The impact of new technologies on elearning courses

There has never been a time in human history when technology was moving at a faster pace than now. Many inventions we take for granted have only been developed recently — the home computer was named “Person of the Year for 1982” by Time magazine, and the first iPad was released in 2010.

Technological developments in the last 30 years have created and changed elearning, and new technologies continue to shape its future. The march of progress has been marked by new catchphrases describing new variants of the phenomenon.

Distance or correspondence learning, the precursor of elearning, meant distribution of print material to students, typically by mail. Cameras and TV made it possible for educators to record lessons and share them with more students than would fit into the largest auditorium. The spread of personal computers meant that new functionality and interactivity could be added. CD-ROM brought realistic video to the desktop and enabled providers to put massive amounts of content on a single disc that could be duplicated and sold many times. Then, the web replaced CDs and online learning was born. Webcams and the introduction of advanced course creation software considerably lowered the cost of creating courses. At the end of the twentieth century, the term elearning was used for the first time. In mid-2002, blended learning began cropping up in conversation, meaning that elearning could be used in tandem with real-life classes. In the mid-2000s, the elearning 2.0 trend started and added such Web 2.0 functionality as social media, Wikis and messaging to the mix. Teachers started to use Skype, Adobe Connect or webcams to interact with guest speakers and students. More recently, smartphones and tablets set students free and let them study whenever and wherever they chose (m-learning). Now, this trend is pushed even further with liberation of education via initiatives like TED and massively-open online courses such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity and Codecademy. Millions have enrolled in these free online courses.

According to Education Sector Factbook 2012, elearning is slated to grow at an average of 23% in the years 2012-2017. What new technologies will drive this growth? First, let’s look at a chart showing ownership of different electronic gadgets in recent years (Figure 1). The trend is clear: stationary desktop computers are being replaced by mobile devices such as cell phones, laptops, e-book readers and tablets. Providers of elearning tools have been keeping pace and new versions of authoring software, such as Captivate, Articulate Storyline and Lectora allow courses to be delivered to a variety of mobile operating systems and devices in addition to PCs.

In the audio-visual digital world of today, text is no longer an effective means of learning transfer. Video is replacing the one-to-many function of text, and 3G and 4G technologies are making it possible for media-heavy content to find its way to mobile devices, as broadband internet did in the past. It is no longer necessary to preload educational content on the device — one can tap the cloud to access the content needed, when it’s needed, and pay only per use. Cloud solutions also support cooperative learning and collaborative methods of instruction heralded by the elearning 2.0 trend.

According to Pew Internet, as of April 2012, 55% of adult cell owners used the internet on their mobile phones, nearly double what we found three years earlier. This trend is especially strong in emerging markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America where the appetite for elearning is growing. Worldwide tablet sales are expected to top the combined desktop and laptop market by 2015.

What is the difference between elearning on a mobile device versus on a desktop PC? For one thing, you don’t use a mouse on a mobile device (Figure 2). You tend to use your finger and because of that, you don’t have a hover or rollover option as you would with a mouse cursor. Mobile devices allow for new ways of interaction. Most have an accelerometer, GPS, cameras and other functionality that has tremendous potential in elearning. However, current development rarely takes advantage of such mobile-only features, instead attempting to duplicate the desktop experience as much as possible. This will change as mobile devices continue to rise in prominence.

Other innovative devices also have a potential of making a splash in elearning development. Virtual Reality may be making a comeback after years of neglect in the form of Oculus Rift. New motion control devices such as Microsoft Kinect and LeapMotion introduce new ways of interaction. Smart watches and Google Glass are just around the corner.

Businesses are evolving into 24/7 work environments. Managers cannot always be pulled off jobs to attend training programs, and they need to develop their skills more quickly and effectively than ever. Employees are beginning to demand greater work-life balance and spend less time in offices. Globalization creates a greater reliance on remote teams. On-demand elearning designed as a toolkit rather than a linear course provides a just-in-time resource that is always available. It’s not only about giving access to education in a different way, or to people who can’t attend traditional schooling institutions, but also about letting people learn when and where they choose. It used to be that educated people were expected to memorize things such as capitals of the world or books of the Bible. Nowadays such knowledge is available within seconds via a smartphone, so many people consider it pointless to learn by heart. What people need now is the ability to access and evaluate information quickly.

Pervasive or ubiquitous learning is the proposition that learners can access education anytime and anywhere through a wide range of modalities, rather than only in a closed training situation. It allows learning as-needed through formal (training sessions, schools), informal (mentoring, books) and social (wikis, social media) channels. The idea of pervasive learning makes perfect sense as work and learning merge. In line with this is the “embedded ubiquitous” approach, where learning is embedded with the work, and provided just at the time of task execution, just enough to accomplish the task at hand. Current mobile devices are only the first wave in technology that supports this type of learning. Gamification of elearning is about applying game mechanics to learning activities to make them more compelling (Figure 3). Games provide a built-in level of interactivity and engagement.


New markets

The former US president Jimmy Carter famously reflected in 2001: “You’re talking about the internet, you’re talking about cell phones, you’re talking about computers. This doesn’t affect two-thirds of the people in the world.” A lot has changed since then. The vast increase in population growth globally is almost entirely located in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Globalization means that companies have to deal with employees from various cultures and with different mother tongues. They either immigrate and join existing teams or are hired to work remotely, often in developing countries.

Rising mobile penetration and mobile internet use in developing countries makes elearning a very viable option. It can reach people even if roads are poor and weather or political situation make travel difficult. It’s cheap when you look at cost-per-student ratio, and in developing countries there are billions of potential students. Lack of education can be one of the most serious factors impeding their financial and social progress.

Emerging markets often leapfrog technology that has existed around the world and go directly into the world of mobile devices. Computers and solar panels provided by programs such as EuroSolar to the most remote areas are fueling an appetite for education. The Arab Spring revolutions were galvanized in part by social media only recently available to the masses. M-learning can take place even without the internet and smartphones. Zambian National Agricultural Information Service’s SMS service has used existing mobile technology to provide farmers with essential education on crop production. This may not seem like an interesting development for vendors from the developed world, but it is a first step toward modern elearning as we know it.

The United Nations, nonprofits and for-profit companies are investing heavily to accelerate learning in emerging markets. Examples of this are Microsoft’s 4Afrika campaign launching an inexpensive smartphone in Africa, its Afrika Academy — an educational initiative that includes both online and offline learning  — and Intel’s SKOOL program.

Even though the number of languages served by global websites continues to rise (Figure 4), a large proportion of the world’s population does not have access to the internet. Initiatives such as Google Loon (which involves a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space and “beaming” internet) are trying to make a difference in this.

New standards

Flash has dominated the web and elearning for more than a decade. For many years it was the only way to play video and audio and provide a rich, interactive user interface. It excelled at these tasks and its vector-graphic animation has left an indelible mark on graphic design. But for all its strengths, Flash has its flaws. It requires browser plugins or add-ons, is a closed, proprietary format owned by Adobe and is hungry for RAM and processor time, so it doesn’t run well on mobile devices. The famous post from Steve Jobs detailing these shortcomings and announcing iPhones and iPads would not support it made a huge difference for the (non) future of Flash.

The near ubiquity of Flash installed on browsers worldwide spoke of something missing in HTML, so HTML5 was crafted to work with JavaScript and CSS to give the same interactive, multimedia experience of Flash, but to be an open, lighter and more modern standard. This has been so successful that the tech industry is adopting HTML5 much faster than probably any other technology invented in the past. YouTube is currently in trial to replace Flash with HTML5 as the default player for all videos. Still, achieving a great learning experience as was done with Flash for years cannot be replaced with HTML5 overnight, and there are limitations and compatibility issues. However, with the clout of the biggest tech companies behind HTML5, it is a given that the days of Flash’s dominance are numbered.

The HTML5 standard is still maturing, and this makes using HTML5 challenging, particularly for interactive elearning in comparison to Flash, where the playing field is level thanks to the plug-in available on all desktop browsers. At the moment, most tools actually struggle to provide real HTML5 compatibility, but they are expected to become more capable in exploiting the potential of HTML5 in the future.

The second standard that is challenged is Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM). Developed by ADL, it is the most widely-used collection of elearning specifications. It defines communications between client-side content and a host, which is commonly supported by a learning management system. The next generation of SCORM is called the Tin Can API.  It is a brand- new specification that makes it possible to collect data about the wide range of online and offline experiences a person has. Very different systems are able to securely communicate by capturing and sharing this stream of activities. Tin Can API is community-driven, and free to implement.

Learners can even have their own “personal data lockers” with personal learning information, which allows them to move to different systems without losing their learning history. Any enabled device can send Tin Can API statements: mobile phones, simulations, games, even a CPR dummy! A constant network connection isn’t necessary — occasional connectivity is fine. Learning events can start wherever the learner is and on whatever device they choose to use. It’s easy to make SCORM content work in a Tin Can system. The Tin Can API premise fits in nicely with the pervasive/ubiquitous learning approach discussed earlier.


Implications for localization

Historically, localization of elearning has evolved along with new technologies. In the beginning, courses were static and learners were passive, simply watching or reading the content and then taking a test at the end before progressing to the next module. There was only text to translate. Over time, new modalities requiring localization were added: audio, video, interactivity. For years, localization of elearning usually meant localization of Flash, but now with the rising popularity of HTML5, localization companies will need to adapt to meet the needs of their customers.

On a basic level, the structure of any course, regardless of format, can be divided into two sections: content and presentation. For proper localization, these need to be approached differently. All content text information should be saved in a UTF-8 encoded XML file and every text element should have size information associated with it, so that text size can be changed as required for different languages. Different language content must be stored separately with paths to any additional files, such as images and audio.

Presentation will parse the XML content document and select and display content depending on the language chosen. Images should be in a layered format with text and image at different layers to allow localization of the text. Every text area and frame must be able to expand to accommodate the content.

HTML5 is a much more appropriate format for mobile devices and the move from desktops to mobile devices has implications for localization. Different screen sizes means that content layout will need to adapt to the new dimensions. Nowadays, this is usually done automatically by using so-called “responsive” design that adjusts where different elements go. Some elements might also disappear altogether if the screen size is too small. Even if it works nicely in English, other languages have to be tested independently.

With the emancipation of emerging markets there comes a move to replace colonial languages with local ones. According to Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, founder of The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society in South Africa, “For as long as Europe used Latin as the language of authority and academia, knowledge was in the hands of monks, aristocrats and scholars. It is only the common languages — the languages of the street — that can lead to democratic progress. Similarly, for as long as [information and communication technologies] in Africa are based solely around English, French and Portuguese, we will not get anywhere.”

African or Asian languages that use scripts other than Latin pose new challenges. Font sizes that are large enough to properly display Latin alphabet characters might be too small for the complex scripts of Chinese or Arabic. Line-breaking is often not so straightforward. Emerging market languages might not have established acronyms or short versions of common user interface phrases we take for granted in English, such as PC, Go or Stop.

Secondly, cultural aspects become very important. European countries have a lot in common culturally, but bringing your product to emerging countries in Africa or Asia is a different ballgame. Culturally-sensitive areas include the race, gender and social class of people in images; the relationships between the individual and an authority; the direction of text; and color schemes that accidentally mimic a foreign flag or national identity. Additionally, clever acronyms such as KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), usually don’t translate well into other languages.

How a course structures cooperation, individualism, group achievements or gamification elements should take specific cultural differences into account. If you want to add social learning elements to your courses, the way to implement them might also need to be different between the target and source countries.

Pervasive elearning means that material is not limited to what you design as a course, but that everything can be used to gain knowledge. Localization becomes tricky because this type of content is very dynamic in nature, is updated often, often user-generated, needed right away and not always in formats that are suitable for localization. This will put pressure on localization providers to translate more, faster and into more languages. Technology pushes the boundaries of elearning, but fortunately also enables new and increasingly sophisticated translation management systems, which just might come to the rescue of LSPs!