Education for mobile people

Christian Hardless, Johan Lundin, Anders Lööf, Louice Nilsson, Urban Nuldén*


This paper outlines an ongoing research project on training, education and sharing of experiences among mobile people. The importance for professionals to continuously learn is widely recognized. Organizations in the new economy are dependent on organizational knowledge and competence. Mobile workers need alternative educational and knowledge development opportunities that are not restrained by time and space.

     The research aims at searching for models but mainly applications designed for mobile people that allow genuine interaction in competence development activities. The design approach applied in this research is guided by the idea of cognitive apprenticeship facilitated by mobile technology.

     The research project is conducted in cooperation with Ericsson and their interest is identifying applications and services suitable for 3G. In simple terms, 3G combines high-speed mobile access with Internet Protocol (IP) based services. This allows mobile high quality multimedia.

     We present the ideas through two use cases on how the next generation multimedia terminals can be used in competence development activities designed for mobile people. We outline two use cases of possible competence development activities suited for the mobile worker and 3G. The first use case is applying multimedia scenarios as technology and methodology, and the second use case is applying the notion of thematic modules.

Keywords: mobile people, competence development, mobile multimedia terminals, WCDMA, 3G

1.  Background and objective

The nature of work continues to evolve from predictable, deterministic patterns to forms that are more contingent, idiosyncratic, and distributed in both time and space. Work-conditions demand that people become more mobile. The evolution of work and the expertise needed to perform it have not been accompanied by innovations in the models used by workplace educators to develop this expertise. Although contemporary models are useful for many types of employee development, their potential for developing the type of skilled performance needed in a contingent and dynamic work environment is questionable (Torraco, 1999).

     This research aims at searching for models but mainly applications designed for mobile people that allow genuine interaction in competence development activities.

     Looking at the traditional classroom interaction pattern which puts the learner in the position of an object of assessment: the instructor initiates, learner respond, and the instructor closes the sequence by either accepting or rejecting the learners turn (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975). Distance education in general is following this pattern. Contrasting the traditional classroom pattern with a perspective where knowledge is jointly constructed in interaction, i.e., social constructivism (cf. Resnick et al. 1991; Salomon 1993), a different approach to designing competence development activities is needed.

     The design approach applied in this research is guided by the idea of cognitive apprenticeship (Lave and Wenger 1991). According to this theory, learning is a process of participation in communities of practice, at first legitimately peripheral, working its way to the more central positions. Learning occurs in interaction through cognitive apprenticeship in real contexts, in authentic learning tasks. And for mobile people, distributed in time and space, this interaction can be facilitated by mobile technology.

     The importance for professionals to continuously learn is widely recognized. It is often the main source for a corporation’s competitive advantage. Organizations in the new economy are dependent on organizational knowledge and competence (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990) and managing these is a crucial matter in organizations today. However, mobile workers have special prerequisites concerning education and construction of knowledge. It is often difficult for mobile people to allocate time for educational and training activities. Traditional lecture-oriented courses are not considered as appropriate. Alternative educational and knowledge development opportunities are needed for mobile workers and their organizations. Therefore, this project is to provide asynchronous and collaborative educational activities for mobile people. This will be done through the transfer and further development of two models of collaborative learning currently implemented in different educational and training environments and on stationary platforms. These two models are described more in detail below as two use-cases.

2.  Collaborative learning

In this research there are three ideals concerning learning processes we strive to maintain and support with mobile technology. The ideals of learning are constructive, collaborative and reflective. These are shortly described below.

     The concept of constructivism has come to cover a wide diversity of perspectives and there are rivalry among the different sects (Phillips, 1995). However, the different perspectives have the following in common: “(1) learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge, and (2) instruction is a process of supporting that construction rather than communicating knowledge” (Duffy and Cunningham 1996, p.171).

     In a collaborative learning environment participants are likely to learn as much from each other as from course material or from the instructor. It is even claimed that the most powerful and sustainable learning process occurs among peers who pull each other rather than being pushed by experts. Sharing of experience among professional is one type of collaborative learning. This way, collaborative learning is a creative process of articulating ideas, having them criticized or expanded, and getting the chance to reshape them or abandon them, all in the light of peer-discussion (Rowntree, 1995).

     The asynchronous nature of computer mediated communication allow participants to reflect on the issues covered. Reflection is a dimension of the learning process which often is neglected.

3.  Mobile people

By mobile people we refer to those people who are either locally mobile, i.e., in an office building and spend most of their working day away from their room, or those people who are truly mobile by not spending more than few moments at anything similar to an office. Their work is distributed in both time and place. We can distinguish three situations, which are typical instances of mobility. These are traveling, visiting and wandering (Ljungberg and Kristoffersen, 2000). Traveling is getting from one place to another in a vehicle. Visiting is spending time in one place for a prolonged period of time before moving on to the place. Wandering is extensive local mobility in a building or a local area. In this paper it is claimed that mobile people do not participate in traditional competence development activities. Rather they need other forms of competence development where they can participate in collaborative activities at the time and place of convenience.

     Below are two field studies that show how employees perceive time in relation to competence development activities. We see that time is a crucial factor determining their engagement in the activities. The two studies presented here aims to survey and show how people participating in competence development activities perceive the relation between work, competence development and time. The result of the two studies indicates that people find it difficult to allocate time for competence development activities.

3.1. First study

Nineteen IT consultants participated in a mainly net-based training program in the area of computer system analysis and design. The program consisted of three separate weeks where the group met physically at a regular conference site. These weeks were separated by ten weeks of ordinary work. During this time the consultants were requested to participate in competence development activities through active participation in a net-based conference system.

     Allocating time was perceived as difficult by the consultants. However, the study showed that they had time to read the different submissions, but they did not feel that they had time to comment or answer them.

     The consultants were focused on their work, and would “rather make money for the company than allocate time for that [course].” The consultants’ reality was also obvious since they are obliged to charge their customers for their time. “I am critical to management since they haven’t provided a time code that I can use when participating in the net-based activity.” Other aspects concerning money or other incentives were also raised.

“Participating and submitting information requires time, which I do not have. Why should I submit anything if I do not get paid for it.” Working at the customers site was also problematic since the main access to networked computers were at the customer site. As one of the consultants expressed it “I can’t engage in net-activity when I am there.”

3.2. Second study

The second study concerns sixty employees of a global corporation in the area of logistics. They participated in research project concerning learning in projects and one aspect of this study was to survey the participant’s conception of the relation between work and competence development. They were asked if they could participate in competence development activities to their desired extent?

     The answers clearly showed that lack of time, or difficulties in finding courses given at a suitable time. One employee stated: “I have two criteria, it should not interfere with my work and it should not take too long time to complete.”

     The importance of long term planning for activities such as competence development was evident: “If the I know about the activity well in advance, I might be able to participate.” Similarly, “It might be hard since I am running a project and it is difficult for me to plan for courses in advance” and “I can probably participate, but it depends on how well ahead I get information.”

     The two studies are not intended to be representative of the various conceptions of how workers perceive competence development. Rather they are used to illustrate that the integration of work and competence development is an area where further research is necessary.

4.  Third generation cellular networks – 3G

This research is exploring competence development for mobile people. The obvious choice of technology in the research is third generation cellular networks – 3G. In this section we briefly discuss this technology. WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) is the radio access technology selected by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standard Institute) in January 1998 for wide-band radio access to support third-generation multimedia services. Optimized to allow very high-speed multimedia services such as voice, Internet access and video conferencing, the technology will provide access speeds up to 2Mbit/s in the local area, i.e., hot spots, and 384kbit/s wide area access with full mobility.

     UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) is the standard for delivering 3G services being developed under the auspices of ETSI. UMTS builds on the GSM (Global System for Mobile phone communications) standard and one step in evolving GSM is the implementation of EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution). This will allow GSM operators to use existing GSM radio bands to provide wireless multimedia IP-based services and applications at speeds up to 384 kbit/s.

     There are of course still open issues concerning 3G. The limited frequencies allocated for UMTS might not be enough to accommodate the bandwidth demanding multimedia. However, there are other technologies with equivalent capabilities that will cover some of the wideband multimedia services, e.g., Bluetooth.

5.  Research approach – future oriented research

Informatics is a discipline tracking (leading) the development of IT use (Dahlbom, 1996), and the focus is to come up with new ideas for such use (Dahlbom and Ljungberg, 1999). Instead of just studying the use of technology we want to change and improve that use. Thus this research is future oriented.

     This research project is conducted in close cooperation with Ericsson in Sweden and their interest is identifying applications and services suitable for 3G. Our interest is to understand mobile people and to design competence development activities for them with 3G as the platform. Below we exemplify our ideas with 3G competence development through two use cases.

6.  Use cases

In this section we outline use cases of two possible competence development activities suited for the mobile worker and 3G. The first use case is applying multimedia scenarios as technology and methodology (Nuldén & Scheepers, 1999), and the second use case is applying the notion of thematic modules (Nuldén, 1999).

6.1. Multimedia scenarios

Multimedia scenarios is based on PIER, which is an approach to organize learning activities using problem based learning, interactive multimedia, experiential learning and role-playing.

     Problem based learning (PBL) builds on a fundamentally different understanding of learning than traditional teaching. It is a significant challenge to orthodox beliefs about education and learning (Margretson, 1991). PBL is: “…a way of constructing and teaching courses using problems as the stimulus and focus for student activity. It is not simply the addition of problem-solving activities to otherwise discipline centered curricula, but a way of conceiving of the curriculum which is centered around key problems in professional practice.” […] “… problem based learning start with problems rather than with the exposition of disciplinary knowledge” (Boud & Feletti, 1992). The responsibility of the educator is to present a stimulating problem.

     A great deal of attention has been focused on interactive multimedia (IMM) in the educational domain. Commonly, IMM uses hypertext to permit links among pieces of information such as text, sound and graphics, and the learner “explore ideas and pursue thought in a free and non-linear fashion” (Bieber & Kimbrough, 1992). IMM has undergone a revolution during the last years, from simple drill-oriented programs to advanced simulations where students receive support for understanding complex matters. We see three current trends with IMM for learning. First, the WWW rather than the CD-rom is becoming the main channel for distribution of IMM. Second, there is a shift from multimedia for individual learners towards multimedia application for teams or groups. Third, the interactivity that is getting the most attention is the interaction among the participants in the group working with the IMM, not the limited individual-computer interactivity.

     Experiential learning refers to an encounter that the learner experiences. From this encounter, learning is initiated. In experiential learning: “… the learner is directly in touch with the realities being studied … [experiential learning] involves direct encounter with the phenomenon being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter or only considering the possibility of doing something with it” (Kolb, 1984). Experiential learning is participative, interactive, and applied. It means experiencing at first hand the environment and to be confronted with processes that are uncertain. Experiential learning involves the whole person and learning takes place on the cognitive, affective and behavioral dimension (Gentry, 1990).

     Role-plays can be described as dramas in which a number of participants are asked to portray a particular character, but no lines are provided as for actors (Steinert, 1993). An area where role-plays are frequently used is medical education where the objective is to simulate and practice different patient-doctor situations. Role-playing helps the students to view situations from alternative perspectives. In a higher education context, role-play is used to prepare the students for their future profession. Besides medical education, other common areas are training in law, police, military service, and management.

     Figure 1: The picture shows a multimedia scenario and the PIER approach in a stationary setting where the group of learners participate synchronously in scenario with the use of a large screen.

The PIER approach consists of four activities: (1) concrete experience through role-playing with the aid of a multimedia scenario, (2) a period of reflection, (3) seminar where the scenario is discussed, and (4) ongoing and organized learning processes. The approach has successfully been

6.2. Use case 1 - 3G project manager education through a net-scenario

In this section we present a fictitious use case where a net-scenario is used with 3G. A group of eight project workers in a large telecommunications company are participating in a virtual project manager education, which consists of distributed role-playing supported by an interactive multimedia scenario. Below we illustrate a user’s participation in the educational activity in a typical work situation.

     It is a hectic day at work as usual for Susan. She is at a customer waiting for the next project-meeting to begin in about 20 minutes time. There is just enough time to engage in some 3G competence development. She connects her terminal to the 3G project manager education which started three weeks ago, and views the new contributions to the discussion (Fig 2). She, and seven other project workers are trying to reach a decision in the scenario about a fictive IT project they are role-playing in the scenario.

     Susan is acting as a controller in the scenario, an unusual role for her. Jack who is acting the project-manager has argued for the decision alternative which leads to high risk and high cost, and Susan feels as the controller that the risk is too high. Therefore she decides to submit a new contribution to the discussion arguing for the low risk alternative.

Fig 2, 3 and 4: A mockup of the interface and two situations (travelling and visiting) where Susan spends some time role-playing in the scenario.

She disconnects and walks into the meeting-room just in time for the project-meeting. Later that day, driving home from the customer, Susan once again connects to the virtual project manager education to see if her colleagues have made any new contributions. Since she is driving she can only listen to the sound from the videomails (Fig 3). It seems that most of the other participants have shared her opinion. When she reaches her destination and has parked the car, she decides to vote for one of the decision alternatives. It was predetermined that this scene in the scenario should end this evening and that all votes should be submitted before midnight. Through her terminal she chooses the low risk alternative. She looks forward to the next scene which depends on the result of the vote. It will be available tomorrow morning.

6.3. Thematic modules

Thematic modules (TM) is a structuring philosophy which divides a net-based course into several self-contained uniformly structured units (Nuldén, 1999). Every module has a well-defined beginning and ending. This is different from traditional modular structuring where a large topic area is divided into subtopics small enough to digest for learners (e.g., chapters in a book). In TM, each module introduces a separate issue or problem, like tiny islands in a vast ocean of knowledge. The construction of “bridges” between the islands is done through facilitated net-based collaborative activities.

 Figure 5 and 6: Jack has a few minutes to spare and can easily catch up with the discussion in this weeks module (visiting and wandering).

6.4. Use case 2 - E-business education for mobile workers through thematic modules for mobile people

An insurance/banking company is currently in the midst of an organizational transformation. In order to create a well-grounded starting-point for the change process concerning the salespersons, an e-business education program is launched for these mobile workers. A group of 15 sales-persons are participating in the competence development activity, which mainly consists of discussion of relevant and important issues. Below we illustrate a user’s participation in the educational activity in a typical work situation.

     It is a hectic day at work as usual for Jack. He is at the customer waiting for the next sales-meeting to begin in about 30 minutes time. There is just enough time to engage in some 3G competence development. He connects to the net-based e-business education that starts this week, and views the short video that introduces this week’s topic. The video raises some interesting points, and Jack is especially interested in the point about customer relations’ management (CRM). So interested, that he decides to call a colleague in his group and discuss the issue right away. The 3G platform indicates that his colleague will accept incoming calls related to the e-business education. They talk for five minutes and reach the opinion that CRM seems to be a fad. Jack decides to share their thoughts with the rest of the group and posts a short written message in the common discussion area (Fig 8).

Figure 7 and 8: Mockup of a video mail where Jack gives his opinion on one of the issues discussed. Others choose to use written comments as figure 8 show.

He disconnects and walks into the meeting-room just in time for the sales-meeting. Later that day during a coffee break he connects to the discussion area with his terminal and checks for new messages. There are three responses to his original message; one written message and two video-mails (Fig 7 and 8). The written message is from Susan who has posted a part of a study showing that CRM systems can increase customer loyalty by 54%. The two video-mails are from colleagues who argue about the pros and cons of CRM. Jack is pleased by the quick responses, he enjoys discussing with his colleagues.

In the car, on his way back to the office, Jack connects to the virtual e-business education and downloads and plays an recording of a recent debate from public radio on customer empowerment. At the office he can read through some of the articles available through his terminal. He feels he is able to make a stronger argument in the discussion now and sketches a line of argument on his hand-held terminal. Just when he is about to record his message his boss enters his office and wants him to attend a meeting in the conference room. On the way to the conference room, Jack records and sends his message while walking down the corridor (Fig 6), and smiles to the boss: “mobile education at its best….”

7.  Discussion and further research

This paper discusses problems and possibilities concerning competence development for mobile people. Two possible competence development activities are suggested. The ideas are exemplified with two use cases based on the third generation cellular networks platform (3G).

     Despite the technical possibilities with 3G, it is not realistic to expect that most people will engage in nice-to-have job-related training on their own time. We are also aware that many people find it very important to get away from their regular work. These are two of the many soft issues this project is to investigate.

     Since this technology is at least two years from the market the research is future oriented and of experimental nature. Further research in this project will focus on understanding the situation and needs of the mobile people and their relation to competence development. This part of the research will be conducted through field work applying ethnographic methods. We are also currently implementing both net-scenario and thematic modules for mobile people in a simulated 3G environment, i.e. networked portable computers. This will as soon as possible be transferred to a mobile platform in order to evaluate the two competence development activities presented in this paper.

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