Honey, I Shrunk the eLearning

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Handheld computers are ready to deliver robust eLearningÂ?like the media-rich learning experiences normally run on powerful desktop computersÂ?and a Canadian company has developed a powerful new technology to bring full-bodied online instruction into the palms of learners everywhere.

The year is 2006. Midnight. The place is a small village in Nigeria where Dr. Pat Howe, after a grueling day of treating dozens of typhus cases, lies in his tent miles away from the nearest electrical outlet and brushes up on how to care for diabetic patients with acute coronary syndrome. His learning platform is a 2 by 3 inch backlit screen that he holds in his hand and manipulates with a tiny plastic stylus. The course he’s taking resides on a server several thousand miles away.

Today, handheld computers such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) are saving thousands of lives in underdeveloped areas like Botswana and Uganda. Information beamed to these devices by satellite provides instant access to diagnostic and treatment procedures, patient profiles and drug effectiveness analyses to doctors working in remote locations where land-based Internet connections don’t exist.

So far their use has been restricted mostly to reference materials. The kind of media-rich presentation features necessary for effective learning – features such as animation, simulation, graphically enhanced scenarios, video and audio – have not been possible given the small screen and limited memory of handhelds. This has been changed by a new generation of PDAs. Devices like the Hewlett-Packard iPaq, the Toshiba GENIOe and the Casio Cassiopeia are more powerful than many desktop computers a few years ago.

Engage Interactive, an eLearning company in Atlantic Canada, has developed a courseware technology that takes advantage of the increased muscle power of PDAs to make media-rich eLearning possible anywhere in the world.

“Since the beginning, the standard slogan for computer-based training has been training anywhere…anytime,” said John Heinstein, VP of Software Development at Engage Interactive. “The wireless delivery of training through handheld computers finally makes this true.”

“In the past,” said Mr. Heinstein, “the devices weren’t powerful enough. Now they are. Now we can bring the feature-rich learning potential of Flash-based eLearning into the wireless realm of PDAs and deliver high quality instruction to anywhere.”

Creating an engine capable of developing PDA-ready courseware was no small task. “One thing that helped greatly,” said Mr. Heinstein, “was the efficiency of our existing courseware engine. It separates content from presentation. In other words, content components like the actual instruction are separated from components like navigation, menus, bookmarking and other functionality.”

“Even the new generation of PDAs are still not as powerful as current desktops,” said Engage’s VP of Instructional Design, Jeff Maston, “and the screens are still small. We had to optimize the instruction to make it work smoothly on handhelds. We kept file sizes as small as possible and used animation, simulations and graphics only when they were essential to the instruction. In effect, strictly enforcing sound instructional principles helped us to optimize the courseware for PDAs.”

“The underlying technologies that allow the content to be delivered are important,” said Mr. Maston. “But not as important as the content itself – the actual instruction. So there’s a degree of aesthetic appeal that must accompany the interface.”

“Our training is packed with features,” said Liz Goulard, Director of Media Arts. “We needed to shrink things for the smaller PDA screen without compromising usability. And we needed to avoid having the screen look cluttered. It forced us to re-think our interface and come up with new ways to present its components. For instance, instead of a fly-out menu, we used a drop-down menu. For large complex charts, we created a zoomable viewer. It allows you to see an expanded view of sections of the chart.”

“Rather than create a whole new system for PDA courseware,” said Mr. Heinstein, “we integrated the PDA presentation features into our existing system. We made some changes to the underlying programming and wrote some new utilities. Now, with just a few changes the same training can be served up as both desktop and PDA courseware.”

“This technology is available on higher end PDAs,” said Mr. Heinstein, “which are becoming increasingly more popular as people integrate learning into their workflow. A couple of years ago, the Stanford School of Medicine set a goal to have a PDA in the lab coat pocket of every one of its Medical School students. Since then the use of handheld computers in medicine has developed into a phenomenon called eHealth that integrates learning, reference and a wide variety of medical tools into electronic delivery.”

“Even outside the applications in remote areas and medicine, there’s a general trend toward mobility and the need for instant access to information anytime and anywhere,” said Mr. Heinstein. “This includes access to learning.”

“We expect our PDA courseware technology to be especially popular outside North America,” said Mr. Heinstein. “According to the market firm IDC, China has become the second largest market in the world for handheld computers. Mark Perkins at iBIZ claims the PDA and handheld market is exploding in Europe. And Latin America already has more wireless Internet subscribers than land-based. The market for small wireless internet devices is expected to grow to $73 billion dollars in 2005.”

“According to eLearning authority Brandon Hall,” said Mr. Heinstein, “the mobile eLearning market alone is expected to top $5 billion by 2006. As handhelds become more prevalent world-wide, we expect the demand for our PDA courseware to increase dramatically.”

Engage Interactive is a learning technology company in New Brunswick, Canada providing online learning systems for business, medicine, and telecommunications. The PDA project received financial backing from the National Research Council (NRC) through their Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).


Thomas Mitchell

Director of Business Development

Engage Interactive

921 College Hill Road

Fredericton, New Brunswick

Canada, E3B 6Z9

Phone: 506.460.1628

Fax: 506.460.1626

Web site: http://www.engageinteractive.com

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