Designing Learning for the ultimate Mobile Learner’s Experience

It is not always easy to design a meaningful learning experience. In the same way, eLearning is not straight PowerPoint conversion, mLearning is not just eLearning on a mobile device. When it comes to mLearning, it is necessary to completely rethink “our approach to instructional design, graphic design, user experience and information presentation” (Float Mobile Learning, 2010) and make decisions from the learner´s point of view more than ever before. Why? Because mLearning experiences reach the learner at the exact moment when the information is needed and within the specific context where the knowledge will be applied, and this can change the way the learner interacts and perceives the content that is being presented.

In our first podcast in Spanish, “Esta semana en el aprendizaje móvil Episodio 1 : el nuevo iPad y su impacto en el aprendizaje móvil”, RJ Jacquez and I discussed the impact of the iPad’s characteristics on mLearning design and we agreed that, in order to effectively develop portable, spontaneous and context-aware knowledge, we need to concentrate on three fundamental aspects: immediacy, interactivity and immersion. These three aspects can help us to design learning for the ultimate mobile learner´s experience.

Immediacy

Many researchers whose investigations involve handheld and mobile devices are referring to their research as ubiquitous learning (Roschelle & Pea, 2002 cited by Park, 2011). Ubiquitous learning takes place anywhere at anytime, so the immediacy of the learning experience allows for real-time interactions with the content, which can have a direct and significant impact on the learner´s performance. Through mobile devices, the learner has access to different resources via social networks, mobile apps and mobile web experiences that support real-time communication, global collaboration and personalized content consumption as well as his own social contributions. This leads to construction of active knowledge and acquisition of new skills.

As learning designers and developers, we can profit from this great potential by designing “short burst of activities” (Malamed, 2012). The target audience for mLearning is anyone who needs immediate access to relevant information. In order to cater for these needs, the educational activities should be framed in self-paced mini lessons that can be delivered through various media. Some examples of micro-learning options include: short videos, podcasts, synchronous chats via social networks, polls and surveys, simple simulations and performance support apps like reference glossaries and job aids.

Interactivity

When developing learning solutions, we sometimes tend to concentrate too much on the learning outcome. The key aspect of a learning experience should not only be “what learners need to learn” but also “how they are going to learn it”. It is the types of interactions between the content and the learner which constitutes, in fact, the process of learning. If our goal is to design an effective mobile experience (and it should be), we need to think about its usefulness, usability and meaning from the point of view of the learner. In her article “Ten things to think about when designing your iPad App,” Julie Standford (2012) defines these three terms and their importance for well-designed user interfaces. Usefulness has to do with “solving a problem through the right set of functionality at the right time”. Usability is related to a user-friendly interface where the learner can move smoothly and naturally and meaning relates to a functionally-sound use of visuals so as to allow for an effective usability.

All these elements foster meaningful interactivity as well as functionality. Standford (2012) sustains, on this regard, that it is necessary to develop “a goal-oriented approach” to harness interactivity and functionality in mobile devices. Bearing this in mind, our goals, as learning designers, should lead to a simple but effective user interface that helps the learner accomplish a task. Connie Malamed (2011) acknowledges the characteristics of a highly interactive but still straightforward interface as a simple set of options, structured information, and “simple features of the touch-screen gestural interface like simple taps and swipes”. But, maybe, future user interfaces for mLearning will look more like the very popular Clear app for iPhone, which entirely does away with navigation.

Immersion

“It has been widely recognized that mobile learning is not just about the use of portable devices but also about learning across contexts” (Walker, 2006 cited by Park, 2011). Those different contexts drive the way we use our mobile devices. According to Klopfer and Squire (2008 cited by Park, 2011), “portability, social interactivity, context, and individuality” are the main advantages of mobile learning. The high portability factor is specially important since it allows for individuality and immersion. Mobility decreases “the dependence on fixed locations for work and study, and consequently change the way we work and learn” (Peters, 2007 cited by Park, 2011).

“Mobile devices are effective for getting all types of input from the field” (Malamed, 2012). A case in point is a “wireless positioning technique program for teaching English vocabulary” developed by Chen and Li (2010). By following the principles of  Mobile Assisted Language Learning (MALL), these researchers developed a system where learners entered a personalized context-aware ubiquitous learning system (PCULS) and the system retrieved learners’ personal portfolios, including their leisure time and English level, automatically perceived their location, and suggested appropriate vocabulary from the database based on the learner’s portfolio and location context (Park, 2011).

Augmented reality (AR) applications are also examples of resources to create seamless learning environments. AR can enhance our understanding of real objects and places around us, offering experiential and exploratory experiences, where the learners are no longer passive consumers of information. Instead, they interact with their reality and construct knowledge from it. Take for example the amazing possibilities for mLearning that the new Google´s Project Glass can bring to our future.

Conclusion

The fact is that mobile technologies are paving the way for creating completely innovative learning experiences. It is fundamental to concentrate on the learner and creatively exploit all the resources that a learner has at the palm of his hand, literally.

In future posts, I´ll continue identifying and assessing mobile technologies from other tech-related fields that can provide us with elements and inspiration to start putting the pieces together for designing an ultimate mobile learner’s experience.

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