#mLearning: The three key elements of mobile learning

Early this year I had the great honor of writing a whitepaper and a magazine article for ASTD, the world’s largest association dedicated to training and development professionals. The whitepaper, entitled “Developing a Mobile Learning Strategy“, outlines how to design a mobile learning strategy for organizations, provides an understanding of mobile learning´s potential and details the steps involved in design, development, and implementation. The article, “Design with the User´s Needs in Mind“, was published in T+D Magazine – July Issue and seeks to provide some useful tips and considerations to design an effective mobile user experience.

The following is an excerpt of “Developing a Mobile Learning Strategy“…

How do you know that mobile learning is the right training solution for your organization? The answer to this question is given by the close analysis of three key elements: the learner, the need(s), and the context. Mobile learning allows us to establish a direct connection between the knowledge/skill that the learner needs to master and between the learner and the environment where that knowledge is required.

The learner

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 his book “Tapworthy Designing Great iPhone Apps”, Josh Clark defines the three different mindsets of the mobile user: “I am microtasking”, “I am local”, and “I am bored” (Clark, 2010). By considering these three mindsets, we can define the characteristics of our target audience and design learning experiences accordingly.

If learners need to perform a single task at a specific location by accessing information in a fast and easy fashion or if they want to do the most of downtime and review some content from previous courses, mobile reference apps can be very convenient to meet these needs. We can also add different layers of interactivity that allow for some exploration in order to make the experience a little bit more challenging and therefore, engaging. We can even make use of mobile devices´ sensors to make the most of the information provided by the context itself. Take for example 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).

The first key questions when planning a mobile strategy focus on the learner: what type of information, resources or support does he need? When and where does he need that information? How and where does he want to access that information?

 The need(s)

Once you have identified the characteristics of the learners, you need to clearly pinpoint the learning needs. Is there a performance problem in your organization that could be solved by providing your workforce with the right tools to access information immediately? Can you foster peer collaboration, concept reinforcement and better professional judging by making relevant information available just when learners need it?

When learners need to receive just-in-time information that requires fast updating, or when they need to collect and use input from the field or collaborate with a more experienced colleague to improve their performance, mobile learning is suitable to enhance your current training solutions.

As Marcus Boyes has pointed out mLearning seems especially suited for: training on the job as it offers just-in time content and resources. It also facilitates peer collaboration through social networking and concept reinforcement or, as Boyes calls it, “speedier remediation”. Therefore, you will be providing opportunities for “supported decision making and so better professional judgments” (Boyes, 2011) as learners acquire a new skill or adopt a new behavior.

This is exactly what a UK startup called Touch Surgery set out to accomplish. They have developed a mobile app that harnesses the knowledge of experienced surgeons in order to better guide trainees. The app shows step-by-step surgical procedures and requires users to “employ a process called cognitive task analysis to teach cognitive, procedural and decision-making points of surgery.”
The context

Indeed, providing new information that is relevant to a particular context or situation is one of the major advantages of mobile learning and one that we need to leverage as instructional designers. Real immersion, contextual application and immediate evaluation of their actions, enable learners to construct knowledge and solve problems anytime, anywhere.

Consider the context where your target audience performs and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where will the learners be accessing the content?
  • Do they need to know any specific information in order to perform a certain task in that context?
  • How can you use the context to enhance learning? For example, can you use layers of information to reveal information at a particular location?
  • What contextual conditions can affect learning?

A great example of how these contextual considerations can help you define your mobile learning solution is a system developed at the Department of Computer Science, Columbia University, some years ago. Since 2005, Professor Steven Feiner and his student, Steven Henderson have been working on a project that guides military mechanics to make repairs by providing graphic overlays by means of a head mounted display.  This AR application “augments a mechanic´s natural view with text, labels, arrows, and animated sequences designed to facilitate task comprehension, location, and execution.” This application proved to be very effective as it could reduce the overall completion task of most of the task during operators’ performance.


Fig.1. ARMAR, Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Repair, developed by Feiner and Henderson (2007).

Another great example of an Augmented Reality app that provides assistance to clueless, novice mechanics at the moment of need is ARmedia developed by Inglobe Technologies. You can watch a demo of this app here 


Fig.2. ARmedia Augmented Reality 3D Tracked (Ford Ordinary Maintenance)

These interesting projects clearly show how different techniques and technologies can help us take advantage of mobile learning and exploit all the conditions and surroundings pertinent to the object of study. Augmented Reality (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.

If you have questions about implementing a mobile learning strategy in your organization, send me an email at mayra.aixa.villar@gmail.com and I will be glad to help you.


Boyes, Marcus. “24 Benefits of Mobile Learning.” eLNInsights. December 17, 2011. Retrieved from http://insights.elearningnetwork.org/?p=507

Clark, Josh. Tapworthy Designing Great iPhone Apps. Canada: O´Reilly Media, 2010.

Feser, John. “mLearning is not eLearning on a Mobile Device.” Float Mobile Learning. April 14, 2010. Retrieved from http://floatlearning.com/2010/04/mlearning-is-not-elearning-on-a-mobile-device/

Henderson, Steven and Feiner, Steven. “Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Repair (ARMAR).” August, 2007. Retrieved from http://graphics.cs.columbia.edu/projects/armar/pubs/henderson_feiner_AFRL_RH-WP-TR-2007-0112.pdf

Pogorelc, Dianne. “Surgery simulation goes mobile with apps to teach trainees to think like seasoned surgeons.” MedCity News. January 7, 2013. Retrieved from http://medcitynews.com/2013/01/surgery-simulation-goes-mobile-with-apps-to-teach-trainees-to-think-like-seasoned-surgeons/#ixzz2P9ufgjyD


Park, Yeonjeong. “A Pedagogical Framework for Mobile Learning: Categorizing Educational Applications of Mobile Technologies into Four Types.” February, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/791/1699


2 thoughts on “#mLearning: The three key elements of mobile learning

  1. Fantastic article, thank you.

    The gradation of the mindsets as “I am microtasking”, “I am local”, and “I am bored” is interesting and near accurate, but I would add one more.

    “I am working” – meaning that I got work to do, and I am using my mobile device because this is my default instrument!

    While this is not true for most (not yet), this too becomes the reality in some organizations that promote the BYOD policy, and it is of a notion for eLearning organizations.

    Speaking for myself, I have two default working devices, always side by side – my laptop and my iPad. And when it comes to something like watching an educational video, doing a quick research or reviewing a document, I may very well choose an iPad over the laptop. Same would be true if I had to take an online course.

    We pay close attention to the users mindsets and working more and more towards the mobile market becomes an everyday reality, so I am really happy to read and to share some valuable thoughts on this subject.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your valuable thoughts on this topic! I am also glad that you share your experience. I can see how new mindsets and habits emerge among mobile users and these new patterns and needs are the most important considerations when designing mLearning.

Please, share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s