Go and Learn

Mobile learning offers people something traditional education cannot; integration into life.


I’m not cool enough to write an article on the new mobile learning devices created explicitly to increase our smarts. I won’t sport the Neomind Brainwave visor, the Tomy EQ Trainer gadget or Nintendo’s BrainAge exerciser anytime soon. You won’t see my neighbors learning this way either.


A quick poll asking about mobile learning on my small-town street corner garnered queries about the bookmobile, others referenced trailers used for extra classroom space, and one older gentleman told me he was a gifted mobile learner who perfected the art of reading the newspaper usually while driving his car.

Ironically, people I spoke with proudly showed me the slim modern cell phone they wouldn’t leave home without. Several also sported internet-enabled PDAs. Use of new ultra-light tablets is’t far off. Vehicles and backpacks are equipped with GPS units, game consoles live in briefcases and living rooms, and iPod buds adorn many ears.

Although we might not ponder the educational value of these everyday appliances, the gear we use to communicate and play can also be used to learn; we just don’t yet think of them as learning tools. Mobile learning is the great invisible elephant in the room, in our pockets, in our purses, and in our cars.


Let’s consider which gizmos meet our needs whether we’re learning for pleasure, getting ahead at work, or because we know discovery keeps us sharp.

Dig Deep

Learning moves us from one level to a more advanced level: possibly from adventurous novice to intermediate educator or from weekend warrior to full-scale pro. When you learn enough pertinent knowledge so that new information can be put into context we’re able to do something more.

Books on tape (or CD) and podcasts provide sure-fire approaches to dig in deep. Figure out what to master. Download, borrow or buy, then listen. Learn how to become a bestselling book author from Annie Jennings‘s, get iToors’s insider’s in-depth travel scoop, or find everything about raising a dog. These audio formats provide broad topics and detailed research to help us learn almost anything.


Interested in more visuals? A DVD in a portable player can show parents how kids with learning disabilities feel in school as easily as scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro without first taking a very long flight. Video iPods and video-enabled cell phones are gaining in popularity.

Consider paperbacks, too. Books are time tested and immanently mobile. They may not be as hip as an e-book reader, but they endure because they’re easy to read practically anywhere.

Scan the Surface

Perhaps we don’t want to learn all that much: just capture enough to make the right connection. Mobile tools can help us access an answer rather than memorize every detail.


I store directions to places I travel infrequently in the notes section of my PDA. I look up an address en-route and find a note reminding me to make a left when my instincts say go right. Portable GPS units literally keep us on course. GM’s OnStar system adds real-time assistance beyond directions. A friendly operator can also provide traffic, weather, and roadside service recommendations for the journey ahead.

La Leche League International recently released its best-selling book, The Breastfeeding Answer Book, in pocket-guide format well suited for PDAs. Because of its portability, doctors and other healthcare practitioners can quickly refer to a trusted reference while sitting with a nursing mother and baby rather than back at a desk or over the phone.

One company I work with blogcasts content subject to change frequently including product release updates, time-sensitive information, and other items useful for their field sales and customer service reps. They just began also podcasting a monthly radio-style talk show with interviews of corporate staff the field wouldn’t get to hear from otherwise.


Instant Help

It seems like whenever I’m shopping for toothpaste someone beside me calls a fellow brusher. It’s as if our independent shopping skills have vanished, replaced with an opportunity to get instant help.

Cell phones and text messaging tools provide us a chance to get immediate guidance because we can instantly engage people who have information we want. And it’s not all about toothpaste and toilet paper. When I was in the hospital with my first kidney stone my husband called my mother to learn what kind of stone she had to help the doctor address my pain. Salesmen everywhere seem to call some mythical sales manager to see if they can work a better deal.

I receive on-the-spot coaching requests from clients who are in meetings and want perspective on how to proceed. “Hank is on a power-trip again,” began a recent message from a Blackberry. “Can I tell him he’s an ass or do I need to find out what’s motivating him first? You know I hope you’ll say the former.” My client was doing more than asking for my assessment; she sought support and a bit of a distraction during a meeting causing her stress. She suspected how I would reply so she didn’t need to contact me. It was the act of reaching out and knowing someone was there for her — in that moment — that helped her most of all.


Real-time Reflection

Reflection is core to lasting learning. When you look back, you can compare approaches on how to proceed. In this way, mobile technology can serve as an extension of your memory, storing what’s happened and providing a place for review.

A European colleague takes a cell phone with both a camera and ample note-taking space on his daily bicycle ride to work. Along the path he stops and takes pictures, and even jots down observations. As soon as he arrives he add in the main ah-has from the ride. He turns his pictures and comments into fresh ideas for articles, presentations and blogs.

A stay-at-home dad in my playgroup documents his toddler daughter’s major milestones with a digital camera so that his wife learns about “the moment Mia made a play omelet” when she comes home from work. Together, they all reflect on the new things their daughter did and can learn more about her development and interests. Really big moments can also be sent via cell phone to mom at work for instant learning and enjoyment.


The old standbys also work. A small notepad like a Moleskine has endured centuries as a place for sketches and observations. A portable recorder (or a cell phone call to a voicemail system) can hold voice-delivered notes about a meeting or reminders for something you shouldn’t forget. Any sort of portable capture device can transport what you’ve just experienced or remind you what’s up ahead.

Iterative Interaction

While my examples so far have been informal, formal learning options work too. Princeton Review now offers vocabulary-building musical podcasts (“Vocab Minute“) for SAT prep or anyone seeking to expand their words. The same company offers drill and practice questions over cell phones text messaging, ranging in topic from geometry and chemistry to critical reading. After selecting an answer you receive feedback and explanation. Each day several new questions get sent to your phone, and parents of the would-be college-bound student can review their teen’s progress.

Mobile learning need not be ad-hoc either. When a board I sit on welcomed a half-dozen new directors we created a mobile treasure hunt to help acquaint them with the organization, fellow board members and the local area. Three teams of four received hastily-drawn learning-treasure maps before a self-guided tour of the corporate campus, a local shopping area and a park. As they came across each clue identifying a person, place or thing, they used cell phones, text messaging tools, and cameras to capture what they found. Two teams even collaborated to find a missing clue. By the end of the day they felt more connected and knowledgeable than in participation on any other board.


Students in a Winnepeg high school math class reflected on their learning experiences by recording podcasts they called podcapsules. Their recordings included advice for themselves on how to improve learning when they go off to college and apply their lessons to the real world.

Why use these mobile devices to learn when we are already using (some could say overusing) them already? Independent studies show dramatic improvements in knowledge retention when it’s relevant, in context, and on time. Just-in-time learning always trumps what’s just-in-case.

While formal mobile learning programs are released from education vendors each day (the last statistic I saw said more than 2,000 companies are developing content to distribute on cell phones), I question how quickly they’ll be adopted and used. According to IDC Research, most American’s don’t know how to download ringtones to their cell phones so it could be argued the same would be true if we expected people to download formal learning programs, too. I believe education that becomes part of our everyday routines has the more potential for real impact.


Consider the breadth and depth of what you want to learn, and think about how you might just learn that today. Away you go.

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About the author

Marcia Conner works with ordinary people doing ingenious work and mediocre organizations realizing their employees can work in inspiring ways. She features stories of both in her upcoming book on ingenuity