Looking around the landscape of mobile learning today reveals that so much of it is still hung up on minor details about the device publishing and content production process—small screens, HTML5, video microlearning, or whatever the latest trend is. What discussions are going on about the utility and usefulness of what it is we produce?

If you want to realize the full potential of mobile learning, it’s time to create something indispensable. Focus on making your experiences with utility in mind. Build a library of useful content, interactions, and tools, and you’ll get a loyal audience.

After all, here we are, closing in on a decade of the iPhone. Nine years ago, the now-ubiquitous black glass rectangle was a foreign object, a disrupter to end all disrupters. Actually, it was a disrupter to begin many, many more disrupters (think Uber, Twitter, Spotify, Snapchat, Tinder, and others). At the time, most people still used the mobile phone mostly as a phone. The thought of using such a device as a computer replacement, or even as a primary window to the web, was a bit of a stretch for mainstream life, let alone for business purposes.

A lot of utility in a small package

Flash forward to now, and it is more than a little difficult to imagine my days without it. I’ve written on this a bit before, but just looking back on what I’ve done with my phone in the last couple of weeks is still a fun thought experiment:

  • Woke up using the alarm clock
  • Controlled the thermostat in my house
  • Played videos on my Xbox One system using my phone as the controller
  • Donated to a charity
  • Sent a bunch of text messages, pictures, and audio clips to friends and family
  • Found a weather report for my town
  • Loaded an airplane ticket to display at the gate
  • Used a bubble level app to help hang a shelf
  • Played a video from YouTube
  • Requested an Uber driver to pick me up and take me to the airport
  • Added an event to my calendar
  • Read an eBook on Kindle
  • Used the flashlight as I walked in my house at night so I didn’t step on Lego bricks
  • Looked up countless pieces of trivia for my three young kids as they requested them
  • Edited a Google doc while at a committee meeting for a fundraiser
  • Verified how many steps I took each day with my fitness tracking app
  • Read the news on Reddit
  • Selected channels on my television
  • Communicated with my work team on Slack
  • Ordered a pizza
  • Participated in a variety of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook
  • Updated my to-do list
  • Got directions to the restaurant where I was meeting some friends
  • Took some pictures and videos of my kids playing in the backyard
  • Built a shopping list for later use
  • Listened to music streamed from some unknown server in the cloud
  • Created an expense report for work
  • Played some games
  • Took a picture of items at a store to send to my spouse to verify what I was about to buy was correct
  • Interacted with my Amazon Echo and Echo Dot
  • Printed a contract for a new vendor at work
  • Checked my location with the GPS app

That’s quite a lot of things to get done with one device. (As a side note, I also made a couple of phone calls on it, too.)

Where does learning happen?

There are countless debates in the learning industry as to what constitutes a learning experience. Shane Gallagher wrote a piece in 2011 on ADL’s blog in which he stated that a learning experience is “something that, hopefully, results in a change in thinking, understanding, or behavior afterwards.”

When using that lens to talk about the things that you do on your smartphone, nearly anything is a learning experience. Checking the weather to know if you need a jacket or umbrella? Check. Finding out whether you need to go to a different store to pick up a home improvement product to finish your project? You bet. Determining if you should take another lap around the neighborhood with your dog to get your steps in and work off that ice cream cone? Sure. These all required reasoning and understanding, and I ultimately changed my behavior after I read or learned the information that I sought in each experience.

Therefore, to me, about half of those items listed would qualify as learning experiences. Instant information access. Usefulness. Utility. About a third of them were done to complete something for work or a project I was working on.

An interesting thing springs to mind when looking at this list: Yes, many of these things are possible without the smartphone. But the phone is, in most cases, way easier to use than the previous methods (or it’s faster, less expensive, etc.). In some cases, it’s just as easy. In a couple, it’s maybe not quite as easy (at least not directly—it’s easier to use an actual flashlight than it is to use a flashlight app, for example).

The best learning tool

So why use the smartphone for so many things? The quick answer for me is: Because it is there! Photographer Chase Jarvis says, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” I’d like to take that phrase and bend it just a little bit. The best learning tool is the one you have with you. It’s the smartphone.

I keep going back to those two “U” words: Usefulness and utility. Usefulness and utility have made the smartphone indispensable for daily life. You may wonder why I use the two different words when they mean nearly the same thing. Let’s examine them a bit.

“Usefulness,” in this sense, infers overall embeddedness into your day, your process, your tasks. How much can you do with a tool or product, for example? “Utility” to me, here, infers the degree of success to which the product accomplishes its specific intended application. A nice sharp knife, for example, offers tremendous utility for cutting the specific thing it was designed to cut, be it bread, rope, or a path through brush. It is only truly useful, though, for the thing that it was intended to cut. A feature-rich Swiss Army knife, on the other hand, provides a great deal of usefulness for many applications. But none of the tools the Swiss Army knife offers is a better bottle opener, scissors, screwdriver, or even knife than the original tool it replaces, so the specific implements of a Swiss Army knife offer less utility than their dedicated counterparts. The Swiss Army knife is more useful than any of the discrete pieces, though.

The formula for indispensability

The smartphone offers a great deal of usefulness. Some of the larger or more feature-rich applications are also highly useful, and the smaller, single-purpose or point solutions provide a ton of utility in a small package.

Making the experience available on the device is just table stakes; staying there requires utility. Features and options that are engaging and high value will prove their usefulness over time.

Want more?

Facial recognition software can provide data related to gender, age, and ethnicity. Couple these with interior location technology, and you have the potential for powerful organizational learning opportunities. Find out how! Chad Udell will present Advanced Augmented Reality: OCR Case Study on Facial Detection and More (session 706) at FocusOn Learning 2016 in Austin, Texas.