Learning Design

Learning Theories and Approaches

The Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative is currently exploring new ID models and accompanying instructional systems design (ISD) principles for mobile learning. The high level steps of the ISD analysis process may be applicable for specific types of mLearning such as training and performance support, but what other design models are appropriate? Is a new design model needed? ADL is currently leading a project called the Mobile Training Implementation Framework (MoTIF) to consider the ways in which mobile applications and pedagogical approaches can help improve training and education. To join the community that is involved in this research project, go to the MoTIF community site

Of special importance are the considerations and decision nodes in the analysis process that may lead development teams to choose mobile learning as the optimal solution. Without adequate consideration, there is a risk of developing a mobile learning solution to a problem for which it is not appropriate or forgo a mobile solution where one is needed. 

Above all, you should consider the range of mobile learning solutions (i.e., performance support and informal/social learning) in your repertoire of training strategies if you want to start down the path of mobile learning. As stated above, your instructional design process model must include paths to these strategies/outcomes. The traditional ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) and Human Performance Technology (HPT) methods may not be adequate or appropriate, where performance support and mobile learning may be better suited for your desired outcomes.  

Consider using an information design model to organize your content, if it is learning augmentation or learnlets (if it is going to be performance augmentation, then use the user’s actual workflow to organize the content). 

Instructional designers should also pay more attention to consistency in the content organization and interface, since the screen limits the users’ view to only a few elements at a time; the inherently multilayered aspect of what the user sees dictates that you make it easy for them to remember and project how they navigate to a deeper level of information or a different topic.


As we have explained earlier, mobile learning tends to support informal and social learning models due to its “anytime, anywhere” access. These models are based on a constructivist view of learning. Constructivism relies on the learner and their knowledge, motivation, and instincts to determine, or construct for themselves, their learning experiences. Providing access to information (through search functions and carefully designed navigation, with opportunities for communication and collaboration with peers and SMEs) is paramount, rather than dictating learning paths or prescribing content for the learner. Constructivism posits that knowledge is not objectively determined, but subjectively created; it is negotiated socially and constructed by each individual through the sum of their experiences. Constructivism and its epistemological tenets have significant implications for learning design; for more information, see Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction – A Conversation (Duffy and Jonassen, 1992).

Uden’s framework for an Activity Theory (2007)

Uden (2007) promotes a design approach for constructivist mobile learning based on Activity Theory (Vygotsky, 1978). Activity Theory is a way to analyze work practices using the key concepts of “subjects” (in this case learners), “objects” (learning content), and “mediation” (the mobile platform). Activity theory is based on constructivist epistemology. Context is key to Activity Theory, as it is to constructivism; they share the premise that learning is fundamentally situated and socially mediated. Activity theory is also consistent with distributed cognition, since Uden (2007) cites Hutchins (1996) as saying that an activity (in Activity Theory) can also be conceived as a system of distributed cognition.

Koole’s (2011) Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME) model 

The FRAME model takes into account three aspects of mobile learning: 
  • Social 
  • Device 
  • Learner 
The model identifies issues at the intersections of these aspects. For instance, where the Device and Learner aspects overlap, Koole identifies the Device Usability. The utility of this model is explained as follows: 

“Hypothetically, the primary intersection, a convergence of all three aspects, defines an ideal mobile learning situation. By assessing the degree to which all the areas of the FRAME model are utilized within a mobile learning situation, practitioners may use the model to design more effective mobile learning experiences.” (p.27)

Park’s (2011) Pedagogical Framework for Mobile Learning

Park (2011) describes a framework that categorizes mobile learning into four types (pp. 8-14):
1. High “transactional distance” (extent of psychological and  communication space between learners and instructors) and socialized mobile learning activity (HS)
  • More transactional distance
  • Students communicate and collaborate among themselves
  • Content predetermined
  • Transactions mainly occur among learners
2. High transactional distance and individualized mobile learning activity (HI)
  • More transactional distance
  • Structured content
  • Individual learners control their learning process
  • Interactions mainly between the individual learner and the content
3. Low transactional distance and socialized mobile learning activity (LS)
  • Less transactional distance
  • Loosely structured instruction
  • Students work in groups to solve problems
  • Frequent communication among students
4. Low transactional distance and individualized mobile learning activity (LI)
  • Less transactional distance
  • Loosely structured content
  • Individual learners interact directly with instructor
  • Instructor leads and controls learning
Thinking about categorization schemes such as these during the analsysis phase of your project can be helpful to point towards effective design approaches that are most effective for particular scenarios. It can also be valuable as a classification scheme for reviewing existing examples and use cases, perhaps for potential applicability to a new project.

Planning for Design

  • Confirm that mobile delivery makes sense 
  • Understand the targeted end-users and their contexts 
  • Meet the specific goals and requirements for the project 
  • Make a clear distinction between "learning" and "performance support" 
  • Determine tracking requirements 
  • Tablets are more appropriate when data requires a larger display. This is especially true when users will be sharing the data with others. 
  • Plan for the disconnected mobile user 
  • Think about the limitations of user's data plans and leverage wifi when possible 
  • Know the limitations and capabilities of the technologies involved 
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype (start small, think big) 
  • Warn BYOD users of large data downloads so they are aware that they might exceed their data plan limits and have to pay more. 
  • If developing native apps for iOS, make sure you are familiar with Apple’s conventions before you start. They will only accept it if it meets their standards.

Learning Content

Some of the methods and strategies you may already know from instructional design and from web or e-learning development may also apply to mobile. However, additional attention should be paid to:
  • Create content that is short and to the point 
  • Create smaller chunks of context-independent content 
  • Design non-linear content 
  • Separate content from appearance using XML files that populate placeholders in screens. This allows easy content updating. 
  • Guide the learner to external content where they can catch up or explore further 
  • Use Post-It notes, index cards or stencils for storyboarding 
  • Use bullets to make contextual information more concise 
  • Develop the appropriate learning content or experiences for mobile 
  • Realize that interactivity may not be nearly as relevant for performance support 
  • Consider using learning methods that are enabled by mobile device capabilities, such as capturing images, sound, and video. Have learners share and discuss content captured on their mobile devices. 
  • Leverage existing commercial apps that could provide capabilities you need in your content. For instance, Evernote can be used for user-generated content; Dropbox can be used for transferring content to and from devices. 
  • A good checklist could be worth much more than an interactive game 
  • Use QR codes in locations or on objects where mobile performance support is available 
  • Develop for users (user experience) instead of for devices 
  • Don't make blithe assumptions about when and where learners will use your learning content. Research these assumptions. Keep in mind that the heaviest use of mobile phones is while at home, not "on the run" (Elearning Guild, 2013) 
  • Don’t pop up a full alphanumeric screen keyboard if you need the learner to only type numbers into an input field; display errors if they type letters, and make them switch to numeric mode (Elearning Guild, 2013)

Mobile Device Capabilities to Consider

Mobile Learning word cloud
With the explosion of mobile learning technology in recent years, many designers ask “where do I start in deciding which technology to use?” Faced with the overwhelming array of choices, many start in an arbitrary way, selecting a technology (especially a new one that has emerged as the flavor of the month) that seems to be a fit for their need and finding a way to make it work for them.

A less risky approach is to examine mobile technologies systematically, extracting their technical capabilities and matching them to their affordance. This can be tricky, because most mobile technologies were not invented solely for mobile learning, and do not come with a manual of how to use them explicitly for learning.
The ADL Mobile Team feels the key to understanding mobile learning affordances is to identify the underlying capabilities, and then describe the affordances those capabilities provide for learning applications, as an intermediary step to eventually identify the learning strategy to be employed. Raw capabilities of the device are the enablers for affordances, just like a portable tire kit enables fixing a flat at the point of need. The portable bike pump is only one capability, but when combined with other capabilities such as a air plug, it enables a self-service affordance of being able to fix a flat tire anywhere, anytime.
Consider the following mobile platform capabilities (often in combination). for creating and supporting learning experiences (from ADL and Woodill (2013).
  • Camera 
  • Document viewer 
  • Geolocation 
  • Internal sensors 
  • Media viewer / playback 
  • Microphone 
  • Notifications 
  • Search / Browse Internet 
  • Short-range communication 
  • Messaging 
  • Touchscreen interaction 
  • Voice / phone communications 
  • Portability/Mobility 
  • Ubiquity 
  • Clock
  • Networking/ Addressability 
  • Cloud storage 
  • Microprojection 
  • External Sensors 
  • Input/Output Peripherals 
  • Supplemental Memory 
  • Computing Functions/Apps 
  • Wearability 
  • Embodiment
These capabilities form learning affordances that allow learners to learn in particular ways, and for learning content to take different forms, depending on their needs, as follows:  

Learning Modules
  • Just-in-Time Learning
  • Microlearning
  • Reach-back/Review
Performance Support
  • On-the-Job Support
  • Alerts
  • Reminders
  • Procedures
  • Job Aids
  • Forms and Checklists
  • Decision Support
  • Infobases/Knowledge bases
  • Personal organizers
Access to Information, Education and References
  • Field Guides
  • Presentations
  • Podcasts
  • Vodcasts
  • Updates
  • Audio Recordings
  • Video Recordings
  • Coaching
  • Conferencing
  • Feedback
  • Mentoring
  • Social Networking
  • Quizzes
  • Evaluations
  • Tests
  • Surveys or Polls
  • Reporting
  • Certification
Innovative Approaches
  • Games and Simulations
  • Location-Specific Content
  • Augmented Reality
  • Contextualized Learning
  • Spaced Learning
 User-Generated Content
  • Note Taking
  • Transcription
  • Translation
  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Audio Capture
  • Blogs and microblogs
  • Wikis
  • Learning journals
  • Portfolios
  • Text Books
  • Papers
  • Manuals or Reference Guides

Recommendations from Other Sources
Recommendations from Wentworth (2011)
  • Try to remain agnostic. At this stage of the game, unless your organization is willing to provide employees with one device and platform, it may be best to approach mobile learning from a Web-based delivery perspective.
  • Pilot programs. It is not necessary to develop a complete and polished mobile learning initiative right away. Start with small experiments. It is the only way to figure out what works without wasting time and resources.
  • It has to make sense. Ask "Do we need to deliver this on a mobile device?" If there is no obvious benefit to delivering a piece of learning this way, it's not worth the effort.
  • No fear. Mobile computing is not a flash-in-the-pan fad. It has become an acceptable and preferred method of accessing information for high-performing companies. Organizations need to embrace this and find ways to leverage the technology. Address internal barriers such as security and network concerns.

Recommendations from Udell (2011) (p. 93-94)

  • Traditional training is, in most cases, information that is given ahead-of-time, and it often contains more detail than may truly be needed to do the task for which a learner is being trained. Distill your mobile messaging to the bare essentials for most users.
  • Instructor-led, eLearning or blended training is usually given in a mentor/mentee or teacher/learner dynamic. This is removed when the delivery is changed. In mobile learning you must provide an easy-to-use interface and reassure the learner that the content is authoritative, or you may lose that from-the-expert feeling that is so vital in making learners realize that the content is important.
  • Consider housing instructor-led content in more explore-able information architecture. A branching, highly browsable interface arranged by topic or task may be a great option here.
  • Provide a search or query function so that learners can interact with the system and retrieve the results they want to see. Because this will be used at or around the point of need, we want to make sure that we are not forcing learners through a progression of content that harkens back to a day of courseware. The content should instead serve as an augmentation to information they already have in their possession or have received at some point.
  • Instructor-led classes, eLearning and other traditional educational materials are meant to be consumed in traditional learning environments. These environments are devoid of distractions, context and other real-world diversions that often make delivering a full course difficult or impossible.
  • Learning materials like these are usually at least 30-45 minutes in length but can often be over 60 minutes in duration. This depth is overkill for most mLearning and will probably act against you in most cases. Let’s not forget that smartphone users tend to interact with their devices anywhere from about 10 seconds to about four minutes (Falaki et al., 2010, p. 4). Do what you can to make your information digestible in that format.
  • These devices have a far smaller disk capacity and computer memory (RAM) allotment than what a laptop or desktop has. We must optimize our media because of this and use guidelines from the device manufacturer to determine the appropriate media encoding and file size for selected delivery formats.
  • The user interface for mobile must be more concise and straightforward than anything you may be  building for your eLearning. In eLearning we can get caught up in building more complex layouts and menu structures in the pursuit of engagement. This leads to disuse and app deletion in the mobile world. Do not fall prey to the cool overdose that so many of us did in the eLearning world. If the app’s navigation must be learned to use the app at all, then it’s a failure.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Recommendations from Elias (2011)

1. Equitable use. Course content should be accessible to people with diverse abilities and in diverse locations. With respect to m-learning, this involves developing content and assignments that can be accessed on a wide variety of devices. As a result, to develop accessible m-learning, one ought to do the following:

  • Deliver content in the simplest possible format.

  • Use cloud-computing file-storage and sharing sites.

2. Flexible use. According to this UID principle, course design should accommodate a wide range of individual abilities, preferences, schedules, levels of connectivity, and choices in methods of use. As with other forms of inclusive learning, inclusive m-learning should offer choice in how materials are used. SMS-based m-learning offers fast transmission of information to students who are bound to neither a computer nor a classroom. Whereas other types of education go to great lengths to simulate real-world situations and to bring the outside world into the classroom through the use of case studies, role-plays, photographs, videos, etc., m-learning has the potential to bring the learning out of the classroom to remote students. SMS-based solutions may often be more than adequate for this but will require significant adjustments. 

  • Package content in small chunks.  

  • Consider unconventional assignment options. 

  • Leave it to learners to illustrate and animate courses.

3. Simple and intuitive. Unnecessary complexity should be eliminated and course design rendered simple and intuitive. As already mentioned, the simplest mobile delivery system is currently SMS. To post and share their own multimedia content, however, learners must access multimedia messaging systems (MMS), email, and/or a mobile Internet service. When developing and/or selecting existing sites for use, the following guidelines are useful:

  • Keep learners’ interfaces simple

  • Keep code simple

  • Use open sites and software

4. Perceptible information. With respect to this UID principle, one of the recommendations for online learning is to add captions, descriptors, and transcriptions (Elias, 2010). SMS-based materials would not require these added features. Instructors may encourage learners to include them, however, when their assignments include media elements. Nevertheless, it is likely that not all student-posted materials will be accessible to all users. Strategies are suggested to mitigate these issues (see item 7 below).

5. Tolerance for error. UID principles also minimize hazards and adverse consequences of errors in software operation by designing learning environments with a tolerance for error. While m-learning errors are likely to be similar to those encountered in traditional online learning, an additional m-learning-specific recommendation may be identified:

  • Scaffold and support situated learning methods

6. Low physical and technical effort. As with online learning, m-learning should be developed requiring a low physical and technical effort. The physical effort related to inputting text into devices is therefore a primary concern. Clearly, answering test essay questions on such a device would be tedious if not impossible. As indicated in relation to SMS usage, the difficulties associated with inputting text data into mobile devices poses the challenge of developing new, authentic, and inclusive forms of assessment. In addition, inclusive m-learning should seek out opportunities to do the following:

  • Use available SMS reader software and other mobile-specific assistive technologies.

7. Community of learners and support. As in other forms of learning, community support for learning should be facilitated through the development of groups and support from appropriate tools. In this respect, m-learning should do the following:

  • Encourage multiple methods of communication. 

  • Group learners according to technological access and/or preferences. 

8. Instructional climate. This UID principle focuses on the instructor’s impact in course delivery as opposed to course design. M-learning instructors can send regular SMS messages to interact with learners in various ways. For example, they can do the following:

  • Push regular reminders, requests, quizzes, and questions to students.

  • Pull in learner-generated content.