Learning to Go

Mobile technologies are becoming embedded, ubiquitous, and networked—paving the way for an always-on and always-aware society. The enhanced capabilities mobile technologies offer for rich social interaction could totally transform how we work, learn, and live. Yet most content providers remain unimpressed. They focus on delivering a few wireless-enabled enterprise applications with a preponderance of predictable mainstream mobile content like ringtones, wallpapers, and logos, which by definition often appeals to the lowest common denominator. Mobile content can—and must be—much more.

I often attend mobile content conferences and congresses, where I am routinely treated to a dog-and-pony show of provider and publisher content success stories. However, what I see—case studies about instant mobile connectivity with back-end ERP systems or presentations demonstrating increased consumer take-up of Robbie Williams tour text alerts—hardly leverages the promise of mobile technologies. Companies should be courageous and look beyond defining a killer app as one that will be an instant commercial success. They might be surprised to find out that vision can pay dividends.

One growth opportunity the industry has failed to tap thus far is mobile learning and services that move education out of the classroom and into the learner's environment. Currently a nascent market, mobile learning is positioned to address the growing public concern about educational quality and the problem of adult illiteracy. The trend toward increased mobility in traditional learning and training environments such as campuses, offices, and hospitals is driving demand for a new breed of mobile learning services.

Proof is in the numbers: the last year has seen rapid growth in the quantity of initiatives dedicated to the training and education of 14- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. and across much of Europe. At college level, bleeding-edge universities such as Harvard are actively exploring how wireless can enhance learning and teaching. Innovative audio-learning products available for download to devices including Apple iPods, MP3 players, PDAs, and smart wireless devices are also gaining traction on America's campuses. Meanwhile, companies are beginning to target the often-ignored toddler education market. VOCEL, a provider of patent-pending technology that enables operators and brands to send interactive messages directly to users' mobile phones, has released a world-first reading application for pre-schoolers based around the popular Random House series Thomas the Tank Engine. Children can see and hear the story as it unfolds and read along by following words highlighted in bright yellow. The sharp focus on education tailored to fit the skills and needs of each age group has allowed VOCEL to dominate the carrier deck when it comes to educational content.

However, the most exciting and lucrative opportunity may be in the delivery of educational content to learners in developing countries, allowing these countries to close the skills gap that threatens their future. No wonder that regions including China, the Emirates, and Africa—where mobile penetration is vastly greater than fixed-line and PC penetration combined—have placed mobile learning at the top of their change agendas. Knowledge is indeed power, and a few companies that recognize this are feverishly developing content and delivery schemes that will spread the wealth by boosting the education level of entire populations, as well as their own bottom lines.

A pioneer in delivering mobile educational content is Fabrizio Cardinali, CEO of Giunti Interactive Labs, the Italian elearning and new media company belonging to the Giunti Publishing Group. His company provides Learn eXact, an integrated software suite that enables the creation, management, delivery, and tracking of third-generation elearning content. The solution enables content delivery to a variety of platforms and devices including so-called wearables, or wearable computers equipped with advanced man-machine interfaces such as headset displays.

Cardinali sees both the opportunity and responsibility to improve the creation and delivery of mobile educational content. "The interest we currently see is in education and contextualized learning—such as pandemic disease-training for hospital workers," he observes. He also notes a heightened interest in ambient education, educational content delivered when and where learners need it most, like delivering lessons and training to nomadic learners as well as virtual communities of networked students.

A practical example of this new ambient approach to mobile learning is a museum education application that Giunti Labs recently tested with the Uffizi Gallery. In this application, the mobile learner stands in front of a piece of art and receives information about the artifact.

The combination of wireless connectivity and educational content delivered according to the learner's location, requirements, and skills level may not be an app that kills, but it is a compelling one. Mobile devices allow everyone—and not just mainstream consumers, but also those way out on the periphery—to learn and exchange ideas. Active involvement from content owners and providers can help connect a new, more universal social mind, not to mention help build the demand for educational content.