Mobile learning: the “anywhere” in the affordance of ubiquity

Reda SadkiWriting

When I look at my Facebook friends online, I can see that most of them are connected, almost 24/7, via their phones. Those connected from a laptop or desktop computer (shown by a green dot instead of a little phone icon) are an ever-dwindling minority.

As Scholar is meant to be a social application for learning, I thought it might be useful to reflect on what mobile means for learning. Recently, I invited mobile design expert Josh Clark to explain to a Red Cross audience why we should design our applications (including those for learning) using a mobile-first strategy. He’s not a learning guy, but I haven’t been able to find a learning expert with useful insights on these issues (as I explain in my conclusion). You can read about Josh’s work on the web here, for example:

Josh’s first point is that we have a “condescending” view of mobile, seeing it as a “lite” version of the “full” desktop experience. This view is wrong, and to demonstrate this he debunks several mobile myths: “We have some really stubborn myths about mobile users, really screwing up the way we provide mobile services.”

Myth #1 is that “mobile users are rushed and distracted”, with a short attention span. With mobile learning, this has translated into little info tidbits or short exercises. MIT’s Open CourseWare (OCW) iPhone app, for example, starts up with a message warning that it’s “a subset” of the OCW catalog.

Yes, sometimes you use your mobile device for information on the go. But that’s far from the only use case. Mobile is also on the couch, in the kitchen, on the bed, or during a 3-hour layover… and, last but not least, sitting on the throne (according to Josh, 40% admit to using phones in bathroom).

Those mobile contexts allow us to concentrate and focus on content. They are non-traditional (for now) contexts of engagement which can make learning more pleasurable (because of the level of comfort, by saving us from boredom during that layover, etc.).

So what do users expect from a mobile application? 85% expect mobile to be at least as good as desktop. Why would this be any different for students or other learners? We do everything on our phones that it seems obvious we are now at a point where the concept of a distinct, discrete mLearning makes no sense.

OK, so if mobile doesn’t necessarily mean rushed users, what about small screen sizes? Doesn’t that physical limitation place limits on learning?

The screen size raises the issue of visual presentation of learning content. Yes, we have built a lot of user interaction and interface conventions on the assumption of a 4:3 or 16:9 screen ratio. This goes back a while for machine learning, starting with Macromedia Director interfaces in the 1990s that imposed 640 x 480 pixels as a “standard” screen size for interactive, animated content. So we have at least 20 years of thinking reliant on the model of eLearning that some are now trying to painstakingly reduce by changing the “e” in learning to the “m”.

I agree with Josh that the real answer is not in this alphabet soup. Don’t confuse context with intent. We make too many assumptions from screen size. Screen size should not be an excuse to limit functionality. Using small screen does not equal wanting to do less. It would be like saying that because paperbacks have smaller pages, you have to remove entire chapters. The trick is to make complexity uncomplicated. There’s a difference.

Mobile websites/apps should have full content/tools. Yes, they may be displayed differently and hierarchy may change. Some devices may be better suited to some tasks than others — so EMPHASIZE different content on different devices. But don’t arbitrarily give me LESS. That goes not only for individual sites but for families of sites.

A lot of people ONLY use their phone. And of course perhaps the more expected numbers from developing world: In Egypt, 70% of net users rely solely on their phones. In India, it’s 59%. Ghana: 55%. Kenya: 54%. Nigeria: 50%. OK, you say, but these are developing countries where desktop computers and broadband access are expensive. But wait, what’s this… 25% in the US and 22% in the UK use only their phone. Another 28% of US mobile web users mostly use mobile web.

And, if we are talking about teaching young people, I’m sure these stats are much higher.

This group of mobile-only or mostly-mobile users definitely expect to do everything on mobile. If we care about reaching them or teaching them, we have to care about hitting them on mobile.

For individual-learner click-through online learning modules, I’ve recently sent out two requests for proposals to over 20 companies that specialize in building such modules to support adult learning. Not a single one actually can currently deliver a mobile-first strategy. Yet, the tools and techniques to build a single code base (using HTML5 to replace Flash for animation and a technique called responsive design) already exist and are in wide use in other areas — just not in learning. Yes, they all know it’s a long-term trend, but in many of the responses I received they proposed to build a separate, “lite” version of the “real” learning modules. Exactly the opposite of what I think is needed. And the stats cited above (as well as more insightful analysis from Josh and other designers) make a strong case that this needs to happen today, not in some distant future.