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Getting Going with mLearning: A recap of mLearnCon 2014

By Clark Quinn / July 2014

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How do you keep in touch with the changing dynamic that is mobile learning? One way is to check in at the eLearning Guild's annual mLearning Conference, mLearnCon, the non-academic mobile learning conference. The most recent one took place in San Diego, CA June 23-26, and it was the the biggest one yet. This year's conference highlighted the state of the mLearning industry as well as documented the future that mLearning can have, with the necessary steps to capitalize on the opportunities.

Before the conference began, nine separate pre-conference certificate programs were offered covering everything from the basics to creating a strategy. Also available were in-depth explorations of games, social learning, tools, and more. The fact that there was an audience for deep dives on such a broad variety of topics indicates the increasing awareness of mobile opportunities.

The Highlights

The opening keynote helped contextualize the growing impact of mobile learning. Larry Irving, who is a major adviser to government and industry on using technology to support education, characterized the changes that we've seen in the past decade and more. He also presented broad examples of the ways in which mobile devices are transforming education. Larry began by pointing out the growth of mobile, particularly in the developing world where it serves as the major internet channel as opposed to the desktop. He then moved on to how initiatives were underway to bring unprecedented learning opportunities to disadvantaged groups around the world using mobile devices. While a bit more focused on education than the audience represented, he did present a basic overview for those relatively new to the opportunities.

The second keynote of the conference was clearly the highlight for many. Karen McGrane presented a witty and compelling case for moving beyond blobs of content, and start talking about chunks of content. The distinction is important. Moving from content written for delivery to content written that is assembled differently depending on device, need, and more, is a much needed discussion. The separation of form from content has been well demonstrated, but hasn't really been seen yet, particularly in eLearning. The argument here for structuring content, tagging with meta-data (a lovely quote from Twitter user @studip101 was "metadata is the new art direction"), and scaffolding the author experience was delivered with style and humor. Karen presented a message whose time has come.

Since it was physically impossible to attend all of the parallel sessions that followed the keynotes, the goal here is to characterize the repeated elements about trends. Let's get the bad news out of the way first; despite continual efforts for improvement, much of what's available as tools and shown as demos are still mobile eLearning (or courses on a mobile device) not real mLearning. Those who are in the field generally consider mLearning to be much more about performance support and social than courses, though augmenting courses also qualifies. To be fair, one vendor demonstrated their advanced mobile solution for not only formal learning but performance support and mentoring/coaching, tracked with the eXperience API. While others had solutions delivering much more than courses, content management systems, and more. Yet many were still touting their mobile-ready LMS, course authoring tools with mobile output, and Flash conversion services.

Fortunately, discussions in the sessions were generally more advanced, and the DemoFest also exhibited much more than mobile eLearning. In what has emerged to be a Guild tradition, DemoFest allows both vendors and non-vendors the chance to showcase their latest products and services in a format that allows the attendees to roam the room and vote for their favorites. Some of the top examples included performance apps that not only augmented face-to-face learning with refreshers, but provided performance support as well. Another technically sophisticated system had physical cards for a learning game linked to a mobile app that leveraged them by extending the information via a scannable QR code on the back of the card.

Looking Forward

There were several emergent themes from the sessions that showed up in conversations around the conference too. More and more people are thinking about mobile needs in ways beyond cranking out courses on a mobile device. Session topics focused on how to get started, and included advice on how to design solutions that weren't just courses, as well as how to develop a strategic approach. It was clear that the organizers and presenters were definitely trying to keep the focus beyond courses.

Two themes that appeared several times, often linked together, were gamification and social learning. Apparently the casual gaming phenomena seen with mobile entertainment has opportunities for mLearning as well, though one would hope that intrinsic motivation opportunities would be exhausted before extrinsic motivation mechanisms are tried. Gamification of course is inherently social when competition is leveraged with leaderboards, or voting on good submissions. Social obviously holds more opportunities as well, connecting people for cooperation and collaboration, to the benefit of the organization.

One theme that recurred in several ways, including sessions and demos, was that of augmented reality. Layering information on the environment (typically visually) is an opportunity that now can be capitalized on. Sessions not only discussed the possibilities, but provided hands on experience using tools to make real solutions. While the processes are still somewhat effort intensive, real value is being seen. Oddly, the related concept of alternate reality games didn't really emerge as a topic.

The final theme that recurred was the concept of wearables. While few Google Glass explorers were visible, several discussions covered the possibilities of both glasses and watches, the two most visible form-factors for wearable technology. Augmenting reality is one opportunity for glasses, and the continual health monitoring of watches was also visible. On the flip side, the privacy issue with continual information gathering is still a concern. It was also clear that gesture recognition would be a useful adjunct to wearable capabilities. Given the early phase of these devices, the interest was intriguing.

Bringing it All Together

The ultimate takeaway from the conference is that the novelty is gone; mobile is well and truly here. People are clearly looking for, and finding, real solutions. While the exciting new directions continue to draw attention like a moth to a flame, the underlying value proposition that is mobile has taken root and is already delivering.

About the Author

Clark Quinn, Ph.D., helps organizations use technology aligned with how we think, work, and learn to achieve better outcomes. An internationally known consultant, Dr. Quinn has authored four books on learning technology and keynotes regularly. He previously taught at the University of New South Wales and has served in leadership positions in several new media and learning organizations. Clark works with Fortune 500 companies, education, government, and the not-for-profit sectors through Quinnovation, tweets as @quinnovator, and blogs at

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2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/14/07-2643229



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