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The Future for E-Learning


Steve Dineen, CEO of fuel Group, predicts that mobile technology will revolutionise the way we are e-learning.

Although mobile technology may have dramatically transformed in a remarkably short time the way we communicate and live, I think it has had comparatively little significant impact on the way we learn.

But that is all about to change. The massive potential usage of mobile phones and PDAs as well as laptops as vehicles for e-learning is starting to be realised and fulfilled.

Leading telecoms suppliers among our clients are now proactively investing resources into building business through this application.

At the same time many major organisations, both commercial and public sector, recognising the benefits of training off-site staff in this way, are starting to specify in tender documents for e-learning that systems and content should be designed to work with mobile devices.

The number of ideas for applications circulating within these companies is exciting and impressive

This activity and enthusiasm leads me to believe that many organisations will, within two years, be delivering half of their e-learning in this way.

Before looking more closely at what is driving this trend and how this technology will be used for e-learning, it is important to be clear about the terminology.

What is mobile learning?

The concept of mobile learning is the idea of e-learning anywhere away from a fixed line phone connection – typically away from the office or home.

It is using a laptop with a GPRS phone or card, a PDA or a mobile phone downloading content synchronously or asynchronously.

So what benefits does this offer and why are organisations and learners interested in and attracted by the idea?

Through fuel’s work developing e-learning for organisations such as BT, Cable & Wireless, Thus, Colt, NTL, Canon, BP and for several Government departments and our involvement with many leading City companies, I know that such leading organisations between them can see wide ranging and potentially valuable benefits.

Any company or government department that has many key staff out in the field or in locations far from an office much of the time will recognise the massive advantages.

In summary, any manager or executive who is frequently out of the office will be able to learn wherever they are and whenever they want or need to learn.

They can use whatever time is convenient if they are sitting at airports, in their cars, on trains, in hotels waiting for meetings to learn and if they wish or need, to gather what they need ”Just In Time”.

It means vast cost savings especially through reducing “Just In Case” training, and greatly reducing the time that sales teams and engineers are off the road training whether it is in a training room or office-based e-learning.


However, beyond the financial and resource utilisation improvements, as I shall explain shortly, the latest technological developments will add whole new areas to the capabilities of e-learning.

We are only really starting to create the possibilities.

Many organisations are already capitalising on mobile learning through laptops.

Sales teams download new product training courses before they go out or while out and go though them offline.

There are also many engineers and sales staff learning “Just In Time” for a specific need, or to learn or refresh their understanding when waiting between appointments.

The advances in PDAs and mobile phones will take this many steps forward.

The starting point for this is the convergence of technologies.

The latest phones now have most of the capabilities of PDAs, while many PDAs include phones.

The improvement in screens and processing combined with file compaction means that it is now practical to use mobile phones and PDAs for many of the tasks for which we have been using a laptop.

Mobiles designed in the last 12 months and PDAs can provide virtually all the interactivity that a laptop offers, and the animations that form most e-learning visuals can still be highly effective – consider the many superb games available on mobiles.

The really exciting possibilities come when adding 3G and videophones into the equation.

This will not only enable e-learning companies like us to create and deliver broadband level content to mobiles – video and high resolution pictures – it will let us combine e-learning with live video.

What this will mean is not only delivering far higher quality e-learning programmes to mobiles, it will also greatly enhance the learning capabilities of sales teams and engineers both for product knowledge and soft skills.

For instance, a sales engineer may be called to repair a machine that he hasn’t seen, let alone worked upon before.

Via a laptop he can currently consult an e-learning programme “just in time” to understand the working of the model and how to adjust or change key parts.

Using a videophone he will soon now, if necessary, also be able to use the camera in the phone, consult with a colleague and show the fault “live.”

Alternatively, where possible, a colleague in the office might send a piece of video to show the engineer how to fit a part or repair it.

The major new development overall will be how 3G and videophones will increase the ability to deliver soft skills training and coaching remotely.

For example, while it is possible to teach presentation skills using e-learning, key elements of the training like demonstrating and particularly when the learner practises what has been learnt, are difficult.

Now, after completing an e-learning course, the learners can now show their new skills to a tutor via a videophone.

Again, alternatively, the tutor can demonstrate how it should be done. With some phones incorporating record and playback, this lesson could be saved for reference.

Voice activated systems
One application that is already possible is voice activated information searching.

For example, if a sales person wants information on a particular product, it is possible to provide this automatically via a voice-activated system.

After speaking the name of the product into the phone, the name is converted into text.

This is sent to the database which searches for an appropriate reference and sends the relevant rich learning experience to the phone.

These are just some of the possibilities. Companies can develop bespoke applications relating to their products for staff, trade and consumer customers

For instance, instructions could be available online in emergency to explain how to change a tyre or fix the pluming.

The key next step that will put these concepts into widespread use is the spread of the technology.

Currently most PDA and mobiles users within an organisations use a variety of different models with differing capabilities.

For PDAs and mobiles to be widely used for learning, there needs to be a common platform within an organisation, with all individuals equipped with the same handsets.

E-learning programmes have to be designed for the lowest common denominator of technology in the hands of the learners, whether that is PCs, modems or mobile devices.

When this rises then the sophistication of the programme content can increase also.

One of the attractions to many organisations is cost.

Equipping large teams of engineers or major sales forces with laptops as well as mobiles is not always economical. If they can learn via a higher grade mobile or PDA alone, then it become much more viable

E-learning provides major savings over classroom training – no travel, accommodation, catering so companies will be able to fund this investment in new mobiles and airtime from the savings that they will make on their training budgets.

At the same time I think the crucial issue will be the approach of the technology providers.

The mobile network operators have invested millions into 3G and will be looking for every way to encourage users to upgrade to suitable new phones and services.

They need to make sure that there is desirable content available, just as BSkyB had to do by providing live football to persuade TV viewers to install satellite systems.

How much the mobile industry invests in attracting users to change handsets and services will be vital in the growth of mobile learning.

This is a major change and it is on its way; fuel is already working with organisations that will be introducing learning on mobile phones in the near future.

In the next 12 months more specific projects will be launched and many organisations will start to equip their teams with suitable handsets and will start introducing learning via handsets.

Within three years it will be well established – and, no doubt, further technological developments will be adding more exciting new opportunities and dimensions to e-learning.


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