Gary Flood takes a look at the suitability of the next generation of consumer devices in the world of learning and development.

Not got an iPad yet? I’ll let you off if you’ve instead got your order in for that new BlackBerry version, the new Playbook tablet computer - or if you’ve been too busy playing with your Kindle e-reader or new Android smartphone to order one. Oh, sorry, you’re waiting to buy the new Dell seven-inch version, making do with the Samsung Galaxy in the meantime.

Welcome to the new world of sexy electronic handhelds that let users navigate the web, download digital content - from the new coolest movies to the latest Professor Green hip hop tracks - and consume training and education materials.

Well - possibly. A look at the suitability for this next generation of consumer devices for training content has produced some mixed conclusions. On the one hand, no one is being so sceptical as to say they have no place at all, but many are urging caution and suggest that it’s going to be a while before we are going to classrooms only carrying such devices to do our training.

Screens for training

Without doubt our workplaces are beginning to be populated with high-quality display devices. ‘We met this week with a global law firm that wants to put iPads in its meeting rooms with prepared video content to help users of the rooms navigate all their features,’ Sam Kinstrey, MD of 2e2, says. ‘There’s no doubt that there is growing interest in using these kinds of devices in the corporate context as targets for training content.’

Others, such as Nigel Chadwick, Managing Director of Stream Communications, find that customers are asking for larger and larger flat screens in contexts like shop floors to be platforms for displaying health and safety company policy and news announcements to employees.

This approach allows information to be sent to all signs over the company’s internal mobile network and updated as needed with, say, training as well as specific messages like ‘remember to do end-of-day checks’. Pirelli, one of Europe’s longest-established and largest tyre manufacturers, for example, is in the final stages of considering the use of this sort of technology to deliver training and employee information via large digital screens.

Learning apps

Then there is the growing rush to produce iPhone and other smartphone apps as training mechanisms. To take just one example, sales, management and leadership training specialist Sandler has just announced such an app, ‘offering instant access to tips, tools, charts, feedback and a whole lot more’, as its press release gushes.

Other learning apps that were successfully launched this year are, for example, ILX’s ‘Snakes & Ladders App’ for the iPhone and iPod Touch, which aims to reinforce core elements of the PRINCE2 Foundation and prepare candidates for exams with prompted questions.

Epic released a learning app for smartphones, The First Aider, which brings to life the curriculum for the Emergency First Aid at Work certificate introduced by the Health and Safety Executive last October, and LINE Communications created an app for the Royal School of Artillery (RSA) to help train UK troops in the use of fire control orders on operation. It is used on the iPad and provides a multiplayer environment for use inside and outside of the classroom.

People are already downloading such content to consume them in ways that work for them. Take Chris Dodson, Business Director at advertising agency Archibald Ingall Stretton, who gets content like regular podcasts on internet marketing, such as a new daily paid-for ten-minute ‘how to’ video on to his iPhone and iPad at work.

‘I use the content to bolster my own knowledge and apply it to my day job and I also share interesting things with my colleagues and clients,’ he says. ‘What I really like about the content and why I paid for the premium content is that it is up-to-the-minute, super relevant and hot off the press - it’s a valuable resource.’

‘In many ways we see this as just the next step in the progress of terminal devices beyond the laptop, and our users agree, saying they want to consume this when and where they want in their busy schedules,’ adds Kelvin Newman, Creative Director at the firm that produces the content, Site Visibility.

Skeptics

But all this enthusiasm and potential is balanced by the nay-sayers. ‘We have investigated the use of iPads, PDAs and Kindles in the learning environment and they just don’t work,’ is the stark verdict of Robert Chapman, CEO of IT training firm Firebrand. ‘At this moment in time, there is no simple way to highlight, make notes or annotate on digital courseware effectively. Until a smart device is released that can handle this, it’s something that’s not worth pursuing,’ he warns.

‘Students need the flexibility to be able to quickly and effectively highlight or annotate digital courseware. On the current crop of devices the benefit of the technology does not outweigh the simplicity of using a pen and pad. For as long as this remains, students and instructors alike will prefer printed material.’

Industry experts do acknowledge there are limitations on what the current generation of touchscreen, highly portable devices can do. Essentially, this is still a mainly one-way transmission of information; students can look at text, pictures, diagrams, listen to words or video, but it’s still not that easy for them to work with the material.

‘I’d just never recommend this kind of device as a way to do things like take notes - it’s just not there yet,’ says 2e2’s Kinstrey. ‘But I think that kind of functionality is coming and it’ll be soon - easily in the next 24 months or so.’

Commercial considerations

Functionality may not be the only obstacle to this class of handhelds playing as big a role as they might be expected to in the training context. Commercial reasons play a part too, according to Firebrand’s Chapman.

‘Some content providers are issuing digital versions of their training material at the same price as the print version, which doesn’t make sense to us. If we want to print a copy for the students it ends up being more expensive, given the massive volume of courseware. Ideally we want great technology that’s an improvement on - or at least neutral to - the printed version, which costs no more, and ideally less, than the current print version.’

One can’t help noticing that there’s something of a fuzzy line between e-learning and the use of these new devices; to some extent, we are just pushing things like podcasts to new, ‘better dressed’ destinations, as it were. And so in many ways the lessons the training industry has learned about e-learning applies with this delivery mechanism too.

‘Content just doesn’t work on its own, no matter how funky - students need a blended approach and a support system that brings them into contact with others to make it all work,’ says Paul Naybour of Parallel Project Training, which delivers project management training content by podcasts, among other media.

The flat-screen, super-sexy handheld is here to stay - that’s not in dispute. But it may take a little while for it to be more than just a really cool platform to listen to the e-learning podcast you used to take in on your ‘old’ mobile or PC. Until these devices can better help us actually work on them, it seems the really cool technology for a lot of training applications will remain pen, ink - and good old-fashioned attention.

Promising signs

Globally, a number of initiatives and product developments are under way that suggest touchscreen-based education is set for take-off. Higher education seems to be leading the charge here.

For instance, one of Singapore’s leading institutions of higher learning, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, has been talking about extending its student learning portal by making iPhones much more a part of the fabric. The idea is to integrate its back-office LMS and student admin systems with e-learning so the mobile in effect becomes another part of the teaching whole.

Meanwhile, a university in Texas, Abilene, has given free iPhones to some 2,100 students (just under half of the student body) to encourage better interaction in the classroom.

Lecturers say that as so many students think there’s no point taking notes as they can get all the information they want off Wikipedia when they need it, it’s maybe better to get them to use their iPhones to look up relevant information and discuss the information they’ve found, with instructors leading a discussion on which sources are accurate and useful.

And in the UK trials have already taken place of classroom-based touchscreens - so beyond the now mainstream electonic whiteboards - created by researchers at Durham University, the so-called SynergyNet, which is said to allow two or more pupils to operate a special touchscreen desk at the same time and let them interact directly with a finger or stylus with materials delivered electronically.