Download costs restrict spread of mobile learning

Smartphone outdoorsAs mobile devices with internet access become more common, the rise of learning on the move is edging closer. Its uptake is, however, still hampered by the cost to download large volumes of data and the multiplicity of browsers.

 Mobile phone novels, keitai shosetsu, are now dominating the fiction best-selling list in Japan, a country at the forefront of technology development and adoption.

The novels are divided into sections which phone users can read between two stops on the Japanese subway, after downloading them from publishers’ websites. The novels are also written on mobile phones - typically by young people.

This is just one example of how people are using technologies on the move, according to Gordon Bull of Learning Forte who spoke at Learning Technologies conference recently. Commuting is an obvious period that could be used for mobile learning, and sales staff who are spend lots of time on the road are one group that is beginning to be increasingly embrace mobile learning. Vodafone, for example, has worked with Giunti labs to devise training via Blackberrys to inform sales staff about new product information.

Nevertheless, making mobile learning more ubiquitous still faces challenges, one of the most important of which is due to the different mobile operating systems, according to Bull. 'It’s quite challenging to deliver to different technology,' he said, 'although it would be easier if mobiles were used for corporate learning which are on a common system.'

The real inhibitors are the different resolutions and screen sizes of the various devices. That said, certain website already exist that can reconfigure a single source into different format to be sent to various mobile devices.

However, although the technology exists to broadcast to different devices, sending a large amount of data to mobiles - such as video - is still costly, and many phones are still 2G, which can typically handle digital voice transmission, text and messaging, but not large quantities of data, audio or video.

For now, Bull therefore thinks that some of the best mobile learning is text-based. The other option is to use a laptop, connected to the internet via a 3G card, which can process audio or video and have high-speed internet browsing speeds. As laptops become lighter and smaller (and models that fold out or have plug-in keyboards are already coming on the market), learning on the move will become more plausible. Although it’s quite possible of course that commuters could chose to work or play games on a laptop, instead of dedicating that ‘dead’ time to learning.

Voice files are also a good option to consider for mobile learning currently, according to Bull, as shown by increasing numbers of commuters downloading the news to listen to on the way home. He said that Cisco, which places learning at a high level, as it sees it as a competitive advantage, has invested in podcasting in a large way, for internal and partner use.

Other examples of voice mobile learning, given by Bull, included Stamford University’s private area on iTunes for students to listen to lectures. Some american universities are now giving students iPods to encourage them to learn on the move. And Coastline College, the US naval college, puts its entire management programme on podcasts. BT has also used telephones for training - more details below.

In the future, Bull envisages that one growth area for mobile learning could be augmented reality. It is already used in the aircraft construction industry, with workers getting performance prompts as they move on to the next activity.

‘The tipping point in the uptake of mobile learning is likely to be when there are decent browsers,’ he concluded.

BT trains fields engineers

BT has used standard telephones to train their field engineers. Andrew Butt explained that they took the approach when they needed to quickly reach 30,000 field engineers with some important training. The engineers in fact favoured face-to-face training but it had massive drawbacks for the company - BT would have needed to train the trainers and to get the engineers together, which is tricky and expensive as BT has reduced its office space. Plus, engineers would have had to travel to the venue.

So, instead, BT asked engineers to phone into interactive training when it was convenient for them.

The training took 20-30 minutes to complete and was tailored to exactly the information that engineers needed to know. It was integrated with BT’s LMS, provided proof of learning and was cost effective. 84 per cent of the engineers said they found it effective.

March 2008