With the total number of mobile phone users worldwide this year reaching a staggering 4.88 billion (representing nearly 70% of the world’s population), and more people accessing the internet on their mobile than on their PCs, it is of little wonder that you can now do almost anything on your mobile.  However, whilst some mobile functions, like SMS, and now even the entire app market, seem to have had their heydays, one area that continues to show unparalleled growth is mLearning.

When it comes to mLearning, the numbers don’t lie.  With the mLearning market alone now worth $8.7 billion dollars, and mLearning predicted to be the savior of many struggling corporate learning departments, there is no doubt that mLearning will continue to make waves in the electronic learning market.

As with any industry that experiences exponential growth, however, the mLearning industry has encountered some growing pains, not least of which has been perfecting the functionality, usability, and design aesthetics for mLearning courses.  Early in the game, many learning designers mistakenly thought that they could simply optimize their E-learning courses for mobile.  This approach miserably failed – courses become optimized for viewing only, but not for learning.  So, for all of those who have tried, but not succeeded, to design mLearning, here is a comprehensive, failsafe design guide:   

Functionality

There is one word that describes everything that mLearning functionality should be, and that word is: simple.  Given the screen size of smartphones, learning designers should look to minimize all functionality.  This can be a challenge, however, when the mobile environment offers so much great functionality – there really is no limit to what one can do with a touchscreen! Here, then, are a couple of tips to finding a happy functionality medium:

 

  • Stick to the most basic gestural interactions: Swipe and tap.  Everyone knows these features, and everyone loves them.  Whilst it might seem like second nature to you to use the pinch gesture to zoom, many people actually don’t know how to do that. So when it comes to interactions – try not to get too fancy.

 

  • An itty bitty screen = lots of mistakes: Remember when smartphones first came out with keyboards, and your uncle threw his against the wall because he kept pressing the ‘a’ instead of ‘s’? Think about that exact situation when designing your course.  The error rate is far higher on mobiles than on desktops, so ensure you have adequate space between your ‘Submit’ and ‘Cancel’ button, and anywhere else where the learner might make a mistake.
  • Tie one hand behind your back, and see if you can complete the course: No, really.  On a desktop, you use two hands.  On your smartphone, you do not.

Usability

An equally important consideration when designing mLearning is usability, or how the learners will use, and interact, with the course.  We have already established that mLearning can occur in a vastly different environment from E-learning, which means that designers must design their courses with this in mind.  The three most important usability considerations for designers, then, should be:

 

  • Designing for learning ‘nuggets’: Accessibility, and immediate content relevance are amongst the many benefits of mLearning, and also form the raison d’etre for many mLearning courses.  As such, long, complex courses are out, and shorter courses with ‘bite sized’ modules are in.
  • Blending learning could mean more than you think:  Where blended learning used to mean a mix of instructor led and online training, with mLearning it can mean much, much more.  Organisations such as Teazl are pairing cutting-edge mLearning with real-life challenges to create the ultimate learning experience. Mlearning, then, may need to be designed with these specific scenarios in mind.      
  • Wifi can be limiting: Until Australia catches up with the rest of the world from a WiFi perspective, designers cannot just assume that their learners have access to unlimited downloads.  As such, file sizes must be kept to a minimum.  

 

Design Aesthetics

In terms of the actual look and feel of an mLearning course, common sense should, at all times, prevail.  For example, if a design object isn’t bold/large/interesting enough to see on a tiny screen, in bright sunlight, in between distractions, then it probably doesn’t belong in the course.  Beyond this, designers should heed the following:  

  • Minimize text, but if you have to have it, use a large (14pt) font size: Icons and images are always better than text, but if you have to use text, don’t ruin your learner’s experience by making it tiny.
  • Use strong visual cues: Bold colours and right-sized images on white backgrounds render best on all mobile devices and frankly, look better anyway.  Ensure you use these to grab and hold your learner’s attention.

Designing a great mLearning course involves far more than just optimizing an E-learning course for a mobile.  However, with the mLearning predicted to grow by a mammoth 37% by 2020, time spent learning how to design best-practice courses will certainly be time well spent.  

Author: Janine Cahill

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