Mobile learning is a valuable new addition to organizational learning strategy. Implemented correctly, it provides an excellent way of spreading knowledge rapidly across an enterprise, ensuring, for example, that people understand new corporate initiatives, or that new product knowledge is quickly available to mobile field engineers and sales people.

The rise of the smart phone

While one can learn on the move with a book, an iPod, a laptop, or indeed with a conversation, here we focus on learning with mobile technologies, and in particular on the smart phone.

The power of modern smart phones means that learners can receive content pushed out to them, and they can use Web 2.0 technologies to find the help they need at a particular moment – perhaps by accessing a wiki, a blog, or a social network.

Deja vu 2.0

But haven’t we been here before? Yes. In fact we have been here for at least 10 years. Only in 2010 has a unique combination of factors led to mobile learning finally becoming a practical pursuit – Brandon Hall’s Director of Research and Analysis Dr. Gary Woodill calls this new phase “Mobile Learning 2.0.” However, Jane Hart, head of the Centre for Performance and Learning Technologies, coined that term back in 2006, so perhaps we’re now at mLearning 3.0.

Considering why mobile learning did not take off earlier, Dr. Ellen Wagner reflects on the over-optimism of analysts in 2005: “... we completely ‘mis-underestimated’ the complexity of the infrastructure – and the organizational change and IT support required – for enterprise mobility to be achieved. Also the need for many early adopters to craft their own, ‘jerry-rigged’ solutions.”

In 2010, however, says Dr Wagner, these stumbling blocks have now been overcome. As she puts it: “We seem to have reached a tipping point for mobile learning.”

How did we get here? Three factors lie behind mobile learning’s new practicability: better software, better hardware, and the changing habits of mobile users.

On the software side, Learning and Development professionals are no longer handicapped by having to jerry-rig solutions. They now have the technologies to produce learning content for mobile devices along with their regular content creation.

On the hardware side, smart phones have changed enormously over the short history of e-Learning. They can do more, cheaper, than they could just a few years ago. In addition, crucially, they are now everywhere. Close to 160-million smart phones shipped globally in 2008, a 30% increase on the previous year.

Smart phones, smarter people

Importantly, people have changed, too.

Phone owners have become increasingly sophisticated – commonly using them for Web 2.0 activities such as social networking, wikis, and blogs. The result: smart phone users are already using their devices to learn (albeit informally, and not usually for work).

Users’ managers have shifted their perspective, too. Where they might once have asked for a course (classroom or online) for an employee, they are now as likely to ask for the right skills and knowledge – regardless of how these are developed.

And Learning and Development professionals are now more willing to promote informal learning – especially learning in context, supported by the Web 2.0 tools that are now available through smart phones.

The result of these changes: mobile learning’s time has come.

More than just a pocket-sized e-learning course

Learning using a mobile phone is certainly electronic learning, but it need not be a course delivered to a desktop and tracked from a central server. This is certainly part of what can be delivered via a smart phone, but mobile learning goes beyond this “push” learning. Because the device is always with the learner, the nature of how learning occurs is different; it is wider.

Mobile learning is:

    Informal – owners regularly use their phone for Web 2.0 tasks such as accessing social networks. Used properly, this can be directed to valuable resources to support learning.

    On demand – learners pull down the learning that best suits their needs at a given time, in the workplace.

    Ubiquitous – users can learn where and when they need to, at the point of need.

    Location-aware – using GPS technology, it is possible to make learning tools and content relevant to the users’ location.

Is mobile learning for everyone?

For some learners, mobile learning is a perfect fit. Employees such as sales road warriors and field engineers are typical – they are often on the move and do not always find it convenient to power up their laptop for quick access to the Internet and learning materials. Today, such employees very often already have a smart phone as their constant companion, and asking them to add mobile learning to it is a minor change for a major benefit.

Although such users are often seen as poster children for mobile learning, it remains a useful additional learning medium for almost everyone else. It supplements the more formal learning they are already doing either in the classroom or through e-Learning at their desktop. Provided that you produce and distribute the learning content and resources effectively, and with minimal administrative overhead, mobile learning today is finally powerful enough to be an excellent resource for everyone.