Mobile Devices for E-learning: Practical Advice Based on Experience
It’s an understatement to say that the e-learning landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade. When DiscoverLink first started in 2002, the number one barrier our clients faced in starting an e-learning program was the technology infrastructure. Most restaurants did not have computing platforms in-store, and even fewer had internet connectivity. In fact, in order to get our business going in the early days, we often had to set up our clients’ stores with desktop computers and satellite connections!
Technology Options Abound
Thankfully, those days are long gone, and the number of technology options to choose from is now nearly endless. But with those choices there are a whole new set of challenges to consider, with a dizzying array of decisions to be made. For example:
- Which learning management system should you choose
- Do you want to use interactive courses or videos?
- Should your courses be deployed in Flash or HTML5?
- Which authoring tool should you use?
- Do you want to use desktop computers, POS systems, laptops or mobile devices?
- How many browser/device combinations should you support?
These are the kinds of decisions our clients consider every day, and the choices made have important consequences. One of the most difficult decisions is whether or not (or when) to embrace the mobile device movement.
Tablets on the Table
Tablets, in particular, offer so many enticing advantages. They are user-friendly, touch-screen devices that are extraordinarily portable, and offer a myriad of apps and capabilities. But do they offer a reliable platform for e-learning? Here are some things to consider:
- Android and iPad tablets do not support Flash, which is the most common publishing format for interactive e-learning courses. There are workarounds to this, such as using the Puffin browser, but they can adversely impact performance and may require an extra fee to download. Windows tablets do run Flash, and are a good option if you want to be able to leverage Flash-based content.
- HTML5 promises a future of ultimate compatibility across browsers and devices that will remove the Flash obstacle. But as of today, the goal of ultimate compatibility is still just that – a goal. Web browsers across devices offer varying levels of support for HTML5, which can result in unexpected behaviors and performance issues for your learner. Browser companies are steadily working to offer better support of HTML5 content, which is a positive. However, in the short term this means more frequent browser updates, which can cause issues with your content and add uncertainty and complexity to the job of your support team.
- Tablets tend to be more fragile than laptops or desktops and require replacement more often. In restaurant environments there is increased opportunity for accidental drops and theft, for example. Based on the experience of our customers, the longevity of these devices provides a compelling argument for considering personal computers. We tracked replacement statistics of one 500-unit chain over a 13-year period and found the average lifespan of each type of equipment to be 6 years and 1 month for desktop computers, 3 years and 3 months for laptop computers, and only 1 year and 2 months for tablets. Based on this, it’s clear that desktops and laptops have a better chance of surviving the hazards of foodservice operations.
- Hardware overload is an affliction we often witness when organizations strive to maximize their investments and end up trying to do too many things with any new hardware purchase. We saw this quite often early on with the broad proliferation of POS systems. Because POS systems already had access to the internet, clients naturally wanted to leverage those investments for their e-learning programs. The major drawback of this approach was the location of these systems, often in front-of-house environments, where guests could mistake a trainee for someone who could serve them. As a result, use of these systems is often relegated to off-hours and can limit training opportunities too much. Likewise, today we often hear of customers purchasing at-table tablets for their guests and wanting to leverage those for e-learning programs. This has a different set of concerns, including how to “hide” applications not meant for guests and ensuring that trainee use of the tablet does not negatively impact the guest experience. In addition, tablet processors are often not equipped to efficiently manage multiple functions. With this in mind, it may be best to invest in separate technologies for separate functions if you want to avoid these types of conflicts.
Mobilizing for Change
Because training departments often serve as first-level support for e-learning programs in the field, it’s paramount to choose technology that is dependable and will work predictably. Even the best training program can be derailed by an unexpected browser update that renders your content unusable and torpedoes your staff with support calls.
Even with the growing pains of HTML5, the use of mobile technology for training is not all doom and gloom. HTML5 authoring tools are improving with each passing year, web browsers are slowly stabilizing their support of HTML5 and the devices themselves are evolving. In fact, we are big supporters of mobile devices for e-learning, and we think they really are the way of the future. That’s why we’re in the midst of updating our Content Library and rebuilding our courses in HTML5. This is a work in progress, and we’re developing quite a few best practices along the way.
Eyes Wide Open
Because our first priority is the success of our clients’ e-learning programs and given the current state of mobile technology, when our clients ask us for advice about mobile devices, we often caution them about being over-exuberant and not jumping in too soon. Right now we almost always recommend laptops due to their content flexibility, portability, reliability and supportability. If tablets are an absolute requirement, we recommend our clients consult with us on the tablets and browser combinations that have proven to be the most stable in our testing.
We eagerly anticipate the day when HTML5 is a mature technology that runs e-learning courses perfectly on all devices. Indeed, the industry appears to be moving in the right direction with every month that goes by. With that said, we recommend careful consideration of current technology options before choosing the direction that is right for your organization, and we’re here to help you navigate that ever-changing landscape.