Education for the higher educated
Published on: 13 August 2012
Function: Researcher
Organisatie: Ashridge Business School

Opportunities for mobile learners

The complexity of the changing business landscape has increased demands for continuous learning, with busy executives requiring access to learning opportunities any time, any place and anywhere. Over the past five years, advances in mobile technologies have catalysed the way in which mobile learning is being adopted and used across contexts and has evolved into much more than e-learning with a phone. Mobile devices include phones which are getting smarter and tablets that are increasingly more mobile. Mobile learning is “just-in-time, just enough and just-for me” (Traxler 2007) and offers the opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom and into the hands of the learner – literally.

• ‘Just enough’ Learning’

Increasingly busy executives have become more and more constrained by time, this has led to a need to create flexible opportunities for learning that builds in choice for participants to manage their time and expectations within complex and demanding lives, resulting in a change in demand from ‘just-in-case’ learning towards highly applied ‘just-in-time’ learning. Executives do not want to be overloaded with information and mobile devices minimise the amount of information that can be offered to a learner at any given time, therefore avoiding cognitive overload and offering easily digestible learning.


• ‘Just-in-time’ Learning’

Increasing constraints on the time of a busy executive are not necessarily matched to demands for increased reflection and learning. Quite the opposite; many executives are time starved, over worked yet under increasing pressure to make the best decisions in both a competitive and litigious environment. These behaviours may well drive learning away from short term priorities and yet mobile learning is convenient and flexible as it can be accessed anywhere, at any time. It enables learning to be ‘situated rather than simulated’, can improve learner confidence and offers a powerful opportunity for learning ‘on demand’ at the exact moment it is required.


• ‘Just-for-me’ Learning’

The mobile learner wants to access materials and to connect with others in more convenient ways that are in tune with evolving practices at work and in their lives more generally. The different ways that learning may be accessed via a device means that it can appeal to many different learning styles (e.g. text, graphics, video, animation, audio, discussion forms, messaging, searching and so on). The always-available nature of mobile learning empowers learners to take the initiative and plan their own learning according to personal requirements and control the pace at which they learn. Learners choosing when, where and how they learn add real value and engage in their experience of learning.


Supporting the mobile learner – the device

Smart phones are becoming widely adopted as business tools with many employers distributing them to their workforce to keep them connected and productive whilst they are on the move. Participants coming to business schools have their own mobile devices and will increasingly use these as part of their studies. Recent research from Ashridge shows that 95% of participants have smart phones and regularly use them to search the internet, read e-books, view video clips and listen to podcasts. And whilst 82% own laptops, 38% own tablets such as iPads – this number is predicted to rise.


Using your own mobile device means you are already familiar with the technology, reducing technological barriers to access learning. The portability of mobile devices makes them readily available for collecting evidence in the moment (e.g. via audio, still or video camera). In addition, mobile devices can help organise personal learning schedules, keep track of deadlines, set reminders, monitor attendance and progress. Learners can use mobile devices for storage, to access messages and content, to stay informed about course context, and to review and manage learning activities engaged in during a day. And in terms of post-programme learning, mobile devices can provide further opportunities to maintain contact, and follow-up on actions.


It is important to test assumptions regarding strengths or limitations of mobile devices. There have been examples where educators (e.g. ACU) initially assumed that students would not want to read a document on their mobile devices because the screens were considered small and were then surprised that many of the students considered the screen size perfectly adequate as they had previously used screens that were much smaller.


And as you may know from experience – if you need to know something in the next five minutes and the only way to find it is on a mobile device – that is the best device at that moment. That’s the benefit of a mobile device – it is with you most of the time and is able to provide access to vital information when you need it: in the classroom, at work, out with friends, home with the family. A mobile device provides the ability to create, collaborate and access content when required.


Supporting the mobile learner – access to resources

In the age of information overload, learning must be relevant, timely and served up in manageable chunks. How learners determine the reliability and validity of information is as important as the information itself. There is an increasing trust in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and decline in reliance on the ‘expert’. Whilst this can provide quick feedback – the information known to the crowd may not be sufficient. Having access to reliable, trustworthy information which combines the ‘wisdom of an expert crowd’ can be a valuable virtual resource to help draw conclusions from what could otherwise be a vast amount of information (see Virtual Ashridge1 for such a resource).


Recently the distinction of digital natives / digital immigrants has been replaced by the more nuanced digital visitors / digital residents2,3 spectrum. This distinction is not based on age, as we know from our research that all ages bring mobile devices into the classroom: there are as many examples of residents aged over 55 as there are visitors under 30. Where you are on this spectrum may impact your openness to mobile learning.


Supporting the mobile learner – social network

Social learning can play a vital role in how learners make sense of their environment, their experience and their understanding of concepts. Mobile devices can facilitate social learning both in reality and virtually.


Mobile devices enable access to content such as videos and podcasts which can be viewed as and when it suits the learner (asynchronous). This then allows the valuable synchronous time allocated with other people (fellow students, educators etc.) to be spent exploring and contextualising the underlying concepts and discussing the implications in real time - not just being talked at. This can be either in a classroom or online, such as Skype or a webinar.


Also, knowledge from others within a virtual learning ‘community of practice’ can be tapped to construct learning in informal groups in reality and virtually. This can be to discuss content, concepts and planning. Through this process, it is possible to transform the tacit knowledge of individuals into explicit knowledge of a community of learners: questions can be asked, answers can be offered, knowledge is shared and sense is made from a variety of contexts and experience. This is a valuable resource outside of formal education. There may already be discussion forums as part of the learning offer, if not; social media facilitates this process well. Wenger et al (2002) suggests this works best where there are shared concerns, problems and passion about a topic – a virtual learning community of practice can be difficult to create without being intrinsically motivated by it.
A point of note about synchronous and asynchronous learning, research suggests that like normal conversations, synchronous learning lends itself to idea exchange, planning, getting acquainted – where a quick response is welcome. Asynchronous learning is more suited to reflection of complex issues or critical assessment – where information processing is required (Hrastinski, 2008).


Some advice

Mobile device functions can create a great spring board for learning: a text that reflects on experience; a photo that evidences a portfolio; an audio recording to evaluate an outcome. The device can provide a backpack of tools, resources and social connectivity. But it is the active learner that benefits most from the backpack.
Mobile learning has been described as a ‘Jackin-the-Box’ – playful but potentially unsettling; it is not always easy to measure what you are learning. Set goals and be clear about what you hope to achieve, and make the most of dead time – five minutes can be powerful if you have the right resource.
Be mindful of distraction – a quick search for something can, and often does, lead on to looking at something else, and so on. It is important to recognise and manage when time is being used to procrastinate and when it is being used usefully – deep down, you know the difference.


It is worth remembering that some of the more ad hoc ideas which scaffold learning can cost very little and only need imagination and experimentation. It is not always necessary to re-invent the wheel. There is probably an app to do that for you.



The implications of mobile learning are far-reaching, and its potential effect on all education, including executive education, profound. As mobile learning capabilities continue to expand new forms of learning will continue to evolve and the next few years will see a period of rapid growth for mobile learning, with evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes.