In anticipation of the Guild's Mobile Learning conference, mLearnCon, to be held next week in San Diego, I asked three simple questions to seven industry experts, all of whom are speaking and teaching at mLearnCon. In alphabetical order, the experts are:

photo Tomi Ahonen
Book of Tomi Ahonen's Mobile as 7th of the Mass Media

Tomi Ahonen | Author, Consultant and Mobile Techologies Visionary

Tomi latest book is Mobile as 7th of the Mass Media. He will be the keynote speaker on the first day of mLearnCon. His keynote is entitled Mobile in Learning: Lessons from Around the World.

photo Judy Brown

Judy Brown | Mobile Learning, ADL Immersive Learning Technologies Team, Founder Academic ADL Co-Lab

Judy will be coteaching the preconference certificate program entitled Creating a Successful mLearning Strategy: From Planning to Implementation. She is a member of the mLearnCon Advisory Board.

photo Paul Clothier

Paul Clothier | TapLearn

Paul will be teaching the preconference certificate program entitled How to Create mLearning Content for the iPhone.

photo Neil Lasher

Neil Lasher | MD, Trainer1

Neil is a leader in the field of e-Learning in Europe. He will be part of two panels during mLearnCon and facilitating a session entitled Just Too Late Learning - Instructional Design for the Mobile World.

photo David Metcalf

David Metcalf | University of Central Florida

A member of mLearnCon Advisory Board, David was formerly the Chief Learning Technologist at RWD Technologies and is the author of several respected works, including mLearning: Mobile Learning and Performance in the Palm of Your Hand.

photo Clark Quinn

Clark Quinn | Quinnovation

Clark is a member of the mLearnCon Advisory Board. He has held executive management positions at Open Net, Access Australia CMC, and Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio and has led Quinnovation since 2001. He is teaching the preconference certificate program Think Different: Getting Your Mind Around mLearning Design.

photo Mike Sharples

Mike Sharples | Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham

Mike is facilitating Innovation in mLearning: An International Perspective and Personal Inquiry: Science Investigations with Mobile Technology at mLearnCon and is also a member of the mLearnCon Advisory Board.


The three questions I asked our illustrious experts were:

  1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

    Our experts illustrated several factors that stand in the way of mobile learning today.

    A lack of technical standards is certainly an issue. In fact, in some countries where mobile devices are more standardized, e-Learning is easier to deliver. In other countries where competition trumps standardization, it is much more challenging to deliver mobile learning to most or all devices, except for very basic non-interactive text and image lessons. We won’t be able to create vibrant, media-rich, interactive lessons that take full advantage of the strengths of mobile devices, such as GPS or built-in cameras, until standards are adopted that can be used across the majority of capable mobile devices.

    There is also a lack of imagination impeding the progress of good mobile learning. We need to break away from designs that work well only on desktop computers or in full screen browsers and start focusing on the strengths and limitations of the smaller devices that are in question here. More importantly, we have to look at how people actually use these devices, and make it a natural progression for them to take lessons using those same methods.

    Tools are not yet as evolved for creating mobile learning lessons, as are those that have been in use for years for the browser market. The easier tools become to use, the easier and faster we’ll be able to deliver mobile learning.

    Finally, we need to find and adopt a viable business model in order to ensure success in mobile learning delivery. Until it is apparent that it makes sense financially, many will not be willing to adopt this venue for learning delivery.

  2. What will it take to solve these problems?

    Following up on the obstacles question, clearly better tools, a better business model, and a good understanding of design for mobile learning devices will go a long way to removing the obstacles and allow mLearning to really flourish.

    HTML 5 holds a lot of promise for mobile learning. If adopted across devices, it can become part of the standards needed to help reach the goal of easier-to-deliver mobile learning. No good tools exist yet for creating HTML 5 applications, but that will change with time.

    Of course, success breeds success. The more we distribute successful mobile learning applications, the more others will want to do the same.

  3. When do you think this will happen?

    I think Mike Sharples said it best in quoting William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Mobile learning is already being delivered, but it has been slow and sporadic in its advent. Like most new ventures, it will reach a point where it will find itself sailing smoothly. When will that be? Some think it’s within a year, others within five years. We have been talking about delivering mobile learning for ten years now. I believe that we certainly are close to the breakthroughs that we need to make it a viable business model, and for standards to be established.


Here is each expert’s response in its entirety.

Tomi Ahonen

1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

The practical biggest obstacles tend to be that educators do not know what they can do today with the technology already in the pockets of their students. We find very simple, elegant solutions that are used with the most basic phones in parts of the Emerging World, where for example smartphones are completely beyond the reach of the population, yet learning solutions are successful. I am thinking for example of using SMS as a way to teach basic reading – as used in Pakistan for example. There adult-age women have typically not been allowed to attend school, many are illiterate, and they feel very much out of touch from society. They take lessons by real teachers, who then send lessons via SMS text message to teach the the women basic writing.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, mobile phones are used to teach local citizens very basic English-language skills. Where work pays typically a dollar per day, if a worker can speak some words in English, enough to just understand the basic job in areas like gardening or babysitting, pay can go up by three times, a huge increase in the income of someone at that level. Simple language courses that run a couple of dozen simple lessons of English cost less than a cup of tea, yet have hundreds of thousands of students eagerly learning a little bit of English.

So it’s easy today to look at an Apple iPhone or a Blackberry and think that this is a pocket computer that can be very powerful in delivering mobile learning services, and indeed it can be. But I think the big problem is that most educators are not aware of how much can be delivered with very basic solutions that literally are in the pockets of all who want to learn.

2. What will it take to solve these problems?

I think it’s mostly a question of spreading the word, of showcasing successful services and ideas. In some ways also the continuous development of phones will partially cure this problem. In the U.S.A., for example, over a quarter of all phones in use already are smartphones, more than half have a full Web browser, and more than 75% are cameraphones. These will allow far more advanced services and teacher-student interaction, such as sending pictures of “homework” or assignments, and allowing students to collaborate on projects

3. When do you think this will happen?

It is happening sporadically around the world. In some markets like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, mobile phones are very deeply integrated into all parts of society. In other countries we still debate whether students should have phones in class!

Judy Brown

1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

It depends upon what you mean by delivery of learning. If you are talking about e-Learning type “courses,” then the length of them, screen size, input methods, etc., are all obstacles. However, if you define learning as access to knowledge, reach-back, reinforcement, review, updates, support at the time of need, study aids, etc. then they are being used today very effectively, both for push and pull.

2. What will it take to solve these problems?

The main problem I am personally seeing is that of security and solutions being investigated at this time. A problem not mentioned above is that of Flash not running on most mobile devices today. Much existing learning content was built with Flash, but that is changing. Other issues that we need to address include the lack of standards for mobile content and the rapid changes in devices and their functionality.

3. When do you think this will happen?

Great things are happening now in mobile to address learning and performance needs, but not by all organizations – yet.

Paul Clothier

1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

  • Consistency of platform – all the various devices.
  • Short time frames, distractions
  • Lack of good, easy-to-use tool sets
  • Using mLearning for the right reasons
  • Measuring the effectiveness of mLearning

2. What will it take to solve these problems?

  • Adoption of standards
  • Rethinking the instructional design approach for this new medium
  • Better tools will appear as mobile content proliferates
  • Defining appropriate use cases for mLearning (to be able to measure effectiveness)

3. When do you think this will happen?

Many of these will start to appear as people begin to purchase more sophisticated smartphones, iPads, etc. Companies will see income opportunities and develop tools and solutions. You can already see this happening as apps and mobile learning content gets developed for the iPad. User adoption of these devices will drive the need. It's starting to happen right now. I believe we are at the beginning of a huge wave of mobile content use.

Neil Lasher

1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

Interesting that I feel the question is posed as a technical one. I don’t think it’s a question of battery consumption, screen size, operating system, a lack of Flash, or slow browsers. None of these is the real practical issue.

The real practical issue is that the developers of content do not understand how the masses wish to use these devices, and therefore do not understand that you do not deliver the same type of content that you try to deliver to a laptop, iPad, or similar larger screen device that can be used for formal or social delivery. We are talking primarily of mobile phones, smartphones etc. These are used in very different ways. If we get our head around concepts of delivering learning to these devices via SMS, MMS, and other similar technologies, we shift the delivery to a more acceptable and accepted use of the technology. The style and how to deliver these messages are the issues, and these are what form the current barriers.

2. What will it take to solve these problems?

The first step is re-education of the content writer. Get the idea of LMS and tracked content out of the forefront. Stop thinking “Training” and start thinking “Learning.” Stop thinking “Formal” and start thinking “Communication.” Think “Two-way and multi-way learning conversations,” not One-way e-Learning delivery.

3. When do you think this will happen?

It will happen when the market grows up enough to realize that it is not really a vendor-led market. “Buy my gimmick, it’s the best there is...” What they are really saying is, “Buy my product, it’s the only one I have!” When the market stops buying what is out there, created by techies looking to find great use of existing and future technology, and instead starts to demand what the market needs to deliver, great learning experiences, behavioral change, and most of all what the user demands, then there will be no barriers and progress will begin.

David Metcalf

I see three main issues related to Technology, Modes of Interaction, and Learning.


There are too many devices and too many platforms that are incompatible. While you could build a basic Web app that works across multiple devices, they cannot access device-specific features like cameras, accelerometers, GPS, etc. There is not currently a great equalizer for interactivity across platforms, like Flash is on desktops and laptops. HTML 5 and access to device features will solve this in the future, but a platform will need to be flexible enough to accommodate new innovations with mobile mashups and features like 3-D, projectors, visual search, thought-controlled interfaces like Emotiv, and many other capabilities not yet imagined. Closed platforms will not be able to keep up with the pace of innovation in the mobile technology marketplace.

Modes of Interaction

Some of the most interesting and useful modes of interaction may be overlooked. What about e mail and text messaging? Integration of media, like MMS messages and HTML, and images in e mail can provide good access to learning, narrative experiential learning, and coordination of learning. Our Moving Knowledge engine leverages these message types on mobile devices as part of the learning experience. Studies by The eLearning Guild show that these are the most likely modes of mLearning across a 1,000 company survey. The current infatuation with Apps has us losing sight of these results. New innovations and mashups to reinvent these modes of delivery and interaction could hold great promise. Mobile access to Google Wave is a good example of what advanced mobile messaging may look like in the future.


Unfortunately, we often lead with technology when talking about mobile learning, rather than reimagining how advanced learning theories could be enabled through the social and cultural aspects of mobile devices (instant on, usually with someone, portable, and multiple modes of input and output like cameraphone, GPS, etc.). Theories that were logistically hard or costly to implement before should be re-examined in the context of mobile. For instance, Jigsaw collaborative learning theory can now be automated and distributed to a variety of learning teams via mobile devices. This enables a proven learning technique in a new and more cost effective way. Similarly, theories like the Spacing Effect, with over 100 years of evidence of effectiveness for learning can now be fully implemented. The Army Combat Medic App is an example of this theory being embedded into an algorithm for enhanced study.

Clark Quinn

1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

The issue of platform incompatibility is top: while for “static” content: audio, video, navigable text, and graphics, no worries, but interactivity is the barrier. Second is a pedagogy that goes beyond the “event” model and looks at long-term development of individuals. Third is just organizational inertia.

2. What will it take to solve these problems?

Standards are the solution to the incompatibility issue, and hopefully HTML 5 will break through the barriers, or Adobe will finally go back and engineer Flash to be efficient. As to the pedagogy, it'll take some dedicated time and thinking. Inertia will shift with the awareness that the devices are out there and that solutions do exist, and with a growing list of examples that are showing real benefit.

3. When do you think this will happen?

I reckon HTML 5 as an accepted standard is at least half a year away, probably more, and there are no signs of Adobe rewriting the core of Flash, let alone with any real software process. The pedagogy is probably several years away. The examples are accumulating, and I think the thresholds vary by organization, and while some are already moving, others are still several years away.

Mike Sharples

1. What are the obstacles to practical delivery of learning via mobile devices?

I don’t think the obstacles are technical (apart from minor impediments such as battery life and lack of availability of Flash in iPhones). I would say that we are currently limited by A) paucity of imagination, B) lack of appropriate business models, C) poverty.

  1. “Delivery of learning” is a limiting phrase. There are many more ways to learn than by transmission of content. Mobile devices offer the opportunity for learning by conversation, by augmentation of the environment, by play, by inquiry, by shared knowledge construction. Let me present two examples. The MyArtSpace project developed an approach to inquiry learning between classrooms and museums. Children develop an open inquiry question in the class supported by the teacher, then on a visit to a museum they try to answer the question using mobile phones by collecting evidence that includes both prepared content on the phone and voice, images, and video that they collect as evidence. That is then shared and presented back in the classroom. MyArtSpace is now a successful commercial system, named OOKL, adopted by over 100 venues ( . The second example is based on a multiplayer game developed by our Mixed Reality Lab. The game is similar to text-based MUD adventures, but played using SMS on mobile phones connected to a game server. A Ph.D. student of mine has developed that game as a means of training and supporting peer educators in the male homosexual community in Kolkata India – where they play out scenarios related to dealing with clients, police harassment, etc., on their own mobile phones. These forms of interaction are extending learning to take advantage of the affordances and opportunities of mobile devices. We need to find more examples of where mobile devices address an educational need (e.g., connecting formal and non-formal learning, or supporting peer learning in dispersed mobile communities) that can’t be satisfied by previous media.
  1. I suggest that the main current limit to growth of mobile learning is the lack of appropriate business models. Developing high quality interactive learning material is a labor-intensive activity. Squeezing existing content developed for desktop devices onto small screens is unlikely to be successful. E-book textbooks with interactive content offer one opportunity, however many students in higher education already carry laptops, so it is not clear whether they would want additional content on smaller screens. In schools, the provision of institution-owned devices to students is unlikely to be widely adopted in a time of economic constraint. The only long-term solution is to support learner-owned devices and there are substantial classroom management obstacles to be overcome. Workplace learning is an opportunity – but requires companies to invest in a new medium of training in hard economic times. One growing market is in the non-formal sector (e.g. learning in museums, tourism, personal advancement, or leisure). The iPhone apps, and similar, offer an opportunity for entrepreneurs around the world to create and market educational content.
  1. At the mLearn 2005 conference in Cape Town there was a discussion session on mobile learning in developing countries. At one point a delegate from the U.S. talked about spending disposable income on mobile devices – and it was pointed out that in many parts of the world people don’t have disposable income. Yet, despite poverty, cellphone penetration in most parts of the world has now exceeded 50% of the adult population. For many countries, mobile devices are their only means of distance communication and access to learning resources. Countries such as South Africa and India see themselves as pioneers in mobile learning, “leapfrogging” desktop e-Learning. There are opportunities for imaginative mLearning, ranging from basic instruction, through peer education, workplace learning, to coordination of a country’s education and industry using mobile phones. The main obstacles here (as has been found with early projects, such as by my colleague John Traxler in Kenya), is the entrenched bureaucracy and conservatism of government and education administration.

2. What will it take to solve these problems?

The development and dissemination of new models of learning and new business models, combined with detailed evaluation of effectiveness. Thus, we carried out a year-long evaluation of the MyArtSpace project mentioned above to demonstrate that it satisfied a clear education need (supporting school visits, and connecting learning between formal and non-formal settings), and to work with the company to develop a usable product. They then found a successful business model, based on revenue sharing for iPhones. Companies need to look beyond narrow training and delivery of content to new markets, e.g. non-formal everyday learning (leisure, tourism, etc.). There needs to be a more effective way of rating and sharing learning objects. E-books offer significant opportunities for developing high quality interactive content.

3. When do you think this will happen?

It’s happening now. As William Gibson wrote “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” We need to identify successful and sustainable examples of mLearning in companies, in schools (particularly those pioneer schools that are enabling learning on learner-owned devices), and for non-formal learning.