Wednesday, May 13, 2009

mLearning: What The Future May Look Like

I attended the Greater Arizona eLearning (GAZeL) Association's recent meeting at Arizona State University's SkySong here in Scottsdale, and was treated to a great presentation and talk on the current state of mlearning (mobile learning). Brad Boute of (r)elearning blog and Ann Boland of OHE Associates presented, and it was a very instructive and eye-opening couple hours full of facts and debate among the attendees.

Raising Eyebrows

I had worked on an mlearning project with a previous employer in the early "aughts". Porting portions of the certification training classes we were developing seemed to be very a very powerful thing on its face, especially for our audience that was comprised generally tech-savvy novices looking to become IT experts. Alas, smartphones 5-7 years ago were nothing like what they are now, and had very little if any Flash support or extensive media capability. Ultimately the project didn't get off the ground and it didn't make money, thus the business felt existing forms of learning were more viable. And temporally speaking, they were mostly right. But after attending last Thursday's event, I was more convinced than ever that mlearning will be a fixture in training designs in the future.

Perhaps the most striking thing I took away from the event was the possibility that is latent and waiting to be taken advantage of for conducting truly untethered learning both in formal and informal ways. Brad and Ann spoke a lot about how prolific the use of cell phones is around the world, even moreso than computers. The fact that so much of the world's population, 60%, already lives within range of a cell tower, and that that number is expected to reach 90% in a few years, was something I wasn't aware of. I was aware that other countries like Britain tend to be ahead of the US in the proliferation of newer and greater wireless technologies, but I did not know that so many countries, even poorer nations, have access to greater cell phone technology than computer technology. Brad and Ann stressed that these markets are ripe for mlearning to take hold and improve education in ways previously unheard of, in part based on the ways in which people in these nations were using their cell phones and services in ways that couldn't have been predicted by even the cell phone companies themselves. The example provided of individuals using cell minutes as a micro-currency was fascinating. Today's very capable pocket devices like Blackberrys, WinMo phones, and the iPhone and its application library, certainly open a lot of doors that even laptops and their current fashionable netbook alternative cannot open.

After laying out what is known and where the global market and technological features are projected to lead, the discussion evolved into a debate about what we in the US could do in the classroom and in the workplace. What hurdles there might be to the promulgation of mlearning? Taking public schools and colleges into consideration, mlearning has a lot of costs to work out, primarily related to carrier contracts. Other hurdles include the different ways in which many phones display the same content, and in the interfaces that differ from carrier to carrier even for the same phone model. These technical problems have significant bearing on what an mlearning designer can do at present, but there are platforms that can be used to strut some fairly heavy media. As a smartphone user, the browsers are still far less reliable and capable than a typical desktop browser, but it is amazing that there are phones that can view full, real webpages anywhere, from your pocket. However, learning could also take place in the context of an application as opposed to the more classical browser-oriented elearning mode. There are other design challenges, but it was a great exchange of viewpoints from teachers, executives, and professionals of different levels, experiences, and contexts.

The possible future of mlearning and its potential effect on how learning takes place, leads to an interesting question: Will Elearning 3.0 have mlearning as a major fixture? Obviously, we're years from knowing, as Elearning 2.0 tools are still coming online. But I can't help but think now that the increasing "untethering" of our computing power will be the catalyst for the next major evolution in instruction. What are your thoughts about mlearning? Do you have experience with it? If so, what hurdles do you deal with at present, and how have you overcome these, if you have?

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