[Editor's note: McGraw-Hill Professional, the publisher of Gary's new book, The Mobile Learning Edge: Tools and Technologies for Developing Your Teams, has offered to give away several books to our readers. Details after the article.]
Gary Woodill is an independent emerging technologies analyst who works for a variety of clients in researching and planning for their use of new tools for learning. He has been involved with computers in education since 1974, when he was introduced to the PLATO system for computer-assisted instruction in his master’s studies in educational psychology. He helped develop educational materials for a Canadian videotext system in the late 1970s, and in 1985 started a course for teachers on computers in education at Ryerson University in Toronto. In 1984 Woodill received a doctorate in applied psychology from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, and in 1993 he cofounded an educational multimedia company that developed educational CD-ROMs for children. In 1998 he designed an adaptable learning management system and has developed more than sixty online courses for various corporate clients.
Dr. Woodill writes regular research reports for Brandon Hall Research as a senior analyst, where he also presents workshops and webinars. He is coauthor of Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds (McGraw-Hill, 2010) and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. He lives with his wife in Gore’s Landing, Ontario, Canada.
You can reach him at his website and at gwoodill (at) gmail.com.
Q. Gary, can you give us the inside scoop for your new book, The Mobile Learning Edge?
The idea for this book came from the convergence of a number of different experiences. I acquired my first Blackberry in 1998, and realized that I could quickly connect to many sources of information from any location. The concept of “just-in-time” information had been used in the e-learning literature of the 1990s, but referred to information access via a desktop computer. Information from a mobile phone extended that concept to any location.
Earlier in my career, I had done some research on the history of the modern classroom, a learning technology that had been developed but the Pietists in Prussia in the 1770s. They instituted sitting in rows, the raising of hands, recess, time periods, and detentions. In other words, they immobilized learners in order to force them to always pay attention to the teacher.
A few years later, my wife, Karen Anderson, a professor in sociology at York University in Toronto, started coming home complaining that students’ mobile phones would ring while she was giving a lecture or running a small class. When she suggested that they put them away, they resisted, promising to turn them onto vibration mode, but refusing to give them up.
Instead of viewing mobile phones as a problem in the classroom, I began to think of how they could be used in positive ways in classrooms. For example, mobile phones can be a research tool, used to gather information and send it to a central server. The can be used to look up information at a moment’s notice. But, most of all, they can move students out of the classroom and into the real world to carry out learning activities. This is what makes them disruptive of traditional methods of education and training.
While several books have been written on mobile learning in schools and higher education, no one to date has published a book on mobile learning for business purposes. I realized that this was an original concept, and that much of what we have learned from the use of mobile learning in education can be applied to business settings.
Q. Drawing from your experience at the intersection of learning and business, can you tell us about some common pitfalls?
To have mobile learning work well, power has to shift from instructors and managers to the learners themselves. This means that employees will need to be more self-directed, and learn because they need to know something, not because they are being forced to learn. This change of focus from other to self-directed learning works best in organizations where the management structure is more collegial and participatory, and where the structure of power is somewhat flattened. Organizations that are not prepared for such changes will find the implementation of mobile learning much more difficult.
There are three main obstacles to moving forward with mobile learning in corporate settings:
- Lack of expertise in mobile instructional design and conceptualizing how corporate learning can take place both formally and informally via mobile devices.
- lack of awareness of the full scope of costs, benefits and risks at the enterprise level. This plays out in the struggle to formulate accurate and compelling business cases to move forward with mobile learning. Executive stakeholders continually push (and rightly so) for further articulation of a more comprehensive strategy and business case before considering or approving m-learning initiatives. What these leaders are essentially seeking is to see an enterprise level strategy in order to understand how one-off projects fit within a larger context of enterprise issues and complexities.
- conflicting accountabilities, interests and procedures between content stakeholders (learning creators and business budget holders) and IT implementers. This is often framed as an issue of control versus enablement.
The book contains advice on how to overcome all three obstacles.
Q. Could you help us understand the real potential of mobile learning? Any stories or examples?
In this book, I provide over 50 different ways that learning technologies can work with “learners on the move,” giving them up-to-date, personalized and relevant information when they need it. An excerpt from the book gives examples of how transformative mobile learning can be:
For the past several hundred years most of us in Western societies have been bound to a series of places. We have a place to sleep, eat and be with our families called home; we have a place where we go to earn money called the workplace; we have places we go to learn called schools or universities; and, we have places to go for enjoyment such as movie theaters, sports centers, or “the great outdoors”.
All this is changing with something that the Economist magazine calls “the new nomadism” (Economist, 2008), where we are constantly on the move physically, but still also connected to our friends, families and workplace(s). Bryan Alexander remarked on this phenomenon on college campuses as early as 2004 when he wrote: “…since this technology is mobile, students turn ‘nomad,’ carrying conversations and thinking across campus spaces, as always, but now with the ability to Google a professor’s term, upload a comment to a class board, and check for updates to today’s third assignment—all while striding across the quad.” Today, we are all nomads. For many people, such as sales staff, transportation personnel, and top-tier executives, being mobile is the very essence of their work environments. And, for most of us, commuting to work is an unavoidable fact of life, and takes up a significant part of the day.
What makes us successful nomads is not the fact that most of us these days are equipped, from our early teen years, with several mobile devices, but that all these devices are now connected from almost any physical place we want to be in, as long as they are in range of mobile phone services. It is mobile connectivity that allows us to move around freely and still have all the lines of communication open wherever we might be located physically. We can become so use to being connected all the time that we become anxious if our batteries run out of power, or we can’t locate our mobile phone – a condition referred to as “nomophobia”.
Relatively seamless mobile connectivity is now available on trains in Europe and North America (Economist, 2006a), and will be coming soon to airplanes in flight. In this case it is the user’s environment that is mobile and connected, allowing interaction with mobile devices such as notebook computers and smartphones.
John Traxler (2009a) has noted that “mobile technologies…alter the nature of work…especially of knowledge work.” These new technologies alter the balance between the need for training and performance support, and the provision of these services through traditional means. Traxler adds that “mobile learning is emerging as an entirely new and distinct concept.” Of course businesses, and even departments within a business, vary greatly in terms of their mobility needs. In some businesses, such as delivery services, workers are mostly nomadic. In other businesses, most workers are sedentary – for example, employees at a call center usually do not move around while they work. It is important, therefore, to analyze the mobility profile of your company before you undertake to deliver mobile learning in a systematic way. Even in businesses where employees stay in one place, mobile learning can be used when workers are not at their workplace. The need for speedier training is one of the main drivers for the development of mobile learning. Unlike in past decades, there are simply fewer opportunities to take time for out for training. But, the increased demand on workers for higher levels of performance also means that the relatively small amount of time set aside for training often takes a back seat to the need to meet production goals within the workplace.
Hypercompetition and the resulting demand for multitasking means that companies are often constrained to do more with fewer people. The result is less and less available time for training. In 2005, for example, it was estimated that the average number of training days completed in the United States “per person per year” was down to two days (Edwards, 2005). All this means that training often has to be done “on the fly” or outside work environments. Mobile learning provides a solution to which many companies are turning.
[Editor's note: To win a free copy, share this article with colleagues & friends, inviting them to subscribe by filling out the sidebar form on Bloomfire.com/blog. Of those who subscribe, I'll randomly select a handful to receive free books. I'll also ask winners for their referrers, and their referrers will also win a free book. Giveaway ends November 4th, 2010. Ready? Go!]
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