May 072011

Mobile Learning: The Top 10 Reasons Your Mobile Learning Strategy will Fail

Mobile Learning: April 13th, 2011, Dawn Poulos

While the focus of this post is not specifically Apple or the iPad, it’s almost impossible to talk about successful mobile strategies without recognizing that the iPad has created a transitional moment for the Learning & Development world. The reasons why have been the subject of countless blog posts, but I think DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, in this video from TechCrunch, says it best:

“[The iPad] it’s the first device that actually is a reflection of me – or us. It’s so revolutionary that it’s no longer about me adapting myself to somebody else’s set of programmings or the way in which a device is going to engage. It is the reverse. It is as though I’m looking in a mirror.”

I love this description because it encapsulates what should be the crux of any mobile learning strategy. That is, recognizing that mobile content delivery should be fully controlled by the learner. In other words, what content the learner wants; where and when they want it; and how they want it delivered – with no constraints.

While it took the iPad to make learner-controlled content a reality, this level of flexibility is now the gold standard for delivery to any device, be it tablets, smart phones or any number of performance support devices.

For learning organizations, the clear challenge to meet this gold standard in their frenzied rush to mLearning will be to NOT repeat the mistakes that were made in the move from classroom to on-line training. It’s been 15 years since the introduction of computer-based training and our industry still struggles with delivering engaging eLearning, developing it in a cost effective way and achieving positive learner outcomes.

We all know that old habits die hard, so here are 10 repeat offenders that could deliver a devastating blow to your mLearning strategy:

1. Don’t assess how mobile fits in your blended learning strategy. Today, 50% of the US workforce is now considered mobile. However, while exploding, the mobile share of total web consumption is still extremely low, topping out at about slightly over 3% according to Quantcast. Furthermore, a recent report from iPass indicates that mobile workers are not committed to any one mobile device, leveraging notebooks as much as they do smartphones and more than tablets.

What this tells us is that it’s still early days for mobile learning. Without a proper assessment of how learners want to leverage mobile for their learning needs and on what devices, it’s highly likely to result in a poor allocation of resources across delivery modalities.

2. Keep mLearning content development tactical. According to Ambient Insight, the leading marketing research firm for eLearning and mobile learning, the 2011 market forecast for mobile content authoring & development tools and installed platforms is $175M. Ambient indicates that this figure is made up primarily of new, specialized native tools. This tactical approach is exactly what we would expect in a new market: a high demand for tools that allow organizations to get some form of mLearning out quickly. However, as any CIO will tell you, this approach is unsustainable. What typically happens as a market matures is that specialized tools give way to more efficient cross-platform and enterprise-based solutions. Indeed, as we can see from the table below, Ambient predicts this very same trend with specialized and device-dependent mobile apps giving way to cloud-based, cross platform solutions.

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Today, while other areas of information publishing have experienced tremendous cost efficiencies and scalability through single-source development, content reusability and cross-platform delivery, eLearning has barely budged from its tactical approach. According to Ambient, the 2011 market forecast for specialized eLearning software and tools is a whopping $425M in North America, indicating that closed, proprietary, and single delivery modality tools still dominate eLearning.

3. Use rapid authoring tools. Rapid eLearning tools are the antithesis to the promise of mobile learning. That’s because rapid eLearning has nothing to do with the learner and everything to do with the Instructional Designer and how they want you to see their knowledge. Sure, it’s quick, but the learner has absolutely no control as to how he/she can view the content.

For mobile learning it’s not about rapid authoring, it’s about rapid reuse. In other words, automating the assembly and reassembly of content and media assets in myriad different ways based on what the end user wants to see.

4. Forget about your classroom materials: With all buzz surrounding mobile learning, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that instructor-led training still dominates. According to a survey of 1,500 learning professionals by Chief Learning Officer magazine, 41% of learning executives indicated they continue to use classroom training as the primary learning delivery method. An additional 12% will use synchronous eLearning. This means that over 50% of training today still uses traditional classroom materials.

In the move to eLearning, we disregarded printed materials wrongly assuming they would fall by the wayside. Today we pay the price of that oversight through redundant content development.

While mobile learning will (or should) be delivered in a more granular format, it will none the less leverage the information found in print and eLearning materials. Not being able to cost-effectively leverage this existing content for mobile will have a devastating impact on content development costs.

5. Build your mobile content from scratch. In hindsight, the biggest mistake we have made with eLearning was the choice to create eLearning content from scratch instead of leveraging existing classroom content. It’s an ugly practice that mars L&D and continues to this day.

As you can see from the table below from the Chapman Alliance, 30% of the cost of eLearning can be contributed to redundant content development processes including authoring, QA and SME/stakeholder review. It boggles the mind that training organizations are starting down this same path with mobile learning.

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You see, adding mobile doesn’t simply add a third silo or a third set of redundant processes in addition to classroom and eLearning. Unlike eLearning, mobile means many different types of content (courseware, performance support, assessments, etc.) delivered to multiple devices (notebooks, smartphones, tablets, etc.). Attempting to build the content for these mobile applications from scratch will create an unsustainable number of silos and redundant processes that require a level of additional resources you have absolutely no chance of getting.

6. Be proprietary: Lots of things can happen in three short years:

• In 2008, RIM ruled the mobile OS market with 58% market share. Today, Android, not even in existence until late 2008, has just taken over the number one spot in the U.S. with 31% market share.
• The iPad, at the tender age of one year old, and has already sold a staggering 15 million units.
• The Honeycomb OS, a mere month old, is already (or soon to be) powering tablets from Motorola, Samsung, Dell and Sony.

My obvious point: things change at lightning speed in the mobile market. eLearning content today sits in proprietary formats that can’t be used in more than one delivery format, can’t be shared with other applications and can’t be easily migrated to other systems. Locking your mobile learning content up like this is simply a death wish in today’s environment.

7. Believe that learners really want PowerPoint on their mobile. I was recently reading about a mobile content development app that lets you “leverage the familiar PowerPoint environment to comfortably and quickly develop mobile content.” Let’s get serious here. Does anybody really believe that content derived from a PowerPoint presentation is what a mobile learner wants or needs?

Here are a few choice excerpts from a great NY Times article that summarizes what blow PowerPoint has dealt learning in the US Military:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid”

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding”

“The program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making”

“Sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is just agony”

Exactly how will this change by putting the PowerPoint content on a mobile device?

8. Forego XML – again. If you don’t believe that open, platform-neutral XML is critical for mobile learning, I’m not going to try to convince you. Instead, take a look at this TED Talk clip from Richard Baruaniuk, the founder of Connextions. In particular, look at the section from 10.48 to 14.06. In it, he discusses why XML is the underlying technology for his wildly successful open source initiative that allows authors, educations and learners access a rich repository of content to create free, customized textbooks, courses, and learning materials.

Each month, Connexions‘ free educational materials are used by over 850,000 people from over 200 countries. Let’s see you try that without XML!


9. Don’t write granular content. For eLearning, content is written page by page for a broad audience. The problem with this is that mLearning is about the individual learner and that learner often wants to receive only “part of a page” – the nuggets information that is relevant to his/her task at hand.

While we like to dismiss reusable learning objects, this is exactly what these nuggets are: small context-free pieces of information wrapped with user dimensions such as role, task, language, stage, etc. It’s time to move away from the designer-centric view of content to the learner-centric view. That means building content in a model that is liberated from the web course/page model. It’s not to say you wouldn’t use it in that way for eLearning, it’s just that you can no longer force this upon the learner.

10. Ignore the above recommendations. mLearning provides a great opportunity for the Learning and Development organization to take our industry to the next level. To be successful though requires learning from our past mistakes, breaking out of old mindsets and having the courage to step outside our comfort zone. At the end of the day ask yourself: is the content I am delivering a reflection of me or my learners?


To Discuss how these Solutions will add value for you, your organization and/or your clients, Affinity/Resale Opportunities, and/or Collaborative Efforts, Please Contact:

Tom McDonald,; 608-788-5144; Skype: tsmw5752

mobile learning, McDonald Sales and Marketing, LLC