Tuesday, June 1

Can my m-learning course run the same on every phone?

There are a few m-learning conversations that pop up again and again when talking to clients about mobile courses. It often starts with a seemingly simple question:

“I want richly interactive content for any phone”

“Will it do Blackberry? And iPhone? And Nokia?”

“all my students need to have the same access to learning”

These are good questions, and the obvious response to any is “yes, of course”, because we would all like equality between mobile users. But there is a painful reality that (right now, in 2010) makes this an impossible dream:

The painful reality about making m-learning content is that there is no single solution to push richly interactive mobile content onto every possible phone. Rather, there is a spectrum of possible solutions: On one side, going for the richest possible interactivities (but narrowing down to single platforms) and on the other side going for the widest possible phone coverage (but limiting interactivities to the very lowest common denominator)

Examples on either side of this spectrum would be some of the delightfully interactive apps you can get for the iPhone (which exclude all other devices) vs several SMS / text messaging solutions (which work on just about any phone)

This spectrum is just the reality. There is no getting away from it. if somebody tells you otherwise they are not seeing the whole picture.

M-learning developers have been trying many creative approaches to cover as wide a range on this spectrum as possible, but it is technically impossible to cover it all. Examples are:

- making a different app for each device, playing whichever bits of the same central content that device supports

- delivering media-only courses (video or audio) that make up for lack of interactivity with wide device coverage

- using 3rd party players (like Flash, or eBook readers) to render a common course format to different devices

- putting content online, in the browser, and allowing the web-server to decide which versions suit your device

In all of these scenarios, there is a functionality sacrifice (because you are not exploiting device specific features, like GPS), but the benefit of create-once but used-by-many.

So, if you are thinking of making your own mobile content, my best advice is to be pragmatic about this spectrum of solutions. Instead of starting with the big dream (“for every single device”) rather start a little more pragmatically by narrowing the range of technologies you are looking at, and them work backwards to see which type of authoring tool or technical approach works best.

A popular example of a narrower range is "smartphones", though depending on who you are trying to reach out to it might also be "phones with decent browsers".

Another good subset (if data rates are not an issue) are phones with decent browsers, since the latest smartphones and high end featurephones all have a pretty good web browser, which is a lot more standardised than their operating systems.

Currently, my team in Cambridge cover the spectrum via a hybrid approach. We build for iPhone and Blackberry by hand. We have a java (j2me) engine we use for old-skool phones. We use a hand-made authoring tool for WindowsMobile / Android / UMPC / Linux / Windows / Mac (also sold commercially as MyLearning Author). We use another handmade tool for SMS activities (SMS Quiz / SMS Survey).

A lot of our current research work is looking at a hybrid between our MyLearning app (building installable learning apps) and browser-based content (wider cross-device support), so that we can get the best of both – with content that can be installed like an app, runs both on- and off-line, and uses the browser to play back courses wherever possible.

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