Do you need m-learning or e-learning?

The term ‘mobile learning‘ or m-learning was coined a number of years ago to cover the use of mobile devices for learning. The term was introduced in the days before smartphones and for a while learning on a mobile was a dire experience – the combination of poor screen resolutions and poor connectivity made m-learning something to be avoided. But with the rise of the smartphone m-learning has finally come of age. The only problem is that the range of ‘mobile’ devices has become so enormous that it’s now quite hard to distinguish between a device that’s mobile and one that’s not.

Laptops and netbooks are essentially mobile devices but learning on these devices is still considered e-learning rather than m-learning. What about tablets? These are also ‘mobile’ devices but are they better for e-learning or m-learning? For me (and many others) the differentiation between m-learning and e-learning is essentially redundant – what matters is the form factor of the device and the context in which the device is used.

Form Factor

Form factor is a term that describes the physical attributes of a product. In the case of computing devices there are a number of key components that contribute to the device’s form factor:

  • The overall size – will it fit into a pocket, handbag or briefcase
  • The weight – is it light enough to carry anywhere or so heavy it needs wheels
  • The screen size and resolution
  • The keyboard size – together the screen and keyboard size determine the overall size of the device
  • The power supply – small or big battery.

Though portability is important, the most important factor relating to the suitability of a device to be used to access e-learning content is the screen resolution. Pixels count when it comes to consuming or interacting with online content – generally the more the merrier. If I have a 320 x 240 pixel Blackberry then the type of content I can access is going to be different to the content I can access with a 1280 x 800 pixel tablet.

Screen Resolutions

Click to Enlarge: Screen Resolutions (Source: Wikipedia)

Conventional e-learning ‘modules’ are designed for a specific pixel width and height – they are often targeted at resolutions around 800 x 600 (SVGA), so that they will work on relatively low resolution screens. In recent years though the XGA standard (1024 x 768) has become more prevalent and we are also seeing increasing use of wider aspect ratio screens – which are optimised for entertainment uses (widescreen video). The standard Articulate player has pixel dimensions of 980 x 640 so it requires an XGA display to appear at optimal size. The standard aspect ratio of SVGA and XGA is 4:3 but 3:2 is now becoming more prevalent. Most movies are now shot in 16:9. I definitely prefer a wider screen format for my e-learning courses but when working for clients we often have to design for the lowest common denominator.

So getting back to mobile devices – can we run a conventional e-learning module on a mobile device? Well if the resolution is high enough then theoretically yes but the problem is that the scaling makes the content pretty much unreadable. Although the latest smartphones have reasonable resolutions the pixel density makes things look quite small in practice.

Note – I’m ignoring the Flash on mobile devices issue in this post (another post covers that).

The iPhone has a screen which is 640 x 960 so it’s actually pretty close to the size needed to run the standard Articulate player (980 x 640) but since the screen is only 3.5 inches (diagonally) the content would be too small to read and navigate effectively. However the iPad with a resolution of 1024 x 768 (XGA) and a screen size of 9.7 inches is ideal for running conventional e-learning modules (at least those not built in Flash).

Pixel Density (Pixels-per-inch)

Taking a standard laptop screen of 14 inches and with a resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels gives a pixel density of 91 pixel-per-inch. The iPad at 1024 x 768 with a display diagonal of 9.7 inches has a pixel density of 132 ppi. The iPhone 4 has a resolution of 640 x 960 pixels which when combined with its 3.5 inch display results in a massive pixel density of 326 ppi. That means that text, images and interface objects such as buttons are going to appear much smaller on an iPhone than on a conventional screen.

Pixel Densities

The same 100 x 100 pixel image on devices with pixel densities of 72, 144 and 240 pixels-per-inch. Source: MobiForge

In practice the limited resolutions and higher pixel densities of smartphones mean that m-learning content needs to be re-worked to be successful on the small screen. However, tablet devices are much closer in resolution and pixel density to conventional laptop and desktop screens so it’s much more likely that they can be used to access conventional e-learning content provided the player interface works satisfactorily on a touch screen (e.g. the buttons and menus are big enough to select with a finger) and of course that they support the publishing environment (e.g. Flash or HTML5).


Closely allied to portability is the context or environment in which the device will be used. A smartphone is always on and available instantly wherever the user is located. It’s therefore ideal for just in time access to content but it also supports multimedia in a way that computers in the office might not – for example it’s acceptable to listen to a 10 minute podcast while travelling on the train but it may be inappropriate while you are sat at your desk in the office.

Horses for Courses

Ideally as a learning designer I would prefer a design once publish anywhere approach but because of the form factor and context in which various devices are used in practice I need to design my learning programme for a specific device, or where appropriate create a range of learning activities that can be accessed across different devices. I’ve started to refer to this as the ‘device mix’. There are countless nuances to the device mix and we all face decisions each day whether to use one device or another. For example – if I’m at home and want to find out what the weather forecast is I have four options:

  • Fire up my desktop
  • Fire up my laptop
  • Use my iPad
  • Use my iPhone

For this quick task the hassle of starting-up either my desktop or laptop is a no-no; so for me the iPad on WiFi is the best option. It’s always on and has a screen resolution that will allow me to see a decent weather map.

If I’m shopping and need to find the nearest Waterstones then the iPhone is going to be my only real option. If I need to work on my presentation for Monday then the desktop will provide the most power and screen real estate to get the job done. Every day many of us deal with this device mix.

Screens, Resolutions and Pixel Densities

My current computing and e-learning devices.

When we design e-learning/m-learning we need to take these device choices into consideration. Does the material need to be provided across a range of devices or is a single device option (such a native app) the best option? Is the material for use on the go and likely to be required at the point of need, sometimes referred to as just-in-time learning (JIT) or performance support, or is it something that can be consumed more slowly and when you are in a more reflective mode (most conventional learning is definitely not JIT).

The 'e' in e-learning gets a makeover

Plymouth Enhanced Learning Conference


There has been much discussion in the twitterverse recently over whether we still need the ‘e’ in e-learning – what with all the new stuff coming along such as:

  • m-learning (e-learning on a mobile device)
  • social learning (self organising e-learning powered by social media tools)
  • live online learning (virtual e-learning classrooms)

I still use the term e-learning because it’s well known and reasonably well understood – though if you ask anyone at Learning Technologies next week you will get some quite different definitions. Personally I prefer the term online learning since it seems more inclusive of all that new stuff listed above.

However the primary aim of this short post is to highlight a new use of the ‘e’ in e-learning; enhanced learning. Where did I find this new usage? Pretty close to home actually – in Plymouth in Devon. It comes from the title of a conference on e-learning which has been run each year by Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) and his team a the University of Plymouth. This year though it has been re-branded as ‘The Plymouth Enhanced Learning Conference‘. I like this new usage – what about you? Should we re-invent the ‘e’ or just lose it altogether?

iBooks 2.0 is now in my 'bad books'

Yesterday I wrote about Apple’s two new releases that are significant for those of us working in online learning – iBooks2 and iTunes U2.

One of the issues for those of us in online learning, but in the non-education sector, is that iTunes U is aimed at educational institutions. True we can all consume the FREE content in iTunes U but ONLY educational institutions can use the course development platform (iTunes U Course Manager). This is a pity because it would provide a valuable alternative for those designing learning programmes in the non-education sector. I guess a ‘commercial’ version may feature somewhere on Apple’s secret roadmap but I think Apple also needs to recognise that ‘education’ is a business too and not get too carried away with its ‘free stuff for future Apple customers’ strategy.

More significantly there appears to be an even bigger spanner in the works when it comes to iBooks2. This product isn’t targeted just at the education market; though most of the posts on it over the last 24 hours have made a big play of interactive textbooks for students. Unlike iTunes U the authoring software for iBooks, iBooks Author, is available FREE to all (provided you use a Mac of course). The problem appears to be with the licence agreement. If you develop a book in iBooks Author the copyright of that book belongs to Apple! What’s more you can only sell an iBook through Apple – though you can give it away free on another platform (such as your own website).

Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty. Dan Wineman

Learn More:

Apple launches new iTunes U

Apple announced two very interesting new developments today for those involved in online learning.


eBooks get multimedia and interactivity embedded in the pages. This is an interesting development considering I have just been blogging about ‘learning from reading’ and ‘learning from watching video‘. iBooks2 even allows notetaking which pleases me immensely since I just blogged about the value of notetaking last month for 24Tips.

The new textbooks offer a host of functions which experts say will transform teaching – including images that turn into slideshows, links from the body text into glossaries, and multiple choice tests which are instantly assessed. Students will be able to create notes by highlighting text with their fingers, and then review all of their notes in one place – instantly creating a tailormade set of study cards. Guardian Online

Learn More: Review on Engadget

iTunes U

The most significant development though for e-learning is iTunes U. Apparently iTunes U has been around for some time but this new app provides a really cool interface for online learning. One of my favourite sayings was ‘If only Apple built an LMS.’ Well now it appears that they have. For me LMS’ have often been about the ‘MS’ not the ‘L’. Primarily they have been designed to enable L&D to manage learners and content as efficiently as possible. Well Apple’s approach has firmly placed the ball in the learner’s court.

If only Apple built an LMS. John Curran

iTunes U works in a similar way to other stuff on iTunes (music, video, apps). You browse the catalog, click to install, enter your password and bingo it downloads to your iOS device.

Currently all courses on iTunes U are free – most of it is provided by leading universities (see list of links at the end of this post). I guess this is Apple moving into the potentially lucrative education space by initially supporting Open Courseware, while the universities are experimenting with the freemium model. Or maybe I am too cynical and it’s all a genuine attempt to make the world a better place. I have only had a brief look at a couple of courses but they are quite comprehensive and clearly would have needed a reasonable amount of investment on the part of the universities. Other ‘courses’ however, such as some of those from Oxford University seem little more than a list of audio files – but it’s likely that this is legacy content from the initial version of iTunes U.

One key downside is that courses are asynchrounous – they are designed primarily for self-study. iTunes U appears to lack the ‘social learning’ activities that are becoming so popular in new LMS’. More significantly the content authoring platform is available to educational institutions ONLY. As a learning designer working in the non-education space I don’t appear to have any way of building programmes in iTunes U. That feels a lot like discrimination. Why not make the service open to all – surely a suitable business model could be identified?

One request please Apple – can we lose the iTunes when we’re not actually selling tunes? What about iOSU?

Here’s a very quick tour of an Open University course in iTunes U:

Learn More:


Learning Technologies 2012

Learning Technologies 2012If you are a learning and development professional interested in innovative approaches to learning then it’s definitely worth trying to get to this year’s Learning Technologies Show at London’s Olympia on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th January.

This year I will be assisting on the WillowDNA stand (Stand 124), but I will also be out and about catching up on the latest tools and technologies. This year I’m expecting a lot of the focus to be on m-learning and also social/informal learning platforms.

Lisa Minogue-White from WillowDNA will be running a FREE seminar describing how we developed a range of online CPD programmes based on learning paths for the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). It’s on Thursday at 13.15 in Seminar Theatre 5.

In fact this year there are three learning events running over the same two days at Olympia:

It’s an un-missable opportunity to get up to speed on a whole range of new developments and approaches in L&D. See you there!

Can you learn from watching a video?

The definition of e-learning has always been vague but in my view one of the tests of proper e-learning is the inclusion of learning interactions.

But in the last year I have seen increasing use of video positioned as e-learning. Whole platforms like Videojug or Learnable rely on video as the sole vehicle for learning and a lot of m-learning is also adopting the ‘learn by watching a video’ approach. But can we really learn simply by watching a video?

A couple of years ago I delivered a seminar at Learning Technologies with the Sponge team where we looked at whether or not we could learn from watching a documentary on TV. We didn’t have a definitive answer – it was done more to provoke some thinking on how we use video and in particular documentary techniques when building e-learning programmes.

I guess that when we watch a documentary most of us will say that we have learned something new – but that learning is quite shallow. Watch a documentary tonight on ‘Global Warming’ and in the morning we will be able to reel off some interesting facts but one week later the forgetting curve has kicked in and we will struggle to be able to recall anything other than the fact that it was a ‘good documentary’. As for actually changing our behaviour – in other words applying the learning – well the chance of that is pretty minimal.

Of course true learning is best seen as a path or a cycle:

  • You are exposed to something new
  • You then interpret the new information
  • You then try out what you have learned
  • Finally you reflect on how it all went
Simple Learning Cycle

In Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle this roughly equates to the four phases of watching, thinking, doing, and feeling.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it. David Kolb

Watching a video may fulfil the first two stages but won’t help much with Stages 3 and 4. In many ways a lot of so-called learning actually only makes it to Stage 2 – but good learning online or offline completes all four stages.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the immediacy that video brings to e-learning programmes, but video alone will not deliver the full learning experience. It needs to be supported by a range of learning interactions preferably both online and offline.

Try it for yourself. Here are some examples of video used for learning. Which works best for you?


BETT 2012: A Learning Technologist's Viewpoint

BETT 2012I normally try and get along to the BETT (British Educational Training and Technology) Show at London’s Olympia. I made it in 2011 but this year other commitments have got in the way.

Of course BETT is a show aimed at the education market so as a learning technologist and designer working in the commercial sector I’m not part of the core audience but aren’t learning technologies pretty much the same whatever the application? Well actually no, and once you’ve spent a couple of hours wandering around BETT you will see why.

The vast majority of learning technologies at BETT are designed for use within the classroom. Interactive whiteboards, classroom response systems, projectors, even special trolleys that contain banks of iPads or laptops for use in class. Educational learning technologies are all about keeping the power in the classroom. Last year I even struggled to find a Moodle vendor even though this is a massively popular platform in colleges and universities. Outside of education learning technologies are all about taking learning out of the classroom. Why is there such a disconnect? In my view it’s related to the two types of business model. Mainstream education’s business model is based on ‘bums on seats’. Schools and colleges get paid for each student they entice through their doors – there is no model to educate or partly educate online. In the commercial sector however the online learning business model works pretty well – reducing cost and providing flexibility for learners.

Things are changing however – colleges and universities are testing the water with online access to learning (proper learning technologies ;-) ). Open Courseware is now available from a number of leading educational institutions such as MIT in the US and The Open University in the UK. Of course Open Courseware is literally the ‘courseware’ which can only be a shadow of the full interactive learning experience (imagine PowerPoint without the presenter and audience). MIT though has recently announced that some of its courses will have free open access – not only to the courseware but also to the tutors, assignments, tests etc.

These are positive moves but the education business model is still rooted in the ‘bums on seats’ model. It always amazes me how one’s business model trumps almost anything else. Even though the research tells us that classroom model is outdated is so many ways we find it hard to change in case we cannibalise our core income stream.

Footnote – Next year BETT moves to Excel – this was a move that the CIPD HRD Show made a few years back and it resulted in poor attendances. As I’m not working in the education space I think it’s unlikely that I will make the trip out to Excel which is a shame because I always enjoyed the very different slant they had on learning technologies.



Articulate Storyline Sneak Peeks

Articulate Storyline Demos

When I get time I am still playing with the beta version of Storyline – the new standalone e-learning authoring tool from those wonderful people at Articulate. I can’t say a lot about the beta because as beta testers we had to agree not to disclose details but we are now able to use Storyline to work on real client projects. I’m not planning on doing that just yet but I thought I’d whet your appetite by pointing you towards a couple of demos that Tom Kuhlmann has shared on his Rapid e-Learning blog recently. You may already have seen them and thought – ‘I don’t recognise that Articulate player?’ Well the reason you don’t recognise it is it’s the ‘standard’ Storyline player. These demos don’t do very much but it gives a flavour of the sort of output you can get from Storyline. The last example shows a screen walkthrough – Storyline has a Screenr like tool built into it. This is going to be a cool new tool in 2012.

A Disaster Can Strike

Are you Prepared?

Screen Walkthrough


e-Learning Thought Leaders

Become a Key Person of Influence BookI’m working my way towards being a thought leader or a ‘key person of influence’ (KPI) as described in Daniel Priestley’s book ‘Become A Key Person Of Influence’.

Of course it’s not easy to decide when one actually achieves this exhalted though somewhat vague status. These days it appears to be driven mainly by the amount of blogging and tweeting one does – so I am on the case in both of those spheres of influence. However for me, quality trumps quantity, and from my perspective it’s the coherency of ideas that makes thought leaders stand out.

The premier league for e-learning in the UK (according to Bob Little PR) is as follows:

  1. Donald H Taylor. The power behind the success of the Learning Technologies conference and Chairman of the Institute of Learning and Performance. (Position last year: 1)
  2. Jane Hart. Founder and CEO of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. (Position last year: 3)
  3. Laura Overton. Managing Director of Towards Maturity, a not-for-profit community interest company that provides research and online resources to help organisations deliver effective learning interventions at work. (Position last year: 4)
  4. Steve Rayson, of Kineo, who is making the UK’s most innovative production company into a worldwide player. (Position last year: 5)
  5. Julie Wedgwood. A Towards Maturity advisor and an e-learning developer described, by some, as “the people’s favourite when you want to know ‘how-to-do-it’.” (New entry for 2012)
  6. Clive Shepherd. Still as shrewd a commentator on the e-learning scene as any. (Position last year: 7)
  7. Piers Lea. A member of ELIG and CEO of LINE Communications. (Position last year: 2)
  8. Martin Baker. Managing Director of LMMatters and the founder and Managing Director of the Charity Learning Consortium (CLC). (position last year: 10 equal)
  9. Ben Betts. Managing Director of HT2 who is gaining an international reputation – and has introduced a highly original product in Curatr. (New entry for 2012)
  10. Donald Clark. A long-established speaker and commentator on e-learning. (Position last year: 6)

I am aware of nearly all these people – the only exception is Julie Wedgewood – and have met nearly all of them at various e-learning conferences and events so I guess I’m making progress towards becoming a thought leader myself.

Daniel Priestly’s book is interesting because in it he identified five things that you need to do to become a KPI (they all begin with ‘P’):

  • Pitch – Be able to tell people what you do succinctly (think elevator)
  • Publish – Write and publish a book in your niche
  • Productise – Turn what you know into a product
  • Profile – Blog, tweet and speak
  • Partner – Forge partnerships and joint ventures
I’m on the case on all five of these fronts but there is still a lot of work to do. And if you need a partner get in touch. I’ll review progress again in January 2013!

Designing Learning for the Right Audience

WAudience Analysis in e-Learninghen we design an online learning programme one of the first things we do with clients during our Learning Design Day is to try and define the audience as accurately as possible. We try and identify who they are, what they already know and also what their motivation is for learning more. Sometimes we manage to identify a specific group that will particularly benefit from the learning but more often than not we end up trying to design something that works for everyone. I guess this is one of the downsides of e-learning – because it’s so easy to train so many the temptation is to push it out to as wide an audience as possible to justify the cost. BUT this is a flawed approach because instead of speaking directly to our key target audience we end up being bland and ineffectual. That’s why this article from B2B marketing agency Velocity caught my eye and makes a lot of sense for those involved in learning design too:

Marketers are instinctively inclusive. Our default is to set our crop-sprayer on the widest possible setting, covering the largest possible audience for everything we do. If a single piece of content can cover more than one target audience, why not go for it? It saves time and money and raises your Return on Content. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good idea to try to kill two birds with one content stone. In fact it’s rarely a good idea.

Here’s why:

Link: When Target Audiences Clash

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