Learning on the go

Just
when we’d all got our heads around e-learning, another method of delivering
training appears.

Sue
Weekes presents an introduction to mobile learning and asks what it can deliver

What
is m-learning?

Learning
via a mobile device (hence the ‘m’), such as a mobile phone or portable digital
assistant (PDA).

Obviously,
we’re not talking entire syllabuses or complete management courses being
squeezed down a mobile phone, but rather learning content that has been
specially developed to be accessed on such devices.

Early
examples already being tested and piloted include real-life video depicting
procedures in an intensive care unit that can be played on a handheld computer,
and short training modules called Knowledge Nuggets that are being used by
Cisco Systems as a mobile support tool.

E-learning
has often been proffered as the ‘learn anywhere, anytime’ solution and it is
fair to say that it has liberated the learner from the confines of the
classroom. But most e-learning content is still accessed on a terminal with an
internet or network connection in a static location. M-learning takes things
further by using mobile devices as its delivery platform with, typically,
wireless connections used to access the content via the web.

A raft
of underpinning and delivery technologies already exist: hardware includes PDAs
such as the HP iPAQ, the Palm and the XDA – a digital assistant and mobile
phone all in one – as well as tablet PCs; and developments such as 3G and 4G
phones to speed up download times and permit access to richer multimedia
content.

How
did it emerge?

It
would be easy to assume that the availability of the technology has heralded
the movement, but this is not a case of using technology for technology’s sake.
It is far more about reflecting the needs of tomorrow’s learner. For young
people in particular, mobile phones play an increasingly important role as a
communications tool and as such are a natural platform for delivering learning.

One of
the drivers behind the development of m-learning is the low literacy and
numeracy levels among 16-year-olds. According to figures from the DfEE (2001),
of the 580,000 or so 16 year-olds who leave school each year, around 150,000
are below basic level 1 in English and mathematics and 22 per cent of these
don’t go on to training or work after they leave school.

A
survey carried out by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) of 746
young adult mobile users showed that between 40 and 50 per cent were
enthusiastic about phone-based games that might help them with reading,
spelling or maths.

“The
[DfEE] statistics illustrate that this is an intractable problem,” says Jill
Attewell, who heads up the m-Learning project at LSDA. Speaking at the M-learn
2003 conference, she added: “Imaginative and innovative appro-aches are needed
to bring about improvements. One such approach could be m-learning.”

In the
commercial world, the rise of mobile and remote workers means there is already
a need for mobile learning. Access to intranets and company networks via PDAs
and laptops is common practice, so the infrastructure is already in place to
facilitate an m-learning strategy at many companies – and many companies have
already taken their first steps in m-learning.

What
are the main drivers in development?

M-Learning
and MOBIlearn are key projects, both supported by the European Commission
Information Society Directorate-General. M-learning’s remit is to develop and
evaluate prototype mobile learning products, services and support mechanisms
for young adults who are not currently engaged in education or training and
many of whom have literacy and numeracy development needs.

The
LSDA is a host and co-ordinating partner of the m-Learning Project.

Academic
establishments and training companies are working on development projects
ranging from those that address the pedagogical issues to interface design.

Although
the project is aimed at young disaffected learners, clearly much of the work
done will help the overall m-learning movement by confronting and overcoming many
challenges and issues at this early stage.

Some of
the companies speaking at the m-learning conference are already producing
m-learning products for the commercial world, such as Complete Learning, one of
the UK’s leading m-learning providers which produced the Knowledge Nuggets used
by Cisco’s field staff as a mobile support tool (see case study right).

The
m-learning project provides a good central focus for training professionals who
want to find out more. Work is ongoing throughout the year and the next major
event, MLearn 2004, will take place in Rome during early summer.

What
kind of learning is it best for?

Bite-size
top-up and just-in-time training are ideal for this method of learning but it
would be wrong to do little more than fit existing learning models on to the
new medium.

“People
think you can just put e-learning onto a mobile platform,” says Steve Tonge, a
mobile specialist at Complete Learning. “But it’s completely different – you’ve
got to think about what the user wants to see on the device. We’re looking at
how you can build mobile learning as well as explore issues like incorporating
it into a blended solution.”

Complete
learning’s Knowledge Nuggets were created using the interactive animation tool
from Macromedia called Flash. They run on the HP iPAQ PDA and the learning can
be downloaded from the Cisco partner e-learning website, then installed within
about a minute to the PDA.

Tonge
says they have produced seven knowledge nuggets for Cisco so far and it is
building a portfolio of products for general consumption in areas such as
personal and business development and coaching as well as an interactive French
language product. The latter is called French2Hand and is part of a series of
learning ‘nugget’ products called Learn2Hand, which can be downloaded from the
web.

Another
real world example can be found in Malmo University in Sweden. Staff have been
working on self-produced video to be used as a form of peer-to-peer learning by
those working in an intensive care unit of the University Hospital Malmo. Oral
learning, whereby technicians swap stories, has always been seen as a learning
resource in itself and this is now augmented by short videos produced by staff
based around patient care and medical devices with a digital video camera.
Staff carry out a task, such as assembling extra equipment to a ventilator,
film it themselves (including any practical tips) and then it is played back on
a handheld computer as and when colleagues need it.

What
are the main pedagogical issues?

“One of
our issues is how small can you make learning and how can we make these tiny
bits of content part of a larger whole?” asks Jo Colley, of Cambridge Training
and Development (CTAD), which is working on building content and approaches to
content for mobile devices as part of the m-Learning project.

Colley
explains that they are currently in phase two of the project and have developed
content for PDAs and mobile phones. PDAs or palmtop computers offer more scope
because the screen size is bigger and this makes multimedia content possible
such as video clips, animation and graphics. Scaled-down quizzes on sports
themes were devised and proved popular in trials on palmtops, reports Colley,
although she’s mindful that the target market for the project are less likely
to have a palmtop than a mobile phone.

To
overcome the fragmentation issue of lots of small pieces of learning being
accessed at different times, CTAD worked on developing themes of content in
conjunction with other project partners. These included an urban soap opera,
built in Flash to run on an iPAQ PDA with daily updates available via the phone
using the Voice(V)XML standard, and a learning programme on football refereeing
timed to coincide with the World Cup.

This
took the form of animated quizzes on the iPAQ and a daily quiz of five
questions sent via the VXML to the phone.

One of
the surprises to have come out of the trials was the community aspect of
learning, says Colley. “We found they preferred to learn together and
collaborate with each other,” she says. “They are a key feature in many
activities carried out by young people: passing on information, passing on
gifts in the form of jokes or graphics, sharing ringtones and texting each
other. So we found we could capitalise on the social aspects of learning.”

How
much does it cost?

Production
costs of m-learning vary but it can be a highly cost-effective way of
delivering training material since there are few overheads.

As with
e-learning, it will depend on whether it is a tailored or off-the-shelf
solution, the former being the most expensive option. However, if it is a
generic soft skills course it is likely to be relatively cheap.

Of
course, the learner needs a delivery platform so it may mean kitting the
workforce out with a PDA if they don’t already have one. But with these between
£200-500 in the high street now, this shouldn’t prove cost prohibitive
especially since there will be no other overheads.

Case
study: M-Learning in action

Areks
provides strategic sales training courses to pharmaceutical companies around
the world.  The Pocket Coach shown
below, created by Complete learning, is designed to supplement instructor led
training courses for sales representatives on the road.  It reinforces messages delivered on the
course, facilitates updates to the training, and provides a mechanism for
communication between the line manager and sales team.

Contacts

Learning
and Skills Development Agency – www.lsda.org.uk/programmes/mlearning

M-Learning
Project – www.m-learning.org

MOBILEARN
www.mobilearn.org

Complete
Learning – www.completelearning.co.uk

Cambridge
Training & Development – www.ctad.co.uk

 

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