Learning wherever you are, whenever you need it

by | Nov 5, 2012 | Articles

The rapidly evolving landscape of mobile devices means that learners’ expectations are starting to change. People increasingly want to take the same flexible approach to learning that they have adopted for email, shopping, etc.

That means being able to switch between devices depending on their location and need – perhaps starting a course on one device and completing it on another. As learning technologists, we need to support learners to embrace these types of new opportunities offered by mobile devices.

Enter responsive design
Responsive design is a term initially coined for websites designed to be accessed on multiple devices. If you’ve ever visited a non-responsive website on a phone, you’ll know it’s not ideal. You have two choices – either see the whole page with tiny text and buttons so small you can’t hope to tap the right one (unless you have fingers the size of toothpicks) or zoom in and try to make sense of the website by crawling around it as though you’re an ant on a massive game board. Responsive web design aims to avoid this by designing the website so it automatically adapts itself for users on smartphones with much smaller display areas.
Take a look at the Epic website and change the size of the browser, making it as thin as a smartphone. You’ll notice that the layout re-arranges itself so the text remains the same size and the site still has an intuitive layout.
But how does this translate to e-learning?
e-learning interactions must be rethought for smaller devices. At the least, they need to be laid out differently (for example with a portrait rather than a landscape orientation) to match the usage conventions associated with smaller devices, and images need to be rescaled. Interactions better suited to large screens need to be adapted for smaller screens so they remain immersive and interactive, but also usable.
At Epic, we use our GoMo authoring tool which has responsive design thinking built-in to its functionality. GoMo allows designers to divide the potential display area into rows and columns. On larger devices, designers use the grid to specify exactly where assets will appear on the screen. GoMo then uses best practice to automatically realign and redisplay those assets for smaller devices. This takes most of the work out of designing once for multiple devices.
But that doesn’t mean designers can simply put their feet up. Assets such as complex diagrams won’t take well to simply being shrunk – it becomes impossible to view the details. Here, a decision should be made about how to translate the content to a smaller device. That might mean reworking the image or keeping it full size and letting learners scroll across it. Other interactions, such as drag and drop on a PC, need to change to entirely new interactions for touchscreen devices – which reserve swiping for primary navigation.
Finally, think about overall course structure if you know you plan to deliver your learning to multiple devices. If a significant proportion of learners will be accessing a course primarily via smartphones, then keep topics shorter and overall navigational structure simpler.


Multi-device learning doesn’t mean shrinking e-learning courses

Mobile devices not only come in different shapes and sizes – people also use them in different ways. Some devices we have with us all the time, others sometimes but not always. We may spend a long time at one sitting using larger mobile devices, but most (although not all) people tend to use smaller devices in much shorter bursts.
Responsive design enables you to serve up an identical course across multiple devices. This is great for learners who want to occasionally switch between devices as they complete a course, and for learners who find it more convenient to access e-learning courses on the move. Essentially, it lets you increase breadth of access for your courses and also offers learners flexibility and convenience.
What it doesn’t necessarily do is play to the key strengths of mobile devices. Learning that is optimised to make full use of smartphone potential is unlikely to look like a traditional e-learning course. Rather, it will offer learning in shorter bites, interwoven with just-in-time performance support, and will perhaps make use of the device’s native features, such as its calendar and GPS.
Sometimes, it may be more appropriate to offer different experiences on different devices, for example the full course on PCs and tablets, and refreshers and performance support via smartphones. Mobile devices, which are always on and always with us, are perfectly adapted for helping learning transition from formal training interventions to on-the-go, just-in-time performance support.


Some key lessons for multi-device learning:

  • Do integrate mobile into your learning technologies strategy based on learning needs and the learners’ device usage.
  • Do adapt media and interactions; don’t omit and simplify.
  • Don’t always offer the same course on every device by default – first make sure that this is what learners want.

 

This article has been contributed by Imogen Casebourne Director of Learning at Epic, UK Leaders in learning Technologies. Epic is one of Towards Maturity’s ambassadors who support the work of our independent benchmark, ensuring the results are freely available to all.

Imogen ensures that Epic’s learning solutions remain cutting edge and evidence based. She is also responsible for Epic’s thought leadership programme, which includes speaking at events and conferences, overseeing educational resources and engaging in research and consultancy for Epic’s clients.

Since joining Epic in 2004, Imogen has designed e-learning programmes, learning portals, large-scale blended solutions, mobile solutions and serious games. She led the team that won Gold at the E-Learning Age Awards for the BBC’s ‘Editorial Policy Guidelines’ and led the team that won Gold at the E-Learning Age Awards for Best Use of Mobile Learning.

Follow Imogen at @icasebourne
For all the latest news and free resources on learning technologies, follow Epic at @epictalk

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