The Evolution of Mobile Learning

evolution of mobile learningAlmost everyone in the world has a smartphone. It’s really amazing when you take a second and picture it. According to data from Ericsson, there were 6.401 billion smartphone users in the world as of June 2021 – more than 80% of the world’s population. Ericsson projects that smartphone use will increase to 7.48 billion by 2025.

These numbers represent a sharp increase over previous predictions: that there would be 5.8 billion smartphone users by 2025. With that in mind, if your learners aren’t using smartphones, they’re an anomaly. Even if your organization doesn’t provide mobile devices to your learners, most of your learners likely have at least one personal device, and that device is probably a phone. We use them for everything: work, play, communication, and of course, mobile learning.

But did you know that the concept of mobile learning is more than 30 years older than the first Blackberry?

The history of mobile learning

Mobile learning, or mLearing, as it’s sometimes called,  was first envisioned in 1968 by computer scientist Alan Kay, back when phones were anything but digital. Kay came up with an idea for the “Dynabook,” a portable computer that would let children learn from anywhere. Not quite a laptop and not quite a tablet (and definitely not a phone) the Dynabook was designed to be portable – mobile — and educational. It was never built, but it was the foundation of mobile learning.

Mobile learning became more mainstream with the dawn of the smartphone app –all of a sudden Learning Management Systems (LMSes) could make their content available on mobile platforms — but that doesn’t mean all organizations immediately leapt into mobile learning. In 2012 (a few years after apps became mainstream) only 45% percent of top learning organizations had implemented mobile learning, and 70% planned to implement mobile learning over the next two years

Why the slow adoption? It seems that L&D departments weren’t exactly sure what to do with this new platform. A study of mobile learning in the workplace written in 2014 discussed the fact that in 2008, many organizations were simply migrating traditional learning content to mobile platforms and leaving their mobile learning strategy at that. It goes without saying that this isn’t necessarily very exciting or very engaging for learners who might not have been ready to take a full remote course from their phone using the 2008 Internet.

How does mobile learning look today?

Mobile adoption is up these days, although it’s not necessarily being used to its full potential.

According to recent research from Brandon Hall, more than 75% of the 2021 workforce is leveraging mobile learning. Despite this, organizations cite mobile adoption as a problem, and only about one third of organizations have a mobile strategy. The report found that 75% of companies think mobile learning is as effective as other modalities.

Part of the problem here is an outdated view of mobile learning. In fact, the old problem of simply migrating remote courses to a mobile platform persists today. In many cases the content doesn’t fit the format well, which means users don’t always want to engage with learning on their phones.

There are some other old perspectives on mobile learning that are also affecting its perceived value, holdovers from the aughts, when mobile learning became widespread. Brandon Hall found that IT departments often push back on mLearning initiatives because of bandwidth and connectivity issues, as well as security concerns about lost devices and public wi-fi. Many of these issues are antiquated concerns, and there’s no reason for them to get in the way of a mobile strategy in a world where 5G is changing the capabilities of mobile devices.

How can mobile learning look in the future?

As mobile devices evolve and bandwidth concerns decrease, the possibilities for mobile learning are expanding – not as a smaller delivery system for existing training, but to be used as a targeted piece of a larger learning strategy that makes the best use of smartphones’ unique capabilities.

While there is certainly value in having all training available across platforms (this contributes to what is known as “fluid learning,” in which learners take modules on whatever device happens to be accessible), learning designed specifically for mobile devices is important in increasing engagement, boosting retention, and moving to the next stage of mobile learning’s evolution.