ATD Blog

Harnessing the True Potential of Mobile for Learning

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I dedicated this year to immersing myself in a thorough research on mobile learning. I have been reading heaps on the topic (books, blog posts, research articles, and so forth), following conference hashtags and backchannels, interacting with m-learning experts, and even prototyping m-learning projects.

Wading Through the Information

Along the way, I noticed that m-learning is defined and conceptualized in multiple ways—depending on the context in which it is being applied and the purposes it is fulfilling. As learning professionals try to employ best practices in designing and delivering effective learning experiences through mobile devices, we may be tempted to follow some false assumptions:

  • It´s difficult to leave behind years of experience designing for desktop solutions.
  • It´s difficult to rethink our practices when we are not active users of mobile devices ourselves.
  • It´s difficult to convince upper management that sometimes learning just happens as a natural process, and not everything can be analytically tracked.

At the same time, however, it´s easy to repeat other presenters´ speeches without rolling up our own sleeves and assessing on our own what really works for mobile learners. We typically hear comments, such as

  • “M-learning is best suited for delivering performance support...”
  • “You can create exactly the same course for both desktop and mobile devices through HTML5 publishing options…”
  • “Now, it´s so easy to directly convert your old e-learning courses into m-learning solutions…” (Seriously, who would want to do that?)

I personally believe that these misconceptions limit and cloud the true potential of mobile technologies for learning. Mobile technologies enable us to reach our learners in ways that were not possible before, and more importantly, because of mobile options, anything can trigger a learning experience.
Mobile as Knowledge-Building Enabler


Mobile devices have completely changed the nature of interactions between the learner and the learning content. More ubiquitous, immediate, and intimate relationships powered by personalization and the physicality of touch can have a greater impact on the success of learning processes. Mobile devices free learners from the limitations of the desktop and extend their capabilities by enabling them to search for information, apply new knowledge, and evaluate the consequences of their decisions in situ and immediately.

This idea of creating experiential meanings through contextual and active learning to acquire skills and test new knowledge lies at the heart of constructivism. By drawing upon these learning principles, I see mobile learning as a limitless knowledge-building enabler.


In other words, every task that a user carries out with a mobile device can be an instance of learning because it provides new information that is relevant to a particular context or situation. The information’s relevance to the context inevitably enables higher levels of knowledge. Simply stated: The direct link from learner to data to environment helps construct learning on the go and at the moment of need.

Mobile learning allows for real immersion, experimentation, questioning, and immediate application and evaluation. All these processes help learners to make sense of information and, therefore, construct knowledge in ways that are completely different from e-learning or face-to-face instruction.

Moving Forward

I invite you to harness the true potential of mobile learning by considering it more than a mere extension or recreation of former teaching methods. As I advance in the series of posts, I hope you can join me so we can explore and discuss together the boundless possibilities of m-learning.

About the Author

Mayra Aixa Villar is a passionate instructional designer and freelance consultant who helps companies design, implement, and evaluate m-learning and e-learning solutions. During her nine-year career, she has focused on educational content design and evaluation, as well as documentation management. She holds an MA in applied linguistics (subfield computer- assisted language learning) and loves exploring new technologies, prototyping user interfaces, and writing about her insights. She writes a blog about the effective design of learning experiences at and tweets under @MayraAixaVillar. She can be reached at [email protected].

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