The State of Mobile

state of mobile learning

Seven years ago, I was writing what was one of the first books on mLearning, Designing mLearning. I tried to abstract principles that were fundamental and would stand the test of time (and frankly think I succeeded), but given the dynamism of the mobile industry it’s time to explore just what has changed (and what hasn’t). And I’ll suggest that while things are still dynamic, we’re seeing some trends that are likely to persist.

When I wrote, the iPad had just been announced, flip phones were still prevalent, and glasses and watches were just a gleam in someone’s eye. There’s obviously been quite a change since then. While there are holdouts (and those who’ve returned to the simplicity of a keypad), most people have found that there’s a strong value proposition to the smartphone as a platform. And new devices have made inroads.

To be clear, when I talk about mobile devices, I’m not talking about laptops. After much deliberation, I think the differentiator for mobiles is that they can be used naturally while standing or walking. Mobile devices aren’t just used anywhere, they’re used while you’re on the go.

Hardware Advances

The device landscape has changed in a number of ways. You can get a range of form factors from wristwear to a tablet as big as a drawing pad. There was a brief flirtation with glasses, and while it has currently subsided, I propose they will rise again. Some folks will have the whole gamut, including a watch, a phone, and a tablet. Others will just have the phone, or a ‘phablet’ (a larger phone that is on the way to a tablet size). And rings are coming as well!

To be clear, what really distinguishes the new mobile devices from their predecessors isn’t that they’re smart, it’s that they are customizable. A flip phone does web and email, and like some of the wearables have fixed capabilities such as games, tracking, calendars and contacts. What you see on the OS devices, however, is a vastly varying suite of apps (in addition to increasingly brilliant screens and audio capabilities). Even people in the same family, or in the same role, will have a different set of applications. And they will use them differently.

The ways in which devices are used is not entirely dependent on the device itself, and time is a distinguishing factor.  There are situations that call for a quick, second or so, notifications. There are others that require some interaction, but still on the order of a minute or so. And others that range from several minutes to an hour or more (consuming content or gaming). And most any device can do all of the above, it becomes an issue of how often you need to do each, and what your level of comfort is in using a device to meet one need perhaps better suited to others.

One more element of note is the increasing capability of sensors. Back then, the major sensors were a GPS, compass, and motion accelerometers in addition to cameras, microphones, calendar/clock, and connectivity. Since then, there are sensors for atmospheric pressure, temperature, and (connecting to your skin) pulse rate. Glucose monitoring is on the horizon as well. What this means is that these devices can know more about your context, and do things because of not only where and when you are, but because of your health, current conditions, and more.

Software Overview

What’s running these devices, and taking advantage of the sensors, is the software. While the details differ, all the systems are increasingly fast, deal with more data, and have better connectivity. Multi-tasking, or sharing data between apps is fairly common now. What matters is how it’s used.

In my book, I posited four main affordances of mobile, what I called the 4 C’s:

  • Content: delivering or accessing content
  • Compute: a mixed-initiative dialog where the system and the user create a solution
  • Communicate: reach out and touch someone
  • Capture: sense (and record) the current state of the environment

The first 3 aren’t unique to mobile, but having those capabilities when and where needed alone is a sufficient argument. However, when Capture is combined with Compute (or Communicate), you get an emergent, fifth C: Context. That means that when we can identify specifics of the current environment, we can do unique things because of when and where we are.  And with the increasing sensors, that means we can do lots.

It’s important to recognize that because of the operating system and customizability, mobile is a platform, not just a device. That is, you can meet many different needs with the same device instead of needing dedicated hardware for different purposes. Once you use mobile for something, people are going to be seeing other needs that can be met.  In short, you’ll need a mobile strategy.

State of the Industry

I’ve argued that there are four major categories of mLearning:

  • Augmenting Formal (Learning): extending courses in meaningful ways beyond the classroom (real or virtual)
  • Performance Support: helping people in the moment to succeed (whether they learn or not!)
  • Social: connecting people to learn together
  • Contextual: as mentioned, doing something because of when and where you are

Each has had some changes and some ‘legacies’ that could benefit from rethinking.

Augmenting Formal

For one, we’re still seeing people take their traditional asynchronous eLearning and make it mobile accessible, or using mobile-enabled versions of their virtual classroom software. It’s not a bad thing, as people can access it when and where they want, but it’s not mlearning.

So what is mLearning?  I’ll suggest it’s extending the learning experience. For learning to be persistent, it needs to be reactivated, and there are several ways for that to happen. Learning should, and mLearning can:

  • Reconceptualize: present new or refreshing existing models that provide a basis for making decisions
  • Recontextualize: providing new examples of how those concepts play out in practice
  • Reapply: providing new opportunities to retrieve the knowledge and use it to solve problems

And we’re seeing that. We’re seeing learning follow-on applications. We’re seeing flashcard apps that allow us to redrill knowledge. We’re seeing simulations that allow practice of skills. And we’re seeing triggered experiences that capitalize on where you’re at and connect that to a learning goal to recontextualize. More and more, we’re capitalizing on the opportunity to stream out bits and pieces.

That is, we’re seeing microlearning. To be clear, this term has been used with a variety of meanings, but here we’re talking about small bits of learning that reactivate and extend learning. And this is a good thing. Spacing learning is critical to having the effects persist past the learning experience.

Performance Support

The other meaning of microlearning is really about performance support, and that too is a good thing. Our brains, powerful as they are, have gaps in operation that mean we can be supplemented in meaningful ways. We can use checklists to overcome procedural problems, lookup tables to retain data that’s too hard to remember by rote, etc. And we can access ‘how to’ videos that show contextualized steps to do things.

Performance support is increasingly available, owing to the growth of authoring and delivery ease-of-use. Similarly, new tools have made it easy to create your own videos, and sharing mechanisms are increasingly available. Whether accessing videos internal or external to the organization, increasingly the support is just ‘there’.

And I’ve argued before that mobile is the natural niche for performance support. It’s all about help to succeed wherever and whenever needed. And it doesn’t matter if you need it again next time! That’s the point, it’s not about learning, it’s about the doing!


Another form of support is having not necessarily the answer, to hand, but the person with the answer. There are, increasingly, times when it doesn’t make sense to formalize content with courses or even job aids: the knowledge or skill is too unique, changing too fast, or wasn’t expected. In this case, you’re better off connecting to the network to find the answer.

Social media is booming, and there’s a good reason. Arguably, the fundamental nature of human learning is social (whether communicated person to person, or mediated, e.g. through writing or a video). Certainly, when we don’t know the answer when we begin – problem-solving, research, design, etc. – we are by definition learning. And the outputs are better, empirically, when you do this collaboratively (if you support the process correctly).

Social tools have also gone mobile in a big way, not only the personal and professional networks (read: FaceBook and LinkedIn), but all the organizational learning tools have mobile apps as well. And this means that you can reach out and touch the right person, not just the proximal. And you can work together, as increasingly collaborative document tools are mobile-enabled.


Moreover, combining Capture and Communicate, you can share your current situation to enhance the ability for others to assist. And that’s where we cross the bridge to Contextual. You can show the thing that’s broken, or share the funny noise it’s making, so that someone who knows the situation can help.

This is about using contextual data to enhance our ability to perform. And that’s really ‘augmented reality’, where we’re doing things that are a response to the current situation. This can mean knowing that you’re going into a meeting and providing support before, during, and after the meeting. It can mean helping you find the closest useful resource to where you are. It can also mean knowing that there’s something coming up that’s relevant to you (hiccups in travel, your own health) and providing resources to address the situation.

One of the most exciting opportunities to me is the ability to layer on information on top of the existing world, specifically visually. You can lift up your phone and see things that aren’t there but are valuable. This includes what things are (labeling components) and how things work (flows like water or electricity, forces like structural tensions, even abstract concepts like economic shifts).

While the form factors may continue to proliferate, the fundamentals are increasingly known. And those fundamentals yield significant opportunities. Mobile is here, it’s real, and it’s valuable. So, are you ready to get going?