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.

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