in the day — even just a year or two ago — a mobile app was a tool that helped attendees find other attendees, and “maybe an exhibit booth on the floor,” McGury said. “But let's fast-forward to today and beyond. The mobile app is now a learning device.”
M-learning — m is for mobile — is the next hot topic, and has enormous potential for the meetings industry, predicts Chris Ballman, who joined SmithBucklin this summer as director of education and learning services. An educational technology expert, Ballman previously worked at Colorado Technical University, where he developed e-learning courses. M-learning is being driven by the ubiquity of smartphones, Ballman said, which, unlike other modes of online education, can be carried around in a pocket. “For the on-demand learner, they are excellent,” Ballman said. “You can be sitting on the bus and do a little m-learning module.”
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The differences between m-learning and e-learning are in scale and timing. “When you think about e-learning, you have your computer at your desk, or have your laptop,” Ballman said. “You can usually set aside about a half-hour. M-learning is a little different,... because you may have a shorter amount of time, but you also have a smaller platform — your phone's computer screens are a lot smaller. [Educators] need to chunk the information down and put it into bite-sized pieces, maybe three to five minutes. And you focus, really laser-focus on certain topics.”
When the concept of m-learning is incorporated into mobile apps, it can allow meeting organizers to digitally augment and enhance learning in the meeting environment. “Let's say you're at a conference, and maybe right before the conference you can read a little three-minute [article] or watch a four-minute video about the topic and then go in there and discuss it,” Ballman said. “You can actually prepare right there, five minutes beforehand.” And presenters with late-breaking information, he said, can send it out to attendees via the app.
The Integration Imperative
The key to successfully integrating online and in-person learning is to create a strategy that uses the right tools for your audience before, during, and after an event, Ballman said. You might start with an e-learning module delivered before the conference, making it as interactive as you want. “There are a lot of ways to do that,” he added. With some advance preparation, attendees can discuss the content on site on a different level. “It's not just a traditional ‘Here is the instructor, on high, telling you what you need to know,'” Ballman said. Attendees are primed to interact — to “come into the [meeting room] and talk a little bit about it. Then you can follow up with a webinar.”
E-learning could help address one of the biggest problems at conferences, Cobb said, and something that doesn't get talked about very often: the fact that many audiences have different levels of knowledge. “One of the biggest factors in how well somebody is going to learn new content in any given educational experience is, what prior knowledge are they actually bringing to the learning experience?” he said. “Your average 25-year-old is going to be bringing very different prior knowledge than your average 50-year-old, and your average executive director is going to be bringing very different knowledge than your average marketing assistant. But all of those people might be sitting in the same conference session.”
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To be successful, meeting organizers need to really understand what will and won't work with their audiences, based on testing, research, and dialogue, including focus groups, McGury said. There are some demographics that maybe open to interactive presentations, for example, but who would balk at a design that blends digital and in-person content, because those attendees wouldn't do “homework” in advance. (See “Flipping the Classroom,” p. 65.) But there are other groups “that, if [advance preparation] is presented and packaged the right way, it's not hard to do,” McGury said. “They'll deliver on it.”
Knowing your audience is also an advantage when it comes to navigating a learning environment that is flooded with content, Cobb said. “More and more, what the people that come to meetings will want to know is, how relevant and focused is the content?” he said. “I think you're also going to see growth in these focused institutes and pre-conferences and specialized tracks in the context of a larger event.”
Big conferences with multiple tracks and hundreds of hours of educational content aren't going to go away, Cobb said, but the measure of a good program no longer will be: “Can you create 15 tracks with tons and tons of content?” “You have to filter it,” he said. “Really give attendees the value and the focus they need, where people can say, ‘I just need to know about this, and need to connect with other people who know about this — the experts and my peers.’ If you do that, in a lot of cases you're going to be able to charge a premium for that type of experience.”
The Entrepreneurial Learner
And, of course, it's not just conferences that are being asked to change. “In order to succeed, and to strive to be excellent in the world that we're living in right now, everyone has to be essentially an entrepreneurial learner,” Cobb said. “You have to figure out how to kind of take control of your learning and create value out of it. And you have to do that again and again throughout your life.”
Organizations that serve members and attendees should start thinking about them as entrepreneurial learners — “as people who really are potentially hungry for creating value for themselves,” Cobb said. He added: “On the one hand, that’ s challenging, but on the other hand, it is incredibly exciting. I think we've reached the point in the last year or two where it's just thrilling to wake up in the morning. Think about what’ s possible out there now — what you can do yourself as a learner, and what you might be able to help organizations do.”
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