Connecting dots of digital learning

Open Formats for Mobile Learning (#mlearning)

This briefing is drawn from “Increasing Access through Mobile Learning” (published by Commonwealth of Learning and Athabasca University, 2014)

Ch. 8 Open Formats for Mobile Learning  –  Geoff Stead

The U.S. government had sponsored a two-year technology research project to explore the technical challenges involved in deploying mLearning as a core element of its mainstream eLearning delivery. This chapter builds on research funded by the U.S. government in the Mobile Learning Environment (MoLE) project.

The technology team carried out practical research and prototype development to explore the underpinning technologies required to deliver meaningful mLearning tools and content to a massively diverse user group whose common feature was that they were all very mobile, work-based learners. It became clear that they all shared certain specific requirements of mLearning: they needed small, easy-to-access nuggets of learning mixed with support tools that were quick to locate and easy to use across a wide range of devices. Work-based learning tends to be multi-episodic, informal and just-in-time. Although mobile devices have been shown to foster situated approaches to learning in and across work contexts (Pachler, Pimmer, & Seipold, 2011), the employers of these particular learners had previously forbidden this. In addition, the identified user group was likely to have only occasional access to the Internet, and needed a diverse mix of resources including:

  • compliance-based “courses” that require tracking,
  • video interviews with domain experts for guidance and support,
  • active “checklists” as performance support tools,
  • published e-books and other existing resources, and
  • mobile reference tools and look-up charts.

This chapter focuses on the technologies that support the links between elements of the overall blend. It looks at content issues (e.g., data formats); the technologies required to create interactivities inside the content; interface design and how this differs across mobile platforms; protocols for sharing packages of mobile content between phones; and mechanisms to share tracking data with learning platforms.

Some typical dilemmas for mobile developers include:

  • For optimum user experience, an app should be developed to target a specific mobile platform (e.g., iOS), but for maximum portability of the content it should not.
  • For maximum portability of content, the best technical solution is to use a Web app (hosted online), but this excludes all the best phone features (native menus, camera, GPS, other apps, etc.).
  • For the best mLearning experience, users need to be able to work offline, but for integration with traditional eLearning systems, the information needs to sync online.

The solution to these technical dilemmas is to recognise the connections between content, interactivity, the app features and the type of learning itself. The role of the technologist is to try to extract open, re-useable formats and standards that allow these different dimensions to travel well across and between different learners and different platforms.

To support the development of larger pools of small learning nuggets that can be seamlessly assembled in different combinations, for different learners, on different devices, there are four main approaches to technical development:

  • Open apps – Involves software techniques that enable developers to create an app that runs on different mobile phone platforms in a single build (cross-platform development)
  • Open content/content formats – Allows individual pieces of content to display on multiple devices, using industry standard “players” (e.g., e-book readers) or with native device support (e.g., audio and video files)
  • Open content with embedded interactivity – A hybrid between the above two approaches, and is the ideal scenario for learning interactivities, because it combines content with appropriate learning interactions (e.g., a Web app: HTML+ JavaScript)
  • Open protocols, and formats to encourage sharing – Involves both the sharing of content and the sharing of tracking, progress and messaging between applications

Open Apps: Cross-Platform Application Development

The main approaches include:

  • cross-compilation (code once, but compile multiple times, for different devices),
  • mobile Web apps (the app runs in the mobile browser), and
  • hybrid Web app (native “player” app, with Web app type content).

These are true of all mobile development, but an open mLearning solution imposes some additional requirements that help to narrow the alternatives:

  • separation between content (easy to make and share, ) and platform (needing technical expertise);
  • provision of many content types needing embedded interactivity — presentation media alone is not enough;
  • offline access to content, but online syncing and tracking;
  • deeper integration with underlying mobile features (e.g., GPS, sync, camera, microphone, e-book reader app); and
  • maintenance of a familiar user interface, appropriate for whichever device the learner was using.

Content can be made by anyone, and is stored either in a generic, mobile format (like EPUB or MP3) or as browser-friendly HTML5. The content is managed by a hand-coded “native” app that provides menus, settings and any other system-level functionality.

App architecture

Open Content: Formats for Mobile Media

The basic design principles for looking at content formats were:

  • Media should be formatted for cross-platform playback, avoiding platform-specific formats in favour of open ones.
  • Individual media files should be optimised for mobile (compressed).
  • As much of the interactivity as possible should be delivered via browser-supported technologies. In most cases, this means using HTML5, JavaScript and associated Web formats.
  • HTML5 content should be designed to flow, dynamically adapting layout between landscape and portrait, as well as to a range of screen sizes.

A few formats that have close-to-universal support from smartphones, and should be used to ensure reusability:

  • Video: MPEG-4 has close-to-global support on mobile devices, specifically the H.264/AVC standard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H.264).
  • Audio: The two formats with the broadest support across mobile devices are MP3 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MP3) and its successor, AAC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Audio_Coding).
  • E-books: EPUB, MobiPocket (.mobi), AZW (Amazon’s Kindle format), all three of these are based on XHTML/CSS (similar to a package of webpages).

Open Content: Formats for Embedding Mobile Interactivity

Learning content is rarely just “media.” Interactivity is often added to support deeper understanding through the creation of an on-screen activity, or even building a fully functioning learning tool. Use of HTML5 enables all of these options to be supported as both the content and the interactivity travel together. Functionally, this approach is open-ended, allowing developers the freedom to use XHTML, HTML5, and any combinations of CSS and JavaScript to support their content and add richer functionalities.

Any functionality supported by the local Web view (Web browser) is available to course developers. Two different technical approaches are available:

  1. Pure HTML, generic JavaScript: By using only HTML and JavaScript with 100% browser support, you can ensure that your content is truly “develop once, play on all devices,” but you are limited in the richness of the interactivity.
  2. Optimised for different devices: To exploit a wider range of device-specific features, adaptive JavaScript calls can be created that detect the browser type and render optimised pages for each.(JQueryMobile, Sencha Touch…)

To create truly engaging mobile content, significant effort also goes into design and interactivity, some of the key style guides to consider when using this approach are:

  • cut features, to eliminate things that are not core to the mobile use case (requires learning design skills);
  • cut content, to reduce word count and defer secondary information to secondary pages (requires editorial skills);
  • design with a fluid layout to cope with different screen sizes (minimum width: 320px);
  • use of CSS3 for visual effects (rather than older Web-based approaches, like image slices); and
  • enlarged interface elements to accommodate “fat fingers” (suggested: 44x44px).

Open Sharing: Formats for Packaging and Tracking

ZIP + XML to package mLearning files – For packaging a collection of media and HTML files, it was appropriate to leverage the more established standards for sharing eLearning content (SCORM Content Packaging), which in most cases is done by zipping up a collection of HTML pages and including core metadata to define the content.

Formats for Messaging and Tracking

SCORM is widely considered too restrictive for tracking the wide range of learning activities typical on a phone (Degani, Martin, Stead, & Wade, 2010). (note: but SCORM is the basic must-have) Several parallel initiatives are underway, sponsored by the eLearning industry, to explore alternative methods of sending progress data to a learning platform. Key ones are:

  • LETSI (http://letsi.org): protocols for passing progress data back to a learning platform without requiring the content to be hosted by it
  • Tin Can (http://scorm.com/tincan): a proposed replacement for the SCORM API, allowing a wider range of content hosted in multiple places to send more descriptive update on progress. Like LETSI content does not need to be hosted on the tracking site.

The combination of technologies and approaches listed above proved to be a fit-for-purpose and effective solution for developing and sharing mLearning content for the target groups (work-based learners using their own smartphones). Drawing on existing standards in related domains (mobile Web, HTML, eLearning, video, zip), it has been possible to define formats for both mLearning content, and applications themselves that support open sharing and the future extensibility of mLearning across multiple devices and platforms. These are important for corporate learning as well as for education!

PERSPECTIVES ON OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING: Increasing Access through Mobile Learning is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Licence (international).

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