Dial M for Mobile Learning

By Sarah Fister Gale

May. 29, 2008

Black & Decker has found a way to eliminate waste, shorten delivery time and gain better quality control over the training for its 300 field reps, all by replacing paper-based training materials with mobile learning content delivered directly to their hand-held PDAs.

    The globally recognized manufacturer of power tools, hardware and home-improvement products spends thousands of dollars every year researching the most effective displays and educational materials for its products. Careful research goes into the planning of each display, and the field reps’ jobs are to set up those displays to exact specifications in the aisles of retailers, including Home Depot. They are required to replicate every detail, from the way the product is angled and the number of packages on every shelf to sign placement and inventory control. They are also expected to educate the Home Depot staff about the new products that they stock.

    In the past, to create consistency across all markets, the reps were sent manuals, photographs and other materials on paper to guide them through these exacting steps. But there was no way to track whether they were reading or following the guidelines, or whether they’d even received them, says Cesar Saavedra, field sales analyst for Black & Decker. “You get bombarded with so many communications when you work in the field, there is so much waste and no accountability. A lot of it never even gets looked at.”

    To minimize waste and keep closer tabs on rep performance, Black & Decker began using a Reflexis Enterprise Learning System tool called Enfoblasts, which deliver short two- to three-minute information bites directly to the PDAs used by every rep. The digitized learning modules deliver key points of the products and displays, including include task lists, images, quizzes and short videos about the products.

    “It’s an easy way to deliver information,” Saavedra says. “It saves money, and it creates accountability because we can track who opens and reads the files.”

    The field reps can also show the videos to the Home Depot personnel in the aisles as a quick training tool rather than explaining the new product to them. “It increases the number of people we touch and creates a consistent message,” Saavedra says.

    While the idea of replacing paper-based training with multimedia content may sound expensive, it actually costs less and takes less time. The savings in cost and time come primarily from the elimination of printing and mailing materials, which can take days to produce and distribute, Saavedra says. Instead, he creates content using videos already produced by the marketing department for the product, which means there are few additional costs to develop the training.

    “We just compress the videos with Reflexis and blast them to their PDAs,” he says. “I can send all of the training materials for a new product to 300 reps in less than three hours.”

    This mobile learning model delivers on the just-in-time training promise that is especially beneficial for field workers who may not work out of an office or have a computer at home, says Jerry Massey, director of operations in the enterprise learning systems division of Reflexis in Kennesaw, Georgia. “With mobile learning there are no excuses,” he says. “Everyone has a cell phone or PDA and it’s with them all the time.”

Support on the go
    Like Black & Decker, CA (formerly Computer Associates) arms its field reps with Blackberrys that they can use to access training materials and read or respond to blogs and wikis (collections of Web pages that let anyone accessing them contribute or modify content). The blogs and wikis are built around specific course content, such as new-hire training, leadership development and sales coaching. The conversations take place in virtual rooms, developed using GeoLearning’s GeoEngage, to which participants subscribe when they sign up for conventional classroom or e-learning courses, says Ron Ateshian, senior principal learning consultant for CA. Whenever new content or comments are posted, subscribers receive alerts on their Blackberrys.

    “It’s self-paced training that extends the learning,” he says of the virtual conversations. “Because they can access it anywhere, our people participate more often, and the social networking aspect of the discussions spurs them to more fully engage in the learning.”

    The addictive quality of the Blackberry is an added benefit, Ateshian says. “They respond to the alerts just as addictively as they respond to their e-mails.”

    Ateshian is currently exploring more ways to use mobile learning for his mobile workforce, including sending video segments and presentations directly to their Blackberrys.

    “Our sales workforce is so important to our business, and this will help them do their jobs more effectively because they can use it anytime, anywhere,” he says.

    But he is cautious as he looks to the future. “We have to make sure any content we use will work on their technology and will integrate with our learning management system before we commit to it.”

Improving technology
    In fact, technology integration is one of the biggest obstacles for mobile learning, particularly if learners use a variety of mobile devices. In the case of Black & Decker and CA, the content was designed for their standard-issue technology. But for businesses hoping to reach workers via their own cell phones, the content has to be universal, which can limit choices

    “You can do anything on some phones that you can do on a PC, including Java, Flash, animation and videos,” says Bob Sanregret, founder and CEO of Hot Lava Software, a provider of products for mobile authoring, publishing, delivery and tracking in Warrenton, Virginia. “But there is such a variety of devices out there, and not all phones can do all things.”

    That, however, is beginning to change. As cell phone technology and mobile learning authoring tools improve, such content is becoming a viable option for trainers who are struggling to meet the learning needs of a growing mobile workforce.

    Mobile learning formats are already commonly used outside the U.S., particularly in Europe and Asia, says Sanregret. “The U.S. is three to four years behind the rest of the world.”

    The Kauffman Foundation hopes to change that, at least for its own education purposes. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, the foundation is the 30th largest in the U.S., with a vision “to foster a society of economically independent individuals who are engaged citizens, contributing to the improvement of their communities.”

    A big part of that vision is education, and Merrilea Mayo, director of future learning initiatives for the foundation, believes that mobile learning can help deliver that vision.

    “The emphasis of the foundation is to use technology to reach lots of people, and certainly mobile communication technology has that potential,” she says, noting that in low-income communities, cell phones are the most common technology device used. “There are 3 billion cell phones in the world. Education on that scale is very interesting.”

    Mayo has watched the growing popularity of mobile learning in the European Union, but the foundation is not yet convinced that cell phone users in the U.S. will embrace the concept as easily. To gauge their interest, Mayo is launching a nationwide mobile learning pilot program using sports themes to teach math and science. The pilot, developed by Hot Lava, will run in July and August—during the Summer Olympics—and will include embedded animations, clickable icons and interactive question-and-answer links. “The look and feel of the content will be like a Web page interface, rather than a console game,” she says. This simple format was designed to engage potential users while working on most cell phones and PDAs.

    To promote use of the content, the Kauffmann Foundation will market the learning modules on sports and gaming Web sites, during televised sporting events and via score boards at sports arenas, with prizes delivered in real time to users in their seats.

    The point of the pilot is not to prove learning effectiveness, but rather to demonstrate that people will use it, Mayo points out. Her goal for the two-month program is 100,000 users answering at least one question.

    “The challenge for any educational product is that profits are small and marketing is difficult,” she says. “If this pilot is a success and we can show that we had thousands of users for an optional program, we can demonstrate to other agencies that this is a cost-effective way to reach a large number of people,” she says.

    Mayo expects to reach 10 to 30 times more users than she would with more conventional training offerings. “People are swayed by the numbers,” she says. “Once we prove the economics, we can put time and money into making it better.”

    Taking this pilot approach is an excellent way to try out mobile learning technology and gather early numbers on the effectiveness of the model, says Saavedra. “It can be scary to invest in a new technology, but once you look into it, you’ll see how many benefits you get,” he says. “For me, that outweighed all hesitation.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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