Mobile learning began to be a "thing" with the wide appearance of mobile devices, but over time it has gone through multiple evolutionary steps. In 2000, before there was a Learning Guild, Clark Quinn was writing about "m-learning" as "e-learning delivered through mobile computation devices". By 2005, Ellen Wagner was declaring in an interview (no longer available online) with Bill Brandon, "m-learning is really the next step, or the next wave, of using technology to provide a channel for access to learning and performance support."

Slow evolution

But as Ara Ohanian noted in his article "Mobile Learning at the Tipping Point", it took a bit longer than expected. It was 2010 before "any time, anywhere" began to be widely accepted and implementation started to become practical. The actual tipping point was delayed by serious underestimates of the complexity of the infrastructure and the organizational and IT support needed. By 2011, Clark Quinn's book, Designing mLearning: Tapping into the Mobile Revolution for Organizational Performance, appeared and shifted much of the interest from dealing with devices, connections, and course delivery to supporting performance.

In his 2012 book, Learning Everywhere: How Mobile Content Strategies are Transforming Training, Chad Udell continued moving the understanding of mobile learning forward by identifying four primary categories for its use:

- Converted content (eLearning, job aids, instructor-led training, performance support)

- Business processes (SCM, ERP, CRM, contacts applications, custom-developed company software)

- Social and user-generated (community-generated content, wikis, chat, Twitter)

- Uniquely mobile (virtual or augmented reality, GPS data, other sensors, touch and haptics, voice and messaging services)

Are those categories still a good analysis?

Udell was among the first to advise designers to think "mobile first". We know that upskilling must be a priority from 2021 until 2030, but the scope must include not only professional staff, but also frontline and deskless workers, employees in hybrid office situations, working-from-home employees, and working-from-office employees.

What we have been calling "mobile learning" over the last two decades is an obvious solution for much of this demand, but there is more. We have been thinking of the sources of learning as tied to known materials available from company resources (the LMS and LXP), while employees want to close their own performance skills gaps in the moment, in the workflow, from whatever source is available: pick up the smartphone and access Google. The content they need is out there on the web, not on the LMS. How does this change our concept of mobile learning? How can an instructional designer think "mobile first" in this situation?

I asked Chad about this, and he offered this insight:

"While Learning Everywhere was written in 2012, I still feel the primary categories of mobile learning named hold up pretty well. A dimension that needs to be considered when reviewing these is the context—whether it be time, setting, or intent in which the content is accessed or delivered. Intent is an ever-changing dimension, of course. With Al and machine learning factored into this, the intent may not actually even be determined by the learners themselves. It could be an intent originating from an algorithm driven by their past usage, co-worker or colleague activity, the organization's strategic goals, or other factors unseen by the user but easily discerned to the processor doling out the content. In the system we've built at Float, SparkLearn, we're taking all of these items into account in order to increase relevance for the user and ultimately deliver content to the users in a just-in-time fashion, but providing those recommendations before the user may even know they need the content. These content recommendations might be internal content managed in the system, external webpages, podcasts, videos, games or other interactive content, manuals, documentation, and more. It's a very large but homogenized blend of these for primary content types framed up against the context of the user as a backdrop."

Is it mobile learning or fluid learning?

There have been more changes to the world than just the delivery options. Among the important changes are the development of an entire technology ecosystem with multiple access points, and the growing interconnectedness of humans and systems around an increasingly large number of tasks and outcomes. Where the initial understanding of "mobile learning" was that it was the devices that are mobile, and then that it was the humans that are mobile, designers must now consider that the context of learning itself is fluid and may involve machines that are "aware" of the presence of humans, and outcomes that rely on the cooperation of both humans and machines alike. A forerunner of this emerging situation may be Apple's recent announcement of "universal control", in which devices can pass task execution to each other under the direction (for now) of a human who (for now) determines the final outcome. Where is the learning taking place? Or is this just a more advanced form of performance support?

Human employees are now becoming more immersed in the ecosystem, along with devices. This is the next step in the evolution of mobile learning, and our next challenge as learning designers: to build systems and skills that leverage the development.