2010 - the year of mobilizing VLE

While working on a paper for the MLearn conference I did a brief review of mobile learning support of virtual learning environments (VLEs). As connecting mobile learning and VLEs is not exactly a new topic, I did not expect to find so many new developments in this area. You can find the results of the review here.

Open Source VLEs

About five years ago Gordon Bateson from the Kanazawa Gakuin University in Japan presented a first prototype for making Moodle accessible from mobile devices at a moodle developer workshop. This prototype mainly targets the device capabilities of Japanese Cellphones. This presentation marks official starting point when Moodle moved into the mobile VLE market. The related "moodle for mobiles" sub-project ( forum) is still maintained and under development.

Because the Moodle-for-mobiles project targets mobile access for a wide range of mobile devices, the capabilities of recent smart phone web-browsers are not very well supported. The Moodle4iPhones project focuses on developing an interface that integrates with the user interface guidelines for the iPhone. The project went to public earlier this year.

Already in 2008 Gonzalo Silverio posted a first version of an iPhone web-interface for Sakai. The blog entry shows adapted interfaces so users can access a Sakai system through an iPhone tailored interface. However, this side project seems to have come to halt as the both, the Sakai website and Gonzalo's blog are quite silent on the topic.

Ernie Ghiglione from the LAMS project tested the project's web-interface on an iPhone. The screenshots indicate that no adaptation of the interfaces have been done for improving mobile usage.

Other Open Source VLEs appear not to have much interest in supporting mobile learning - or at least providing mobile access to their systems. The Projects OLAT, Caroline, and .LRN do not present concept studies or interfaces for mobile devices, yet.

Commercialising the mobile access to VLEs

Nevertheless, the support of mobile devices - and more specifically - is a crucial requirement for the future development of VLEs - at least when we analyse the activities of commercial VLE developers during the first half of 2010. Mobile extensions for three commercial VLEs have launched during the last six months. Blackboard, CLIX, and Learn eXact have now mobile interfaces to the core VLE.

The three platforms follow very different strategies to promote their interfaces.

Blackboard launched two products for mobile devices: Mobile Central and Mobile Learn. Both products are based on native applications for the popular smart-phone platforms (RIM, Android, iPhone OS). Mobile Central is a mobile campus information system. This system offers location based services for study management such as a campus navigation system. Part of this product is a study planner, through which students can keep track of their courses. Mobile Learn provides an interface to the main VLE. All functions of the VLE are also accessible using the native interaction scheme of the learner's mobile device. In addition to accessing course data, Mobile Learn appears to integrate a push system that allows to trigger events (such as reminders) on connected mobile devices.

Both Blackboard products are tailored for the North American Market and seem not to be available for European institutions before 2011.

The CLIX VLE is primarily used for vocational training and more specifically in-house trainings. The mobile learning support for CLIX is promoted primarily for ubiquitous access to learning resources with poor network connectivity or offline usage. Consequently, the CLIX mobile learning solution is promoted primarily as a cost effective offline course repository. The information sheets of the product leave the following question unanswered. How is this translated to contemporary mobile devices (esp. smart phones)?

Learn eXact targets the same market as CLIX. The mobile solution for Learn eXact is promoted as a tailored solution for the mobile workforce and blended teaching programmes. The Learn eXact solution to mobile learning is based on native applications. GuintiLabs have therefore chosen a similar approach as Blackboard. Learn eXact's mobile solution targets a more conservative selection of mobile platforms (RIM, Symbian, Windows Mobile), rather than providing tailored solutions for contemporary and popular smart-phone platforms. The selection of supported platforms is likely driven by the targeted market.


The current developments for mobile access to VLEs indicate that the general shift towards mobile information access is not ignored by the players in the VLE market. That several competing attempts for improving the support of VLEs for mobile learning occur almost simultaneously in the first half of 2010 is certainly no coincidence. Instead, it indicates that platform vendors are confronted with changing needs for information access of learners and instructors, shifting from desktop computing to mobile information access.

Although all players target in the same direction they chose different approaches for their solutions. While the mobile Web appears most attractive in the open-source community, native applications are the tool of choice for commercial vendors. However, this is only a weak pattern. The current developments indicate that it is difficult to choose an appropriate business strategy for positioning a mobile learning solution for a VLE. This is partially due to the fragmented market of smart-phone platforms, in which each platform offers different features and application models.

The current developments mark a change in the innovation of VLE platforms. While desktop centred web-based teaching support was dominant over the past years, now mobile learning starts to become a relevant market factor.