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If Mobile Learning and Support are Wonderful, Why aren't They Everywhere?

By Allison Rossett / November 2011

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There is much to like about mobile learning and mobile support. Smartphones and tablets are not light as a feather, but close, delivering lessons, insight, guidance and information when and where needed. Do you want to send salespeople to training to memorize product features and prices? Would you take a class to prepare to get the very most from your time during a short visit to Paris? Do you want your physician to rely on her memory to anticipate all possible negative drug interactions? I bet you do not.

What about leader development? Which approach is more likely to create new habits in veteran leaders? A three-day retreat with cases, diagnostics, practices, and feedback OR examples, checklists, and scenario-based tasks served up on demand over weeks and even months? That was a trick question. I think you would want to invest in both in a strategic blend. Use training at the retreat to establish appreciation and scaffolding for the new approach as well as to drill for confidence in using the new leader perspectives. Use mobile delivery to provide additional examples, stretch practices, connections with peers and coaches, and access to suggestions and policies as work challenges and stress present themselves.

I highlighted the differences between mobile learning and mobile support in an ode published in Learning Solutions in August 2010. There I directed my attention to mobile support because at that time mobile learning, not mobile support, was all the rage. In truth I like them both, as my mobile devices tirelessly convey to my fingertips lessons and messages about weight loss, investment, foreign countries and affairs, instructional design, travel, time management, and safety.

Words Without Actions

I am not alone in my fondness for mobile everything. Naomi Norman identified 27 mobile learning benefits collected from members of the UK's National Health Service. There is now at least one dedicated mobile learning conference and books by Clark Quinn and David Metcalf. Judy Brown generously shares mobile resources online, at mLearnopedia.

What we don't yet see is widespread mobile practices devoted to enterprise learning and support. When San Diego State University (SDSU) colleague Jim Marshall and I surveyed more than a thousand educators in companies, agencies and universities about their eLearning practices, they reported reliance on traditional eLearning approaches, like scenarios, virtual classrooms, and online assessments. Performance support and mobile devices only rarely appeared in the organizational playbook they described. As we look at more recent data, we find an uptick for performance support, in general, but not yet for mobile delivery.

How could that be? Doubt prompted me to continue the investigation. In the past year, I asked four public audiences about their deployment of mobile devices for enterprise learning and support. I said something along these lines: Please raise your hand if you are using mobile devices to deliver learning or information in your organization. No, I'm not talking about your personal use of the phone or tablet as an e-reader or email device. Are you using mobile devices for learning or support that helps people in your organization do their jobs?

The responses were consistent with our survey findings. With hundreds in these rooms, only a few hoisted their hands. Even at a conference dedicated to mobile learning, with attendees obviously committed to that form of delivery, few raised their hands. Workplace learning people like mobile methods, but yet they are not using them for organizational learning and support.


When I saw those scattered hands, I wondered, we all wondered, "Why? What's up?" What has slowed the embrace of mobile learning and support? Here are my theories, framed by Carl Binder's adaptations of Thomas Gilbert's landmark work.

Binder's Six Boxes presents a structured way to think about performance—and the lack of it. As you can see in the Six Boxes Model below, the top half (numbers 1-3) captures the culture, enabling us to tease out the organizational factors that drive performance. The bottom half (numbers 4-6) represents individual factors.

Figure 1. Binder's Six Boxes
Binder's Six Boxes

What does this mean for those concerned about the halting use of mobile devices for enterprise learning and performance? Let's frame questions based on each box, starting at the top with cultural factors. How does your organization stack up?

What of the culture? Does it advance mobile learning and support?
1. Expectations & Feedback Is mobile learning and support mentioned in the unit strategy Is there healthy skepticism regarding classroom and online events with no extension into work?
Is there an expansive view for mobile delivery that includes learning, information, community and support?
Are mobile programs perceived as a legitimate way to boost performance? Are you sure?
Does the unit seek feedback from employees about transfer derived from classroom events? From users on their reactions to mobile programs to boost transfer?
Is anyone responsible for advancing mobile learning and support? Is anyone measured for progress on this goal? For making progress on development and improvement of a portfolio of such efforts?
Can you point to mobile programs that add value to the organization? Are they examined, improved and recognized, based on data?
Does the ability to build and manage mobile learning and support appear in job descriptions? In performance appraisals? Has the unit hired to bolster talent in this area?
Does the unit consider the maturity of its efforts regarding mobile learning and support?
Does leadership possess healthy skepticism about silver bullets of any kind, favoring systems and integrated approaches instead?
2.Tools & Resources Has the unit invested in software and talent for mobile programs?
Has it invested in consultants and development to bolster internal staff capacity?
Do workplace learning people possess mobile devices? Do employees?
Is security an issue? Can organization messages be widely distributed and protected?
Are there examples of successful mobile programs known to the unit?
Are quality standards codified to support decisions about vendors, products, and services?
Is there an online place with related templates, checklists, examples and forms?
3. Consequences & Incentives Is the unit measured by events, butts in seats and hits on web sites or has it shifted to metrics that examine results?
Must employees learn everything by heart or are they encouraged towards "aided" performance?
Is the transfer of classroom training advanced through lesson and practices on mobile devices?
Are workplace learning professionals encouraged to attend conferences, experiment with tools, chat with vendors, test drive software, and study examples?
Does the unit measure its mobile programs? Has the unit established metrics that signify high value contributions from these mobile efforts? Does the unit know where it is succeeding and where it is not? Does it look at the influence of these programs on strategic outcomes?
Do efforts to innovate and influence through mobile devices and aided performance count in performance appraisals?
Can the organization point to programs and people incented for their contributions through mobile programs?

Now let's consider individual drivers, the forces and factors that incline people towards mobile everything—or nothing at all. Reflect on yourself and your peers.

What of the individual? Are you and your colleagues ready for mobile?
4. Skills & Knowledge Do you and colleagues feel confident in planning, developing and executing on mobile programs? Can you and colleagues recognize fertile vs. flawed opportunities for mobile programs?
Do you appreciate the risks as well as the benefits? Do you know how to mitigate?
Do you and colleagues know what is involved in planning, developing and executing on mobile programs?
Do you and colleagues feel confident in planning, developing and executing on mobile programs?
When looking at mobile programs, do you know the difference between quality and junk? Can you and colleagues recognize fertile vs. flawed opportunities for mobile programs?
Have you thought about how community and support delivered through mobile devices might help employees become skilled and comfortable?
Do you and your associates know how to use mobile devices to boost your own performance?
Do you and colleagues know how to manage mobile projects and vendor efforts?
5. Selection & Assignments Is the leader of the unit open to new ways of doing things?
Do leaders hire people who possess a spirit of experimentation and innovation?
Are you yourself inclined to think about the work differently? To try new things? To measure and continuously improve your programs and efforts? To attempt to be more influential beyond the classroom, in the workplace?
Are you and your associates willing to be evangelists for learning and support beyond the classroom? For communities and networks that tie people to each other?
Are leaders inclined to educate customers about blended approaches, systems, and aided performance? Are you? Have you ever?
Are you and your colleagues open to an expanded definition of your roles and toolkit?
Does your team include individuals with fluency regarding mobile learning and support?
6. Motives & Preferences How do you define success? Does it extend beyond the completion of a product or program to the pleasure that comes from documenting influence on performance and results?
Are you intrigued by the possibilities for delivering community and user generated content closer to where the work gets done?
Do you see yourself as a sage on a stage or are you looking to be influential in the daily work and choices of far-flung employees?
Do you like to think about ways to project your (and others') voices and messages beyond the classroom?
Do you spend time in the field? Do you talk to employees about what stumps them, what would be most helpful to them, what communities and sources they rely on most of all?

What Are YOU Going To Do?

Have you and your team answered those questions? Have you grappled with both the individual and cultural factors that impede our ability to capitalize on mobile learning and support?

What do experts think is slowing the advance of mobile learning and support?

Clark Quinn explains, "I think the main reason folks are not reporting much mobile yet is they don't have their heads around it: they're confused about the platforms, they're not certain about the tools, and most importantly they haven't yet come to grips that it's not about courses on a phone, yet that's what they're primed to think about."

Bob Mosher agrees. He thinks the barriers are in our heads, noting that it is mobile learning that is slow, not mobile support, "We're biased to this, but most of the buzz and work we're seeing isn't around taking 'eLearning' to a two and a half inch screen. Rather, they want to make the right information available for review, practice and answering specific questions." Mosher also points to learning leaders, acknowledging their challenges grappling with broader views of the work.

Ordinarily, I would differ. I would incline toward the cultural drivers of performance, placing the onus on job descriptions, resources, expectations, technology and performance management systems. But not this time. Not for mobile everything. I, like Clark and Bob, would start with us, with individual responsibility for seeing things differently and leading the change through illustrations. If we don't get it, how can we, through real projects, examples, and measured results, move our organizations and colleagues forward?

Here are my suggestions for what it will take for workplace learning to become more mobile. I focus on what individuals can do.

  1. Get smart on the possibilities. It's time to become skeptical too. Consider the ways that you are using mobile devices in your life. Now look to enterprise problems and opportunities. Where would mobile learning and support boost performance and capacity? Do you know the difference between mobile learning and mobile support? Can you point to examples that will compel colleagues, leaders and customers? Are you on a quest for examples and related results?

  2. Attend a conference, read books and blogs and check into twitterstreams. Have you? Are you familiar with #mlearncon, #realwplearn, #mobile, and #mlearning?

  3. Talk to consultants and vendors. Yes, do. Approach with a grain of salt, of course, but recognize that consultants and vendors are the ones who have done it more than once. Many have tried mobile programs in concert with classes and as stand-alone solutions. Can you conceive better plans and products by working with vendors and consultants? Can you beef up your skills and knowledge through collaboration?

  4. Screen yourself and situation. Look at the tables in this article. Are you ready? Is your unit? How about the larger enterprise? Address the barriers that are revealed.

  5. Give it a go. Why not try something small to add practice or community to a class? Or perhaps you might want to deliver examples or checklists that extend messages into the workplace. Try a wine tasting approach. Invite line leaders to download an app that supports wine choices or travel. Ask them to think about how similar approaches might influence sales people, truck drivers, college instructors, or store managers. Let them whet their whistles with the possibilities.

  6. Measure and improve. But of course. Mobile devices present us with wonderful and risky opportunities. Most of what we are attempting is brand spanking new. We need insight into what works and what does not. No mobile program, no matter how exciting, should go unexamined.

About the Author

Allison Rossett is Professor Emerita of Educational Technology at San Diego State University and a consultant in learning, technology and results. She is the co-author of Job Aids and Performance Support: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere. Rossett published a new edition of her classic book, First Things Fast: A Handbook for Performance Analysis. She can be reached at [email protected]. Please follow her on twitter, @arossett


  • Fri, 22 Feb 2013
    Post by Allison Rossett

    Forgotten about this piece. Yes, I know. I wrote it. It wasn't ghost written.

    Still believe in it.

    There is much work for US to do if we hope to leverage this tasty resource for learning AND support.

  • Thu, 08 Dec 2011
    Post by Karla Kmetz

    Hi Allison, The checklist you provided is a wonderful way to take stock of where we are in the process. We can no longer say we are not involved in mobile learning, because students are accessing their distance learning courses through mobile devices whether we want them to or not. Every student now has a smart phone or tablet and whether they are just using it to check course announcements or watching their lecture videos, I have no doubt that at some point each day a student is accessing their online course through a mobile device. So, I really appreciate the list of questions you provide. This is a movement we are need to be prepared for, or at least understand where we are and what we can and cannot do with mobile learning with the resources we have now.

  • Wed, 07 Dec 2011
    Post by Jason Novosel

    Hi Allison. Great article. As an educator, advocate for and pioneer of educational mobile apps, I found your discussion relevant and long overdue. I especially support your suggestions. In my capacity as a management/leadership consultant for a number of large organisations (mainly in the public sector) I have found that change happens slowly with a considered approach to asset acquisition, project roll out and staff training. Having said this, I certainly agree that the process becomes all the more accelerated when a confident, progressive, communicative leader spearheads the initiative. I work with an app development company to create apps and over the last 12 months I have noticed increasing interest in mobile technology from schools and businesses. The benefits for an organisation, in terms of achieving objectives and staff performance, need to be made overt. A customised plan for the introduction of mobile support can help alleviate feelings of "not knowing where to start" and "why does our organisation need to embrace this?"

  • Wed, 30 Nov 2011
    Post by Allison Rossett

    Love how thoughtful these comments are.

    I am not willing to throw up my hands and complacently wait for mobile learning and support to come to the enterprise some time in the future, whenever. They make so much sense for right now.

    For example, one of my doc students wrote recently about how he is using mobile tools to advance his study and even more of interest, how he is using it to improve the business math classes he teaches.

    This mobile thing is really good for all the right reasons.

    Mental models are an issue. Good design in the transfer from legacy to mobile is a huge challenge, but the kind of challenge instructional designers are supposed to feast on.

    Tech readiness is a concern too, but usually less than anticipated.

    Where are the learning leaders? They can tip the balance on this, I think, if they can get beyond the shiny penny to appreciate both the challenges and benefits here.

  • Wed, 30 Nov 2011
    Post by Tom R. Eucker

    Hi Allison, I echo Ryan's comments relative to "a lack of standardisation and IT issues connecting devices to corporate networks." A saying that I picked up years ago applies here - "You can't get there from not here." My experience in industry and consulting over the last 30 years is that we make assumptions about the progress and readiness for technology adoption only to find the mental models and more importantly the infrastructure for these innovations to be lacking and progress to be incredibly slow. We are still seeing resource black holes like SAP and Oracle infesting corporate IT backbones. Moving to decentralization of computing within most corporations remains a distant albeit strategic dream. The uptake of the internet and social media technologies for the individual far out paces the essential infrastructure rebuilding required for corporate adoption.

  • Sat, 26 Nov 2011
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Hi Allison. I think the answer to your question "If Mobile Learning and Support are Wonderful, Why aren't They Everywhere?" is: talk is cheap. It's easy for everyone to say that mobile learning is a great idea, but at the end of the day someone has to *do* it. In terms of mobile training, that means producing or repurposing courseware for various devices, or paying someone a lot of money to do it for you. In terms of mobile support, a major factor is the culture of the organisation: are the SMEs willing and able to share their expertise, and keep it up to date? All of the above is complicated by a lack of standardisation and IT issues connecting devices to corporate networks. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised mlearning isn't more widespread, despite the amount of discourse about it.