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"If you build it, will they come?"
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.

Hospital help

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 field.

"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 Trends, 2000)

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 objects.

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 Report, 7/2000)

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 such as HTML 3.0 and JavaScript. (As found in the 2000 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.

Other obstacles

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.

Cultural resistance

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.

Conclusions

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.


This article appears in the July 2001 issue of Unisys World.