Technical Parallels with Computer-Based Learning

19 05 2006

I’ve noticed similarities between current trends in mobile learning, and those that were shaping computer-based learning less than 10 years ago. It’s making me think that perhaps there are strong parallels between the two that could help us develop better mobile learning approaches, while avoiding some of the traps we faced in the early days of flexible learning, by learning from our lessons of the past.

I’ve previously addressed a couple of parallels I’ve made with human factors in current computer-based learning, but the following technical parallels between current attempts at mobile learning, and early attempts at computer-based learning, raises some key issues, and the may help predict the development of mobile learning over the next ten years.

Low Storage (Memory)

According to this site, which tracks the cost of computer hard drive storage since the 1950s, in late 1997 you could buy a 2GB hard disk drive for around A$300. Currently, a 2GB SD Card (for a PDA or mp3 player) also costs around A$300. In 1997, most PCs would have had around 2GB of available storage capacity, and that’s probably close to the amount of total storage that current PDA owners would have at their disposal.

In the days when computers didn’t have massive hard drives, developers needed to think carefully about

  • Optimising products to eliminate unnecessary code or redundant content.
  • Using the most space-efficient format and colour palettes for creating images or media (e.g. GIF for graphics, JPEG for photos, and reducing palette sizes as much as possible in GIFs)
  • Optimising images and media so that they displayed well but were as small in size as possible.
  • Maximising the content or value delivered per MB through careful design and editing.
  • “Chunking” content into smaller objects or resources so that users can choose to store just the bits they need.

Some or all of these techniques can be applied to developing resources for memory-poor mobile devices such as (most) mobile phones, which may still only have a fixed (unexpandable) memory of a few MB. Optimising the format and size of resources, and “concentrating the quality” are good principles for mobile resource development.

Low Processing Power

Intel released 300MHz-700MHz desktop CPUs in 1998, and released XScale processors with clock speeds in that range for PDAs and mobile devices last year (2005). Low processing power in the 90′s encouraged developers to think about the following:

  • Designing resources to provide content as quickly and with as few operations as possible.
  • Optimising any code to reduce processing time and power requirements.
  • Reducing the use of processor-hungry formats (such as video) to a minimum (i.e. only when really needed to achieve a particular outcome that could not be achieved with another format).

These techniques now apply to developing mobile resources, with the partial exception of the last item. Many mobile devices such as iPods or media devices are optimised for audio and/or video playback, and handle these particular tasks highly capably. If such devices are the target platform for resource development, media content may not be an issue; however, if other platforms may be used to view resources, reducing the amount of processor-intensive content may still be a consideration.

Small Screens

In 1995, average desktop monitors were 14″, with a screen size of 640×480 pixels (XGA). In 2005, PDAs such as the Dell X50 were released featuring resolutions of 480×640 (although most mobile devices continue to be produced with a screen resolution of 320×480 or less).

  • Working with limited screen real estate on early desktop PCs forced resource developers to think carefully about the layout of their pages, and ways to eliminate horizontal scrolling.
  • Developers needed to think about choice of fonts to maximise readability, and choose or create graphics that were easy to view. Just as “usability” was a catchword of the 90s in computer interface design, so it should be a cause in mobile resource development.

Low Bandwidth/Limited Networking

In 1996, most personal computers were not networked, and those that were had slow (10Mbps) connections. Access to the Internet was via 28.8kbps dial-up modem, and expensive by today’s standards.

Currently, while some mobile devices (such as mobile phones and PDAs) are certainly capable of data connectivity, the cost of such connectivity is the limiting factor for the widespread use of this technology. Technologies such as 3rd Generation cellular networks, wireless broadband, Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless have the potential to improve the connectivity of mobile devices and competition should help reduce the cost and improve the performance of these services in future. Until that time, we can learn from our previous experiences with computer-based learning, applying some of these principles to mobile learning:

  • Optimise content to make it as small as possible while delivering the required information.
  • Splitting and structuring content so that learners only need to download what they want to view
  • Developing and applying appropriate standards to provide guidance on maximum file sizes for resource development

Simple Scripting

In 1996, Flash introduced primitive scripting to enable a small amount of interactivity to be incorporated into animations. Last year, Flash Lite was released – a simplified form of Actionscript for deploying interactive Flash content on mobile devices. There are also “lite” versions of Java Virtual Machine and other interactive environments that developers can utilise for creating content for mobile devices. These are not as fully featured as their desktop equivalents, but certainly provide useful tools for resource developers.

Competing Standards

During the 1990s, various hardware platforms, operating systems, web browsers and file formats vied for consumer preference and market share. These were accompanied by a plethora of “standards,” though many of the major players ignored standards in favour of pushing for their own proprietary formats.

The current surge in consumption of personal, mobile devices is being accompanied by similar trends in terms of competing standards and formats, for example, the plethora of audio and video codecs that are used for storing digital media. We can certainly learn from the experience of early computer-based training in the following respects:

  • Become educated and aware of the various major platforms and formats for delivery of mobile learning, and the relative strengths, weaknesses, and market penetrations of each.
  • Be aware of standards, and be prepared to develop your own formal guidelines that simplify and streamline the development of cross-platform compatible materials. Apply standards and guidelines, but be prepared to break them if there is a good reason (that improves access for your particular user group, for instance). Be a user (learner)-centric developer.
  • Design and develop resources to be deployed on as wide a range of devices as possible, and test
    learning resources for cross—platform compatibility and accessibility.
  • Be aware that resources can be developed in such a way as to be equally deliverable on non-mobile and mobile platforms. For example, web pages, PDF files, and sound files can all be designed to render equally well on desktop and mobile platforms.

Convergence

Desktop computing brought together many tools into a single device. Calculator, typewriter, entertainment and encyclopaedia in-one, early desktop computers were successful because they provided access to enormous functionality, and potentially a wealth of information, in a single device. Previously, all of these
features, and all of this information, was only accessible by purchasing many
separate tools or references.

Mobile technology is now converging many of the same tools into even more compact forms. Electronic texts and references, organisers, dictionaries/glossaries, calculators, charts, word processors and spreadsheets, databases… can all provided in a single mobile device. The convenience of this convergence is what will drive the success of high-end mobile devices, with functionality gradually “trickling down” into lower-specified, lower priced mobile devices over time.

Conclusion

Looking at where we’ve come from in flexible learning, it’s clear that many of the challenges we’re about to face with mobile learning, we’ve actually seen before. Applying the lessons we learned in the development of computer-based training may help us avoid some of the pitfalls that would otherwise ensnare us as we venture into mobile learning. While the parallels are not exact, it’s useful as a model to simplify this new frontier and help us recognise and address many of the issues.