Mobile Learning: Harnessing Magic

This is the extended abstract for the presentation I’m leaving today to give in Berlin at Online Educa on mobile learning on Dec 2.

Increasingly, workers are mobile.  When we look not only at field-deployed individuals, but also those who occasionally must travel to meetings, make site-visits, are away at conferences and workshops, or even are commuting, the number of mobile workers can be considered from half to most of the workforce. When we consider how many have a mobile device of some sort, and that these devices are increasingly powerful, we have a big opportunity to have a business impact.

To examine the opportunities, we must first consider the range of activities mobile can support. Let us be clear, mobile learning is not about courses on a phone, at least in large measure.  There are circumstances where this makes sense, but it is not the main opportunity on tap. First and foremost, mobile is about quick access; just-in-time, just enough. The prescient Zen of Palm documented how desktop computers are accessed not that many times a day, but for long periods, whereas mobile devices are the reverse, accessed many times for short periods. This suggests a different model of use.

Think: how does your mobile device make you smarter? If you are typical, you may use it to keep information you want to look up, like contact details or your calendar. You may also use it to capture data: a note, a photo or video, or a voice memo.  You may calculate something like the tip due the waitstaff or how to split the bill. And, of course, you may reach out to someone like a friend or colleague through voice or text.  These are what I call the Four C’s of mobile: Content, Capture, Compute, and Communicate. This maps much more closely to performance support than formal learning, and indeed mobile likely plays more of a role in performance support and social/informal learning, the companions for formal learning.

It is useful to view computation conceptually as a complement to our cognitive systems. Our brains are really good at pattern matching and executive decision-making, but really bad at remembering rote information and completing complex calculations. Over our history, we have developed many physical and cognitive tools to augment our capabilities.  Computers, in a sense, are the ultimate cognitive adjunct, with limitations due more to our imaginations (and pocketbooks) than to the technology.  When we have mobile computational capabilities, we are now able to augment our thinking wherever and whenever we are. We can respond in the moment, not with a delay.  This makes us both more effective and more efficient.

Which brings us to the business impact of mobile tools. We can augment performance in ways that can address barriers that have arisen in the past. We should, indeed, start with those situations where there have been performance barriers.  Where, with a small bit of support, could we get sizable improvements?  And realize that small improvements, when aggregated, can mean big returns.  For example, cutting down on one extra visit to get information on an unanticipated problem, when multiplied by a lot of calls for a sizable workforce, becomes a substantial savings.  That could come from accessing a job aid, a colleague, or even sharing a picture of the situation. Similarly, sales would likely increase if a quick calculation could show the immediate cost versus benefit relationship, and orders could be placed immediately.  More importantly, employees could be made productive earlier if specific information on a client or situation is scaffolded to support the novice practitioner.

Optimizing performance is a marginal game, but margins are the difference between success and failure.

Let us not forget, however, to also consider how mobile tools can augment learning as well as performance.  Those same Four C’s can be applied to extending and enriching the learning experience just as they can support in-the-moment performance. The activities that support fostering retention and transfer, our learning goals, can have mobile support. For example, you can reactivate knowledge by delivering content, or having learners apply their knowledge to problems and challenges at times other than a learning event. You can have learners capture data from the field and bring back to the discussion. And, of course, learners can discuss and collaborate with one another.

The key to business impact from mobile devices is to think performance; what small tweaks will change our key business metrics in big ways.  While mobile does provide transformative opportunities, the near-term impact will come from optimizing current opportunities for performance support and social communication and collaboration, with resulting aggregate outcomes that provide tangible return on investment.

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