What do learners using m-learning want–what they really, really want?

Today, RJ Jacquez posted the following question on his Facebook account:

“If you asked ‘Learners’ on mobile what they wanted in #mLearning would they know? I’m not convinced they would.”

My first thought was that Spice Girls song–“So tell me what you want, what you really, really, want….” 😉

When I thought about it more seriously, I deduced that I don’t think learners would know what they want either. (Or in the words of the same Spice Girls song, the response of the average learner would be “I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah….”)

Like most people involved in UX and e-learning/m-learning strategy, I’ve been taught the mindset of how to anticipate the moves of the average user. Must like what I talked about in my Adobe webinar, Transition from Content Consumer to Content Creator: Dual Viewpointsto truly be an effective technical communicator–no matter the specialization–one has to look at things both from the end user perspective as well as the creator perspective.  So, in addressing RJ’s question, unless someone is a professional student, I don’t think the average person–adult or child–thinks about how they learn, or what method works best or them, mobile or not. The average learner doesn’t know what they want or need until they don’t have a feature or do have a feature, for the most part.

I find that I think about such things because not only do I have non-verbal learning disabilities that made me more aware of what worked and what didn’t, but I also grew up having an educator dad whose hobby was reading up on learning styles and that kind of subject matter.  And just for the record, despite recent reports that said that learning styles are a bunch of hooey, from personal experience as well as being the mother of a learning disabled child, I am a firm believer in learning styles and being aware of trying to make adaptive or flexible learning possible. My son and I are visual/sensory learners. We both have sensory issues, but for a person to describe an object verbally versus presenting the object in front of me to see and touch, the latter experience will always stick with me more. (I do know other learning disabled people where the opposite situation is true– they have no problem with verbal descriptions, but have a hard time with reading or retaining information from a demonstration.) Heck, it’s been a while since I’ve said this, but I used to claim that most of what I learned was from TV, not from other sources! (I watched a LOT of TV as a kid, including educational stuff, but plenty of pop culture that has served me well over time.)

That said, it helps that there are those of us that are on top of learning presentations, and trying to find ways to make learning accessible, comprehensible, and enjoyable–an “ACE” product (I should copyright that acronym now!). Learning policies and procedures, for example, especially on a topic that perhaps one might not have anything to do with, should be done in a way that makes it “ACE,” and e-learning and m-learning specialists can work on ways to facilitate learning using new technology for better information retention.  I had that sort of experience myself. At my last consulting position at a global financial firm, I was required to take P&P courses, even though they were about financial transactions in banking, and I worked on an intranet site that had a) nothing to do with the banking end of the business, and b) I had nothing to do with any financial transactions whatsoever. But because there was online training that could be tracked, and the courses were relatively short, I got the basic foundations mastered to be compliant, and I could move on from there. I’ll admit that I even remember parts of it as well, because of the interactivity in the online course.

User strategists–whether they work in mobile worlds or not–are specialists who know from training and professional experience what works and what doesn’t work on a website, from both the front-end of a website as well as some of the back-end as well. Simple things, like evaluating typography, color schemes, and content are all part of that person’s job. The average end-user doesn’t really think about what he or she is looking at on a website that deeply. We’ve all encountered good websites and bad websites, and we put up with bad websites out of necessity sometimes, but it’s a UX specialist’s job to rid the world of as much bad design and as many bad experiences as possible, anticipating how end-users would use a website. The average Joe will understand sometimes that something isn’t good, but might not always know what it is that doesn’t work well. The average person doesn’t think about functionality of a site until it’s not functional. The average person doesn’t understand the complexities of what e-learning and m-learning specialists are trying to do to help learners attain the main goal, because it’s the end goal which is what’s most important, namely that information retention learned through a course–any course through any medium–can be used thoughtfully and effectively.  Pull any guy or gal off the street, and they wouldn’t know the first thing about it. They’ve never thought about it. It is like asking people why they like a certain ice cream flavor–they just do. (But what they don’t know is that ice cream manufacturers do a lot of testing on what are popular flavors and tastes in different areas before putting their products out on the market.) The average person just goes about his or her business, and when it comes time to be learning something, whatever means is put in front of that person is how he or she will learn it.

So, does that mean that we shouldn’t put so much time and thought into the process? Heck no! We should continue to put a LOT of time and thought into the learning process! Mobile is a big mover and shaker with this, because it is making information so accessible–even more than conventional paper books or any other media out there right now, short of in-person, one-to-one teaching. More smartphones are bought on a daily basis globally, and the tablet market is starting to catch up with that.  Even in areas like third world countries, people have smartphones. What a fantastic opportunity to reach out to help others learn and help themselves and work globally instead of in isolation! But how is that done? It’s done through careful thought about how the information is disseminated in a way that the information can be retained and used. It needs to be ACE.  We need to spend the time to make it the best learning experience possible, even if the average learner has no clue as to what they want in a learning experience. In the end, if learners are able to use the information, understand the information, and recall the learning experience as a positive one, isn’t that the measure of what they want from learning? If they don’t get anything positive out of the learning experience, then they learn they don’t want THAT.

Being a newly minted graduate school graduate who did her entire degree online, I know that my fellow students and I would quickly be able to evaluate what worked and didn’t in various courses. For example, presenting all the assignments, reading documents and forum links in the course description in Moodle instead of utilizing the weekly scheduler was BAD for learners. Having experiences both inside and outside of Moodle to do our assignments were good for learners. It really varied from course to course, and some professors learned from end-of-the-semester feedback, and others did not.  Each course and each learning experience has different requirements. It is up to those who are developing the curriculum and helping to disseminate the curriculum to decide what’s the best delivery method, especially because the learner usually doesn’t have a clue.

As m-learning and e-learning specialists–and this really applies to all technical communicators, it’s our job to provide the most concise, clear and cogent information we can to the public, and that means anticipating those average person thoughts or moves in using anything we create. To me, that’s what makes the job challenging and exciting. It’s especially fulfilling when you know that you’ve got it right, and the end user doesn’t know why it’s so great, but it just is.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who has recently started her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, BASF North America, Merck, and Deloitte, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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