For several years I have been sharing practical ways of designing online learning that can be accessed on any device. This year, the global spread of COVID-19 shed light on organizational capabilities to support a remote workforce, and subsequently the lack of support for mobile devices. A Gartner survey in March of this year revealed that "88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home." Remote work pushed many of these individuals to use their own devices so they could continue working. This, of course, included personal mobile devices.
But, using our mobile devices for work didn't start with the global pandemic.
- 2016: 87% of companies expect employees to use their personal devices for work purposes
- 2016: 58% of companies are using apps to enable mobile access to critical enterprise systems
- 2017: 81% use a smartphone for regularly checking emails; 21% use a tablet. Smartphones are the most common device, especially for younger individuals (less than 35 years old) and females.
For years we have been experiencing a critical shift in the need to support our workforce with mobile technology... and this includes workplace learning.
Guess what? Mobile learning is not always a special, separate deliverable
If you take a look around your home, you’ll likely notice a variety of devices. I have an iPhone, MacBook Pro, Amazon Echo, Apple Watch, iPad, and Kindle in the room with me right now. If I were to walk into other rooms, I’d find a Chromebook, desktop PC, Oculus Quest, and any number of tablets and phones. Since March, we have been cobbling together a way for kids to attend school using these devices while working from home at the same time. The workforce is scrambling to move meetings and events to web conferencing platforms. People everywhere are using the devices they have to adjust to this new environment. As an industry, we are finally being forced to move past thinking that mobile-ready content is something completely separate from the rest of our online learning experiences. We must assume that any content we create will be accessed from any device, at any time. Mobile devices are ubiquitous, and we should consider mobile learning as just one possibility in the context of our multi-screen reality.
So, how do we ensure that we are effectively supporting mobile learning in our regular instructional design and development processes, whether it’s just another possible screen or a mobile-specific solution? Let's frame it in terms of a familiar model: ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation).
In the analysis phase, instructional designers determine the foundation and scope of the learning experience. Here, you will consider whether a mobile-specific approach is needed for your content. Mobile-specific includes experiences such as mobile apps and augmented reality. If you find that you need to create a mobile app, for instance, that will result in a drastically different scope than ensuring that your content is optimized for multiple screens.
Fortunately, many organizations now have useful data for mobile initiatives. You will likely find that marketing, IT, or even your own department have processes and tools to support mobile delivery, as well as information that will help you make better operational decisions.
With the ability to connect learning evaluation across many streams of data from multiple systems, you must consider your data strategy during the analysis phase. If you don't have a data strategy for your online learning programs, start now. There are tools and resources available to guide you through this process. This is the time to plan for how you’ll evaluate the degree to which learning outcomes are achieved.
To support online learning for multiple screens, you'll use a variety of platforms and tools. Determine your technical requirements and capabilities to meet them (see What to look for in a multi-screen development toolset below.) For many organizations, this will require further analysis, including mapping and evaluating your learning ecosystem.
Design tends to be the bulk of work when creating a new learning experience. To incorporate mobile, you'll need to understand and integrate mobile-specific visual and information design into your process.
First, you should understand how to apply the most recent UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) principles, especially focusing on accessibility and design affordances. We are conditioned to use mobile functionality (menus, scrolling screens, tap phone numbers to call), and don't require or expect everything to fit on one PowerPoint-style screen. The opportunity here is that you'll design content that's user-friendly and accessible by everyone.
Also, remember that your learners may not be able to engage in your program for the entirety of how you design it. Assume they may need to leave and return to the content later, and give them options and control. Don't penalize for disconnections!
Another consideration is that your learners may not have Wi-Fi, unlimited data, or the fast 5G connection that many of us enjoy. Appropriate user research and simplified design make all the difference. Take a pro-active, mobile-first approach in your design to prioritize these key areas.
A major part of the design process is creating your design document, often in the form of a storyboard. To adjust that process and include mobile as a potential learning platform, there are more explicit design deliverables that will facilitate better communication with stakeholders when planning for mobile-friendly development. I recommend the following:
- Content Map - Think of this as an org chart for your content. This is a visual representation of how your topics will be structured. It will also help you work through whether your content is linear or branched.
- Mood board - This helps you work with stakeholders to develop the visual style/treatments of your content. It includes selecting colors, fonts, shapes, buttons, and image styles. The mood board can pull from and feed into a style guide. Considering mobile here will help you make better UI/UX decisions.
- Wireframe - Wireframes help you plan the layouts for your learning experience. Creating these will help you focus on things like consistent content placement and the connection between screens.
- Mockup - These are sketches or compositions of the screens or stages in your content. You can create a low-fidelity mockup, drawing it by hand, up to a high-fidelity mockup in tools such as Photoshop. Creating these visual samples will help you identify missing navigational elements and see everything in a mobile format.
- Design Document - Your design document is the full storyboard of what will be developed. It is a compilation of all the elements above—and intended only for the instructional designer and developer to work from. You'll find it useful to incorporate mobile layouts into your storyboard templates.
When creating these design deliverables, you can ensure that mobile considerations are incorporated each step of the way. This will save precious time in development, as well as some of your sanity.
Mainstream eLearning development tool functionality, although improved, is still limited. Rapid development tools for responsive content have improved, but are constrained to pre-structured templates. This means you'll need to become familiar with the capabilities of different tools, as they will drive your ability to execute your design. Look for a combination of tools that perform a function well, not one tool that claims to do everything. (See What to look for in a multi-screen development toolset below.)
DON’T just check the box!
Go through the process of evaluating your current training library to determine what is still in use, then redesign relevant content following the same principles outlined in this article. Your organization will get much more value out of investing time to update content rather than simply re-publishing old content that is not ready for a multi-screen environment.
Keep in mind that mobile learning apps provide great value but usually require a skilled app developer. App developers will work with your learning experience designers and developers to create the app and ensure a smooth implementation process. If you are planning to use a paid service to create a quick mobile app, do your research. Many of these options won’t have the quality or features that make an app more useful than multi-screen web content.
Enterprise platforms like learning management systems generally don't do a great job of supporting multi-screen access. Fortunately, you don't have to launch your content from an LMS. But, you can still use an xAPI (Experience API) and LRS (learning record store) combination to report data back to your LMS.
You will need to plan for testing your content. Develop a testing plan, identify the participants, and determine how you'll collect feedback. There are tools that allow you to provide a review link to your test participants so that you can collect and track feedback in context. These are very helpful in making the test process run smoothly, but you can also set up your own tracking systems with tools you already have.
If you're implementing a mobile app, the testing process is a bit more technical. Your pilot group will engage in a process where they provision their mobile devices to receive and test your application. However, the process to collect and track issues and requests can be similar to how you'd test multi-screen learning solutions.
Every long-term learning experience that you develop will require maintenance. If you do choose to build a mobile learning app, it is more expensive in time and money to implement and maintain. Whether you are implementing a mobile app or a multi-screen learning experience, keep an inventory of information such as date last updated, external links, and content owners. You'll need to review this on a regular basis to ensure continued fidelity and usefulness of your content.
Like any instructional content, you will evaluate the learning experience based on the performance-based learning objectives you established early in your design process. We have better ways to measure performance in relation to learning by using xAPI. You may also find valuable data sources in tools and systems that already exist.
Ensure your evaluation tool(s) are also mobile-friendly. Your existing evaluation processes may not be sufficient to support anything beyond simplified assessment questions. Take the opportunity now to create better evaluations so that you can learn something meaningful about the impact of your solution(s). How you define success, measure it, and improve your content based on feedback will lead to more meaningful contributions to your organization's goals.
Mobile devices are a platform that your learners use every day to access information. The time to support people where they are, on their preferred device, has already arrived. Commit to creating better learning solutions moving forward. This helps ensure that no matter how they access it, everyone has the opportunity to learn.
What to look for in a multi-screen development toolset
- Mobile-friendly file formats (mp3, mp4, HTML5, epub)
- Responsive output (content is optimized to the viewing area of the screen)
- xAPI conformant (unlocks unlimited opportunities to track, measure, and evaluate)
- Accessibility features (closed captions, alt text, accessible interactions)
- Access to mobile affordances, or ability to program them (geolocation, gestures, phone dialer, email)