Smartphone + Learning = Smart Learning?

The Challenges of Mobile Learning

We don’t have to draw your attention anymore to the fact that the working world is becoming more and more mobile. You might have read our overview of HR trends in L&D for 2015. Or you might have heard that since last year in the US people access the internet more through mobile devices than through desktop computers or laptops. Or you might simply have put on your anthropologist’s hat observing people in waiting lines, on trains or in airport lounges using short periods of time to text, tweet, post and “like” and also to keep themselves updated on latest news.

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Therefore, it seems only logical that people also expect to get access to learning on tablets and smartphones. Accordingly, Bertelsmann Stiftung considers mobile learning as one of the three most important trends in L&D.[i] In the following I would like to share what you should watch out for when setting up learning for mobile devices.

The challenge: Mobile learning is not e-learning

Firstly: What exactly do we mean when talking about “mobile learning”? Mobile learning describes both the situation of learning (“on the go”) and the channel used by learners (portable devices).[ii] You might think people who resort to mobile learning most frequently are those who are highly mobile themselves: busy managers, consultants and sales representatives. However, the majority of employees (51%) use mobile devices for learning „at the point when [they] need them the most“, i.e. for “learning on demand”.[iii] We all know these moments in meetings when a colleague mentions a new product and we almost instinctively reach for our phones to start a Google search. In times when technology develops ever faster and product life cycles become ever shorter, learning grows into a daily necessity. Since their calendars are already filled to the brim, employees use the rare spare minutes in between meetings to update themselves. Therefore, a lengthy e-learning module would not appeal to them even if it was available on their smartphones. Hence, mobile learning is not simply e-learning on portable devices.

In contrast to e-learning, it becomes also much more difficult to project the contexts of learning in which mobile learning is taking place. Many employees (44%) use portable devices for learning in the evening or during weekends, whereas only 27% access learning through a cell phone or tablet while sitting at their desks.[iv] Therefore, the design of mobile learning has to take various learning contexts into account – as well as ruptures of context: interruptions, shifts from a formal to an informal environment, transfers from one physical place to another. Due to a greater number of potential distractions, you have to consider even more how to grab learners’ attention and how to reduce the effort required to resume learning after interruptions.

Other challenges come from the technical side: You might want to offer an offline version so that your learners do not end up stranded in the middle of a module. Moreover, you should also think about synchronisation. Your learners might start a module on their tablet in the morning on the commute to work, continue for a few minutes before an online meeting at their desktop PCs and revise a few key points while standing in line for their lunch. An LMS can solve this problem easily for you (You already know about Totara LMS and SuccessFactors Learning, don’t you?).

Is it worth the hassle? YES!

Despite the challenges, the benefits of mobile learning prevail. Mobile learning provides greater flexibility in terms of time and place of learning and makes it easier to integrate learning into a busy schedule. Therefore, it can encourage people to learn even more. Apart from that, new information technology and short modules may help to appeal to learners who are less motivated and thus are more difficult to reach by formal classroom training or longer e-learning modules.

The benefits of mobile learning clearly outweigh the challenges. If you think about making learning more flexible and accessible on demand, or if you just wonder whether mobile learning might be the right solution for your training needs – contact us. We can help you with consulting and Adapt, our authoring tool for creating great responsive design and content.


[i] Bertelsmann Stiftung. „Digitales Lernen adaptiv“. 2014. 12-13.

[ii] Sharples, Mike, Josie Taylor, and Giasemi Vavoula. “A Theory of Learning for the Mobile Age.” In R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite, eds. The Sage Handbook of E-learning Research. London: SAGE, 2008. 221-247.

[iii] Towards Maturity. “Learning in the Mobile Enterprise”. 2014. 13.

[iv] Towards Maturity. “Learning in the Mobile Enterprise”. 2014. 13.

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