"If you build it, will they
Distance-learning through wireless devices
At a recent e-learning briefing presented by
Elliott Masie, a great deal of time was spent in discussing the
concept of digital collaboration (the concept of blending
instructor-led classroom training with e-learning). Masie
specifically noted the changes in form factors, which he believed
would significantly affect the course of e-learning. These changes
included the extensive use of handheld wireless devices and
transmission of learning modules.
Wireless communication is still in its infancy and
wireless e-learning is in an embryonic stage. The principal
advantage of using a wireless device for e-learning is sheer
convenience. With more and more workers on the go, access to a
centrally located knowledge base is essential, and a wireless device
makes such access possible virtually anywhere. Also, a wireless
device can increase productivity by allowing employees to engage in
learning at any time of the day or night. A typical example is that
of a worker who is enrolled in an e-learning class to improve his
computer skills. While on the road, he has trouble printing an
important document. In that situation he could use a wireless device
to get instant access to a mentor and ask for help in realtime.
AvantGo, which delivers software and services to
handheld devices, is helping Massachusetts General Hospital apply
wireless e-learning in their department of neurology. The hospital
now has what it calls a "living textbook" of up-to-date information
that can be retrieved via handheld devices throughout the neurology
department. Not only can doctors see the latest research, but they
can also send observations and information that they gather in the
"Wireless is an important key to e-learning," said
Robert Meinhardt, AvantGo's vice president of enterprise marketing.
"It takes e-learning to the field, where the best hands-on learning
takes place. I can tell you how things work in a virtual classroom
setting, but you really need that information at the place and time
you're actually performing your job." (TechLearn Trends, 2000).
BG Group, a multinational supplier of gas, is
using AvantGo's services to keep its management staff in England
appraised of company information. With an application it calls
Knowledge and Information to Everyone, or KITE for short, BG Group
sends regular updates about operations, public-relations issues,
customers and more.
"Imagine a sales force of several thousand people
on the street at the same time," Meinhardt said. "Making sure
they're all up-to-date on product information, specifications and
competitors is a difficult task. Keeping that information in a
central database and allowing [sales representatives] to access it
with a wireless device is a competitive advantage." (TechLearn
The future is bright?
Unfortunately many complex technical obstacles
still lie ahead. Most solution providers say the key to wireless
e-learning is an intelligent network. Because of bandwidth and
system-resource limitations, wireless devices cannot handle just any
form of information.
"The e-learning delivery system must capture and
manage the knowledge, but at the same time, break it down into
nuggets," said Diane Bauer, senior manager of e-learning solutions
marketing for Cisco Systems. "And it must then tag those nuggets so
the network knows what it can deliver based on the device being used
to access it." Universal adaptation of a learning-objects model
would greatly facilitate this transformation. Recently several
companies have broken down content libraries into separate-learning
In accessing a course from a wireless handheld
device, the system would know how to assemble the objects that can
be downloaded and then send them to the handheld device. However
important elements like multimedia objects (which take up
significant band width) simply can't be used on a wireless device.
Instead, present versions of this protocol send text as a poor
substitute. (Computer and Information Science and Engineering
In addition, e-learning information intended for a
handheld unit must be formatted to suit that device, and experts
concede that the small screen size is a hurdle that wireless
e-learning solutions must overcome. Volumes of text are tedious to
read if the learner has to scroll down the screen every few lines,
and graphics are unusable on many popular handheld devices.
Companies looking at wireless e-learning will have
to adopt solutions based on standards that ensure information based
on different types and from disparate sources can be used on most
wireless devices. Presently, the industry is working on developing
this standard wireless application protocol (WAP) for e-learning
content. This protocol incorporates universally accepted Internet
Standards for WAP located at: http://www.wapforum.com/)
As formulated by WAP, the protocol specification
outlines a set of protocols for achieving interoperability between
software applications and various mobile devices over wireless
networks. But the specification does not include hardware
requirements for processor speed, memory size. It leaves these
matters up to individual hardware vendors instead. Although the
first mobile hardware products meeting the spec are cell phones,
forum members state that they foresee compliance by an assortment of
other devices, particularly PDAs. Meanwhile, though, the WAP Forum
has established a hardware developers' "reference pool" to help
assure interoperability among multiple mobile devices running the
same standardized WAP software. Manufactures have been strongly
encouraged to join the pool WAP.
Designing and creating online courses that put the
learner into a real-life situation, such as training for doctors to
prescribe drugs for inpatients, calls for a great deal of
interactivity as well as "branching" video scenarios that have
different outcomes, depending upon the decisions they make. Such
courseware is extremely expensive, but more critically, uses up an
enormous amount of bandwidth. Industry experts agree that this type
of training is the wave of the future but no one to date has come up
with a way to broadcast this greatly expanded bandwidth to wireless
handheld Internet devices in a secure fashion.
Experts agree that the largest obstacle to truly
effective wireless Internet learning is restricted bandwidth.
Recently, the FCC has made provisions to free up additional wireless
bandwidth in the 700-megahertz range. Unfortunately this is not to
occur until 2003. In addition, the new 4(G) wireless standard has
still not been widely accepted. This standard would allow for the
transmission of full streaming video as well as a high degree of
interactivity. Cost and industry acceptance however has kept this
from wide spread implementation.
Likewise in the cell phone industry, there are
several competing and incompatible transmission protocols. There is
PCS (Personal Communication System); TDMA (Time Division Multiple
Access); CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System
for Mobile Communication). In the United States TDMA and CDMA are
more prevalent with TDMA being the more popular but CDMA being the
only one of the two able to handle Web communication. In all other
parts of the world, GSM is the universal standard and is able to
carry rich Internet content.
Studies indicate that the wireless industry isn't
reaching its potential because of cultural differences among
countries. Many people have difficulty in using wireless devices and
most consumers don't yet fully understand the benefits of such
devices. A study conducted by Context-Based Research Group observed
and interviewed 180 participants in the United States, China, Japan,
Sweden, France and England and found that "While everyone's talking
'wireless,' findings suggest that no one has truly figured out what
consumers really want out of these devices and thus have not fully
tapped into the opportunities wireless presents."
Many consumers survey stated that wireless
manufacturers over-stated what the devices can do as well as how
easy they were to use. This and other studies found that wireless
product design and marketing don't reflect varying consumer behavior
in different parts of the world. They also found that wireless
companies aren't creating user-friendly products or helping
consumers understand how to use them.
Other studies have found a serious gap between the
device's real capabilities and the marketing messages about the
devices provided by wireless vendors. Specifically, they found that
terms such as "wireless Web" led users to believe they could do
everything on their wireless devices they could do on their desktop
PCs. This was far from the truth.
Although it seems inevitable that wireless
e-learning will soon be an essential part of any corporate
e-learning solution, this transition will not occur over night. The
promise of instant access to knowledge anytime and anywhere is an
enormous benefit, but will be restricted mostly to line access until
the technology of wireless Internet access has matured. With the
current dip in the global economy as well as the decrease demand in
wireless Internet devices, the wide spread use of such technology
may lag behind several years after the technology has been developed
and matured into a reliable media for e-learning.
John Setaro, Ph.D., is director of research at Thinq
Learning Solutions, which specializes in B2B corporate training.
article appears in the July 2001 issue of Unisys World.