Mobile: What is mLearning, Really? Part 2


Read Part 1 of this article…

There is a new term in web development that is directly relevant to delivering content onto a mobile device. That term is “responsive web”. This is a design approach that makes use of flexible layouts, images, and uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to adjust the look and feel of the content depending on the device. It essentially solves the design problems that occur when viewing the same content on screens of different sizes.
Think of all the possible screen sizes that exist. What you don’t want to have to do is develop different content for each possible option.

  • Desktop monitors
  • Laptop screens
  • Tablets (iPad, iPad mini, Kindle Fire, Android Tablets, Windows Surface, and so on)
  • Smart Phones (iOS, Android, and hybrid size phone/tablet or “phablet”)


When you use an app on your phone, how many different tasks do they perform? They may have several different features, but in reality, they really only do one or two things and they do them really well.

Your phone app takes photos. Your notes app allows you to make notes and checklists. Your email app allows you to send and receive email. Sure, your web browser allows you to view a myriad of different web sites, but it really is only doing one thing – allowing you to surf the web.

When you think about delivering solutions for your learners, think in this format. Have each solution do one or two things really well.

This mentality does a few things for you:

  •  It prevents scope creep because if it doesn’t meet the criteria of the “app” it becomes a separate app.
  • It causes your app to become more streamlined, which creates a better app.
  • Building several different apps allows you to deliver solutions faster than if you were building a single app that did many different things.


There are really three different options, when you consider delivering mobile support solutions.

  • App – this is an application in which all the data exists on the phone. This means the app does not require an internet connection. The negative of this delivery method is that it can require more space on the device.
  • Web App – Essentially, you deliver a web shortcut to a URL and your performance solution exists as a web site and none of its data lives on the phone. This solution requires either a wi-fi connection or a 4G connection. Without one of these, your user can’t access any of your solution’s content.
  • Hybrid – This is a combination of the two. Some of the content lives on the device, while other portions of the content lives at a URL on the web, and they are accessed via the app. This solution still requires the internet connection, but you can put the most important content on the device and the follow-up information at the URL. It also allows you to link out to related content on other sites.


In the Learning environment, there are three common things with which every designer/developer should be familiar.

  • Adobe – They create the industry standard applications – Photoshop, Captivate, Flash, Premiere, Acrobat, etc. Most of us use one or more of these tools on a daily basis at our jobs.
  • Flash – Most eLearning is delivered in .swf format and lives within HTML web pages. This allows for animations and interactivity.
  • Apple – Apple creates the leading smart phones and tablet devices (iPhone and iPad). They run on an operating system termed “iOS”.

Here’s the problem…

Apple iOS does not support Flash applications. This is for a few reasons. Flash applications can be hacked, and thus introduce a virus or a security hole to the operating system. Also, Flash tends to drain battery strength faster than other types of applications.

Because of this incompatibility, it has been very difficult for eLearning developers to deliver current solutions to iOS mobile devices…which happen to be the industry-leading devices. This has created a barrier to mLearning options.

As of early 2013, Adobe has acknowledged this issue and has committed to stop supporting Flash in the mobile environment.

So, if Flash is going away in the mobile environment, what is the new standard? This is the point in which we all start to get worried…
The new tools of the trade are web development languages:

  • HTML5 – This is how you develop your content. It will be raw content, without formatting, that is tagged for identification.
  • CSS3 – This represents the formatting for your content. You create style sheets for each delivery method. So, rather than creating the same content for a tablet, and then reformatting it for a desktop, and then a third round for the smart phone, you create the content once and then a style sheet for each delivery method.
  • JavaScript – This is how you will develop small applications within your content.

Technically, these are not new technologies. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript have been around for many years. If you have developed any web pages, you might already be familiar with these.


Developing solutions that you will deliver via mobile requires a different set of questions you need to consider before committing to a solution.

• What’s the goal? Before you embark on a path, you should know what you are trying to accomplish. This is a more complicated development path, so goal clarity is more valuable.

• What’s your timetable? If you need to develop for multiple platforms, this can increase your delivery time. Make sure you account for this. You will also need more testing time, as well.

• What’s your budget? It is quite possible that you won’t have the skills to develop what you want to deliver. So, you will either need to have the time to learn it or you will need to hire a developer that can bring your vision to life. These can both require a larger budget.

• What delivery platforms are you going to support? In traditional eLerning, you only need to really consider the Windows operating system within a version of Internet Explorer. Mobile solutions require that you need to identify if you are going to develop for Android, Windows, iOS, and which versions of each. By knowing that your audience is predominantly an iOS crowd, you might alleviate your need to develop for the other device types.

Once you identify these items, expand your thinking to include some of these items:

  • What is the memory available on the devices? You want to make sure your learners’ devices can store whatever solution you create. This will determine if you need to create an app, a web app, or a hybrid.
  • What is the processing power and battery life of the devices? You don’t want to run down the learners’ devices.
  • What is the context in which they will use your solution? Will they have wi-fi or 4G? These all drive the type of solution you create.
  • What happens if the user rotates the device? If you develop your solution for a vertical screen, does it destroy the experience if the user rotates the device to view a horizontal screen?
  • How will the user interact with the application? Will they swipe, press, pinch, or zoom? These are actions that don’t exist in a mouse-driven application, so you need to make sure you consider the ramifications and if you are going to support these interactions.

Again, look at the apps you currently use. There are a few standard conventions:

  • Flat pages – these are screens that you swipe to move to the next one. The interaction is moving your finger left or right across the screen. Think of reading a book.
  • Tab bars – this is a series of buttons across the top or the bottom of the screen. Each tab allows access to information within different sections
  • Tree structures – this is the traditional folder structure you might find in Windows. You would be drilling down into the content.
  • Panels – This is very similar to what Microsoft developed with Windows 8.

As you consider what your mobile solution will be, make sure you consider these standard app conventions. Your users will already be familiar with these, and therefore require less training on the solution you deliver.


So, what’s really going on here? What’s old is becoming new again. In the past, there were two different roles. An Instructional Designer designed the learning intervention, the activities, and any necessary materials. An Instructional Developer created any delivery methods, media, and so forth. Over the last few years, rapid development tools allowed these roles to merge into one job role – typically the Instructional Designer.

With the advent of mobile devices, responsive web, the requirements for more development across more platforms, and the slow demise of Flash on the mobile platform these two roles are starting to separate again. It will become more common to see these roles as two separate entities over the next few years.


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One Response to “Mobile: What is mLearning, Really? Part 2”

  1. Mobile: What is mLearning, Really Part 1 | ASTD - Central Florida Chapter Blog Says:

    […] in Orlando, Florida « 10 Mobile Apps That Boost My Everyday Productivity Mobile: What is mLearning, Really? Part 2 […]

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