Saturday, June 23, 2012

Why mLearning May Ultimately Be Irrelevant

As the industry rushes head-first into the mLearning wall, I suspect the hype will never truly catch up with the reality.

Let's look at mLearning objectively. Anything that is used for learning, on any device that is not rooted to a desktop at work is considered "mLearning" or mobile learning. Your PC or Mac at home, if used to access corporate training or services like, are in essence, mLearning devices. Size really doesn't matter in mLearning.

Here are some mLearning devices:
  • Laptop
  • Netbook 
  • Tablet (i.e. iPad)
  • Mobile phone (i.e. iPhone, Android)
  • Workstation (remote from the office, not necessarily mobile in terms of transportability, but definitely remote)
But that's simply describing hardware and how portable that hardware is.  Ultimately, it doesn't matter what your device is or what you use it for as long as it works for you.

mLearning is the serving of eLearning content to these remote devices.  This is something that's been happening for well over a decade with mixed results and in very specific areas. It is not something new at all. The devices may be new (though it can be argued that large PocketPC devices in the early 2000s and PALM readers before that were also mLearning  tools).  Are the devices more prolific now? Yes, but not for learning purposes. They are mostly media serving and app-specific devices relating to media (photos, movies, music, graphic arts and publishing). Can they do mLearning? Sure, maybe...

A Solution in Search of a Problem

With all the buzz running around the Internet and in the marketing hype of companies desperate to differentiate themselves in the mLearning arena,  it is still a solution to a problem that only exists for a very small number of companies and government agencies in the USA and around the world.  Perhaps one day the solution will indeed solve a problem for the general workforce, but today, it is more hype than reality.

I've worked in many industries throughout my career both in Management and as a consultant. Many companies do not have "mobile" workforces. A large majority of employees still go to work for a multitude of reasons. Sadly, most people, left on their own, would not perform very well at non-professional levels. And I'd venture to say that a good number of professionals would also perform badly left to their own devices. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule...

But there lies an bigger problem with mLearning that is rarely talked about and what ultimately may make it irrelevant. What is that problem?

The average worker only takes training because they have to and really have no interest in what they're learning. 

OK, I know a silent gasp probably just happened with many people.  "How could this be?"  "People are self-directed and learn on their own, don't they?" "People are completely motivated to learn. aren't they?" "The people I know learn on their own..."

Yes, in a perfect world that would all be true. But most people have "jobs" and they just don't care that much about their careers. They may switch jobs for more money or maybe a better opportunity, but they are not "life-long learners".

Providing these employees with mobile devices, or access to mLearning sounds great, but unless it is work-specific  and done only on company time, most will never look at it if they don't have to.

I'm not being negative here. I am being realistic. Trainers and eLearning developers work in the "learning" industry. They tend to think people like to learn. Some do, many don't.  Having mLearning at one's disposal is just one more thing that people may or may not use...

Also, if the mLearning is not tracked, then I guarantee very few will take it. Have you ever noticed the amount of lag time there is on your LMS when com,pliance training is due? Everyone waits till the very last day to take it...

Sales professionals who work in the field could and might use mLearning to learn about their competitors, to understand their own products better and to perfect some Sales techniques. Perhaps flight crews could use mLearning to keep up on their skills or new regulations while waiting for a passenger to press that service light.  Linemen working remotely may come across an old switch they're not familiar with and look up how to repair it on-line. And there are many examples where remote workers may need just-in-time training or documentation.

At the same time, there are security issues, firewall issues, bandwidth and accessibility issues, damage and shrinkage problems and much more that could get in the way of mLearning truly taking off.

Ultimately, time will tell...

While the vendors all hawk their mLearning solutions, which are mostly a very small part of their revenue stream, and while procurement personnel add "mLearning" to their list of 5,000 other required items for eLearning development tools, the end result is far from known.

Perhaps there will be a sea change in the way business operates. And perhaps nothing will change. Time will tell whether a Training department will have the money and resources to implement costly mLearning solutions without the objections of IT and other operational groups.

In the meantime, it's cool seeing mLearning apps running on devices. But cool often doesn't matter when expenses outweigh the results.


  1. Provocative and insightful Rick, though what else would we expect from you? I love your perspective on the real-situation for the typical learner with a job. I think that you are very correct about what motivates actual engagements with content - ultimately it's usually about accountability and tracking.

    The evidence thus far has definitely suggested that every point you make is correct. I agree that there is only a smattering of evidence to suggest an upswing in actual deliverable mLearning and that time may actually reveal that fewer than expected companies actually need / will benefit substantially from mLearning.

    I've said myself that some of the more extreme viewpoints, suggesting that it isn't valid mLearning if it isn't custom mLearning, are only demonstrating a complete lack of business sense and experience with reality. After all, what underfunded training & dev. department is going to double, triple or more their learning development costs just so that they can deliver mLearning courses using a pedagogical paradigm that doesn't even exist other than in the hype-mind of the mLearning marketing machine.

    Ultimately we adopt technologies because they are useful, and the barrier to entry is low. If it's simple, practical & affordable we might see some logical migration. If it's highly specialized, complicated to create and expensive, I wouldn't expect a mass migration.

    As always Rick some great ideas. Thanks for all you do.

    1. Hi Allen! Wow, that was a blog post in and of itself and very incisive!

      It really does come down to business needs and costs. And then, ROI, that deadly concept that eLearning pundits like to say is meaningless because they've never run a business and sometimes not even a department!

      You make some great points in your reply and thanks so much for the contributions!