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The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative

From ADL Team Member… Jason Haag: Mobile eLearning is not mobile learning


In November 2002, Desmon Keegan published a book titled, "The future of learning: From eLearning to mLearning." The book was written as of part a research project to investigate the next generation of learning: the move from distance learning (dLearning) and electronic learning (eLearning) to mobile learning (mLearning). At the time of Keegan's writing, eLearning was the state of the art.

Keegan concluded:

Mobile learning has been slow to grow because most wireless devices have small screens, low resolution, slow processing, and limited storage capabilities. Likewise, difficulty connecting various types of devices to the same network is a real limitation. It seems likely that m-learning is better suited to such specific content areas as sales or language skills.

Fast-forward to ten years later, and our perceptions of mobile learning should be much different today. While some concerns and constraints may exist (such as security and battery life), most of those previously identified by Keegan no longer present challenges today. Mobile learning is no longer an emerging concept, but one that has come to be taken quite seriously, impacting nearly all echelons of society and forecasted to continue strong market growth and global adoption.

Keegan also questioned whether the term was really just a marketing ploy (commercial trickery) or if it was truly an emerging concept that educationalists should take seriously. Unfortunately, there is still some confusion today brought about by the use of the term "mLearning" and those looking to capitalize on the popularity of mobile technology. Simply exchanging the "e" with the "m" has incorrectly led some vendors and even developers to believe that mobile learning is nothing more than another type of "eLearning" delivery method. This couldn't be further from the truth, and consequently is the focus of the paper our ADL mobile team submitted to I/ITSEC this year.


Unique opportunities/challenges with mobile devices and learners

Although many training and learning professionals are just now making the move to mLearning, there remains a fundamental lack of understanding about the affordances of this new paradigm. The knee-jerk reaction typically exhibited by learning organizations to support mLearning usually results in a haphazard effort to quickly convert their existing eLearning materials and courses to fit on a smaller screen. However, we contend that this is not mobile learning! This hasty approach should be dubbed "mobile eLearning" and is quite possibly the perfect recipe for ineffective learning. Similar discussions have also been brewing this year about learning on tablets. Read this blog post by RJ Jacquez and this one by Clark Quinn.

Mobile learning is about both the device and the learner being mobile, making the learning opportunities truly ubiquitous. This paradigm shift is due not only to the unique design constraints and affordances of mobile devices, but also by the promise of "anywhere, anytime" learning that mobile devices enable – a promise that eLearning failed to deliver. Although distance learning paved the way for eLearning, and eLearning paved the way for mLearning, evolution from one paradigm to the next does not imply that we should simply transfer those same design principles and practices. We can definitely learn from the many successes and failures in eLearning. But we shouldn't thoughtlessly convert and transfer content that was designed for the desktop onto a mobile device and simply call it "mLearning."

In 2011, we conducted a research study on mobile course delivery, and while the participants were satisfied with the concept of "mobile eLearning" course delivery, our research in this area had just begun. Converting eLearning content to a mobile device was our first step in analyzing the space. Our ongoing research is to investigate the learning design of all types of mLearning content (not only mobile eLearning courses). Unique design approaches, new instructional strategies, and methods for incorporating performance support should be considered for the mobile platform to render effective learning content. It requires rethinking your strategy. While the instructional objectives may remain intact, you have the opportunity to be even more creative and leverage capabilities of the mobile device such as the accelerometer, camera, microphone, touch screen, GPS, etc. Our thesis is that the affordances of the mobile platform drives not just the details of how learning activities are conducted, but instructional theories and basic pedagogical approaches as well.


Research updates and an invitation

In 2012, we have continued research in this area and have several resources to share. Check the ADL Mobile website for new updates as we will be making a big announcement about a mobile learning collaborative research project starting in January 2013. If you agree that "mobile eLearning" is not mobile learning and would like to collaborate with us on this project, let us know! We will be establishing an invitation list for this project during the next two months. If you would like to be involved, contact us at