During the mid to late 1990’s we saw the emergence of e-learning; during the early 2000’s the new phrase of ‘blended’ learning was all the rage; and over the last twelve months m-learning has become the latest buzz word to grip the learning and development profession.
So, will m-learning be the next big thing?
In this article Darren Hockley, Managing Director of DeltaNet International Limited, explores the relative merits of m-learning and gives us his views on how successful it will be. But before we consider the merits of m-learning, perhaps we should look back at the impact e-learning and blended learning have had on the way we learn today.
e-learning can no longer be considered a new way of learning. According to a recent study, over 57% of Learning and Development managers confirmed that their organisation now offered some form of e-learning to its staff.
In the academic world, e-learning is widely used by schools, colleges and universities. e-learning is firmly established as an accepted method of providing learning and development opportunities. But to reach this level of acceptance has taken over 10 years and a few ups and downs along the way.
Blended learning is the phrase used to describe a learning strategy that includes more than one method of delivering learning and development interventions. A blended learning solution will normally included some e-learning which will be combined with one or more of the traditional methods including face to face training, books, videos, training DVDs, seminars, workshops, distance learning packs, etc.
The reality is that we have been using blended learning solutions for as long as we have been learning, we just didn’t call it blended learning.
So, what is m-learning and what does the future hold for it?
m-learning (otherwise known as ‘mobile’ learning) takes e-learning one step further; rather than completing a learning intervention on our desktop or laptop computers will we now be able to study an m-learning course on portable computer devices such as PDAs, mobile phones and palm top computers?
Technology has advanced at lightening speed and in particular, convergence has had a major impact on how we live our lives. Little more than a few years ago a mobile phone was exactly that; now the latest mobile phones are powerful computer devices that allow you to listen to music and watch videos, take photographs and send these to our friends and family, send and receive messages and emails, browse the internet on the move and basically perform any activity that you can use a personal computer for.
And with relatively short contract periods and high levels of saturation most people will have one of the latest mobile phones in their pockets or handbags within a short space of time. Add to this the list of other portable computing devices commonly available- such as PDAs and palm top computers- and you can see why the technologists think that m-learning is the next logical step.
So, if we accept that most people will soon be carrying a device capable of accessing an m-learning course then the next thing to consider is how the course will be delivered to the device.
Network providers are investing heavily to upgrade the networks, with 3G services already providing broadband connections to our portable computer devices. Coverage can be ‘sketchy’ outside of the bigger cities and towns and physical barriers can significantly weaken the strength of the signal, for example in certain parts of a building. However, with continued investment these problems will soon be overcome; or at least be minimalised.
The large amount of digital storage available on these new devices could be used to download and store the m-learning courses locally when there is a network connection so that the learner can access the m-learning course later even if the network connection is no longer available.
We have seen that potential learners have the devices readily available to become m-learners, and that the infrastructure is there to support them, but what else do we need to think about?
Existing e-learning content can easily be repositioned to work on the smaller screens that these devices come with; organisations have built up their own resources to be able to produce e-learning internally and there is a ready made industry of willing e-learning developers waiting to build content. So, if there is a demand, the content can quickly be made available to the willing m-learner.
This leads us to the final question: Will the learners be happy to use m-learning?
Undoubtedly, a small percentage of people will readily embrace m-learning, enjoying the freedom this will bring them; and these people are likely to be keen adopters of new technology. However, the vast majority of us are likely to be more sceptical as is common with all change.
It has been proven that if you provide a comfortable and practical environment you can significantly enhance the learning experience, and this is often reflected in the investments made in our training rooms. If the learner is not comfortable and receptive to learning then learning will not happen; or at best will be diluted.
To expect learners to spend significant amounts of time interacting with small devices that have tiny screens and keyboards is likely to be a doomed strategy. For this reason, I believe much of the learning we undertake is unsuitable for m-learning and will need to be done using more traditional interventions.
One opportunity would be to use business strategy games to help learners develop and practice new skills. The serious games industry is now firmly established and is one of the more creative approaches to using e-learning. These solutions are expensive to produce but, with many people already playing games on these devices, they are likely to be more appealing to the learner.
Probably the best opportunity available to us is to use these devices to provide support to employees within the workplace. Increasingly we treat information and knowledge as a commodity expecting it to be available to us at all times. So why not make our knowledge bases available to people in the field through these mobile computing devices?
A widespread example of how this has already been done is the use of satellite navigation systems. No longer do we consult atlases or route planners in advance of a journey; instead we arm ourselves with a postcode, jump into the car, tap a few keys and off we go. We don’t expect to ‘learn’ the journey through this experience; we know we can always use the satellite navigation system if we need to make the same journey again.
Using this concept, why not provide work related support to our employees?
If you are a central heating engineer and are working on a type of boiler for the first time wouldn’t it be great to access an interactive guide on how this works and what needs to be maintained? Or maybe, your sales people could access important information about a client before going into a meeting?
The applications are endless but critically are designed to provide small amounts of information ‘just in time’.
When e-learning was first introduced back in the 1990’s we were told to expect a paradigm shift that would see an end for face to face training. History tells us this is not the case, and the e-learning industry suffered several setbacks of a result of this misplaced enthusiasm. Therefore, a more conservative approach will need to taken if m-learning is not to suffer the same setback.