The same devices you find irritating in meetings—personal digital assistants (PDAs) that keep employees thumbs twitching and cell phones whose disco ringtones interrupt your PowerPoint—can be a boost to training. Used as a follow-up to learning modules delivered in the classroom and online, mobile learning, or "m-learning," as it's affectionately called, can reinforce key concepts and provide handy reminders at just the moment workers need it most. The trick is creating modules right for the m-learning medium, and interesting enough for your workers to give them a try.
Fire and safety products provider Tyco International Ltd. believes now is the time to give m-learning a whirl. The company already planned to roll out PDAs to service technicians in its fire and security products division this year, so m-learning finally made financial sense, says Don McDougal, director, learning technology. The PDAs, or "pocket PCs," featuring Microsoft Windows Mobile, will be used to manage service orders, do inspections, and generate pricing quotes. "Since we're now making the capital expenditure to buy all these devices," he says, "we're now able to deliver learning on them, where in the past it's been too big an expense to buy all the devices and develop the training."
The company is piloting a program in which PDAs deliver small, multimedia courses, such as a Flash-based simulation of an alarm panel to teach technicians how to program and set a burglar alarm. McDougal emphasizes the word "small" when referring to the course. "We don't want to take an hour's worth of training on a device that has a 3-inch screen," he says. "Something that lasts five minutes is more appropriate."
Whatever the length, the ability to deliver e-learning modules via a pocket-size tool is perfect for Tyco's service technicians. Almost constantly on the road, responding to service requests, these employees have little time for conventional classroom learning or sitting behind a personal computer in an office. "They may have half an hour of down time between two calls," says McDougal, "where they could have some learning time, or perhaps brush up on a piece of equipment they are getting ready to service that afternoon."
The devices also will be used to deliver "electronic performance support," says McDougal. The PDAs in this capacity provide technicians with on-demand instructions in the form of job aids and procedure guides for specific tasks such as the removal and replacement of a failed alarm, or how to troubleshoot. This on-demand help is the greatest learning advantage of mobility, he notes. Tyco's technicians service more than 200 categories of equipment. "It's impossible for a human to memorize the programming and procedures for every possible device they may encounter," says McDougal. "So, what we teach them is how to find that information when they need it, not to try to memorize and drill it into their heads."
They are taught, for instance, how to find a helpful schematic on their PDAs, or how to use the devices to watch an animation that illustrates the right way to troubleshoot. "It's very task driven," McDougal says, "very specific to the equipment and the overall systems they service."
The pilot program includes a non-mobile, standard e-learning module that explains to technicians how their PDA will be used to deliver learning and job support in the field. The approximately 30-minute module features practice exercises simulating a mobile device on the e-learning course. Technicians then are asked to complete tasks on a system, such as an alarm, using content accessed through the PDA they receive upon completion.
Over the next six months, Tyco will be piloting m-learning with technicians to validate the effectiveness and to get their feedback. McDougal says he is optimistic about the future of mobile learning at his company. "I believe in the next year to 18 months, it will be a good 20 to 30 percent of the learning we do for our technicians," he points out. "We will be focusing on doing less actual training, and more on-the-job support."
Easy access to job aids is just part of the picture, so to speak, when it comes to mobile learning. More companies are using the camera mechanism of cell phones to support training, says David Metcalf, Ph.D., a researcher at the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida. "One of the things I'm working on in most of my research right now is this notion of point-and-shoot learning," says Metcalf. It's the "buzzword" for the ability to use a cell phone's camera to take a picture of text, or an image, and then instantly transmit text-messaged information pertaining to it. The camera might recognize a company's logo and give the user a listing of that company's five closest branch offices, or if it's a photo of text, the user then could instantly receive a list of related topics to explore. "It's point-and-shoot access to knowledge and information," says Metcalf.
A new employee orientation program based in a large facility such as a plant floor also could be made easier through use of camera phones. Workers, charged with learning both about the equipment and storage items in the plant, as well as the location of key offices, could be supplied with instant information though the phone. If it's the plant floor to a printing company, a photo of a particular kind of press would bring to the phone's screen facts about the equipment such as the type of paper it requires. A photo of a nameplate on an office door would call to the phone's screen a picture of the office's owner, along with his or her title and job function.
Location also can be an information facilitator. It is now possible for a "smartphone," or a cell phone with personal computer capability, to give the user information based on his or her location, says Stephan Thieringer, chief operating officer of mobile learning tool provider Giunti Labs. Powered by technology such as wireless Internet (WI-FI), global positioning (GPS), or radio frequency identification technology (RFID), a smartphone can anticipate information that may be helpful to the user. If an employee works in a warehouse, he or she need only stand in the area devoted to packaging materials and machinery for a text message to appear on the phone's screen asking if he or she would like more information on which types of packaging are appropriate for certain tasks, or tips on how to operate each machine.
For really "smart" location-based technology, some companies are giving workers electronic identification tags to wear, says Giunti Labs CEO Fabrizio Cardinali. The tags allow warehouse workers to not only receive information relevant to the machinery or products surrounding them, but relevant data to their specific job role. "These systems," says Cardinali, "understand your profile in terms of your interests and proficiencies."
Cardinali points out the technology even has the capability to recognize your first language, and whether you have a disability that may hinder your work with a certain piece of machinery. "It goes inside a [data] repository and repackages the content on the fly," Cardinali says, "and it ships it down to you where you need it, at exactly the five minutes that are key in your day's work."
Sidebar: Podcast Update
It's been at least a few years since people first began to whisper excitedly about podcasting, or reaching employees via their MP3 players, but what is new is how many more companies are using it today, says Charlie Gillette, CEO of Bellevue, WA-based custom learning provider Knowledge Anywhere. Companies that regularly access, and make available to their employees, podcasts from universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, are becoming the norm. "Executives are saying, 'Here's a great article from Harvard Business Review that I'm going to listen to while I work out,'" says Gillette. "It's for that continuing education on very specific information."
But, despite growth in corporate use of the device, it is still highly unusual for companies to record their own podcasts for employees, or to provide workers with the MP3 players required to listen to the programs, says Gillette. "The trouble is, as popular as MP3 players (the Apple iPod in particular) are, they're still not ubiquitous. The primary purpose of an iPod is not business use, it's personal use, and so what comes first, do they require all their employees to get iPods, or do they provide iPods, and then have content available to download?" Gillette says of the big question facing companies interested in using the technology.
To get around that issue, companies are allowing bosses to suggest to employees to, say, download a podcast for a leadership development seminar on the top 10 leadership skills, which they also can listen to via their personal computer if they don't own an MP3 player. Fortunately, Gillette notes, "you can view all podcasts on your PC, too."