March 2012

E-learning in the mobile age

New technologies have a way of transforming our approaches to learning, and of influencing our theories about it. So how the emergence of mobile devices has changed e-learning content and how we deliver it?

A lot has been said about learner engagement in the e-learning industry. Generally, if we really want someone to engage with what we’re saying, we have to speak to the heart and not just to the brain. We may disagree about the best way to do that through e-learning, but most people in this business would recognise the difference between a sterile information dump, without context or emotional relevance to the learner, and a stimulating interaction that successfully reaches for the emotions as well as the mind.

“With mobile computing, we have a whole new sense to engage – the sense of touch”. So, we need to explore what works kinaesthetically.

Now, with mobile, we have a whole new sense to engage – the sense of touch. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity, but we could waste it if we fail to think through the practical implications of the medium and neglect to consider what ’pleases the finger’. Just as in the past we laboured over the cognitive and visual aspects of e-learning, we now need to explore what works kinaesthetically.

Appealing to the sense of touch

Touch is a natural, intimate gesture; it is perhaps our most instinctive way of interacting with anything at all. While a PC relies on an abstract relationship between the learner and the elements on the screen, mediated by a mouse and a pointer, with a tablet we get to engage more directly. A learner has a more immediate physical interaction with the learning material. Put a product knowledge or process training course on a mobile device, and you can literally open that subject up for tactile exploration.

So, what strengths do mobile devices have when it comes to e-learning? There’s little doubt that mobile devices have become an important platform for e-learning delivery. Their personal nature, ease-of-use and low cost – as well as that intimacy of touch – could well mean that the majority of e-learning is provided this way in the future.

Laid back learning

But what exactly do mobile devices do best? First of all, a mobile device is a much more relaxing device to use than a PC. As PC users we tend to lean forward, hunched over the keyboard, squinting at a cluttered environment full of windows, menus, processes and notifications.

“When a learner launches e-learning on a mobile device, the device becomes a ’learning appliance’ (…) We just don’t have a name for it yet: L-device?“.

A mobile device, at least in the shape of a tablet, is more of an appliance; the app you are using takes over the device and becomes the device. When you launch an ebook reader the tablet becomes an ebook reader; when you launch the newspaper app it becomes the newspaper and so on. Similarly, when a learner launches e-learning on a tablet or a mobile device, the tablet becomes a ’learning appliance’. We just don’t have a name for it yet: L-device?

On a mobile device, learning can take place in a more tranquil setting: sitting in an armchair or on a sofa, say, relaxing and taking time to think and contemplate. Indeed, this setting may even be too relaxed for some forms of learning, but maybe this laid-back context will stimulate designers to develop new and effective learning interactions.

Video galore

We’ve been using more and more video in PC-based e-learning, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that video will be play a starring role in tablet-based e-learning as well.

Video really stands out on a mobile device: it’s great for standalone video-casts, but it works just as well interspersed with other content. You can even scale the video to full screen with a simple gesture – another example of tactile interaction with content on a tablet.

And because mobile devices must be held and touched, video content feels more personal and engaging than it does on a PC screen. Video will most definitely replace the standard e-learning approach: text with voice-over. A mobile device playing an interview with a Subject Matter Expert, or even a trainer talking directly to you, is much more effective than the ever-droning voice-over that seems to haunt PC-based e-learning.
In addition, we want interactivity in our e-learning too, to engage learners and make them absorb our learning objectives as they explore the content. And that raises an interesting question: to what extent do we need to reinvent even the most basic PC-based interactions for the mobile environment?

Think outside the button

Interacting through touch means working with your fingers. To create a successful touch interface we need to think outside the button. A finger is much bigger than a mouse pointer, so any interaction that relies on mouse-level accuracy won’t be ideal for a touch interface. For e-learning, this means that the way we present and select options must be revisited from a finger-sized perspective.

Mobile allows us think bigger, and in terms of gestures.

Buttons are abstractions, they don’t allow us to work directly with content, but rather ask us for approval for the machine to do something. In an ideal learning interaction it is the learner who does things; the device as a computer should become invisible.

Mobile allows us think bigger, and in terms of gestures. You move a mouse pointer to another part of a PC screen with a relatively small twitch of the hand, but on a mobile device you can use a combination of finger movements. Navigation and option selection can be less about reading and clicking and more about swiping towards areas of interest, using multi-touch gestures to explore and manipulate options and so on.
What we consider to be ’instructionally effective’ content is heavily influenced by the format in which that content is delivered. In other words, our fondly-held instructional design theories owe more to the medium than they do to some deeper pedagogical truth. To rewrite McLuhan: the medium forms the theory. And, clearly, the medium that has thus far influenced our instructional design theories has been the PC with its vertical screen, the keyboard, the mouse and the mouse pointer.

What mobile-friendly alternatives will we get to ’traditional’ e-learning interactions?

What approaches will we discover that avoid the abstraction of button and option clicking, which embrace the tactile possibilities of direct screen contact, and that please the finger with large targets and intuitive gestures? These are exciting possibilities and the field is, as yet, wide open.