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Introducing… Mobile Learning
Introducing… Mobile Learning

Anyplace, anytime learning has become a reality. Innovative training programs - especially for the mobile workforce - have already resulted in significant ROI. As the market evolves, and industry-standard protocols are resolved, demand will explode.

When Josie Scioli, VP of sales operations at BCE Nexxia (NYSE/TSE: BCE) in Canada, prepares for a visit to a prospective customer, she doesn't print out a list of features and benefits for last-minute review. She simply uses her PDA to access BCE Nexxia's mobile learning program to refresh her knowledge on key products and services.

Scioli is one of the pioneers in the use of huge applications across mobile devices. The flurry of activity in the wireless arena, as technology providers prepare for the impending deluge of new, more robust wireless applications, indicates that companies like BCE Nexxia are providing momentum for the industry.

Small, personal devices for voice or data access are proliferating. The largest opportunities for wireless are outside the U.S.; according to a March 2001 IDC report, U.S. wireless subscribers are expected to reach 50% of the population by 2004, while in Europe, wireless subscriptions, already at 50%, are expected to rise to over 80% in the same period.

The increasingly mobile population is already envisioning applications not yet practical within the limitations of wireless networks and devices. One of the most intriguing is mobile learning.

Mobile learning is an outgrowth of the e-learning industry - the education and training innovation from the "wired" world - that has profoundly transformed learning practices. It was quickly adopted within enterprise organizations to meet training requirements, and is now being incorporated in academic institutions to supplement classroom programs and improve distance learning.

But while e-learning has long touted the promise of anyplace, anytime learning, that promise has not fully materialized. E-learning offers flexibility for ongoing learning and frees people from staid classroom environments. Still, it limits learners to desktops or laptops.

Mobile learning is a companion to e-learning, synthesizing the learning solution. It's a paradigm shift. It integrates evolving wireless technology and handheld computer devices into a learning solution that makes e-learning's promise of anyplace, anytime learning a reality. It enables learning without limits.

For companies such as BCE Nexxia, Canada's leading provider of integrated, broadband communication services, mobile learning enables continuous learning. It provides access to resources, as they're needed. Scioli says mobile learning makes learning convenient and effortless, and is "an invaluable resource for our sales and marketing staff who can access current information about BCE Nexxia's products and services whenever they need it."

This mobile access to the company's learning resources is a new enhancement to BCE Nexxia's e-learning system, originally launched in July 1999, which incorporates the ASP-based infrastructure from ISOPIA. That system provides technical and product training for BCE's sales and marketing staff on a personalized portal.

Through their aggressive adoption of groundbreaking technology and evolving learning applications, BCE Nexxia has realized significant return on investment, reporting savings of $1.8 million on their training costs since their e-learning system was launched in late 1999. "Our return on investment has been exceptional," continues Scioli. "We believe any new developments can only continue to increase that value."

For organizations seeking competitive advantage through access to knowledge, mobile learning is the ideal application. "As a leading provider of data and Internet-based broadband communication services, we need to maintain solid training and knowledge management programs," says Scioli. "Mobile access represents innovative training to meet our company's learning needs."

For its initial mobile learning implementation, BCE Nexxia commissioned eight self-paced courses for their "Sales-on-the-Run" series. The courses include both Web-based and mobile components. The mobile components are a 15-minute complement of their respective Web versions. Using wireless devices, such as cell phones or handsets, BCE Nexxia employees check on their learning activities, course information, or training status.

"Mobile learning is about connecting to information anytime you need to," says Jan Bourret of L3 Consulting, a company specializing in promoting the power of lifelong learning. "It means you can either download courseware or use a wireless connection to get any information you need."

M-Learning moves beyond the confines of traditional education and even online education to make learning truly continuous. It allows unrestrained access to information databases, learning objects, and courseware. It offers a smooth and effortless learning experience, while ensuring unrestricted access to content and functionality in a portable device - whether disconnected from the network or connected in a wireline or wireless approach.

Most analysts agree that the transformation in education and training will never replace classroom programs. Mobile learning will also never replace e-learning. Each will become part of a new paradigm for learning - a blended solution - part classroom, part electronic, part wireless.

"M-learning implies totally unconfined learning - learning limited only by the desire to learn," summarizes Bourret.

Realizing the Knowledge Advantage
So what is the new paradigm? Well, it involves seamless, uninterrupted learning - wherever and whenever needed. With m-learning, you learn faster and more efficiently. You can optimize your time by downloading and taking a course while waiting for a plane. You enjoy performance support by accessing information databases or learning objects while preparing for a presentation.

"M-learning is comparable to the number one way people learn - that is, by asking their neighbor," says Bourret. "M-learning acts as a one-on-one coach for performance support, offering information and training when needed."

Mobile learning brings learning to you, rather than forcing you to learn where the data resides - in classrooms, libraries, or databases. M-learning involves a complete shift in learning styles and makes anyplace, anytime learning radically possible.

"M-learning allows you to house data somewhere and access it only when needed," continues Bourret. "You carry nothing with you. You rely on your own knowledge to solve problems, but when you require it, you can easily access the information you need with your m-learning application."

The ability to learn as you go, when you want, will become a competitive necessity, as the pace of change accelerates and m-learning applications become mainstream. Mobile learning offers tremendous business benefits in the new economy - the knowledge economy that has evolved from the industrial market of the mid-20th century. That fundamental transformation has been driven by technological innovations. E-learning, for example, is a first proponent of the knowledge economy and m-learning will only increase it.

Mobile learning will become absolutely critical for companies looking to sustain their success and grow their leadership position in the global market.

Enabling the Mobile Workforce
Mobile learning holds the greatest potential for professionals and support personnel on the go. Within the mobile workforce, the exploding use of handheld devices makes m-learning applications highly viable.

Anyone with a need to access knowledge databases or learning objects is a potential user of m-learning. For salespeople and management staff, wireless access to information may represent competitive advantage. Within call centers, quick and flexible access to knowledge databases will ensure responsive customer service. For technical or field support, the ability to access learning objects will enable on-the-spot problem solving. M-learning offers lower costs and higher profits through simpler, faster, better access to information.

And while the technology is still evolving and mobile learning providers begin to address prospective needs, m-learning will no doubt look significantly different than current predictions. Many applications for m-learning have not even been thought of yet. As the market evolves and matures, the user demand will define the applications.

Clearly, the applications and advantages for m-learning are already there. Users are beginning to recognize the potential and are demanding mobile courseware, but the vision surpasses the current capacity of the technology. The learning tools are just evolving and mobile learning is still in its nascent stages.

There are three main areas to resolve:

  • Content will need to be presented in information chunks and be developed to overcome screen limitations.
  • Wireless networks are still patchy and offer only limited access.
  • Mobile devices will need to address storage and content display restrictions.

    "The market for mobile learning is still undeveloped, but within the next 12 to 18 months, it will hit mainstream," says Bourret. "From a technology standpoint, the tools will be ready for a complete mobile learning solution, and from an industry viewpoint, the e-learning industry leaders will be ready to take advantage of them."

    Maximizing Infrastructure Technology
    The challenges need to be resolved quickly. One solution is the use of industry-standard protocols. These will provide mobile learning with a seamless interface to courseware or learning databases. A student will access a Learning Management System (LMS) over the Web to select courses, enroll online, and begin the training within a structured environment. The selection of flexible protocols will make this infrastructure accessible to mobile users.

    Initially, the mobile learning industry chose to adopt WAP, which addresses the constraints of small, narrowband devices, such as handheld computers and cell phones. It's designed to ensure that content is delivered efficiently in an environment with little processing power and limited display capabilities. And while it's the popular standard for the wireless industry, WAP has significant limitations for mobile learning. It has many graphic constraints, and you can not download courses; you must always be connected through the wireless network.

    As a result, visionary m-learning infrastructure providers are beginning to look at Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME). Overcoming the limitations of WAP, this platform-independent language is designed to allow content usage on any device. For mobile learning, J2ME offers immense flexibility and complete portability. When the wireless network is patchy or unavailable, it enables the user to download content to the handheld device and access information quickly. You don't have to stay connected. J2ME offers a high level of interactivity for testing and assessment, for example. It also supports more complex courseware than the standard wireless protocol. And J2ME offers a comparatively graphics-rich learning environment, limited only by device capacity and bandwidth. In short, it offers a superior technology platform for developing m-learning applications.

    J2ME is also emerging as a new standard for wireless communications. Wireless device leaders, such as Palm, Motorola and Nokia, have committed to supporting this standard, justifying broader use of J2ME. It appears that J2ME will soon become the most widely available technology across all wireless devices, which makes its adoption by m-learning players especially timely and relevant.

    Implementing a Flexible System
    One leader in the e-learning industry, ISOPIA, is spearheading the use of J2ME with the launch of the only Java-based m-learning applications currently available on the market. ISOPIA has been at the leading edge from its inception in 1998. (In fact, Sun Microsystems has just signed an agreement to acquire ISOPIA.) Through heavy investment in research and development and an architecture built for flexibility, ISOPIA has demonstrated agility in leading and shaping trends in the industry as they materialize. For example, the company's learning management solutions - ILMS, the behind-the-firewall solution, and LearnTone, the ASP-hosted solution - are built on Java technology. A completely Web-based three-tier architecture separates the database, business logic, and presentation layers with a modular architecture. And the LMS systems have complete back-end functionality.

    "The use of Java makes our applications flexible and open, able to adapt to changing learning needs and rapidly-growing user groups without any service interruption," says Omid Hodaie, president of ISOPIA. "We have proven that this technology enables us to add dynamic new features and support thousands of users or courses without affecting the stability of ILMS. Mobile learning is enriched with the flexibility and versatility offered by Java technology."

    Currently, ISOPIA offers wireless access to the administrative functions of its ILMS, allowing users to update their profiles, track and review their learning progress, and register for courses. ISOPIA has also developed courses designed for delivery over selected PDAs.

    Supporting virtually any handheld device, ISOPIA offers mobile capabilities that exceed currently available applications from other providers. A recent Jeffries & Company industry update report, published in March, rated ISOPIA as an "Advanced Functionality Provider" for its wireless device interoperability. Both Aberdeen Group and L3 Consulting recognize this capability as well. ISOPIA's technology choices put the company at the forefront of developments in this field.

    Imagine this scenario. A user connects to ISOPIA's J2ME learning platform and downloads the mobile course edition to his or her personal handheld device from the online learning path. The user then takes the course. When completed, the system automatically syncs up the information about course progress and test scores to ISOPIA's ILMS when the user reconnects to the network - an ideal scenario for professionals on the go.

    With J2ME, ISOPIA's m-learning solution extends the delivery and management of training to all device types. It maximizes interoperability; as mobile technology evolves, ISOPIA will be able to adapt to accommodate these changes. ISOPIA's end-to-end solution maximizes learning mobility today while meshing seamlessly with tomorrow's advances in technology.

    Looking to augment their existing e-learning programs, ISOPIA's clients began expressing demand for the company's mobile learning solution while it was still in development. BCE Nexxia is the beta customer for ISOPIA's m-learning application with general availability of the Java-based mobile learning application scheduled for Q4 2001.

    The company plans to expand its mobile learning campaign internationally, moving aggressively into Europe and Asia. Mobile learning promises to be especially relevant in those markets since there's a high use of wireless devices.

    From Courses to Learning Objects
    One obstacle to mobile learning applications is content. As content becomes more readily available and easily managed, the demand for m-learning will explode.

    Managing content is a key focus for Generation 21. Its Total Knowledge Management System uses Dynamic Learning Objects technology to integrate learning, knowledge management, and performance support.

    "Generation 21 handles the knowledge management infrastructure, which we define as the structured and intentional distribution of information," says Dale Zwart, CTO and cofounder of Generation 21. "We identify roles within a company and then tie content objects within the database to those roles. People then have the tools to supplement their knowledge with the content relevant to their particular roles."

    One way to simplify the process of adapting content to the computing environment is to adopt strict industry standards to regulate content development. The online learning industry has adopted SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), a set of technical specifications designed to enable the reuse of Internet-based learning content across multiple environments and products. This standard will ensure content interoperability for learning objects.

    Generation 21 recently announced wireless functionality for their Total Knowledge Management system, enabling users to access rich media content and enterprise-wide databases via Palm and pocket PC devices. That mobile content seamlessly integrates with e-learning courseware via the company's SCORM-based system.

    Generation 21 focuses on mobile access to job-critical learning objects and instructional graphics for off-site workers. The first customer to adopt the company's mobile application was PRI Automation, blending its traditional training with the performance support of the mobile solution.

    Even with infrastructure players actively addressing the content issue, content providers will need to adapt their courseware to mobile devices. Perhaps the greatest challenge for some content companies will be the transition to learning objects.

    "Many content providers struggle with the learning objects," says Zwart. "You can't force vendors to create courses as chunks. Instructional designers must grasp the importance and change that mindset."

    Perhaps the main reason for the transition to learning objects is the display restrictions on handheld devices, demanding minimal text and no graphics. Each device offers different levels of interactivity and complexity, depending on its sophistication. So content providers must adapt their courseware to the various computing environments.

    "On a handheld, you can get a refresher only on key points," says Dr. Katherine Jones, managing director, collaborative business applications at Aberdeen Group in Palo Alto, California. "You don't get a course, not even a piece of a course. Content must be kept simple. Gone are complete sentences and paragraphs. Presentation of content is more about conciseness and clarity."

    According to Jones, "Some kinds of content may not be suitable for mobile learning. It has a unique place as a refresher or testing device. For example, where companies used to provide their sales reps with a cassette tape that they could use to refresh themselves on the product benefits, now they can download the information to a handheld device. M-learning is not designed for in-depth learning; it will only be applicable for some settings."

    Creating concise, usable content is a new area of specialization that many content providers are just beginning to explore. But for one, providing text-only mobile learning content is too limiting. KnowledgeNet has set the standard very high with their m-learning solution. They make mobile learning a highly interactive and meaningful experience using Flash-based content with full multimedia.

    "Our goal is to provide the same e-learning experience across any device," says Chris Dragon, VP of product development. "We build the content once and store it in a database of reusable learning objects. Then our rendering engine dynamically delivers it in the richest possible experience within the constraints of each user's device and bandwidth capacity."

    KnowledgeNet mobile courseware exceeds the elementary content of performance support or scrolling text formats, striving to deliver multimedia content in a highly efficient learning experience.

    "Reference material is already available on handhelds, but people don't use it because it's either cumbersome or not engaging," says Dragon. "Our goal is to deliver high-quality content without sacrificing the user experience." The company is quickly moving beyond performance support to enable learning on-the-go.

    For now, in the absence of commercially available courseware, enterprise organizations are commissioning custom content for mobile learning applications. KnowledgeNet, for example, is currently developing custom content in response to customer requests. But it's only a matter of time before off-the-shelf content is readily available. KnowledgeNet's complete set of courseware will be available for mobile learning by the end of 2001.

    KnowledgeNet has raised the standard for mobile learning content, and other content providers will follow their leadership. As the market develops and demand increases, courseware and content will be widely available, completely seamless to the user, and highly interactive.

    Mobile Surpasses Always-Connected
    The potential for m-learning is clear. It's expected to level the economic playing field, allowing people to purchase a relatively inexpensive handheld device and enjoy the same access to learning programs that laptop users have. It will have global impact, bringing highly regarded learning programs to anyone, anywhere, in an affordable, portable device.

    Overcoming the limitations of an always-connected e-learning model, mobile learning completely fulfills the promise of anyplace, anytime learning. While e-learning must be a planned learning event, m-learning can be more spontaneous, allowing learning-on-the-run.

    Mobile learning could be the next killer app we've been waiting for; it certainly fits well with the original vision for e-learning and the trend toward learning objects rather than full courses.

    While some issues still need to be resolved for the end-to-end mobile learning solution, m-learning offers tremendous potential. The future is clear: users will take learning wherever they go for complete convenience. And they'll enjoy the knowledge advantage.

    Advantages of Mobile Learning
    No other learning approach matches the integrated, continuous flow of m-learning:

  • Seamless access to learning resources:
    With mobile learning, you can learn and study anywhere - from the classroom to your desktop, or laptop to your pocket. A true mobile learning system allows users to take a course on any device.
  • Freedom, power, and choice:
    M-learning students can choose where, when, and how they'll study. The new range of options includes online synchronized, online self-paced, downloaded courseware, and computer-based training. M-learning offers new levels of freedom with the ability to exercise control over learning patterns.
  • Organized productivity:
    With only a cell phone, handheld device, PDA, or hybrid unit, users can access administrative functions, download courses, and review their learning history through a learning management system. M-learning offers an efficient way for learners to access key information and maximize their time.
  • Flexible, portable convenience:
    The ability to customize learning schedules is a key advantage to m-learning. Learners are not restricted to a specific physical environment, a particular delivery channel, or a fixed set of times for undertaking training and education. Using the latest technology, students can update their knowledge base on a just-in-time basis to prepare for meetings or presentations.
    About Lisa Kember
    Lisa Kember is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She writes about Internet and IT
    applications for a variety of publications.

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