Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What I think about Avitars

I just got an e-mail from a long time customer asking me what I think about an article they read on Avitars. My response is:

Please forgive my cynicism ... but an article about how wonderful Avatars are that is written by the CEO of a company that makes Avatars seems somewhat self-serving. Also, note that "developers" like this. Where does it talk about whether the audience likes it? The stuff about the MTV-generation being different, in my opinion, is recycled. Yes, younger people are more familiar with texting, social networks, and faster multi-tasking, but this (my opinion) is because they are at a stage where they have more free time. (Remember when our parents complained about how much TV we watched instead of going outside and tending to the vegetable garden?) Once they get older, and get busier (like most employees at work are), they have less time for games, distractions, and other entertainment. Unfortunately, what matters is making the content interesting, and above all accessible. I don't expect people to learn (really understand and develop their own ramifications from) web-based content the first time they read it. What makes web-based content useful is that they can get to it on an as-needed basis. Avatars and recorded video, from our anectodal experience (hearing from our customers) do the following:
1. Slow down the learning - the user has to wait for the audio track to get to the content. Imagine if Google was audio based rather than text-based. How long would it take you to find what you're looking for?
2. Reduce the need for the person to process the information through the brain. If someone reads to me, I don't have to read. I find that the best way for me to learn something is to rewrite it. If I just am listening, I can drift away (check my inbox, play free-cell, etc.)
3. Distracts the co-workers in cubicles around them. When the course loads, suddenly the audio kicks off. Everyone hears it and is distracted.
4. Provide visual stimulation, but not critical thinking development or fact transfer.

My belief is that in the MTV generation, unless people are couch-potato-ing (watching music videos), what they want is faster, smaller chunks of info. When you start transmitting to PDAs, and it takes 5 minutes for the audio track that lasts one minute to download, you may find a loss of effectiveness.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Understanding the Differences between Mobile Platforms

A study done in 2007 on mobile platform usage found that Symbian (used in Nokia phones) had 70% of the mobile OS market. Linux (used by multiple vendors such as Sharp and Samsung) had 15% of the mobile OS market. Research In Motion's Blackberry had 5% of the mobile OS market, while Microsoft Windows Mobile and CE (used by Palm, Compaq, Samsung) had 5%. Since this study came out, new players including Apple (iPhone) and Android (Google's operating system) have been introduced. In many countries outside of the US, cell phones are used 100 times as often as desktop computers.

The window size in different mobile browsers can vary from 320x160 to 600x480, or even landscape mode of 480x600. Beyond the screen size, there are different levels of support for visual elements such as styles, dynamic content (JavaScript), and images. I predict that over the next few years more mobile devices will support multi-media. The question will be if they will support the same multi-media formats you currently have on your desktop computer or if they will develop their own plug-ins. Here is a summary of the features (and limitations) found on mobile systems today:

• Blackberry has a custom mobile browser. Their browser has poor JavaScript support, does not support Flash, supports zooming, but provides no special handling of frames, and ignores style sheets (CSS). This means that content cannot be "hidden" through style sheet control. This is a problem if you wish to provide both textual and graphic links.
• Microsoft has a number of different mobile operating systems. Windows CE is found on devices built prior to 2005. Windows Mobile 6 was released in 2007, and Windows Mobile (Next) is under development. All of these platforms contain browsers that are versions of IE4/IE5/IE6 resulting in many limitations. On Windows Mobile 6, the browser is better, but it is a limited version of IE6. The Microsoft browsers have poor JavaScript support, do not support Flash, do not support zooming, and ignore style sheets (CSS). Windows Mobile 6 supports CSS but does not provide any special handling for frames. (See Minimo for an alternative.)
• Minimo is a port of the Firefox (Mozilla) browser for Windows Mobile devices. The Minimo browser is available for Windows Mobile 5 and later. It is easy to install and fully JavaScript enabled. This means that dynamic content works well. The Minimo browser is capable of performing decent zooming, and has good style sheet (CSS) support. Minimo is one of the best browsers available. The only downside is that it needs to be downloaded and installed on the Windows Mobile platform before usage - but it is free.
• Symbian is the name of Nokia's operating system that includes a browser. The browser is a good browser with reasonable JavaScript support and provides excellent zooming.
• Apple's iPhone uses a proprietary operating system and the Safari browser. iPhone supports multimedia separately from the browser. Overall, this is an excellent platform since it has good screen size, good style sheet (CSS) and JavaScript support, and the touch screen makes it easy to use.
• Palm's operating system is called Garnet. It includes a browser. The Garnet browser has poor style sheet (CSS) support, but it does a nice job with frames by putting them at the bottom of the page. It has weak support for dynamic HTML. Like Apple, Palm’s devices have touch screens to make navigation easier.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Designing mobile eLearning courses

Before embarking on creation of a mobile accessible course you will want to understand how the learner's experience changes when they view your course through a mobile device. Mobile devices are typically used in a very distraction-filled environment. Learners may be on a bus, on a train, at the store, eating lunch, or at work. The mobile device screen is very small. This limits what the learner can see and can make it difficult to read a large amount of content, view graphics, or see moving graphics.

Course content behaves differently when the display window shrinks. Graphic artists and many course creators like to design eLearning courses so that all aspects of the visual layout are tightly controlled. They like to precisely specify the position of each character. This is called absolute positioning. Absolutely positioned pages work well for printed brochures, but don't work well for environments where the learners have different screen/display sizes. Because the designer has specified positioning for a specific screen size ahead of time, the browser cannot rearrange the content optimally for the end-learner's current screen size. Absolutely positioned content may require horizontal scrolling to read, or may simply be illegible because the font size is too large or too small. Along the same line of thought, many test questions are built with tools that only work on specific browsers. For example, tools assume that the learner uses only Internet Explorer 7 or later or has flash installed. Mobile devices (event those that use Microsoft Windows Mobile) use older, simpler browsers making many web pages and web forms unusable.

Additionally, in a mobile environment your content will be most effective if you only provide a small amount on each page. While learners can scroll horizontally on a mobile device, it may be difficult to follow the content if they have to scroll too much. The rule of thumb, is to provide about twice the amount of content that can be viewed on the screen: If an average mobile screen supports 300 characters, limit your pages to 600 characters. This leads to content that is short, quick, and fast. Mobile devices have different size and capability limitations. Some browsers will resize the fonts, some support zooming, some don't respect style sheets, some have a portrait layout, etc. Avoid multiple columns, since they will require horizontal scrolling.

There are a few simple rules to follow when creating graphics for mobile devices. Avoid placing important text inside graphics. That is, it is possible to put text inside a graphic to serve as a label. The mobile browser may shrink graphics so that they fit on the small display size. Any text that is in the graphic will also be shrunk, potentially to a size that is illegible. On other devices, if the graphic is too large, the visitor will need to scroll horizontally and vertically to see it. This can become frustrating for your learner since horizontal scrolling is annoying and is not supported on all mobile devices. So, graphics should be designed for low resolution screens.

None of the currently available mobile devices support multimedia that is part of web pages. This means that content requiring plug-ins such as Flash, PDF, Java, and most movie formats do not work across the platforms. The movies that are becoming popular on iPod require a proprietary movie application, separate from the browser. This means that rich/multimedia should be avoided.

The overall layout/look-and-feel of your site can also be a challenge. If you plan to use the same content for the desktop and the mobile learners, one option is to have two different style sheets, with the appropriate one loading at run time. In a properly designed site, the style sheet specifies layout, positioning, font sizes/colors, backgrounds, borders, and many other display attributes. It is important to understand that style sheet support is not uniform across mobile devices. Because of the non-uniform support, you might consider creating two separate eLearning courses: one for PC access and one for mobile access. Some basic considerationswhen creating a template for mobile devices:
· Most branding can be done through font and background colors
· Use small or unobtrusive graphics and logos
· Avoid navigation bars that may take up a large percentage of the screen. If you want to include complex navigation, place these at the end of the page content so that learners have access first to the primary content.
· Avoid background graphics.
o The end learners ambient light will vary depending on whether they are indoors or outdoors.
o A background that causes low contrast difference between text and decoration may make content impossible to read.
· Pull-down menus don't necessarily work on mobile devices (because of uneven JavaScript support), so consider using arrows to take learners through a tour of your course.
· Graphic navigation icons should be simple arrows or a descriptive word such as “next” or “back”.
· Navigation frames work well on some devices, but not others. It's best to place them below or after the main content.

When you build your content using recommended web practices it will work effectively on all platforms. Content that follows W3C recommendations including HTML implementation, style sheets, and relative positioning is the most accessible from the largest number of platforms. If you are already using a tool, confirm that it works on all mobile devices. You may need to do your own testing since most vendors have focused on the desktop market.

Also consider the connection speed for your visitor's device. Many mobile devices only have access to low bandwidth services. Your visitor might only have access to download speeds comparable to what most people had in the mid 1990's. Since access speeds vary tremendously, make sure your content can be downloaded quickly.

Tests can work over mobile devices, but they need to be implemented using standard HTML. A big caveat is your LMS. Most LMS's do not work in a mobile environment since they created their environment in tools (AJEX and Rich Media) that do not work on mobile devices

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why Mobile ELearning courses

Analysts, reporters, and computing futurists believe that mobile applications are the greatest path for growth in the computing industry. Their focus and enthusiasm centers on applications that can be installed natively on the mobile devices, rather than on the use of the mobile device as a communication gateway. For example, many articles feature software that tells you how many of your "friends and acquaintances" are currently within 500 yards of where you are sitting. However, mobile devices may have a role that is much larger than as a platform for handy applications. Mobile devices can provide highly portable, low cost Internet access, thereby opening up huge new information consumer bases.

Many of the mobile applications being featured are productivity tools like scheduling or notification software or entertainment tools like music players and games. In order to run, these applications need to be purchased, downloaded, and installed on the mobile platform. Each mobile platform/operating system requires its own, natively compiled version of the application. The applications need to be redesigned and rebuilt for each target platform (e.g. Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Android, etc.). While most of the focus on mobile computing has been on specific applications, the most obvious, and potentially most important application has been forgotten: web access.

Most learners are accessing the Internet to take eLearning courses. ELearning courses provide organizations, government, and individuals a training portal to the world where they can provide trainer their learners. An organization's course is accessible to learners through a web browser (e.g Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari), regardless of the operating system (MS-Windows, Mac, etc.) the visitor is using. This access to training is provided without the learner purchasing, downloading, or installing anything since most computers are delivered with a web browser already installed. The same is becoming true for mobile devices.

The need to download or install an application before accessing a course is one of the major reasons that learners abandon a course. In fact, when learners need to install a plug-in in order to view the content, they only do so 10% of the time. This means that the hurdle of installing a plug-in or media viewer is enough to prevent most learners from taking a course.

Most eLearning courses currently work well on a desktop computer with a moderate resolution screen, but work poorly on a mobile device. This is primarily because of design decisions course creators have taken when they built the course. Most course creators assume that learners have the same size/resolution display as what they have on their computer. They only test the course with their computer, at their preferred browser setting. For example most courses only work properly if the display device is at least 700 pixels wide. (Most mobile displays are less than 400 pixels wide). So, to read a line of text, the end-learner will need to scroll horizontally, something very difficult to do on mobile devices that don't have a touch-sensitive screen. Another big reason courses are being designed in unfriendly manners is the rush to Rich Internet Applications. This just means content that requires plug-ins like Adobe Flash or Java in order to display. These applications provide pretty movies, visual stimulation, and responsive content, but add little content value. Currently, most mobile devices (including the iPhone) are unable to play rich media as part of web pages. This means that courses that require plug-ins are inaccessible to mobile consumers.

An even bigger problem exists with tests. Most test questions are built in tools that output flash, are browser specific, or use other rich media formats that are inaccessible to mobile devices The end result are test where a learner is unable to set the focus on an entry box, and typing doesn't work. Tests are also being designed to use the latest instantaneous feedback mechanisms such as AJAX. These technologies are not yet supported on many mobile browsers. So, when a learner wishes to take a test when they are in a mobile environment they can not do so.

If you are building courses, you need to ask some fundamental questions:
- Why are you building these courses?
- Who is your learner?
If you want learners (employees, customers, prospective clients, and partners) to take your courses you will need to ensure that your course works in your learners's environment. With maturity in cell-phone/mobile device technologies, your learners will be moving away from their desks, and will want to learn when they are mobile. This means that courses that have worked nicely until now will needs to be able to handle the changing learning environment.

Currently about 15% of the cell phones in the US have a web browser. Most people exchange their cell phone for the latest model every two years. This is why Internet accessible mobile device adoption is growing exponentially.

Your training strategy need to ensure that you are not repelling learners. If your courses do not work with mobile devices how many learners will you not be accessing in the future? If you require that they download and install an application or plug-in so that they can take a course, how many learners have you lost? The questions you need to ask to see if you should be looking at a mobile training strategy is:
· Are your learners sitting at a desk or are they out and about?
· Do your learners use cell phones or other mobile devices?
· What do they currently read on their mobile devices (nothing, short e-mails, long messages?)
· Do they currently use mobile devices to send e-mail?
· Does their mobile devices have a browser (is it a smartphone)?
· Do they have or are they looking at purchasing a mobile device with a browser?
· Would they want to access training when they are away from their desktop computers?
· Are your courses useful to a mobile audience?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes you should consider expanding your course options to support mobile devices.