Can Custom Mobile Learning Technology Address Authoring Tool Limitations?
What you are about to read is a fable about custom mobile learning technology. The company, AshCom, is fictional, but the mobile learning challenges faced by Kathryn, AshCom’s CLO, and her team are real and commonly shared by learning teams in corporations, non-profits, associations, and education. It is our hope that you will be able to connect with the characters, their challenges, and the solutions they discover. We also invite you to read the first eBook in the series.
Morning Session: Option 1 – Custom Authored Learning Experience
“Ready to order?” the waiter asked, placing a glass of ice water on a napkin in front of Alishia. He pulled out a pen and order pad from his pocket.
“Could you please give me just a few more minutes? My manager will be joining me for lunch soon.”
“Certainly. I’ll check back,” he said.
Alisha sipped her water and looked at her watch. She was early for her meeting with Kathryn. She was a little surprised when Kathryn asked her to lunch one day. Normally, Alishia met with Kathryn in a more formal meeting with the other members of the learning team. This was a first, and she was excited and a little nervous.
Alishia pulled out a handcrafted notebook from her laptop bag. A watercolor sunrise was painted across the cover with the imprinted expression: “The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.” She was the youngest and least experienced person on the AshCom learning team. She was completing her final undergrad semester in the instructional design program when she first interviewed with Kathryn, the CLO at AshCom. Kathryn was impressed with her and quickly offered her a job.
Partly because she wanted to expand her skills and partly because AshCom had a hefty tuition reimbursement plan, Alishia decided to enroll in a master’s degree in educational technology.
“Thanks for meeting me,” Kathryn said, arriving on time. She sat across from Alisha. “I very much appreciate your contributions to our team, and I’m glad you are here.”
“So am I,” replied Alishia, with enthusiasm.
Kathryn continued, “I know that you are enrolled in a master’s program and seem to remember it is in educational technology. How are you enjoying that?”
“I love it,” said Alishia. “Most of the people in the program are teachers, but I find a lot of what I’m learning is applicable to what we do here. Most of our classes have a heavy technology emphasis, and it is interesting to see some of the learning tech that will be coming down the road. A lot of the learning science is similar to my undergrad program, but the tech is awesome.”
“I’m glad you brought that up,” said Kathryn. “That is what I want to talk about. You know the challenge that Ronda, our Vice-President of Sales, has put in front of us: create sales learning for almost 300 salespeople on her new sales system using mobile.”
“Of course,” said Alishia. “I’ve been doing my homework.”
“I haven’t told the group this yet, but I’ve had an additional meeting with Ronda, and she has some innovative ideas about gamification, augmented reality, and using the learning we build to educate our clients, not just the sales team. Ronda’s is a serious mind. She’s incredibly creative.”
Kathryn continued, “The reason for our lunch is that I think we need to bring in someone who has a solid background in instructional design and adult learning but who has deep credentials and experience in tech. I’m hoping you know of someone in your master’s program….”
Bringing In The IT Expert
Alishia didn’t allow Kathryn to finish her thought. “I know the person we need.”
“Professor Daniel Nichols,” said Alishia. “Actually, he makes us call him Dan. His Ph.D. is in computer science, but he understands curriculum development. He’s an adjunct who works full-time in R&D for some tech company, so he teaches on the side. He’s the guy everyone goes to when they have a tough IT and learning problem to solve.”
“Any chance you could connect me to him?” said Kathryn.
“Of course,” said Alishia. “I’ll do it this afternoon.”
Alishia sent the email within 15 minutes of their lunch meeting, and soon Kathryn was in contact with Dr. Dan Nichols. Their first meeting was by phone so that Kathryn could give him a background on AshCom, the sales learning challenges, and their desire to go mobile in a much more significant way.
Dan agreed to spend a full day with the learning team as a consultant. He loved these kinds of engagements. It was good money for a day’s work, but it was also satisfying to help teams, like the one led by Kathryn, get through their technology challenges.
Setting Up The Sessions
They scheduled the full-day meeting two weeks out. Kathryn asked for an agenda. She liked to know where things were going. Dan asked for a day to think through the topics she raised and get back to her.
Two days later, he emailed Kathryn and told her he’d like to split the day into two three-hour sessions. He would be presenting two options that he thought might resolve their issues so they would have some choices.
Kathryn agreed. She usually would have asked for more details but based on Alishia’s high recommendation and the contact she’d already had with Dan, she felt comfortable being a bit less informed than she normally would be.
Kathryn informed her team of the all-day meeting and asked them to come in a little earlier than usual, 8 a.m. She would make sure there was breakfast available at the start. They would begin promptly at 8:30 a.m. She also sent her team a summary of the conversations she’d had with Professor Nichols and what they might expect from the day.
The Big Idea Becomes The Small Reality
The day-long meeting began with Kathryn introducing Dan and giving a summary of their challenges for 30 minutes.
“This all began when Ronda approached me about the need for new and improved sales learning that would teach a geographically diverse team of almost 300 salespeople a new sales system in a way that connected with how they work. Ronda already knew that it would need to be a mobile solution. You all remember her words: Anytime. Anywhere. Any device.”
Kathryn continued, “Our learning team then met twice. The first meeting focused on the positives of mobile learning and the second was on the negatives. I’m guessing most of us have a better recall of the ‘cons’ meeting. That might be because we think of cons as problems to solve, or it might be because the issue raised by Martina and Darryl was fascinating to us. In my own head, I’m calling it the ‘Ever Receding Horizon.’”
Kathryn stopped and addressed two of the team members: “Darryl and Martina, please stop me if I misrepresent your idea.” She then stepped to the whiteboard and did her best to replicate their initial drawing.
Kathryn continued, “Dan, this is one of our significant challenges. We have a Big Idea from Ronda in sales. We get that idea in the works and immediately find limitations in our authoring tools.
Then we encounter more limitations when we get to the LMS stage and, with mobile, we are limited even further. The Big Idea becomes the Small Reality because of the limitations in the technology.”
“Ronda hopes to expand our mobile learning solution to our customers as a useful tool to our account executives. She wants to know if we can include much heavier gamification elements – maybe even an actual game. We also discussed augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality.”
Custom Mobile Learning Technology: Authoring Tool Roadblocks
“All of these are great ideas. But at the end of the day, we need to deliver them through a smartphone. And that means we at least need to solve the ‘ever-receding horizon’ problem of our authoring tools and LMS.”
At this, Dan raised his hand slightly. He was used to being in the classroom. “I believe I have this correct but let me confirm. You have a learning management system that has some authoring tool capabilities, correct?”
“Yes,” said Alishia, “but we don’t use it very often. It works okay for quick and simple modules and has some basics templates, but not enough horsepower to do what we need to do in our normal courses – to say nothing of what we need for mobile learning.”
“And you have several other authoring tools available to you?” asked Dan.
Alishia answered again like the good student she was. “Yes. They have a lot more of the pre-built templates. There are more options and choices for interactions. But it is like we have more toys in the sandbox, but we are still IN a sandbox. And that sandbox seems to us to be too limiting for what we want to do in mobile for our sales team.”
“Got it,” said Dan. “That sets me up for what I want to do in our session for this morning. I’ll tell you the bad news upfront. Going this route will not be cheap, and it will likely take some extra time. I don’t know that I would recommend this path for compliance training. At least not in your current state. I’m going to lay out two options. We’ll cover the first one this morning and the second this afternoon. Keep in mind, the second will be more expensive than the first.” Dan looked at Kathryn for her reaction.
Kathryn responded, “I think we all expected that, but given that this is mission-critical around our sales team, we need to have open minds.”
“I appreciate your openness,” said Dan. “And I think I can make a good argument that the long-term benefits for your salespeople will make it worth it. I also think once you pick one of the two options, you will use one or maybe both for most of your learning development in all areas.”
Dan explained that what they want to do cannot completely be accomplished through a typical authoring tool, as good as some of them are. “I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. They all, at the end of the day, create learning experiences that are fairly similar to one another. And what might be interesting the first few times you go through it becomes rote and unimaginative quickly.”
“You want your big ideas to remain your big ideas. You want higher quality and fewer limitations on what you are able to do. But you also want a great learning experience every single time. I haven’t met your Vice-President of Sales, Ronda, yet, but I get what she wants to do by including customers in the learning opportunities. Give the salespeople the ability to access the details of the new sales system right in the customer’s parking lot. But to also include the potential customer in learning opportunities so that you are educating your clients instead of just being the supplier of a commodity to them is brilliant.
“This is all very exciting. You need scenarios. You’d like augmented and virtual and mixed reality along with whatever reality is about to come out. You want your people to learn by playing and confirm that they’ve learned by keeping score.
Designing With Mobile Users In Mind
“I get the attraction of the authoring tools. You get menus and structure. Reports, themes, and templates. All those things are helpful to a certain point and then restrictive beyond that point. But I also think that at times, they keep our instructional design thinking in a box too. We forget to think strategically about designing our content for the specific audience and their needs. If you want to get outside of the box, you might need to just get rid of the box altogether – and I don’t just mean with the software tools we use. I mean designing the entire learning experience with our mobile users in mind.” With that, Dan paused.
After a few seconds, Martina spoke. She and Darryl were the ones who first brought up the limitations in the ‘cons’ meeting on mobile. “I love being creative as everyone here knows. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since our initial meetings, and I keep coming back to the same question: Why would I limit what I want to do because of what the authoring tool can do or my traditional way of thinking about designing a learning experience? If learning objectives for our sales team are mission-critical to our company, why accept limits? If the medium doesn’t serve my purposes in my personal artwork, I change the medium to something that works better for me.”
Everyone seemed in agreement.
Going Back To The Whiteboard
“Exactly,” said Dan. “I want to talk about the first option here.” Going to the whiteboard, he wrote, “Custom Authored Learning Experience” in the middle and drew a box around it. To the left, he wrote “BIG IDEA” and drew a box around it that was the same size as the first box.
“With a custom authored learning experience, you can build what you want. There are two things I mean by that. The first is that we apply best practices in learning science to mobile learning. We think about the users’ experience as they interact with the content on their mobile devices. We will probably use microlearning for short, easy-to-access “bites” of content. We’ll think carefully about the layout, menu, buttons, and even types of links. We’ll call out key points and minimize items that would be a distraction on a small screen. In all cases, we think about what is most critical and “need to know” in the moment. Naturally, flowing out of this comes my second point. Because we’re developing bite-sized microlearning, we’ll use a variety of authoring tools. We can’t be locked into one tool, and we’ll probably need to broaden our skills set.
“We can get more into what it takes to go down this path in terms of time and dollars, but I’d like you to think broadly at this stage about whether or not this would work. Let’s say you begin with the end in mind. That would be a learning experience delivered primarily, but not exclusively, through a mobile device. Most current authoring tools say they can adapt to mobile, and they can, but that is entirely a technical answer. What they can’t do is think instructionally about design for a mobile user. That is where our team comes in. We need to storyboard carefully and probably even rapidly develop some prototypes to measure the learner’s experience.
Choosing The Right Tools
“If you know you want to go mobile, why not use tools and thinking designed specifically for mobile? This means you will need to custom author your learning experience. You decide what you want and build to that rather than deciding what you can do with the tools you have and be limited.” With 15 minutes before their break and as the team was beginning to dream about all that might be possible outside their authoring toolbox, Alishia raised her hand. Her face showed concern.
She said, “So, let’s assume we can do all these cool things.” She stood up and walked to the whiteboard. “We have big ideas, and we can actually turn them into the learning we’ve always wanted. But what about this?”
To the right of the “Custom Authored Learning Experience” box, she wrote “LMS” and drew a smaller box around it. Alishia continued, “We might get rid of the limitations inherent to authoring tools, but aren’t we going to find them further down the road when we try to load them in the LMS? Doesn’t the LMS significantly limit the learning experience? Will everything created as custom authored actually work in the LMS, or are we right back to a bunch of limitations that make our Big Ideas small again?”
Dan’s face lit up. “Your timing is perfect. That’s where I want to go in the afternoon session. We are going to talk about the second limiting box. But for now, let’s take a break, eat lunch, and we will come back at 1 p.m. for the next topic: the learning management system.”
To read the rest of the chapters in this series on Mobile Learning and to see Kathryn and her team solve their challenges, please download the eBook How L&D Leaders Are Using Custom Mobile Apps To Increase Performance And Revenue. It can help you determine if custom mobile learning is the right approach for your organization and uncover tried-and-tested methods. Also, join the webinar to learn how custom mobile apps can empower sales teams.