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The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative

Mobile Learning Design: Instructional Design

Although eLearning paved the way for mLearning, evolution from one paradigm to the next does not imply that instructional designers should simply transfer those same design principles and practices. Designers should not convert existing eLearning materials and courses to fit on a smaller screen without first considering alternative options for addressing learning and performance objectives based on the mobility of the learner. At the highest level, designers need guidance to determine whether mLearning is even appropriate for a given solution.

Perhaps one of the least complicated mLearning decisions for educators and instructional designers is determining whether they need create something entirely new, convert existing learning materials, or capitalize on current mobile apps. Creating a new mLearning solution can quickly become costly and time consuming, and there are significant technical concerns when it comes to cross-platform development. Before rushing to create a new mLearning solution, designers might consider capitalizing on the popularity current App market catalogs from Apple, Google, and Microsoft. The popular “there’s an app for that” slogan, trademarked by Apple, holds true for the other mobile platforms as well. Often, the mLearning need can be addressed by an existing app or a combination of apps. For example, several augmented reality browser apps are freely available today and are already being used to meet mLearning needs in education, training, and performance support. If existing apps or mLearning solutions can be leveraged it might also be more cost effective to utilize them rather than creating a new capability from scratch. If existing apps don’t completely fulfill the mLearning requirements then reviewing them might at least help expose educators and instructional designers to new design ideas.

Alternatively, leveraging HTML and the web might provide another option for mLearning design for situations where learners might not have access to the same mobile platforms or apps. The one thing every mobile device has in common is that they all have web browsers that support HTML. While targeting a mobile web approach might address concerns with cross-platform access, it will limit mLearning design strategies that wish to target the advanced capabilities of mobile devices (e.g., sensors, camera, push notifications).

In the case of revisiting instructional strategy due to a mobile conversion requirement, conceptual frameworks that heavily emphasize the analysis phase might also be considered. If the analysis phase is ignored, the learning or performance problem may never be addressed and money and resources might be wasted either on a problem that doesn’t exist, or the wrong problem altogether. It is at this point in the process when appropriateness of mLearning as a solution should be justified.

If existing learning materials are being converted to mLearning, the analysis phase was presumably already completed. However, in light of the unique design considerations for mLearning, an audit would be needed of the existing content and strategy, to ensure that the content and approach is still appropriate for mobile. Mobile conversion usually requires more than chunking the content down into much smaller units, accounting for the reduced screen size, etc. In fact, it often requires a careful analysis of existing learning materials or courses before converting them to a mobile format. It was proposed that many designers and developers are creating new mobile content and converting existing courses by only resizing them to account for the smaller screen and user interface differences. Survey and interview respondents from ADL’s mobile learning survey report agreed that this is often the case, and results in poor usability and learning outcomes.

An important consideration when addressing conversion to a mobile format is that the learning content should be reduced to much smaller discrete units than in a classroom or desktop eLearning course, with preferably 2–3 minutes for each unit or module. The attention span, readability (on a small screen), and previously mentioned mobile behaviors reinforce this advice. Where and how these design changes are to occur is also a primary concern in the analysis phase when following an instructional design model. Such questions as the following should be considered:

  • Can the information be made more concise?
  • Should information be sequenced in the same way?
  • Should the students be assessed differently?
  • Should objectives be reevaluated?
  • Is the seat time too long for mobile instructional materials?

For good reasons, the instructional design practices for classroom environments and eLearning were largely limited to the cognitive domain. With the increasingly widespread adoption of mobile technology, a paradigm shift is taking place, offering new opportunities for improving performance and augmenting skills (in addition to knowledge transfer). But how is curriculum design and instructional design for mobile any different? Traditional course offerings replaced with or augmented by mobile technology may actually follow many of the same instructional design frameworks or processes in alignment with the widely-accepted phases of ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate). But what other types of mLearning can or should be considered during design? What are the current gaps in design knowledge for educators, instructors, and instructional designers? The answer to these important questions requires a solid understanding of mobile device affordances as well as considerations from two key domains of research and practice: Learning Sciences and Human-computer Interaction (HCI). These domains and other considerations are captured in ADL’s mLearning Design Reference Model.


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