Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

4 February 2013

Real mLearning

Clark @ 5:01 AM

Too many times, at conference expos and advertisements, it appears that folks are trying to say that courses on a tablet (or phone) are mlearning. On the contrary, I’ll suggest that courses on a phone or a tablet are elearning. Then, what is mlearning?

My argument is pretty simple: just because courses are on a different device, if they’re a traditional course – page turning with knowledge test, a virtual classroom, or even a simulation – if it’s only made touch-enabled, it’s still just elearning. Even if you strip it down to work on a phone, minimizing text, how is it really, qualitatively different?

Now, if you start breaking it up into chunks, and distributing it over time, we’re in a bit of a grey area, but really, isn’t that just what we should be doing in elearning, too?  Learning needs to be distributed, but this is still just a greater degree of convenience than doing the same on a laptop.  It’s a quantitative shift, not tapping into the inherent nature of mobile.

So, when is it really mlearning? I want to suggest that mlearning – and here I’m talking about courses, not mobile performance support, mobile social, etc, which also could and should be considered mlearning or at least mperformance – is when you’re using the local context to support learning. That could be restated as when you are turning a performance situation into a learning situation, wrapping the performance context with resources and support to take a performance experience and turn it into a learning experience.

Most of our formal learning involves what IBM termed ‘work-apart’ learning, something that happens away from your regular job.  And most training and online learning are just that, separated from work. We artificially create contexts that mimic the workplace in most of our learning.  And there are occasionally good reasons to do that, like handling multiple people and when failure can be costly or expensive.

Now, however, when we can bring digital technology wherever we are, we can use our real work to be the base of the learning experience. We don’t need an external context, we’re in one!  We can provide concepts, examples, and feedback around real contextualized practice. Or, we can add a layer to performance support that educates, not just supports, as Gloria Gery had proposed (but is still to be seen).

And, if the work context is using the desktop, then mobile isn’t necessarily a sensible solution. However, on those increasing circumstances when we’re on a site visit, meeting, at an event, and generally away from our desks, mlearning as I’m construing it here makes sense.

I don’t want to discount the value of elearning on mobile devices, particularly on tablets (where I have argued that the intimacy may have uniquely beneficial impacts), but I do think we shouldn’t consider context-free courses on a small device as anything other than just elearning. So, the question I’m wrestling with is whether mlearning includes mobile performance support, informal, etc, or do we want a separate term for that? But I kinda do want to keep mlearning from not meaning ‘courses on a phone (or tablet)’. What say you?


  1. I agree Clark. I think the issue is that the moment we put any letter in front of “learning” it builds a connotation that it’s a course in most minds. We really need to keep fighting the good fight and re-frame the debate so to speak. I’m not into learning as a destination its ultimately about doing and that means executing or more commonly performance. With that said I’m not sure what to call it or how to classify it …but I do appreciate your keeping the conversation alive.

    Comment by Mark Britz — 4 February 2013 @ 8:04 AM

  2. I say “lots of luck.”

    I understand the argument you’re making, and I even lean toward agreeing with most of it. And for your own presentations and purposes, you’ve got distinctions that are useful to make.

    But two forces suggest to me this is a battle that you’ll lose.

    First, the learners: you know as well as I do they don’t care what this stuff is called. In fact, not a few of them will refer to elearning, mlearning, and the soon-to-be-releaseed qlearning and zlearning as… training.

    Second, the vendors. Even as I type, dozens if not hundreds of companies are busily bolting onto to their products something they can point to and say, “See? We do X! We’re Y-compliant!” Letter-hyphen-learning is just their natural prey.

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 4 February 2013 @ 8:13 AM

  3. I appreciate Dave’s points (particularly the second one), but to Clark’s initiative, a reason to expect success hinges on organizations coming to understand this dichotomy. If so, then the need for resources will change necessarily.

    If organizations see all learning as branches of the same tree, rather than making the distinction between mLearning and eLearning, then they will not find cause to hire those who have skills and experience unique to developing the former. If, however, they can be made to see the advantages and distinctions of true mLearning, then they will also need to recognize the need for learning professionals who can develop these particular resources, rather than those who can simply publish to HTML5.

    Comment by Chad Lowry — 11 February 2013 @ 7:36 AM

  4. Clark, I agree with you. I think what you described as courses on mobile as being “Mobile eLearning” http://www.adlnet.gov/from-adl-team-member-jason-haag-mobile-elearning-is-not-mobile-learning

    And I agree, if you add context or use the capabilities of the device to make it more than a page-turner then I think it could qualify as mLearning. But if it is the same treatment, just shrunken down to fit a smaller screen then it is “mobile eLearning.”

    And I feel that mobile performance support is just one type of true “mLearning.”

    Comment by Jason Haag — 11 February 2013 @ 2:18 PM

  5. I appreciate the feedback (Mark, Dave, and Chad), but I still have an intrinsic need to work for the best distinctions I can make. I’m not even worry about the vendors at this point, but pointing out ‘mobile elearning’ as Jason suggests (great distinction) may help diminish the hype. Still sorting out distinctions…

    Comment by Clark — 12 February 2013 @ 9:02 AM

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