Student faces a steep climb

Agencies face a learning curve to get to mLearning

As government comes to grips with changes being forced by an explosion in mobile computing and communications, it's also trying to wrap its arms around how to use mobile for its educational, training and job performance demands.

mLearning applications that work

GlobalMedAid screenshot

GlobalMedAid -- This app provides tools and resources that medics, nurses and doctors involved in humanitarian and disaster relief operations can access through their mobile devices. The content includes a range of interactive job aids, such as preparation checklists, ebooks and expert videos, examples of emergency medical procedures and official training courses, such as how to combat human trafficking.

text4baby -- This app sends free text messages to women who are either pregnant or have very young babies to provide a range of health information and reminders about prenatal care and healthy behaviors. Over 56,000 people have signed up to the program since its launch, according to HHS, and more than 300 state and local governments, health insurers, schools and colleges have signed on to promote the service.

Aurasma -- Tagged as an"augmented reality platform," Aurasma uses pattern recognition technology to identify objects using a mobile device's camera, and then augments that with videos, animations and 3D objects to add context to what the camera is seeing. The U.S. Postal Service has developed an Aurasma app that allows someone to scan a piece of mail and then merge that physical image with other digital images to produce new kinds of advertising that companies can use to attract potential customers. The app could be out by the end of 2013.

Mobile technology has huge potential as a learning tool, government educators say, but it's also a far more difficult field than most organizations realize.

The transition of computer-based learning from distance learning programs through electronic learning systems to new mobile learning (mLearning) apps would seem to have a natural adoption curve. And that's how many organizations are trying to exploit the new technologies — by repurposing classroom and eLearning materials to run on mobile devices.

But that won't cut it, according to those with experience in mLearning. Mobile is a separate channel through which to deliver educational and training material to users, they say, and is not designed to replace anything that is already out there. Instead, it should be viewed as a distinct environment that adds to other instructional resources. People who rush to mobile simply because it's trendy, without analyzing its specific needs, are making a big mistake.

A primary lesson learned from the decade and more that the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) has been involved in mLearning is that you have to design original courses specifically for mobile if you want students to learn anything that way.

"If you take a course that has been designed for the classroom and simply port it to the mLearning environment, that will be a poorly designed course," said Thomas Mastre, director of the NPS Center for Educational Design, Development, and Distribution.

Another lesson is that mLearning doesn't apply in all situations. Instead, it's just one more resource that can be exploited in a continuum of learning media. But it's an increasingly important one, experts say, particularly as a generation comes into government that is used to anytime, anywhere consumption of content via their smart phones.

DOD pervasive training

Mobile is a technology that the Defense Department overall intends to exploit to help keep its workforce on top of things. A key reason for its mobile strategy, published in June 2012, was to"keep the DOD workforce relevant in an era when information and cyberspace play a critical role in mission success."

And it's in for the long haul. DOD has instituted a"lifelong learning" process that enables continuing education and instruction for service people from the time they enlist to when they retire, for which mLearning will be a key enabler.

Mobile devices have a lot more capability than just the ability to be infinitely mobile, of course. They also have cameras, microphones, touch screens, accelerometers, GPS and location detectors, and more, all of which can be used in mLearning.

The Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative is looking into how all of these can be brought to play to help mLearning progress within DOD.

A part of DOD's Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, ADL is the result of a January 1999 Executive Order aimed at ensuring that employees of DOD and federal agencies use technology advances to enable continuous learning in the workplace. ADL both researches the need for mLearning and builds and tests prototypes of various learning systems.

In 2011 it conducted a study in which it found that, though mLearning was still immature in terms of its technological and pedagogical capabilities, it nevertheless"demonstrated the positive impact of providing a mobile alternative for mandatory eLearning courses" in DOD. Also that year, ADL published the Mobile Learning Handbook, a resource guide to mobile learning basics, design, development and best practices.

It's now looking to take things further by investigating what's needed to effectively design courses for mobile learning. In February, it began a needs analysis for a design-based research project called the Mobile Training Implementation Framework. MoTIF is intended"to explore the intersection of multiple design and research  methods in order to better understand —and potentially influence — how education and training professionals can best use mobile-based technology to develop training and performance support solutions," according to an announcement.

The goal of the project is to support education and training professionals moving from eLearning to mLearning by providing a catalog of micro strategy examples they can use to take best advantage of mobile technology in their courses.

BYO mLearning device

There are some potentially significant barriers to mLearning in government, not least of which is the availability of the mobile devices themselves. There is no way any part of government can afford to buy everyone a device to access mLearning courses. Also, people have continually stressed in surveys that they prefer using the device of their choice rather than government-mandated devices for this kind of activity.

That was one reason why NPS ran a recent survey to see what kinds of devices their students preferred.

One of the key takeaways from the survey results is that students would use mLearning if it were available, and that they want to be able to access course reading materials, use mobile applications that support their class work, and provide remote access to class lectures.

It was also clear that students are interested enough in mLearning that they will invest their own money in order to take advantage of the technology, the study authors said.

“Here at our campus we already have a BYOD policy, and so students are going to bring whatever technology they find most effective for themselves," Mastre said."I was concerned we were going to lock (mLearning courses) into building for just one form factor, and (that survey) led us to designing content to play across both Apple and Android devices, and for different sizes of screens."

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is therefore seen as a key enabler for mLearning. Given the security concerns agencies, particularly DOD, have with BYOD, exactly how the various policies will work out and how they will affect mLearning is unclear.

And given that most individuals only have limited data plans for their own devices, some way has to be found to either let them access mLearning courses over the Internet through WiFi networks, or agencies have to develop ways to pay them back for the bandwidth they use.

Organizations are still trying to work out just how to use mLearning. But it's already clear that, when it works, it provides capabilities that no other technology-driven learning has.

Ron Fricker, a professor in the Operations Research Department of NPS, said that when he taught courses his students could be on ships at sea, in Guam or Afghanistan. The flexibility that mLearning provides — the anytime, anywhere capability — was the key to being able to teach a course to those people, he said.

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