What Is Mobile Learning?

10 minutes

The times before smartphones were dark and cold. No dancing red dress lady emoji, no way to pretend you’re texting, the need to talk to people over the phone...Today, expectations are extending beyond exchanging messages with friends. Meet mobile learning, the way out of classrooms.

The first smartphone made its debut in 1992. It was called the Simon Personal Communicator. Aside from making calls, you could use it to send faxes (!) and emails, manage contacts, and use a calendar. This year is Simon’s 27th birthday, which means that we already have the first mobile-native generation of people who have grown up with the technology.

However, it’s not only the younger natives; nowadays, we all take the capabilities of mobile devices for granted. What’s more, we have this built-in expectation that “online” also means “mobile,” always at our fingertips, right? A learning experience is no exception. In this article, you’ll learn how mobile technologies can create more effective and engaging learning.

So, What Is Mobile Learning?

Mobile learning, or simply mLearning, is anywhere and anytime learning is supported by mobile devices that learners use to access the content. There are two parties to this definition: a) Learners and b) Devices.

As for the b) issue, that one’s easy. Devices enabling mobile learning are the same gadgets we all have in our pockets: smartphones and tablets. We use them in so many ways that they have become extensions of our personalities; it’s only natural we have started to use them for learning as well. With mLearning, students can study assigned lessons, video lectures, and take tests right from their devices.  

At the same time, the word “mobile” also refers to learners. For many people, such as field workers and sales representatives, being mobile is an integral part of their job. For others, commuting or business travel makes up a large part of their time. With mobile learning, people are bound to neither certain locations nor specific schedules anymore. 

How Is mLearning Different from eLearning? 

The use of a mobile device as a platform for content distribution isn’t the only characteristic that distinguishes mobile learning from eLearning. eLearning courses can often be taken via mobile devices, so this fact alone doesn’t make these courses “mobile.” What are the other differences?

Different purpose

While eLearning is supposed to be a full-fledged alternative to classroom sessions, the purpose of mLearning is more support and diversification of the learning process. You provide learners with instant access to small and independent chunks of information, and they study it on the go or whenever they have a free minute. 

Let’s take the learning of languages as an example. If you need to teach a grammar tense, you’d probably like to do it in a structured way to give your learners a holistic view of the topic. So, an eLearning lesson would do absolutely fine for that. 

But with mobile learning, the learners can brush up their knowledge, do some exercises or watch a short video. They can also turn to this topic at the moment of need, say if they’re writing an email, and aren’t sure of the correct usage of the tense. All of these make mLearning a booster for any type of learning that ensures higher retention and involvement.

Different length of a lesson

To get an idea of how long the lesson should be, think of the context where the learning happens. Traditional online courses are usually taken on a computer or laptop at a desk, often right in an office where there’s a good wi-fi connection. The average eLearning lesson can vary from 15 to 90 minutes, depending on the environment for learning. 

Content developed for mobiles should be broken into smaller units—3 to 5 minutes—that are easier for the learners to access on a smartphone. Of course, some people can also sit at the desk with their smartphones on hand, but it’s more likely they’ll use it as intended — for being mobile. This way, the length of a unit should allow the learners to study while waiting in line or in-between work tasks.

Different output method

While eLearning doesn’t require special software to run a course and can work right in a browser, mLearning needs an app in two versions, at least: for iOS and Android devices. 

As we already said, eLearning courses can be viewed on mobiles with the help of mobile browsers. So, leaving aside the need to zoom in on the content, why would we need an app? 

Since native mobile apps are designed for a device, they have access to operating system resources and features that web applications do not. Mobile apps make user experience generally smoother, with access to the camera, audio inputs, barcode scanners, and other built-in sensors. mLearning apps can also include features like the ability to take courses offline, save progress, and run processes in the background.

In a nutshell, mLearning isn’t a smaller portable version of eLearning; it’s a completely different learning medium that affects what the training content will be.

Comparison of eLearning and mLearning

Is Designing mLearning Courses Similar to Designing eLearning Content? 

The short answer is No. The natural design constraint for mobile devices is smaller screen size. This leads us to two things that should be considered before the development process begins. 

1. The input method

eLearning content is designed for using a tiny mouse pointer, while mLearning content is manipulated by a finger. This means that all the clickable interface elements need to be larger, so it doesn’t create an additional challenge for learners to tap a button or a link.

2. The amount of on-screen content

A desktop screen size can be anywhere from 19 to 34 inches. In comparison, the iPhone XS Max, which is currently the BIGGEST iPhone ever, has a 6.5-inch screen. This way, you can’t afford to lose pixels on fancy elements and should include only what matters most. The golden rule here is one screen, one idea.

Fully-packed design of a course for desktops vs. minimalistic design for mobiles

When developing mobile courses, you only have space for what matters most.

To learn the nuts and bolts of designing mLearning content, check out the post on 10 must-follow rules for creating mobile-friendly courses.

Can I use my existing eLearning courses for mLearning? 

If you want your courses to be viewed on mobile devices, they should be published in the HTML5 format. So, the answer to this question mostly depends on the capabilities of the authoring tool you use, but technically — yes, you can. 

For instance, if you have created your courses with iSpring Suite, then your content is provided by default with an adaptive player. This automatically adjusts the content, navigation elements, and controls the screen size, so the courses look good on both desktops, tablets, and smartphones. It is, perhaps, the easiest way to quickly convert pre-existing courses and presentations into content for mobiles.

At the same time, the tendency is to create mobile-first content. So, while you can quickly convert existing courses into the course for mobiles with tools like iSpring Suite, to provide learners with a better experience, at least, try to comply with the basic requirements for mLearning content we’ve mentioned above:

  • Content can be provided in small chunks.
  • It doesn’t include too small elements.
  • One screen, one idea.

What is the difference between adaptive and responsive design?

While the differences between screen sizes only increase, there are still just two approaches to address the issue. Perhaps you’ve heard about adaptive and responsive design.

  • Adaptive design uses a few layouts for multiple screen sizes. There can be layouts for smartphones, tablets, and desktops; each of which is made beforehand. When a learner opens a course, the system detects the screen size and shows a specific layout. If you know for sure which devices (and their sizes) your learners use and there won’t be new models with different parameters in the future, the adaptive approach is an adequate solution. 
  • Responsive design uses a fluid layout. No matter what screen size your learners have, that same layout automatically responds to that screen size: it scales and moves elements and adjusts functionality. You don’t have to make a list of devices your learners use nor create multiple layouts, as the design will smoothly shrink or grow — just like Alice in Wonderland! 
The difference between adaptive and responsive design

Adaptive vs. responsive design

What Tools Can I Use to Develop mLearning?

The components of mLearning can be visualized as a triangle where the sides are:

  • an authoring tool,
  • a learning management system,
  • and an app.
Tools needed to launch mLearning

The mLearning ecosystem

So, what does each of the components do?

An authoring tool allows you to create courses, presentations, video lectures, assessments, and simulations that you want your learners to study. It should be able to publish in HTML5 format. 

A learning management system serves as a command center where you upload training content, assign it to learners, monitor the statistics, and create reports. (By the way, if you don’t use an LMS yet, we have a detailed explanation post on what is an LMS and a guide on how to choose an lms).

A mobile application is there to ensure a smooth learning experience for the end-users. They install it from app stores on their devices and use it to study the assigned materials.

If we take the iSpring tools to illustrate the point, the mLearning ecosystem will consist of:

  • iSpring Suite, an authoring tool that helps you to easily create mobile-ready content;
  • iSpring Learn, a learning management system;
  • iSpring Learn, a free mobile app for iOS and Android.

Should I Start Mobile Learning in my Company?

Mobile learning may be viewed as an answer to all the needs in corporate training, but would it be worth doing in your company? Here are some indicators that will help you to make the right decision. Tick the boxes if you recognize your case.

Your employees are already mobile

For many jobs, there are no certain workplaces. Salespeople, consultants, transport or maintenance service workers are often on the go, so mobile learning already fits in with their work style. 

Your team is remote (fully or partially)

There are various combinations: your team is dispersed around the globe, you have branch offices, or your employees come to the office from time to time, if at all. Thanks to the internet, an employee can be in a coffee shop, in the home office, in a deckchair, and still be “at work.”

Your team is young

Generation Z (born 1995–2010), the youngest members of which are already 11, are the people for whom a smartphone is an experience by default and not a novelty.

You have less time for training

Let’s face the truth, in a world of increasing multitasking; there’s much less time for traditional training where you study first and apply knowledge later. Mobile learning allows people to use moments that would be wasted otherwise to study something useful for their jobs and immediately apply their newly gained knowledge.

You need a solution for performance support

While mLearning may not be the best option for teaching something from scratch, it shows great results as extra support. Mobile learning builds into the workflow of the real world and helps you guide and retrain employees whenever and wherever they need it.

You need speedier training

Keeping a competitive edge requires frequent training since technology is changing rapidly, and new products, services, and approaches appear every day. Mobile learning can deliver knowledge in real-time whenever it’s needed.

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