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Distance Learning Update: What's Mobile Got To Do With It?

May 12, 2017 | Robin Colson, Director, Research & Evaluation

Girl Looking at Computer

Distance learning continues to grow rapidly in higher education and in corporate training environments. Colleges and universities continue to experience increasing online course enrollments, even in the face of declining overall campus enrollments:

•   The number of college students taking online courses has continued to increase yearly since 2012, with 6.7 million (about one-third) taking at least one online course per year (Allen & Seaman, 2016).

•   In 1995, only 4% of US companies offered e-learning in their professional development programs – today that number has increased to 77% and is expected to continue to rise throughout 2017, at least (Vernau & Hauptmann, 2014).

All forms of distance learning have become so commonplace that the NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition writes: “Online, mobile, and blended learning are foregone conclusions. If institutions do not already have robust strategies for integrating these now pervasive approaches, then they simply will not survive,” (Adams Becker et al., 2017, p. 2). A common reason that students and employees give for their preference of distance learning is the flexibility and ‘on-demand’ access, which is particularly important for adult, non-traditional students who now represent over half of the post-secondary, undergraduates enrolled in US colleges (Ntoko, 2016). In fact, Purdue University just announced its acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University with a plan to convert it into a nonprofit public university aimed at adult students who “are finding hope in high-quality, online programs tailored to their unique needs.” (Purdue University News, 2017).

While online learning has traditionally been delivered via personal and laptop computers, learners increasingly are accessing instruction through their mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets. For U.S. adults ages 18-29 and 30-49, 86% and 83%, respectively, own smartphones and 45% of all U.S. adults own a tablet, and ownership rates are expected to continue to climb (Anderson, 2015). In contrast, about 73% of U.S. adults own desktop or laptop computers, but this percentage has remained stagnant for the past decade (Anderson, 2015). These statistics are greatly reflective of the demands of Generation Y, meaning those born after 1980, and who are often called ‘digital natives’. They intensively use digital applications in all situations and are now actively in the workforce; they “are used to having knowledge available anywhere, anytime and tend to look for it at the last minute.” (Vernau & Hauptmann, 2014, p. 5).

As mobile technology users continue to come of age and enter the workforce, online content developers will have to adapt their development techniques to accommodate mobile delivery technologies. Characteristics of mobile learning include (Balls, 2017):

•   Short lessons. The compact and ‘just-in-time’ nature of mobile delivery precludes long narratives and lengthy lessons. Content that is brief, clear, and focused on only one topic will be the norm. Think ‘You Tube’ instructional videos.

•   Customized learning experience. Adaptability to individual learning styles is a major focus in next-generation learning management systems (LMS) and mobile learning can be adapted to learning styles and locations.

•   Flexibility and accessibility. Mobile learning can be available anyplace a learner has cell service or Wi-Fi, which makes its highly accessible. This is an important difference and one of the primary reasons for the dramatic increase in ownership of mobile technologies, while ownership rates for personal computers have stagnated.

•   Engaging content. Mobile learning has many options for creating engaging content, including gamification and other forms of user interaction, which is an important capability for Generation Y.

The Role (Roll?) of Mobile

The explosive growth of mobile technologies will continue to make larger and larger amounts of digital data available to more and more people through smaller, faster, and more portable devices. In fact, with more than 80% of US adults under the age of 50 owning smart phones (Anderson, 2015), one might argue that mobile learning could soon become the most pervasive and integrated learning platform ever created.

The continual availability of data is blurring the lines between daily life experiences and learning experiences, providing information, instructions, and advice to people everyday, all day, just when they need it and in the format they want. Need a recipe? No worries – the smart phone can deliver it in seconds along with a color picture, a video that demonstrates how to make it, the shopping list of ingredients needed, and where those ingredients are on sale at a grocery store near you because, yes, the smart phone knows where the user is. And whether it is a simple recipe or a complex surgical technique, the same sorts of information, including instructions, pictures, and video demonstrations, can all be found on the Internet and accessed through any of a number of devices.

This integration of learning into our everyday lives is setting the stage for both just-in-time learning and lifelong learning and has significant implications for the way education and training professionals must deliver instruction. Traditionally, it has been necessary to cram all the facts and general knowledge about a particular topic into a single training experience because, once the course was over, the student no longer had access to that information unless he or she kept the textbook or lecture notes. The same was true for the corporate learning environment. Many organizations found it necessary to provide multi-week orientation and training for new employees because there was really no economical or efficient ways to provide additional training once employees were on the job. Now that all information can be accessed at all times, it is less important for students to learn all of the information upfront and more important for them to know howto access, evaluate, and derive meaning from information when they need it and in the format that suits them best.

Teach a Man to Fish

As the number of ‘digital natives’ continue to increase and mobile technologies continue to become an increasingly integral part of our lives, our ability to access gigantic amounts of information will continually improve. In turn, we will increasingly need skills for evaluating and curating all that information so we can derive useful meaning from it. This is analogous with the shift made by many grade-schoolers around third grade or so, when they shift from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ (Center for Public Education et al., 2015). The challenge educators face in this era of all-information access is to help learners shift from ‘learning to access information’ to ‘accessing information to learn’. It is one thing to find all kinds of information on the Internet; it is another to learn from it. By giving learners the tools to learn on their own, when they need to learn, where they need learn, education and training professionals will no longer have to provide information dumps of all the information a student needs, but rather, only the most immediately needed and foundational information. From a learning perspective, the ability to deliver content in smaller chunks over a period of time is much more effective than one marathon training session. Remember, learning is a process; training is an event.

Mobile Learning: Part of a Learning Ecosystem

This notion of responding to so many different learners, providing real-time information in a variety of formats, makes mobile learning technologies absolute components of any viable ‘learning ecosystem’ (Sargsyan, 2015). A learning ecosystem refers to a series of relatively small lessons delivered over a period of time, using a variety of mediums (e.g., print, video, simulation, etc.) and using varying instructional strategies (e.g., interactivity, experiential learning, collaboration, drill-and-practice, etc.). Mobile devices are excellent purveyors of all types of content; they support many types of instructional strategies, and can deliver just-in-time information (Sargsyan, 2015).

Besides their ability to adapt to many training situations, mobile devices also have the added benefit of accessibility. Because they can be accessed on-the-job in many, many job environments, they can provide learners with the situated, just-in-time information within the actual performance arena that contextualizes and enriches the learning experience, making it both more effective and more memorable. Mobile technologies can also provide avenues for real-time collaboration through social media channels, sharing information and expertise through videos, photos, and text.

This use of mobile technologies to access immediately needed information is already commonplace for Generation Y users and will only continue to expand across user populations in the future. Organizations that want to effectively engage with their coming generations of employees, both for communication and training purposes, must strategically plan for mobile technologies to become part of their learning ecosystem.



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Anderson, M. (2015, Oct 29). The demographics of device ownership. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science, & Tech. Retrieved from

Balls, A. (2017, Apr 27). 4 reasons mlearning is here to stay. Allen Communications. Retrieved from

Center For Public Education, Black Council Of School Board Members, Hispanic Council Of School Board Members, National Caucus Of American Indian/Alaska Native School Board Members and Council Of Urban Boards Of Education. (2015). Learning to read, reading to learn: Why third grade is a pivotal year for mastering literacy. Alexandria, VA: the Center. Retrieved from

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