Learning on the Go

by Jason Thibeault

http://www.pdaed.com/vertical/features/learning.xml


Once just a device to access online and offline data (contacts, calendars, enterprise sales), incredible leaps in technology are providing PDA users the opportunity to interact with data - from manipulating and transforming data through script-enabled web pages, to streaming video and real-time chat.

This ability to manipulate data through a PDA has been made possible by the advances in device technology. Faster processors, more RAM, and more robust applications have made the PDA superior to computers only four years old. With further advances in screen technology (from simple gray-scale to 64-bit color), PDAs have moved from "dumb" devices to multimedia appliances. Users now command a tremendous computing experience in the palm of their hand.

This evolution of the PDA is happening at an opportune moment as well. Two trends are pointing to a moment when this new device will become a major component of corporate learning worldwide.

The first trend is that corporations worldwide are looking for alternative training means to offset expensive travel. Corporations realize that employees need to continually be educated in product information, sales techniques, and customer service, but they also realize sky-rocketing costs of instructor-led training is not cost effective. As a result, many corporations have turned to distance and e-learning. Whether through established providers (such as ZD University) or software platforms (such as Macromedia Authorware), corporations are embracing e-learning as a low-cost, yet effective, means to in-class training.

The second trend is the growing proliferation of telecommuting and teleworking employees. Spread out over vast geographic distances and often employed in "in-the-field" activities, these employees have difficulty sometimes even getting to a computer to engage in e-learning. They use their phones and PDAs to manage their lives, their relationship with the office, and the enterprise data they access wirelessly.

It's not hard to see an application for the multimedia PDA as a conduit between the employee and the learning intervention. No longer tethered even to the PC (but having the same computing and display power at their fingertips) employees can access curriculum and material on their own time. With video, sound, and especially full interaction (as I'll explain below), this new PDA will soon become the cornerstone of corporate training.

But it's not quite there now. Even though PDAs have almost achieved the technical level required for employees to utilize them as learning tools, a variety of environmental factors required for this global corporate use have not yet been implemented.

PDAs: Almost There

Although PDAs have become more powerful, they have not yet tackled a critical integration issue in order for the device to become a key learning tool - voice and data.

There are a few "phone-PDA" combos currently on the market: Kyocera Smartphone, Handspring Treo, Samsung I300. There are also a host of Microsoft-enabled devices that have come out overseas, and one slated by AudioVox is to appear in the U.S. sometime in 2002.

At the core of this integration is a PDA and cell phone. This neat and tidy integration (allowing the user to dial straight out from the contact list, providing tight integration between cell phone features - like SMS - and the PDA) brings together a number of critical elements that enable the PDA to function as a learning tool - data, voice, and wireless access. And, many of these "all-in-one" devices that will come out later this year feature smart media slots for added storage and memory.

Even though these devices combine a Palm Pilot and cellular phone into a neat and clean package, the true integration (being able to send data and voice over the cellular network on the same session) hasn't happened. As a result, you need to dial-up, download, disconnect, and then talk. This doesn't make for very interactive learning sessions.

Wireless infrastructure: a missing component

Perhaps the most notable environmental development that has not happened is an expansion of the wireless infrastructure. The current wireless bandwidth is 14.4K. This is hardly sufficient to enable streaming video over a PDA.

The proposed 3G network, though, is capable of a 10-fold increase in bandwidth. Offering throughput of 1.5MBs, the 3G wireless infrastructure would provide for real-time, streaming access to archived or live video.

It's About Getting Connected, Not About Being Connected

Of course, that is exactly how it shouldn't be. In order for the PDA to become a ubiquitous learning tool, the infrastructure and technology need to change to provide for high-speed wireless access without dialing up. Dialing up (even via a wireless modem) always poses issues about good signal strength and signal quality.

If participants have to attempt a dial-up ten times, or walk around until they find a good digital signal, they are unlikely to make a repeat performance using their PDA as a learning tool (and may just abandon the whole thing around re-dial number eight).

The infrastructure needs to support "always-on" connectivity. Although one device (the Palm VII) currently offers this, it is only through the Bell South paging network (a very low-bandwidth network).

Scenarios

So what's in store for the PDA? Wondering what you can do today? Wondering what may be available tomorrow? To address those questions, your curiosity, and perhaps your impatience, I've developed three scenarios below - today, tomorrow, and next week - that represent what you might be able to accomplish today in utilizing the PDA as an educational tool and what might be available in the future.

Each of these scenarios is broken into three parts - applications/services, access, integration, and ancillary equipment - and deals with the following supposition: you want to deliver a live classroom experience through the PDA. This includes static content, dynamic content, student-to-student interaction, student-to-teacher interaction, and video lecture.

Today

Accomplishing the scenario Today is difficult. It involves a lot of setup away from the PDA and is plagued by the limitations outlined earlier.

Applications/Services:

There are a number of applications and services (both on the PDA and off) that would provide you the functionality required to enable the device as a learning tool. First, the PDA would require a number of "interactive" applications. These include AOL Instant Messenger(for live-chatting features), Blazer(for viewing static and dynamic web-pages), Ansyr's Acrobat Reader(to view .pdf document), and Documents To Go(to view Microsoft Word files and PowerPoint presentations). Off the PDA, you would need some sort of application or service to deliver the live video. This could be accomplished by MyGlobalCam. Utilizing proprietary compression techniques, this video-streaming solution allows you to deliver real-time video viewable through a web browser (like Blazer).

Access

This is where Today suffers most. Because of the limitations in the Wireless infrastructure, there is little bandwidth to provide for viewing real-time video. The picture is choppy at best.

Still, access can be achieved a number of ways. Using an "all-in-one-device," access to a learning session is provided by an integrated wireless model allowing connection to the cellular network. For stand-alone PDAs, there are a number of solutions for wireless access including OmniSky.

Integration

Today's integration is very minimal. Neither an "all-in-one-device" or a PDA with a wireless modem can provide data and voice traffic in the same session. Participants would be required to disconnect in order to call an 800-number conferencing bridge.

Ancillary Equipment

The PDAs of Today don't really have a strong input mechanism. Writing with the stylus is slow and tedious, and the screen-based keyboard takes up too much of the visible area to be useful when trying to keep up with course material (while chatting on IM).

But there are many external keyboards that provide full-key functionality to PDA users. These are critical in enabling the user to enter information quickly during a learning session (there are even integrated keyboards, such as Handspring's Treo "all-in-one-device").

Tomorrow

Although not as difficult, accomplishing the scenario Tomorrow poses some issues. Still, the improvement in technology and the wireless infrastructure will make it easier.

Applications/Services:

The applications and services are identical to Today but the software has been improved. Perhaps the most notable is Blazer. Already capable of displaying rich WebPages on the PDA, Blazer has become even better by integrating DHTML and JavaScript support. This allows integrated video/chat sessions through a single browser window (rather than multiple applications).

Away from the PDA, the situation is relatively the same. MyGlobalCam is still the best alternative to delivering live, streaming-video through a web browser. But, there are also a host of tools to develop e-learning applications for the PDA. These tools provide the user the ability to create a web page that has quadrants - one is the video, one is the chat, one is a presentation, and one is for teacher messages.

Access

This is the critical improvement of Tomorrow. No longer forced to dial-up, users are simply connected when their PDA is turned on. With strong signal strength, participants can enjoy the learning experience wherever they are over a 56KB wireless pipe.

Integration

Not much has happened in integration. The only break-through is the inclusion of wireless technology (like the Palm VII) into every PDA and "all-in-one" device.

Ancillary Equipment

Much like Today, keyboards are essential tools for enabling the PDA to be a learning tool. But, equipment has gone a step further. In order to provide old PDA users the ability to engage in e-learning through their device, manufacturers have created "learning docks." These docks are a combination of keyboard, input device (thumb-sized mouse), and wireless access. The PDA slides into the dock (with keyboard at the bottom, mouse attached to the left or right-hand side, and the wireless connectivity at the top) and is instantly enabled.

Next Week

Next Week is truly groundbreaking in enabling PDAs to act as learning tools. Not only has the hardware evolved but the infrastructure is humming with bandwidth, and a host of new technologies are enabling the PDA user to experience e-learning in a whole new manner.

Applications/Services

The critical application for this next-generation device is The Joiner. Much like a DSL modem (and DSL switching equipment at the telecom company), this device joins voice and data traffic onto a single communication stream, enabling the user to talk while they are engaged with multimedia applications. In conjunction with an 800-number bridge, participants can see and hear each other in a total interactive environment.

Access

Tomorrow promised the "always-on" access of 128k throughput. Next Week takes that a step further by enabling it with 3G bandwidth making the possibility of data-integrated-voice traffic to work seamlessly over the network.

Integration

The Joiner is a critical integration component for stand-alone PDAs. "All-in-one" devices already have Joiners inside making for a seamless experience.

Equipment

Although Tomorrow introduced a stage in the evolution of the equipment, Next Week truly evolves the device. The PDA itself has changed with expandable screens (that slide-out from the unit) and Bluetooth headsets (to provide un-tethered connection between user and device).

Conclusion

As you may have guessed, this discussion about the PDA as a learning tool is not confined to corporate training. Although perhaps the best application (as the PDA has become a serious tool within businesses today), this newly evolving role for the PDA has applications in other learning environments as well-elementary and high school, colleges, and adult learning.

Just as important as keeping people trained about corporate policies and new products, the PDA can also become a way for people to access courseware, information, and educational tools for whatever reason - from curiosity about physics to a discussion about Poe.

The PDA is rapidly becoming central to our lives. This growing importance of a device to manage our data and our access to information will enable us to maximize learning when we need it.

Want to brush up on how to drive a car when getting your license? The "learn to drive" course on the PDA is only a stylus tap away.