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Given the trend from desktop to laptop to tablet to phone to wristwatch, here’s some not-so-good news about learning engagement from a new study involving researchers at the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University.

If you’re getting your news from a smartphone, size matters. Heart rate variability decreases and changes in sweat are muted when viewing video news content on smaller screens. Both are indications of reduced attentiveness and engagement with content.

The question then becomes, does this hold true for participation, engagement, learning and retention? It’s not like the expectations have gotten smaller. To the contrary, it seems that everything we train has gotten more urgent and more complex.

Given these dynamics, the answer is enormously important, whether you are an in-house training department or independent, whether you are training customers, partners or employees.

In our quest to find the perfect answer (we haven’t found one yet) we’ve learned three important things:

  1. There simply is no ideal screen size.
  2. Learners’ preferences are powerful drivers of success.
  3. It’s all about the learning experience, which then engenders participation, learning and retention.

Laptop vs. Smartphone Learning Engagement

Let’s look at the pros and cons of the two major divisions: laptops (or desktops, assuming there are still a lot of us sitting in front of them) vs smartphones.

Desktop / Laptop

  • A larger screen and input options that enable additional screens, speakers, etc.
  • Enhances readability and the potential success of the experience.
  • Full-size keyboard, which makes writing and participating easier.
  • Multitasking — which is also a double-edged sword.
  • Accessing reference material, or another app, is easy, as easy as checking your email (see the bullet above).

We have always felt that the learner, when accessing a larger-screen device, finds themselves in an environment that is more conducive to a deeper involvement in the learning experience. However, this is not the preference of many learners, and preference is the key to unlock learning success.

That said, our recent experience is that a majority of content is accessed via smartphone.

Smartphone Learning

  • Very accessible, and very convenient. Facilitates access on demand — a free moment can be a learning moment.
  • It’s in everyone’s pocket. If you run into a problem, the answer is a swipe away/
  • The device of choice. More comfortable for some learners, particularly for learners who may feel uncomfortable with the relevant learning and other related technology. Learners have grown up with it.
  • Mobile, by nature, makes it excellent for micro-learning.

It is notable that some LMS companies are giving their customers mobile apps so that their learners get an experience that’s designed specifically for the small screen. Our experience is that accessing learning content through the app boosts engagement.

Preference is powerful

The bottom line is that if your content isn’t available on the learner’s medium of choice, participation and engagement goes down, which means all measures of learning performance take a nosedive.

Which brings us to the final point, which is the tie-breaker.

No matter where, no matter when, it’s all about the learning experience.

Here’s a direct quote from a classroom of executive learners when the instructor told them the next lesson is virtual and can be accessed at their leisure. (Please turn up the sound.)


Every training organization jumped into self-paced and virtual delivery with COVID-19, and every learner quickly tired of the off-handed, droning, monotone, and monochrome delivery. For learners who learn best by doing, this style of delivery simply does not work. It’s so common that each individual in the classroom couldn’t bear to go through it again.

Simply put, we have no laurels to lie back on. Each delivery of content, whether ILT, VILT, eLearning, video, pdf, or song and dance, whether on a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or IMAX, must deliver a unique and satisfying learning experience.

Without that, there is no consumption, engagement, or retention.

About the author:

International author, lecturer and consultant, Scott Hornstein has worked with clients in all phases of marketing strategy, research, and implementation. He has worked with companies large and small to build profitability, by improving marketing performance, and reengineering the customer experience to boost satisfaction, referrals, and customer lifetime value. 

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