As a French major, I should know thousands of nouns and their gender. French being one of those languages where nouns are rarely used without an article (a, an, the) and the article must match the gender of the item. To my chagrin, I recall the gender of very few of those words. However, I do know that key is feminine. Here’s why.

My French host family was unfailingly patient with my American manners, especially my host mother Claudine, and I tried to be considerate of them in return. After one particularly late night on the town, I arrived home and discovered that my house key was not in my bag! I had two options: I could sleep outside or I could wake someone up and beg forgiveness. I contemplated the lawn, but November in the Alps is not a pleasant time to sleep under the stars. So I reluctantly pressed the doorbell. Claudine came downstairs and as the door swung open I launched into my apology, starting with, “J’ai oublié mon cle!” (I forgot my key – using a masculine pronoun.) Before I could provide any more explanation or apology, she gently remonstrated, “Ma clé. Ma clé” (feminine pronoun). I’d assigned the wrong gender to key and rather than chide me for my thoughtlessness in waking her up, she helped me improve my French.

So key has stuck with me; locked in my brain, you might say. Knowledge gained in such a way is likely to stay with the learner because it is immediately used and obviously relevant. This type of learning is often referred to as “learning in the moment of need” and mlearning (mobile learning) is becoming increasingly popular as the most efficient way to offer timely, applicable content. The idea is that learners in the field tap their smartphones or swipe their tablets and get immediate support for their task. It sounds ideal. However, before we all rush out to build apps, I want to point out that there are two key words in that phrase “moment of need.” The moment part seems clear to all: mlearning’s mobility means that it can provide content in a timely manner. But need is an important part of the equation, too. In my case, Claudine didn’t offer advice on conjugating the verb or even on the importance of personal responsibility. I already knew how to use the correct verb and the goal of my time in France was to learn French not to improve my organizational habits (though maybe I could have used a little of that, too). Knowing that, Claudine provided exactly the information that I needed.

For mlearning to live up to the predictions being made about it, it has to provide what the learner needs. Successful mlearning must be developed with a thorough knowledge of the learner, the likely gaps in his/her content knowledge, the typical learning environment, and their familiarity with their mobile device. If not, we run the risk of creating snazzy apps that don’t actually help anyone. It’s a little like trying to unlock your front door with your car’s remote fob. It’s a handy piece of technology but it’s not right for every lock.

Interested in learning more about mlearning? Check out mLearning DevCon.

This blog post was written by Alison Hass, Instructional Designer.