Honey, I Shrunk the eLearning
Handheld computers are ready to deliver robust eLearningÂlike the media-rich learning experiences normally run on powerful desktop computersÂand a Canadian company has developed a powerful new technology to bring full-bodied online instruction into the palms of learners everywhere.
Fredericton, New Brunswick (PRWEB) October 25, 2004
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 heÂs 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 donÂt exist.
So far their use has been restricted mostly to reference materials. The kind of media-rich presentation features necessary for effective learning Â features such as animation, simulation, graphically enhanced scenarios, video and audio Â 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.
ÂSince the beginning, the standard slogan for computer-based training has been training anywhereÂ anytime,Â said John Heinstein, VP of Software Development at Engage Interactive. ÂThe wireless delivery of training through handheld computers finally makes this true.Â
ÂIn the past,Â said Mr. Heinstein, Âthe devices werenÂt 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.Â
Creating an engine capable of developing PDA-ready courseware was no small task. ÂOne thing that helped greatly,Â said Mr. Heinstein, Âwas 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.Â
ÂEven the new generation of PDAs are still not as powerful as current desktops,Â said EngageÂs VP of Instructional Design, Jeff Maston, Âand 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.Â
ÂThe underlying technologies that allow the content to be delivered are important,Â said Mr. Maston. ÂBut not as important as the content itself Â the actual instruction. So thereÂs a degree of aesthetic appeal that must accompany the interface.Â
ÂOur training is packed with features,Â said Liz Goulard, Director of Media Arts. ÂWe 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.Â
ÂRather than create a whole new system for PDA courseware,Â said Mr. Heinstein, Âwe 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.Â
ÂThis technology is available on higher end PDAs,Â said Mr. Heinstein, Âwhich 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.Â
ÂEven outside the applications in remote areas and medicine, thereÂs a general trend toward mobility and the need for instant access to information anytime and anywhere,Â said Mr. Heinstein. ÂThis includes access to learning.Â
ÂWe expect our PDA courseware technology to be especially popular outside North America,Â said Mr. Heinstein. ÂAccording 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.Â
ÂAccording to eLearning authority Brandon Hall,Â said Mr. Heinstein, Âthe 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.Â
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).
Director of Business Development
921 College Hill Road
Fredericton, New Brunswick
Canada, E3B 6Z9
Web site: http://www. engageinteractive. com (http://www. engageinteractive. com)
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