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The growing demand for skills in mobile learning

The growing demand for skills in mobile learning

Just as the workforce is becoming more mobile, so is learning – and that’s driving the need for specific skills.

Filed in Skills development

Where the workforce goes, learning has to follow. Of course, we're very used to people using laptops rather than being tethered to a desk, but people are now ever more mobile- with smartphones and tablet computers.

Love it or hate it, the iPad was in many ways a breakthrough product. We would go so far as to say it defined a whole market, but it certainly stole most of the sales. It also did several things which analysts either didn't predict or even predicted that it wouldn't - for example, find a solid niche in industries such as healthcare in the US (analysts said that the battery life wouldn't be up to the job). 

Mobile learning in education

Another place where the iPad gained ground was education - including schools and colleges - again, with the US taking the lead. It's not hard to see why. Using a PC could be described as being a sit-back experience: you're further from the content; less connected. With a tablet, you're directly manipulating the content; it's undeniably immersive. Just work with one of the new iBooks on an iPad and you'll see why it trumps a textbook hands-down. Steve Jobs talked about not having the need to cart a whole load of books into a lecture - and that was a big win, but not the only win. Now you don't need a laptop either - just one thing to carry.

Jobs also talked about entering a post-PC era and again people scoffed. But with the sales of desktop PCs slumping massively and those of tablets going through the roof, Jobs' claims no longer look like hype.

The Flash challenge

From a mobile learning perspective, there is one fly in the ointment. The iPad (and iPhone) don't support Flash. Again, analysts said this was a mistake. After all, 99% of browsers already run Flash; it's pervasive. But Apple stuck to its guns.

Flash has been a core part of e-learning development, pretty much always. It's used to stream video, power quizzes and deliver interactive demos. None of which work on iOS devices. Rightly or wrongly, the market power of Apple is such that Adobe has had to relent - abandoning mobile Flash in favour of HTML5.

It's not for us to judge the wisdom of this. We talk to a lot of developers - Flash and HTML5 - and it's clear that HTML5 does only part of what Flash can do. HTML 5 also can't do that much unaided - it often requires JavaScript to give it a leg up. In its favour, most mobile devices do support HTML (since we're talking about iOS and Android having a significant share of the market) - and it's an open standard.

Against it, apart from lacking some of Flash's power - it's a standard that isn't actually ratified. It's also not supported by Internet Explorer 6, 7 or 8.

That's not stopped the world getting on and using it, though. It's quickly becoming the centre of many organisations' technology strategies - in the hope that not only can one, open standard be served to many devices but that e-learning assets should also last longer.

Advantage: HTML5

There's another advantage to HTML5. Although legacy browser support is patchy to non-existent, support on mobile devices is excellent. And while Apple has the lion's share of the tablet market right now (about 60%, even when you count the limited Kindle as a tablet), it has got some serious competition coming. Android is a robust alternative that's open to many manufacturers to use. Windows 8 is a redesign that's hugely tablet-focused. And what do they all support? HTML5.

It's not just about tablets. Although some might wince at the thought, many phones are capable of delivering the same content as tablets - and it's something people are increasingly carrying. In 2011, 40% of teenagers had a smartphone. Each of which supports… HTML5.

This gives e-learning developers a bit of a headache. Hang on in there with Flash, or start the process of moving your skills to HTML5? We've certainly talked to a few developers who feel that Flash (or even Silverlight) is far more suited to e-learning than HTML5. But many more are recognising that now learning is going mobile, moving to something other than Flash is inevitable. It's only a matter of time. That something else is HTML5. 

It's true, there are tools which can author HTML5 e-learning for you. But the use of these tools is often the choice of the end client, perhaps to fit in with an established authoring workflow. Plus, there's a limit to what such tools can do - typically, more can be achieved when coding by hand. There are also converters - Adobe itself has the experimental Wallaby technology, but that can't convert all Flash elements. Nor is it likely that it ever will, since some things in Flash don't have an HTML5 equivalent.

Authoriing tools

Most importantly, there isn't a standard HTML 5 authoring tool that's focused on e-learning. Flash wasn't just the output - Flash Professional (while not the only Flash authoring tool) was the most powerful, flexible and pervasive. Having said that, Adobe has been hard at work in Edge, its new HTML 5 authoring environment - which shows great promise for e-learning use. 

It would be a mistake to think that mobile e-learning is all about the technology, though - any more than desktop-based e-learning is. Mobile learning is an entirely different paradigm, one where the user's expectations are as different as the technology's capabilities. Learners expect to reach in and manipulate what they say - expand charts, break apart diagrams, explore information with their hands and minds. Converting a book into a text-based iBook is no more e-learning than a PowerPoint presentation.

Developing for mobile e-learning requires a real understanding of the tablet and how people connect to it - and why they find it so engaging. It requires a different approach to content creation - one which not only encourages learning by involvement, but also enables people to more readily find their own learning path, rather than take one which is prescribed.

It's a dramatic change - a change in form-factor, in technology and in the overall approach to learning. It's something e-learning companies should embrace because it finally delivers the 'anywhere, anytime' promise of e-learning - which never really rang true when you were tethered to a desk. But it does require a change of skills and a shift in mindset. 

The message for e-learning developers and instructional designers is clear: get mobile, or become irrelevant.


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