Mobile devices and wireless networks are booming. According to Gartner Inc., more than 50 percent of professional notebooks will have wireless LAN (WLAN) capability by the end of 2004. In the same time period, Gartner says that through WLAN hot spots, traveling knowledge-based workers will be able to gain 30 minutes of productivity daily. With organizations increasingly deploying wireless networks and providing their mobile workers with on-the-go technologies to maintain in-office levels of productivity, chief learning officers have a new tool they can leverage to get learning and knowledge to the field.
According to Charlie Gillette, CEO and president of Knowledge Anywhere, there is a growing rumble around mobile learning, or m-learning. He called m-learning the next phase for the e-learning segment—not a replacement, but a derivative of technology-based learning tools.
One aspect of mobile learning, Gillette said, is enabling the laptop to access learning materials at any place or time. This requires new technologies, such as wide area wireless connectivity. “That transition of making sure that people can access quality technology-based learning anywhere on their laptop, just like they do at their office desk, is a relatively small step for people to take and jump into the mobile learning environment, and a natural one,” Gillette explained.
However, just being able to access learning from any laptop at any time is not the only way to look at m-learning. In fact, Gillette said, “Usually when people think about m-learning, they’re thinking about doing learning objects out to a wireless handheld device—a Pocket PC or a SmartPhone.”
It is becoming more and more common for people to access the Internet on these types of devices, and for many organizations that have remote or mobile workers, investing in m-learning is just an extension of the mobile infrastructure that is already in place. Gillette explained that some organizations are already pushing information—such as a tip of the day, news or stock quotes—out to their employees’ mobile devices. “We’re shooting information out to them; how can we actually get knowledge out to them and make it interactive, get a feedback loop and so on?” said Gillette. “What’s driving interest from a mobile learning perspective is corporations are looking at what else they can do with this mobile infrastructure that they’ve invested in.”
Mobile workers often complain that they have no time to invest in e-learning participations. Chief learning officers hear that the workers who need learning are traveling—they’re at the airport or meeting with a customer—but these same workers usually have computing devices with them. “The proliferation of Wi-Fi and wide area wireless networks out there allows them to have access,” said Gillette. “So since they actually have downtime, they have their computing device and there’s Internet connectivity out there, let’s make sure that we can enable learning aspects to these mobile devices.”
Some organizations are more ready for m-learning than others. High-tech companies with plenty of experience using technology-based training solutions can more easily adapt to m-learning than low-tech companies, Gillette said. “For our customers like Microsoft, Nextel, AT&T Wireless and HP, it’s just such a natural extension,” he said. “They’ve been doing e-learning for five or six years. They have mobile workers that are relatively high-tech. Their mobile workers access their e-mail and calendar on their mobile devices. Getting learning out to them is a natural enterprise extension to what they’re doing.”
Companies that have not been successful with e-learning and other technology-based solutions are not ready for m-learning, Gillette said. “Most corporations need to make sure where they are on the curve. If they have not successfully deployed technology-based learning out to their employees, they shouldn’t start doing it on a mobile aspect.”
He added that many of the mistakes that are made when transitioning from live instructor-led learning to e-learning will be made when transitioning from e-learning to mobile learning. “It will fail if people take big-screen e-learning and take it to a mobile device and say now we have m-learning,” Gillette explained. “The same paradigm needs to go on—you need to reengineer the content, be sensitive of the new platform, i.e., you have a smaller screen, you don’t have a keyboard. So the same things that people did when they successfully went from instructor-led content and successfully deployed technology-based learning five or six years ago, that same thought process needs to take place when they go from big-screen e-learning to m-learning.”
Mobile devices are ideal for a blended learning strategy, using chunks of learning or learning objects to get knowledge to workers on a just-in-time basis, backed up by fuller versions of courses back at the office. If the mobile learning is well integrated with the company’s learning management system, workers in the field can pull up smaller learning objects in the field, then request to learn more about topics they did not understand when they get back to the office, Gillette explained. Once back in the office, the user can log onto their PC and the user will be prompted to further his or her understanding through an e-learning course or some other method.
“This whole learning object aspect comes to life as very important from a mobile perspective,” Gillette said. “You’re not going to take a four-hour course on your Pocket PC about how to do project management. However, when you’re out and about you can say, what is one aspect of project management as it relates to our change process? You can easily pull up change process on your Pocket PC and take the little tutorial about that.”
One of the biggest drawbacks for U.S. organizations looking to deploy an m-learning solution is the complexity of the wireless world, particularly within the United States, Gillette said. “You have at least three networks broadly deployed. There’s not ubiquitous coverage in the U.S. Everybody uses a different device. There aren’t standards—corporations are all over the place.” Because of these issues, accessibility can be a potential snag.
Despite this, m-learning will allow organizations the chance to leverage their existing mobile infrastructure—software and hardware—to grow their returns on investments made in that technology. “The opportunity here is that this will give corporations a great opportunity to leverage their mobile deployments to a whole other application,” said Gillette. “It will give learners an opportunity to access knowledge just in time to really succeed at their job. So it will be even more impactful from performance-support perspective.”