Tablet trifecta

The combination of mobility, larger screen size, and greater computing power makes tablets an ideal mobile device for accessing a wide range of training and educational content—from e-textbooks to Web-based courses to decision-support apps. Producers of eLearning who understand the devices’ potential—and limitations—will be able to create truly innovative, effective tablet-based learning experiences that wow and delight learners.

When bigger is better

Smart phones have grown increasingly popular during the past few years. Their small size—they’re designed to comfortably fit in a pocket or a purse—has made them ultra-mobile. Few smart phone owners ever have their devices more than 10 feet away from them.

But their small screens make them less enjoyable to use for extended periods of time compared with a PC. Studies show that users access smart phones frequently but for relatively short periods of time.

From a mobile learning standpoint, this has meant that most online training and education providers have avoided offering full courses for the smart phone market, as these often require lengthy sessions in front of a screen to complete.

Instead, smart phones are well suited for delivering smaller chunks of content and such purposes as:

  • Offering performance support
  • Reinforcing knowledge gained
  • Providing just-in-time snippets of training

Tablets’ larger screens—they typically range from seven to ten inches across diagonally—make them slightly less portable than smart phones. But they do make them much more user-friendly when it comes to uses that require long stints of screen time. A study by The Nielsen Company found that while tablet ownership does not significantly reduce the time users spend on their smart phones, it does lower their usage of laptop and desktop computers, netbooks, and eBook readers.

Making the most of mobility

Despite the bewildering array of operating systems, data plans, and devices, many of which are incompatible with each other, most smart phones today offer a relatively homogeneous set of tools and functionalities, including:

  • Cameras
  • GPS technology
  • Touch screens
  • Apps and an app marketplace
  • Web browsers
  • Email clients
  • PDF readers
  • Audio input and playback (a built-in microphone and speakers or a headphone jack)

Most tablets offer a similar toolset. They can also run both device-specific apps as well as smart phone apps for their corresponding native mobile operating system.

Although mobile learning (mLearning) providers have been slow to take advantage of all of them, many of the tools and functionalities provided on mobile devices offer opportunities for innovation.

For example, cameras and built-in microphones can make learning more collaborative, allowing students to submit photos of buildings for an architecture course or recordings of birdsongs for a biology class.

Their mobility, built-in cameras, and GPS chips also make tablet devices ideal for location-specific learning and augmented reality experiences.

Applying apps

A large part of tablets’ and smart phones’ success is thanks to the huge apps marketplaces available for the major mobile operating systems (OS). Apps are software programs written specifically for a particular OS or device. The more popular platforms, particularly Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, have hundreds of thousands of apps available for download from online marketplaces.

In the mLearning context, apps can provide a number of advantages over browser-based offerings. They can easily take advantage of device-specific functionalities, such as GPS chips. They also tend to run faster than Web-based applications, and many don’t require continuous Internet access to work.

In sum

From an eLearning perspective, tablets’ mobility means that teachers and trainers can reach learners in the field, offering just-in-time information, performance support, and practice opportunities. A salesman can review mobile flashcards with product information before a meeting with a prospect, or hand the device directly to a customer to share a video demonstration.

But tablets, because of their larger screen size, can also be used to offer longer eLearning experiences, including full courses, which would affect usability and learners’ patience on a small smart phone screen. They work well as robust eBook readers, too, letting users comfortably peruse online training manuals and interactive e-textbooks.

Tablets’ built-in tools and functionality allow teachers and trainers to offer innovative learning experiences, such as augmented reality and social learning. Combining GPS, cameras, microphones, and touch screen capabilities into interactive experiences that allow learners to contribute found examples, put information into an environmental context, and build portfolios of work can dramatically boost engagement and retention.

What’s your strategy?

Although tablets can be terrific learning tools, getting the most out of them requires careful planning and thought. As with all eLearning, start with the goals of a course or training. Determine what you want your audience to learn and remember.

Next, develop strategies for delivering the content. Know your audience and how they’ll access the materials. If they’re using tablet devices, determine if there are ways to leverage their capabilities to enhance the learning experience and improve results and recall.

Finally, weigh the costs in both time and budget to develop tablet-based learning experiences. If you want to develop an app, research which mobile operating systems and devices your audience is using and remember that developers will in some cases need to program from scratch for each one.

Alternately, if you decide to deliver a Web-based experience, understand the tradeoffs with regard to functionality, speed, and broadband connection requirements on a mobile device.

As tablets continue to grow in popularity and become a preferred mobile computing option for people around the world, they will increasingly be used for innovative teaching and training. Understand their capabilities, develop a strategy, and take advantage of the tablet revolution.