A few months ago (March 4th to be exact) I asked a question in this blog about whether it was possible to successful deploy mobile learning and performance support initiatives at the enterprise level. I am happy to say that, thanks to ongoing developments in several key market segments, we seem to have reached a tipping point for mobile learning. After years of watching and waiting and poking and pushing, the market variables that needed to be in play to push mobile learning over the top of mainstream awareness and adoption seem to have finally converged.
I was pleased to be at BlackBoard World 2009 this week for Michael Chasen's announcement that Blackboard has acquired TerriblyClever Design LLC, makers of MobilEdu((TM). As noted in the PR release, MobilEdu apps "allows education institutions to deliver a rich set of campus life services and content to mobile devices, uniquely branded for each institution, to better connect current students, parents, faculty, prospective students and alumni to the campus experience in a way that wasn't possible before. With an Apple((R)) iPhone, iPod Touch((R)) or other device with a mobile Web browser, MobilEdu users can navigate course catalogs and campus maps, e-mail professors and classmates and get real-time updates on their course schedules, campus events, news and sports teams."
When a mainstream company like BlackBoard makes an investment in a small edgy mobile apps company like TerriblyClever, LLC, that's a big deal. It means that there is finally enough evidence that the education market will support demand for mobile applications. I also like that Blackboard is strengthening its previous commitment to mobile services that it initiated with its acquisition of ConnectEd, now known as Blackboard Connect. This successful emergency notification business now has a number of use cases that point to how higher education customers are deploying notifications systems for campus security and operational announcements, as well as now extending their infrastructure to do more with student services, enrollment management, business continuity, and even with learning support and campus community-building.
It's taken long enough to get to this point of recognizing the value and impact of enterprise mobility. I had my first real brush with mobility and learning in 2004 when my former boss at Macromedia asked me to take a look at scoping out the mobile market for education, to see what we could do to support Macromedia's agenda for getting Flash on mobile handsets around the world. I was thrilled. I worked with Bob Regan (now Director of Adobe's Worldwide Primary and Secondary education marketing) and Adi Sideman (CEO of Oddcast) to develop a Spanish language tutorial called "Let's go to Peru" for deployment on my Flash-enabled Nokia phone. We featured mobile learning at our Macromedia Higher Education Forum. I carried a variety of Nokia mobile phones that were loaded with Flash apps that I could demo at a moment's notice. I gave a presentation on mobile learning during a somewhat infamous Forum session with Curt Bonk and Chere Gibson at the University of Wisconsin Teaching and Learning at a Distance Conference. I submitted an article called "Enabling Mobile Learning" to EDUCAUSE Review in May of 2005, and was very pleased when it was accepted for publication.
And then we waited. And waited. And wondered why mobile learning wasn't the killer app we thought it was going to be. It's not that individual innovators didn't keep trying to do cool things with mobile phone apps - it was just that individual pockets of innovation don't make a very good business case for supporting enterprise or institutional deployment. I wrote an article about THAT particular phenomenon in June, 2008 that was published by the eLearning Guild. The biggest reason, in my humble opinion, was that we completely "mis-underestimated" the complexity of the infrastructure - and organizational change and IT support required -for enterprise mobility to be achieved. Also the need for many early adopters to craft their own, "gerry-rigged" solutions for making their mobile services/ apps come together in any meaningful way limited adoption to those organizations with the tech capacity for building one's own mobile apps. And guess what else- it wasn't as much about Flash as many of us had hoped.
We in the US are still somewhat constrained by the need to choose either a handset OR a carrier. For example, I've had my eye on a Palm Pre. Problem is, the Pre only works with a network carrier that I don't currently use. I have resisted getting a new iPhone because AT&T has made it fairly unattractive for current subscribers to purchase a new phone, given the required service contract.
But regarless of these little irritations, it is really nice to see manufacturers taking smart-phones seriously. There are lots of choices, whether you are looking for an iPhone or a Pre, a Blackberry or a Nokia or an HTC Android phone. Depending on whether you want ATT or T-Mobile or Sprint or whoever else happens to be in your area there are choices for phone plans and data plans. I suppose it's not surprising that that phone companies are the largest advertisers when it comes to Internet ad spending (Download ComScoreDataPassport_1H2009).
It is also really wonderful to see that the market for mobile apps has been exploding thanks to the very successful Apple iPhone Apps portal. It is clear that mobile infrastructure needs to be robust enough for apps to be reliably connect users and distribute apps and content on demand, but that the real differentiators are the applications themselves. When the Apple App Store team celebrated its 1st birthday a few weeks ago they could point to more than 1 billion downloads of more that 50,000 different applications.
It's fantastic to see the number of mobile app designers and developers growing, seeing how many design schools are featuring mobile app development as part of their curricular offering. It's also especially nice to see more instructional designers who have specialized in mobile learning applications receiving more and more attention in the literature and on community websites.
And it's great to see a mainstream provider of learning management, transaction and notification solutions giving "the mobile lifestyle" such a vote of confidence. In tough economic times, people want to stick with enterprise solutions providers that can weather the slings and arrows of recessions and hype cycles. Looks like Blackboard has voted with its venture capital.
Will mLearning stand on its own? Frankly one of the big problems with enterprise adoption of innovations is that until there is a clear differentiating reason for people to change at an enterprise level innovation is not likely to get the kind of attention and support it needs to be successfully deployed. We've learned the hard way that mLearning will be successful when enterprise mobilty makes it economically feasible to do so. But it sure is a lot easier to consider when there is an enterprise-ready platform to help with the aggregattion, distribution and management of mobile experiences.