Mobile Elearning (mLearning) Development and Trends

Smartphones have been around in their simplest form, as PDAs, since the mid-1990s. But it wasn’t until 2007 when touchscreen smartphones hit the market that the smartphone revolution began.

At that time, only 2 percent of the population owned a smartphone. Now, according to research from the Ericsson Mobility Report, there are more than 2.6 billion smartphone users.

Tablets have had similar success. The modern tablet was released in 2010, with only a 1 percent ownership rate. Now, the Pew Research Center estimates 45 percent of American adults own tablets.

Americans spend, on average, 3.5 hours per day on a smartphone and 3 hours per day on a tablet. But what exactly are they doing on these devices? A recent Mobile Behavior Report from ExactTarget found that 90 percent of smartphone users send texts and check email, and 75 percent search the Internet and access social networks at least once per day.

In addition, with 500 million pictures and hundreds of hours of video uploaded daily, many mobile device users visit social networks several times each day. Some 60 percent of smartphone users report playing games and getting news alerts as well.

Tablet users have put up similar numbers with some notable exceptions. Only 23% of tablet owners use their tablet to send texts. Users are also more likely to read or play games on tablets than on smartphones, likely because the larger screen makes interactivity more enjoyable.

Enter Mobile Learning (mLearning)

These numbers underscore the need for every organization to consider incorporating mobile learning into its overall elearning strategy. In addition, organizations must understand the strengths—and limitations—of mobile devices.

As tablets have gotten larger and more powerful—and as laptops have gotten smaller and more portable—the distinction between tablets and laptops has blurred. Therefore, mLearning now refers primarily to training specifically designed for smartphones.

Mobile elearning means training can be accessed from almost anywhere, delivering true just-in-time training as well as on-the-job performance support.

For example:

  • Automotive technicians can access information and even watch a video on how to perform an unusual repair as they work on a car.
  • EMTs responding to a medical emergency can tap into the latest medical knowledge should they encounter an unfamiliar situation.
  • HVAC technicians can access information from their phone while on a roof—without having to return to their truck to fire up a laptop.
  • Sales staff can refresh their product knowledge before walking into a meeting.
  • On-the-ground responders can access their agency’s emergency response plan during natural disasters.

Mobile devices can also integrate into actual training programs. Instead of learning how to perform a task in a classroom or via an office computer, users can learn to perform that task where it is actually performed, using a mobile device to guide and enhance the hands-on training experience.

For example, a building inspector can learn key aspects of building inspection while touring one, rather than doing so from behind a desk.

What Six Years of Mobile Learning Has Taught Us

After six years, here’s our take on the advantages, limitations, and recommendations for mLearning:


  • Portability. Enough said.
  • Availability. People have their phones with them all the time (and not just for Facebook and Candy Crush).
  • Frequency. Mobile learning often provides shorter but more frequent training units.
  • Immediacy. Get quick reinforcement of key points.Generational appeal. Newer workers already rely on phones for information.
  • Generational appeal. Newer workers already rely on phones for information.


  • Screen size. Sometimes, only a large screen can convey the entire message.
  • Limited functionality, interactions. Not having a keyboard or mouse limits interactivity.
  • Different software requirements. Programs that function well on a computer may not work on a tablet or smartphone.
  • Distractions. Your phone distracts you from the world, and the world distracts you from your phone.


  • Be realistic. Mobile learning works well for some topics but not others—deploy it wisely.
  • Keep courseware short. Learners should spend only so much time looking at a small screen.
  • Keep interactivity simple. Recognize that smartphones limit complex interactions.
  • Favor refresher training. Mobile learning is best delivered in small chunks and offers limited interactivity—use it to reinforce other training programs, such as traditional elearning.
  • Blend mLearning with other methods. For example, with sales or product training, use mLearning to reinforce key concepts delivered via ILT or computer-based elearning.

How to make Mobile Learning Intuitive and Easy-To-Use

When it comes to developing mobile learning, or any elearning for that matter, it’s critical to make the programs intuitive and easy to use. This is even more important if the programs are for external stakeholders such as your customers. If mlearning programs are difficult to navigate or follow, it creates a barrier to learning, and learners are likely to lose interest.

When training doesn’t flow well or make sense, learners don’t respect or appreciate the training. This causes employees to “zone out” and customers to search for other training options. Here are three factors to keep in mind when designing and developing mobile learning—or any type of elearning.

1. Simple and Visually Pleasing User Interface

When it comes to designing the courseware, it’s important to create a clean and visually appealing user interface. The goal is to avoid a cluttered, “busy” look. This applies to the welcome screen and navigation screens, as well as content screens. In the early stages of design, settle on a specific “look” and replicate it throughout the courseware.

Straying from this can undermine the learning’s effectiveness. Complicated screens with too much text or overwhelming design elements pose a distraction and decrease the amount of information absorbed. In general, simple is better. Think clean lines and plenty of empty space on the page.

2. Intuitive and Consistent Navigation

Navigation should be simple and consistent throughout the courseware. Learners should feel comfortable navigating the courseware, allowing them to focus on course content rather than how to move through the course.

Where needed, include clear yet concise instructions on how to navigate through the course, as well as how to perform each interaction. Too much information risks losing learners’ attention—too little risks confusing them. Avoid flowery adjectives and stick to action verbs and direct commands.

3. Graphical and Auditory Cues

Use graphical and auditory navigation cues to augment text-based cues. Some learners prefer written instructions to lead them through the course. Others prefer auditory directions, or even icons, buttons, and graphics. Graphical and auditory cues also emphasize key points by directing learners’ attention to the most important content.

Creating intuitive elearning and mobile learning courseware is harder than it sounds, but designers and developers are wise to keep their audience in mind. Simple, precise wording and an attractive user-interface can go a long way toward making happy learners. The more intuitive a program, the more a trainee can focus on taking in critical information.

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