ATD Blog

How to Create a Content Strategy for Mobile Learning

Monday, July 7, 2014

What is content strategy? In its simplest terms, content strategy for formal learning is a holistic plan for content—the knowledge that you want the learner to receive and retain. The strategy should include the planning, creation, governance, publication, and long-term maintenance of the desired mobile content.

In bigger terms, content strategy is looking at the material you produce for your audience from the perspective of an “information steward,” and making informed decisions that improve the transfer of the knowledge shared and the sustainability of the information source that provided it.

Understanding content strategy

This emerging and critical aspect of instructional design is part of the new normal of being a learning professional in the connected age of ubiquitous access and user-generated content. It is simply not enough to create once, publish, and then move on. We must think through the lifecycle of the content and plan for its optimal delivery through the mechanisms we have available to us, regardless of technology or platform.

Content strategy may seem unrelated to learning professionals. However, this topic has been long studied and employed in the marketing and web worlds to great success and deserves a place in our essential skill sets.

Numerous blog articles have been written on content strategy, the most notable being, “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” by Kristina Halvorson at A List Apart.

A number of books have been written on the topic, as well. I recommend Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile (2012) as an excellent, easy-to-read introduction to the subject that offers a clear plan of action. McGrane’s steps for a content strategy include:

  • performing audience research
  • performing competitive research
  • performing content inventory and analysis
  • choosing delivery platforms appropriately
  • editing your content to meet delivery needs.

New approach to content

Our roles as learning professionals, responsible for the delivery of content, are changing and will continue to change. We must continue to evolve and work to create a content framework that is scalable and strong, flexible yet authoritative.


Candidly, it’s not easy, but the very challenge is what makes the role so interesting and important. This is certainly different from the “set it and forget it” approach to creating curriculum and courseware we have used in the past.

This new approach to content creation and lifecycle is needed if we are to keep up with ever-tightening product cycles. It is a must if we hope to deliver content on the devices and platforms of today and tomorrow. With appropriate planning, it is possible. A bit of time researching and planning pays big dividends here.

We have to create a systemic (meaning deeply ingrained in the system) and systematic (carried out using step-by-step processes and procedures) approach to delivering content to our learners. This is the “how” and “when” of “what” we are going to share with our audiences.

Consider the various ways you interact with websites or platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr,, Netflix, or Amazon. Every one of these companies has a different experience for the users, depending on the device each user employs to access the content. An app is different from a desktop, which is different from the web browser, which is different from the mobile web.

Pumping their respective sites through some kind of magic transformer didn’t create these experiences. Some features are omitted or tucked away, as they may be unneeded in a particular case, but the key functions the user requires in this particular case—desktop, web, mobile, or app—are accounted for and designed.

So, too, will your carefully crafted mobile learning experience account for these platforms. Running your course through some sort of HTML5 mill is not the answer. You must redesign and adapt your applications to fit within your content strategy for mobile. Beyond basic considerations, such as user interface element size, and scale, there are more dramatic shifts you will have to make in your thinking.

Content conversion considerations

Some of this content from your original software may stay largely intact. A thoroughly indexed and well-manicured company wiki may require only a new mobile theme, and perhaps the addition of some basic contextual awareness (geolocation could be really useful, for example) to make it a valuable mobile learning tool.

Other items (immersive software simulations, for example) may require more thought prior to transporting the content to mobile handsets (or perhaps skipping them for more effective uses of resources). These devices do have constraints in terms of screen size, bandwidth, and processing power. To match the experience to the target platform, you may have to take these factors into account in your design process.


When it comes to straight content conversion from e-learning to m-learning, I have mixed reactions. While it’s great to be free to leverage your content and repackage it for a new class of users, none of the simple paths to mobile learning truly put the mobile into the design up-front. They may apply a new mobile-friendly skin to the content, but that’s the easy way out.

Seldom do I hear of learners impressed by mobile content delivery.

On the other hand, I do hear people impressed by Urbanspoon’s scope feature, Path’s streamlined feel on smartphones, or Twitter’s ease of uploading images or adding location data to posts. This sort of smart user experience design, coupled with content strategy, takes work. If page-turning e-learning is a sure-fire way to create “snoozeware” on the desktop, then it is death on the mobile side.

If we want to escape that perilous trap, we must plan our path to the mobile learning landscape of tomorrow.

We can start to do that during the ASTD Mobile Learning Certificate program, being held in Chicago on July 24-25, 2014, and Atlanta on September 22-23, 2014.  

Editor’s note: This post is an excerpt from Mastering Mobile Learning: Tips and Techniques for Success, co-published by Wiley and ASTD. This excerpt has been adapted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, copyright © 2014.

About the Author

As managing director of Float Mobile Learning, Chad Udell strategizes with Fortune 500 companies and their learning departments to help deliver mobile learning to employees. Chad also works with universities and other learning organizations to develop their unique visions of where and how to use mobile learning. Chad's focus is on understanding an organization's business drivers and goals and then creating the strategy that can best deliver solutions. Chad is recognized as an expert in design and development, and he speaks regularly at national conferences on design, development and mobile learning. He has been a faculty member of Bradley University for more than five years.

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