When a popular technology like mobile receives so much public attention, development teams often begin with focusing too narrowly on the technology itself, rather than the requirements or learning needs. Ideally, the learning outcome should be the primary driver for making design decisions. However, being familiar with the capabilities of the different types of handheld devices that learners use may also introduce new ideas, and might even help to appropriately narrow the scope of a mobile learning initiative. For now, there is no right or wrong answer for what types of devices are considered to be truly “mobile” as perceptions and technology will continue to change and evolve. The focus should be on how mobile technology can add the most value to the learning context.
Mobile Device Types
Mobile device screen sizes, as well as several other form factors collectively introduce many considerations and implications for a mobile learning design strategy. Think about the minimum sizes of text and graphics for various mobile-device sizes, preferences for touching or interacting with different device types, designing for keyboard use, dealing with loss of connectivity, screen glare, and behaviors of smartphone users vs. tablet users. All of these concerns may influence how organizations determine what devices they will include or exclude from their list of targeted mobile device types.
While there are success stories that leverage basic features such as text messaging, today’s mobile devices that have a touchscreen and advanced hardware capabilities seem to offer the most potential for rich mobile learning experiences. In addition, smartphones and tablets are becoming so prevalent because they are typically more affordable and portable than laptop computers. A survey conducted by the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative in 2013 asked 831 respondents from the education and training community which mobile device they use most often for learning. The results heavily implied a focus on smartphones and tablets for mobile learning, with the highest responses reported at 61% for tablets and 29% for smartphones.
The education and training communities both have internally mixed opinions on whether a laptop should qualify as a mobile device. Laptops were once considered too heavy and not small enough to be truly mobile. However, the recent convergence of laptops with tablets into a hybrid device by some manufacturers could make this concern even more difficult to address. For example, designing learning content for a tablet has much more in common with a laptop or desktop computer than it does for a smartphone. However, the individual usage of these devices is much different. There are also an increasing number of design implications related to hardware expansion capability differences between mobile devices as the market continues to evolve. Therefore, ADL Initiative is primarily focused on smartphones and tablets as the primary types of mobile devices used for mobile learning.