Mobile learning for health: Initial design considerations

Health-related mobile learning is a rapidly expanding field.  In this post, I’ll consider some initial instructional design considerations for health-related mobile learning applications.

Goal analysis: Is mobile learning right for the job?

As with any learning development project, the first step is to identify the learning goal with some precision and to determine whether instruction or performance support meets this goal or if some other intervention is required.

Gottfredson and Mosher (2008) have described  learning at  five moments of need:

  1. When you want to learn something for the first time
  2. When you want to learn more about something
  3. When you are trying to remember or to adapt to a unique situation
  4. When you need to update your knowledge/skills
  5. When things go wrong and you need to trouble-shoot

Mobile learning may not be ideal for the first two learning needs (at least not by itself), but can be quite useful for the latter three. Thus, part of determining whether mobile learning is right for the job is to identify the learning need. Some mobile learning needs relating to health were described in a previous post.

Different mobile devices may be better at addressing certain learning needs than others

The decision to use instruction or a performance support tool will depend on the learner and the desired performance. However, your mobile delivery method may not be a matter of choice, but will likely depend on learner access. We live in a world of technological disparities.

When identifying device access, it’s a good idea to actually survey the audience you’re trying to reach versus relying on general statistics. For example, while a certain percentage of US learners may have access to smart phones, the numbers may be very different when you’re considering a learner audience of physicians versus a learner audience of patients. The former group is more likely to use smart phones than the latter group.

Additionally, access to technology doesn’t always imply a complete knowledge of the technology. Consider how many owners of mobile devices don’t understand all the capabilities of their devices. This problem may be more significant for seniors than for other learner populations. Part of the design process may be to think about device cues that need to be built-in.

With basic cell phones, micro-learning and performance support can be mediated through SMS or MMS. Some types of learning that can be implemented through basic texting were described in a previous post. Limited web access may also be a feature of these devices and can be used to deliver short lessons (e.g., 1 to 5 minutes) and simple interactions or performance support. Smart phones can allow learners to access short learning lessons, location-based interactions, simple simulations or case scenarios, performance support tools, etc, while tablets can support longer learning lessons and more complex interactions.

Mobile learning as part of a larger learning system

In many cases, mlearning is just one learning tool. Because of this, it’s important not to think of a mobile learning application as a repository of all possible interactions and content required for a particular larger learning goal, though it should encapsulate the interactions and content necessary to accomplish the goal that’s right for a particular mobile learning setting.

Ideally, a mobile learning application is  part of a larger system of learning interactions which may implicate:

  • elearning (e.g., via laptops)
  • face-to-face (f2f) learning
  • some blend of these

It’s a good idea to think of mobile learning design as part of a larger design process and to consider how mobile learning integrates with other learning elements. As part of this consideration, instructional designers should determine what motivating factors will lead a learner to make use of the system rather than to focus on one element of the system.

The environmental context

As noted by Ally (2009), effective mobile learning is defined by the convergence of device usability, learner(s), and social networks. As augmented reality platforms have been developed we can add to the mix, location-based networks.These interactions (the learner with the device, the learner with the environment outside of the device, and the learner with other people who can be reached by the device) create powerful synergies. Good instructional design recognizes these interactions.

Expanding communities of practice for health learning

There are communities of practice defined by health care providers and communities of practice defined by patients. These communities of practice can create natural social networks to enhance learning, but they can also create silos. Creating communities of practice that mix health care providers and patients can also create powerful learning opportunities.

Physicians need to understand how best to learn about their patients’ health concerns and quality-of-life values as they develop personalized health recommendations. Patients need to learn how to be effective partners with their physicians. This learning isn’t best gained abstractly but through human interactions. Social learning networks that foster these interactions can enhance learning and these networks can be supported through mobile devices.

Additionally, when we consider point-of-care learning using mobile devices, we can think about patients and health care providers working together, using devices such as tablets at a doctor’s office or hospital to create richer experiences. A patient might use a mobile device to record a physician’s advice so that he or she can reflect upon it further later, which might make a physician more aware of his or her role as a mentor.

Mobile devices allow us to rethink how we teach and train. The approach should remain learner-centered, but considering natural social and environmental learning contexts is an important aspect of creating health-related mobile learning.


Ally, M. (2009). Mobile learning: Transforming the delivery of education and training. Edmonton AB: AU Press. Retrieved September 19, 2010 from

Gottfredson, C. & Mosher, B. (2008). An invitation to our performance support community: Increasing organization value via performance support. Performance Support: Learning at the Moment of Need. Retrieved September 20, 2010 from

5 responses to “Mobile learning for health: Initial design considerations

  1. Pingback: QR Codes, Augmented Reality, and Learning for Health | Instructional Design Fusions

  2. Pingback: mHealth and Patient Education for the 83% | Instructional Design Fusions

  3. Pingback: A STEPP Approach to Health Literacy and 25 Resources to Get Started | Instructional Design Fusions

  4. Pingback: The near future of mobile devices and mlearning | Instructional Design Fusions

  5. Pingback: The future of mhealth learning | Instructional Design Fusions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s