Mobile is a gateway drug

I first got involved in mobile as a fraud. That is, I was asked to write an article on mlearning (I had to ask “what’s mlearning?”), but then wrote a thought piece. Given that this was in 2001, and not a lot had been written yet, it got more attention than it deserved. (It wasn’t bad, just kind of naive.) On the other hand, it opened the door to get involved with mobile more deeply, and I did. That’s when I realized that mobile is a gateway drug. I suppose I should explain…

In writing my mLearning book, I developed the 4C’s from some earlier work (by Low & O’Connell, who’s four 4 R’s were also alliterative, but hard to regenerate). Then I mapped Content, Compute, Communicate, and Context to work-focused activities: Augmenting Learning, Performance Support, Social/Informal, and Contextual. It’s that latter framework that sparked the realization.

Inspired by Marc Rosenberg’s Beyond eLearning, I’d put out a view that L&D wasn’t doing near what it could and should, looking past ‘the course’. Here, we’re talking Performance Support. Then, again inspired, this time by Jay Cross’ landmark book Informal Learning, I included social and informal. In my book Revolutionize Learning & Development, I argued that we also wanted an integrated infrastructure (not one all-singing all-dancing platform), and cross-device distribution, to create a performance ecosystem.

And that’s what I saw mlearning able to do. Particularly with smartphones (just out at the time), the natural pattern of usage as documented by Palm was many short uses. This does not match courses well, which tend to be few long periods of use, more like laptops. Instead, I saw mobile as ways to extend and augment learning, with small reactivations.

It also reflects performance support, in terms of getting support in the moment. This extends to informal and social learning, e.g. reaching out to solicit or offer help, provide pointers to interesting material, etc.

Most importantly, mobile (with all those sensors), presaged contextual help: first by where you were (e.g. using your location as determined by a GPS). That possibility also leads to what you’re doing (e.g. based upon your calendar). These days, with so many other types of sensors, you can also provide resources based upon what’s near you, current conditions, and more.

I’m glossing over a bit of synergy between looking at mobile and working with orgs, but there was a realization. All the stuff mobile does best is everything but ‘the course’. What I realized and worked to spark, was that once you saw mobile as a platform, capable of all this, L&D could also look back and see that their overall org work could also be more than just offering training.

Mobile is a platform. Empirically once they’re introduced into an org for one thing, people start thinking about what else they might enable. Yet mobile naturally lends itself to anything but formal learning (except augmenting it; I wanted to title the book ‘augmenting learning’ but was talked out of it). Thus, mobile is a gateway drug to a better role for L&D, augmenting success in performance whether by putting information into the head, into the world, or tapping into it amongst peers.

That’s the opportunity with digital technology in general, but sometimes you need a lever. Mobile seems old hat to many now, but it’s still an opportunity untapped for others. Thinking about how technology aligns with our brains is a worthwhile initiative, as it helps us break free of preconceived notions, and that’s a path to innovation.

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