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ITEC 2012 Part Two: Moodle and Mobile

John Helmer visits ITEC, UK Defence’s leading training event, held this year in Docklands, and finds a growing willingness in the sector to entertain the use of COTS hardware and Open Source software for learning.

When a new learning technology heaves into view the question inevitably arises, for any organisation that does a significant volume of training, of whether it is better to buy off the shelf or to build your own. In the case of m-learning, as a sector that does extremely significant volumes of training, one might assume that it would be a natural instinct for Defence to want its own custom-built handheld devices, if only for the reasons that equipment manufactured for the consumer market does not always meet the necessary standards of physical robustness, and might also be thought to pose security problems.

There seems to be a growing willingness in the sector to countenance the idea of using Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) devices for mobile learning, however. Mobile is a technology that is evolving extremely rapidly – a fact evidenced by the fact that Apple’s iPhone and IPad devices, both released within the last five years, now account for some 75% of the company’s formidable revenues. Military procurement, by contrast, tends to move rather slowly, and has fallen foul in the past of the tendency towards accelerated obsolescence that this sort of mismatch can produce.

It makes perfect sense to leverage robust, well-designed devices as and where they can be sourced, which have wide pre-existing acceptance in the general population and are easy to use. The conference session LINE participated in on Wednesday at ITEC gave several examples of this.

‘Mobile Applications for Training Effectiveness’

‘Mobile Learning in a Military Setting – Pilot Project Results Revealed’
Speakers: Major Rebecca Harrison, Directorate of Training (Army), British Army; Mr Brian O’Malley, General Manager, Health & Public Sector, Intuition

‘The Effectiveness of Mobile Learning in Culture and Language Training’
Speakers: Dr Lewis Johnson, CEO and Chief Scientist, Alelo; Colonel Andy King, Army Directorate of Education and Training Services

‘Mobile : Next Generation Training’
Speakers: Charlotte Marshall, Defence Business Development Manager, LINE Communications; Roy Evans, LINE Communications

LINE’s Fire Control Orders programme for iPad was mentioned again by Major Rebecca Harrison, in a presentation giving background to the Army’s exploration of m-learning – along with the successor to that programme, Voice Procedures, which was being shown on the LINE stand this year. Mention was also made of an EPSS system on iPhone for maintenance of trucks, and a language training app for Pashto and Dari, both also developed by LINE for deployment on the iPod Touch, the iPad and DLP.

The bulk of Major Harrison’s presentation, however, was given over to the results of a pilot which was being rigorously evaluated with the help of Cranfield, to test the use of mobile apps in conjunction with Military Annual Training Tests (MATTS). Initial results are that m-learning works: it has proved to be just as effective as classroom training. M-learning’s positivity scores were high with users, although some limitations to the delivery of certain types of content were discovered: emotive content, or that where interpretation is an important factor, is probably better taught in classroom, with m-learning being better for factual content. Blended solutions were thus shown to be the way forward.

Users saw it as time-saving, and liked having control over their own time in learning. The devices were quick and easy to use, even for users without any previous experience of them.

Further research is now needed to build on these findings, and to establish ROI. Over all, mobile was found to provide flexibility and portability, but it was felt important that time should be made available within the working day for this type of learning, and an end-to-end process for through-life management of the app was crucial.

A trial described by Dr Lewis Johnson of Alelo and Colonel Andy King in their presentation also had encouraging news for those championing m-learning. They reported on emerging findings in the introduction of a culture and language training programme including 40 hours of training in Pashto and Dari. Mobile was chosen out of necessity: it was simply not possible to do the amount of training necessary within the timeframe given (10 days) by traditional means.

Results emphasised that Blended is the way to go. M-learning works on its own, but not as well as it does when blended – i.e. M-learning is not a magic bullet! They also emphasised the blurring between training and job performance involved in using mobile.

Evaluation followed a ‘New World’ Kirkpatrick model. Level 1 learner opinions gave the programme a consistently strongly positive reaction, while level 2, done through a pre-post test, showed a large increase in learning outcomes on Dari, and a smaller uplift on Pashto, probably reflecting the different times available for training in each. Instructors reported that trainees mastered many of the objectives set.

Levels 3 and 4 were assessed by focus group and revealed the value of the complementary roles played in the blend by instructor and the technology. Instructors could give context to the training, getting across its value to the learner in operational terms, which the tech wasn’t necessarily able to do on its own. Valuable lessons were learned about how to integrate the m-learning with instructor time.

In conclusion, m-learning was seen to be ‘a massive enabler’, highly adaptive and flexible. However, learners needed to be shielded from distractions. A big opportunity was given not to be tied to a specific training time, although it worked best when augmented by additional face-to-face assistance.

Charlotte Marshall and Roy Evans closed the session by presenting two recent examples of LINE’s cutting edge work:

  1. Mobile and Moodle
  2. Augmented reality

Mobile and Moodle

This project was designed for AgustaWestland and the European Defence Agency (EDA).

Aircrew and maintainer training for helicopters are delivered through a combination of ground school, simulation and live sessions, and the costs associated with this are considerable. Print costs alone for a typical ‘type rating’ course could be around £1,400 per student with additional costs when the material needed updating and re-distributing.

Additionally, the size and number of study guides formerly made it impractical for students to carry them all to and from training. Feedback from the students had shown that the sheer volume of physical materials was impractical and de-motivating.

Clearly there was a need to provide the learner with a more practical, tailored and motivational learning experience. The new solution developed by LINE aimed to provide:

  • For students: key learning materials and a training schedule/timetable
  • For administrators: the capability to push out updates electronically (both learning materials and timetable) to the students

The solution provides a paired mobile app interface at the front end, accessed via an iPad, with a customised Moodle LMS at the back – brought together as a fully integrated solution.

This combined solution, using a COTS device to front end and an Open Source software back end:

  • Provides the learners with all course materials as interactive pdfs
  • Has a live chat/instant Messaging facility where learners can communicate with one another and with their tutors
  • Allows learners to be updated in real time on changes to classes and timetables
  • Allows student groups / cohorts to be created based on a range of factors (individual ability, subject area, pass marks, etc.) and for these to be managed and monitored by administrators, including their progress and results
  • Provides administrators with the ability to run reports on all the date captured on the LMS

… All, as a Distance Learning solution

Charlotte elaborated on the rationale behind choosing the two key elements of the solution.

The iPad was the mobile device choice due to its:

  • Size – combining portability with readability: because of the number of PDFs the students are expected to work through the screen needed to be a comfortable size to view these on
  • Security – Apple’s standard 256-bit encryption is more than sufficient to protect the device and data, and the iPad’s ‘Wipe clean’ function was also enabled so that if any of the devices were lost, accessed or compromised in any way, all the data could be wiped off the device remotely
  • Online/offline capability – the app can be operated without an internet connection, so students can still work through learning materials, prepare emails, etc. and once they are connected wirelessly the app synchs directly with the LMS and the data is captured.
  • Support for interactive PDFs – allowing current training material (which is most likely already in an electronic version) to be quickly uploaded onto the devices.
  • User expectations – it was likely that most students would own some type of mobile device, and that if their expectations had not been met through such a solution they might have very well have attempted to get a lot of the training onto such devices themselves
  • Stability – now in its third generation, the iPad is fully supported, widely available and highly popular: it seems unlikely that Apple would pull the plug on iOS … always a consideration with COTS devices
  • Support for HTML5 – the app is currently being developed in HTML5 so that it can also be run on different Operating systems such as Android: if the client wanted to support a mixture of tablet devices, the App would work on all of them without additional development work or costs

Moodle was the LMS choice due to its:

Widespread use – there is already significant use of the Moodle VLE across the Defence sector: it makes sense to continue to use something that people are familiar with and have already built up a good knowledge of

Open source architecture – as of December 2011 Moodle had a user base of over 72,000 registered and verified sites, meaning that a large and highly active developer community is working constantly to improve and maintain the platform

Messaging – the Forum messaging feature allows the students to interact on subject matter with other students and their tutors, bringing students from the AW and the EDA communities closer together, and enabling them to expand their knowledge base despite being deployed all over the world

Reporting/tracking – Moodle offers fantastic, SCORM-compliant tracking, and detailed reporting

Instant updates – Administrators can update learning materials, add learning materials and push these to students’ devices. This can be made more secure by making restricted material available for a limited time only: i.e. students have a two-hour window to download certain course materials to their devices before the materials disappear

Both the Moodle LMS and the iPad device have great functionality, together form a great solution for Distance Learning, are both fully supported and able to synch and communicate with one another efficiently. A winning combination!

Turning augmented reality goggles into reality

Introducing the subject of Augmented Reality (AR), Roy Evans gave a definition: AR is the augmentation of the real world or an object in the real world by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. Put even more simply, mobiles know where they are in relation to other things and can react to the external environment by giving their users relevant information about it.

Describing the genesis of LINE’s involvement with AR, Roy took us back to the R&D day just after he joined LINE from the military. On the tech adoption bell curve, LINE positions itself near the front, as innovators (a position that Roy also inhabited with comfort during his time in the Army), and the intention to pursue the subject of AR came out of blue-sky thinking within the team. Defence, too tends to be an early adopter, in the main (although Roy drew attention to the ITEC keynote speeches where some speakers had talked about leveraging emerging commercial technology, while another had counselled using only proven technology). It was decided therefore to produce a low cost product demonstrator, particularly for the interest of the Defence sector, which was shown at a symposium in Gosport RN.

This initial showing produced interest from a potential customer, who sent the team a YouTube clip of a short demonstration video from BMW

Could LINE do something similar, he asked?

What the video appears to show is AR spectacles in action. A Terminator-style user view showing overlays is generated by a fairly normal-looking pair of sunglasses, worn by a man who with their help is attempting to fix an engine.

The team got to work deconstructing what was seen and researching the available technologies that might allow such a set-up to be produced. Clearly, there was an element of video trickery involved: many questions, such as power source were begged, which the team looked closely into.

The next result of this process was a proof-of-concept demonstrator, being shown on the LINE stand at this exhibition. LINE has been asked fully to evaluate the effectiveness of the piece with the customer, within DSAT, an evaluation underpinned with full academic rigour.

mobile devices

What LINE has developed see-through is a pair of ‘goggles’ that can project 2D and 3D images onto the optics of the glasses, so that it is the equivalent of looking at a 49″ TV screen. The device includes stereo audio, which can be used through use headphones or via built-in speakers. A head tracker knows the orientation of the user’s head relative to a fiduciary marker on the equipment, and the system knows where the user is through GPS tracking. A next stage is to include equipment recognition.

The initiative has focused on a series of practical tasks associated with the Challenger 2, some presented on iPad and others using the glasses. These are tasks where there is conventionally a low pass rate, which are difficult to teach, and which offer an opportunity through the use of technology for compression of training time, ROI, increased safety, and other benefits.

At the moment this project is specific to (and exclusive to) Defence, but clearly it has wider application in other fields such as IT. There have been reports for a while that Google is planning to launch a product in this area.

If these come out, at a reasonable price point, LINE and clients will be well place to take advantage of them and start developing Defence-related applications very quickly.