Is the Mobile Platform A Content Tool, Or Is It a Pipeline to Access Components Of An LMS?
Eighty-nine percent of the U.S. population was equipped with a mobile phone.Of these, about 45 percent are capable of Web browsing and of those, 25 percent are Web-enabled —limited mostly by the additional cost of the Web package. But the number of Web enabled mobiles is rising as “smart” phones require Web service subscriptions.
What does this mean for us in the e-learning world? Once a mobile device is Web-enabled, we have the ability to turn that communication device into a learning
tool. Question is, how do we do it? Existing e-learning programs cannot just be ported over to mobile. Among other challenges, you have less than 5 percent of the screen “real estate.” Unless the mobile device is provided by your organization to the employee, you may get resistance about using a personal device for work — even though many employees use home computers to both learn and work.
Most federal government departments and many state departments have equipped some or all employees with cell phones. These are used primarily as phone and email devices and for document sharing. A concentration on one device will simplify
life for the IT Department. It will also simplify our lives as we begin to explore using
these ubiquitous devices for learning. And, while the BlackBerry is available through
multiple carriers, you will rarely find more than one carrier used by a department at a time. This is because the same data, sent through two different carriers, can appear in two different ways on identical phones. There is no real standardization in the wild, wild world of mobile delivery.
So let’s look at what we need to consider to “mobilize” learning.
THE ENVIRONMENT AND USERS
Looking at our potential m-learning (mobile learning) environment, we will likely have one of three scenarios:
1) Everyone is equipped with the same device using the same carrier;
2) Management-level and some specialists are similarly equipped by the department, but the remaining staff use their own phones;
3) No one is equipped by the department, everyone uses their own phones.
Our user population will vary with our environment. If everyone is already equipped with a Blackberry, they use the mobile device for e-mail and possibly for Web browsing, regardless of age. If they are not using a department-supplied smart phone, comfort with e-mail and Web browsing will decrease as age increases. Most cell phone users over the age of 35 have never used their device for anything except a phone call. This does not mean we should shelve the older folks. It’s an opportunity for younger staff to mentor.
APPLICATION AND CONTENT
Getting a handle on your environment and users will determine what to consider for your application and content.
The lowest common dominator of mlearning is JIT information. This can be as simple as a list of the things to do when a department pool car breaks down on the
road. Few are going to refer to their mobile devices for JIT information while at their desks. Just about everyone who has a Webenabled phone can bring up a site with JIT information on it. It’s not interactive, you don’t have to track use, and it’s easy to create.
If you have a standardized environment and user, you can build more sophisticated m-learning applications. Bite-sized reviews of mandatory training programs can be
driven both to the mobile device and the desktop for learners when and where they
have time. Important bulletins can be driven to desktop and mobile device, followed by a few comprehension checks to assure everyone is taking away the most important points.With tracking, you know everyone who opened the bulletin, how long they spent on it, and their success or failure with comprehension.
Sounds like we may be getting close to delivering a full e-learning course available over the mobile device. Can we do that? Sure. Do we want to? Probably not.
First of all, existing programs need to be re-authored for wireless delivery. They use a WAP server (wireless application protocol) as opposed to a LAN orWAN server. There are conversion tools available from most wireless content platforms that convert standardized material such as PowerPoint slides and multiple-choice quizzes for wireless delivery.While some of the work is done, you still need to check or change the formatting so the data appears correctly and appealingly on the small screen.
Second, Flash (even Flash-lite) does not play on most mobile phones. This is a factor both of the devices and the networks, neither of which want to deal with complaints about crashes and slow speed. Apple, notorious for its need to control as much as possible of the user experience, prohibits Flash from its developer’s toolkits. Adobe recently announced that its Flash Player 10, available in October, will work on PDAs, Symbian and Windows Mobile smart phones. RIM, maker of Blackberry, isn’t saying anything except that it is talking with Adobe. But just because the device can play Flash, the carrier may prohibit it in trade for faster, more reliable performance.
If you do want to deliver a full course,work with an instructional designer who understands the limitations and possibilities of the mobile platform. Screen size is a constraint, but portability is a benefit when you want to gather data on the scene. Think in terms of micro-sizedmodules. Fifteen minutes working at a small screen is an eternity. Three five minutemini- modules with quizzes intersticed and a wrap-up test will help enable learning in the world of interruptions. Think pictures, drawings and animated GIFs—video can be problematic and slow.Any audio/video must come from a streaming server.Anything else is too slow and a bandwidth hog.
There are a variety of good mobile platforms for you to consider.As happens inmost tech areas, small companies that pioneered are now being purchased by established learning and content management companies and by device providers. Examples of this are Hot Lava Software purchased by OutStart and Chalk purchased by RIM.
Look carefully at the reality of what your e-learning platform and LMS claim to provide for mobile. Are you limited to one device? Fine, if all your users are on BlackBerrys and that’s the device specified. Otherwise, you want a mobile platform
where you author once and publish for any mobile device. Is the mobile platform really a tool that enables you to author and publish content or is it a pipeline that allows mobile users to access components of the LMS such as enrollment, test scores and course overviews, but does not offer course participation and tracking? These are nice features, but they do not constitute m-learning.
INTEGRATION AND TRACKING
People do what they know you are monitoring. If you want mobile to become an integral part of your learning delivery system, then you need to be able to track participation. If you are delivering course content, you want to tie results into your LMS, seamlessly. Most mobile platforms can tie any statistics you care to track back
to your LMS. You still need to “log-in” on the mobile device to provide a basic level of security, but once on line, it’s transparent to users, as long as they are in an active cell zone.
Today, m-learning’s penetration depends on the market. In business applications, m-learning is growing strongly. It enables sales reps and managers, already equipped with mobile devices, to complete many types of training while they are on the road. It puts JIT information into their hands while with the customer.
Health care is the most mobilized market. For several years, health-care professionals have used mobile devices at the point of patient service to research JIT information formerly confined to books and computers. Now, these devices are
being used to gather patient data, learn about new drugs and procedures and
complete continuing education for credit. The fancy conference, subsidized by
the drug company, is now a slick mobile learning module that can be completed
during the professional’s busy schedule either on PC or mobile — a time-saver for the learner and cost-saver for the drug company.
Higher education is eternally dabbling in m-learning. Most students are smartphone- equipped. However, they prefer the smaller laptops for classwork, so rely more on them for interaction with instructors and e-learning courses. It’s likely
that colleges and universities will skip to the tablet computers which combine the e-textbook, the learning management system and instructor, and or/group interaction. Government is poised to move dramatically into m-learning. Classroom learning is being cut repeatedly, but the training needs are still there. The existing investment in mobile devices can be used to justify expanded use to include learning apps. Which brings us to a final point.
How much does this cost? Well, it’s not free. If you want to create JIT reference pages on the Web that will play on a mobile device, it’s not expensive. You still
need an authoring platform (OutStart Hot Lava Mobile is free) and hosting on a
WAP server. You can rent that or purchase it, depending on your security needs. If you want interactivity, tracking and integration with your LMS, you need to invest in a robust platform. These are usually priced on an annual per user plan, with various upfront charges. And you need to consider the costs of authoring, training, help-desk support — just as you would with any delivery platform change or enhancement.
As with any change, start small.Gather a group of evangelists, who will work with you to define, refine and implement your vision in a “sand box.”And if that increases productivity at a reasonable cost—GoMobile.!
—Ann Boland has been involved in business training and development for 35 years. Always interested in “bleeding-edge” technologies, she is currently a partner in OHE Associates, a mobile learning consultancy. Contact: ann@OHEassociates.com.