Films, has been working with private and public sector organisations to provide mobile training programmes.
He says several factors are pushing employers in this direction, but a growing understanding of mobile devices by staff and a lack of time to get away from the workplace have established a growing demand for ‘m-learning’.
“Places such as the NHS really need this sort of learning because they are judged on how they deliver mandatory training,” he says.
Foster believes a range of social factors are also helping to drive this trend, with younger people especially happy to use mobile technology to learn new things.
“The way companies are trying to get staff engaged with training and learning is changing. People are looking for different ways of spreading knowledge and want to take more responsibility for their own learning,” he says.
Mezzo has developed several systems that use personal media players, PC-based videos and satellite TV channels to train staff. “The main thing that we’ve found is that it can make training more accessible for staff in a way that’s far more convenient.
“People don’t have to drop everything and go to a training room or lecture theatre at a time when they may already be busy doing their day job. Mobile learning makes life easier for all parties,” he adds.
He says the main benefits are around convenience and cost – two crucial areas for his clients in the NHS, who desperately need to meet very challenging targets but must also keep time spent off the wards to a minimum.
“It can save thousands of man hours and keep medical staff on the wards, looking after patients. It’s part of a far more flexible solution to training needs across the NHS,” he says.
However, the use of m-learning is by no means common in the private sector: universities are in the vanguard.
Five of them have come together with mobile phone giant T-Mobile in a move that could help determine the effectiveness of m-learning as a mass-market technique.
The scheme was initiated by Assessment and Learning in Practice Settings (Alps), a collaboration involving more than 900 medical students from the health and social care faculties at the universities of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan, Bradford, Huddersfield and York St John.
All the students have been provided with T-Mobile web-enabled phones to support their learning and complete assessments while on medical work placements.
Gareth Frith, mobile learning technologies manager at Alps, says the pilot will see students downloading training from a central online repository and even completing some assessments using the device.
He says the scheme plans to roll out the system to more than 9,000 students in the future and is confident that many employers will be watching the results very closely.
“In reality, mobile learning is still at an embryonic stage in the UK. There are some very interesting projects currently under way but the way things are moving now, I think it has the potential to become more mainstream,” he says.
Frith says that developments in mobile technology, increased broadband speeds and 3G phones are all driving innovation and inspiring academics to look at how to get the best from these tools.
“The technology is really starting to come of age and I think people do genuinely want this sort of flexibility around training and development,” he says.
The work going on at Alps could have practical applications beyond the medical world, with m-learning particularly attractive to industries such as retail, where large numbers of staff need training but are also under pressure to run seven-day-a-week operations.
Frith argues that the immediacy of the system could be adapted so people working away from an office could use a mobile to access advice on any given situation out in the field.
They could directly react to events by looking at training tips or going back over development they have had in the past.
“It’s very exciting times in terms of what we might be able to do with this. Part of it is the flexibility and portability that it can provide for trainers but it also helps to actually translate the right type of learning to what’s actually needed on the ground,” he says.
Meanwhile, law firm Pinsent Masons already uses iPods to deliver the latest developments in employment law directly to clients. Subscribers download video podcasts using an MP3 player, while the service also includes web content and a suite of supporting materials.
Martin Addison, managing director of training firm Video Arts, also believes that mobile learning is set to be the next big thing. The company has just started testing for a mobile version of the training films it produces.
“Our clients have been saying that learning is changing. More and more people want bite-sized chunks of information that they can access quickly and efficiently,” he says.
With self study and e-learning becoming more common, Addison says learners want ongoing electronic support and something that is more tailored and engaging.
He uses the acronym of the four Js to illustrate his theory: just in time, just for me, just enough and just for fun. “People are moving towards shorter, faster learning experiences that can be delivered to people no matter where they are. I think we’ve already started moving towards a scenario where people search from a menu of training and then drop it into a digital list.
“One of the key challenges for employers is how they manage this sort of learning without it becoming a free for all. It still needs to be properly measured and tied into the overall learning objectives,” he says.
However, just because the technology is in place does not make m-learning a panacea for all training and development. Equally, just because it works in some settings does not mean it can be used for everything.
David Hill, managing director of consultants Echelon, has successfully used PDAs to help train customer service staff at the newly opened St Pancras station, but warns that it needs to be carefully thought through.
“It’s like all new developments that happen in learning – people can get carried away before it’s properly established,” he says.
“I’m not convinced that it can be used for primary learning. It’s really a tool for refreshing existing knowledge or refreshing people’s memories of previous training. It’s also a good way of providing updates or new information on a particular subject.”
However, he says mobile learning is ideal for certain situations and cites the rail industry as a good example. In this area, it has proved a very useful way of communicating and connecting with a dispersed workforce.
Although the technology marches ever onwards, m-learning should always be seen as a solution to training needs and used as a tool to deliver in the same way as any other learning method.
Case study: Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust
More than 300 staff at the Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust are using a specially designed mobile learning system to ensure they complete mandatory training modules.
The scheme uses a personal media player that enables staff to learn more flexibly by either listening to training modules through headphones or watching a series of films on the computer, at a time and place that suits them.
So far more than 300 players have been distributed to deliver training in everything from fire regulations to infection control.
The trust has more than 6,500 staff, requiring more than 30,000 training session every year, and the new system is making sure that everyone completes the required development, in a way that can be tracked.
MY Mandatory Training was developed with Mezzo Films and lets staff log on to a central database any time and update their individual learning. The database recognises each staff member, remembers what stage they are at and monitors progress.
In the first few months of using the system, the NHS has increased the number of mandatory modules being completed.
Yasmin Mamujee, a midwife on the delivery suite at Pontefract, says: “I work part-time, so I find it very difficult to get to training sessions. With the media player, I can do the training when it’s convenient.
“I’ve really enjoyed using it and it’s helped me easily get up to date with my compulsory training.”