Design for multimedia mLearning
by Claire Bradley, Richard Haynes and Tom Boyle
There is currently much debate regarding whether mobile technologies can effectively support learning and teaching. As developers of high quality multimedia learning materials, we were interested to see how effectively multimedia content could be realised for mobile learning (mLearning). Our research agenda was to explore whether we could harness the available technologies of mobile devices to see if real ‘any time, any place’ multimedia learning experiences can be achieved. In this article we outline two case studies of projects that have been developed for Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The first is a mobile local history tour designed for adults who are interested in exploring and finding out about the local history of an area of London. The second describes how a learning object for higher education students has been adapted for the PDA. Both are authored in Macromedia Flash.
Case Study 1: The Mobile Local History Tour
The Mobile Local History Tour has been designed to utilise the strengths of the PDA. Its size and portability makes learning in-situ in outdoor locations a possibility and the high quality colour display and technical specifications allow rich multimedia resources to be used to enhance the learning experience (audio files, colour images, interactive Flash applications). The aim was to let users experience the reality of an area as they walked around it and to learn about its history through accounts and images from the past.
The tour enables users to explore and discover the history of the area of Somers Town in Camden, London over the last 200 years. There are eight short walks. Each walk is highlighted on a map on the PDA and has an accompanying audio guide. The audio guide gives directions, prompts users about interesting things to look for, and describes the history of the area the user is passing. Each walk finishes at a ‘Dig’: a location with specific historical significance, for example where there was a monument. At each Dig, users can explore the history of the location by looking at photographs, illustrations and maps and by listening to accounts of the area from contemporary witnesses. These combine to give the user a glimpse into the ‘lost worlds’ of the area that no longer exist. The tour is interactive and users have full control over how they use the tour and the resources within it. They can choose to survey the area using the map, follow one or more of the eight walks, or explore the locations of the Digs and compare them with the area in the present day. The tour is supported by a website (http://www.mobilehistory.co.uk/) which provides additional visual and historical resources.
Case Study 2: Learning objects for Java programming
The second case study focuses on adapting a multimedia learning object on ‘while’ loops for the PDA. This learning object was one of a suite of resources developed to help first-year Computer Science students to learn Java programming and to explain the abstract key programming concepts that students find difficult to understand. The learning object is a small, self-contained resource and uses graphical animations to illustrate the Java programming code in a clear, understandable way. The challenge in adapting the learning object to the PDA was in customising the content to fit the size of the PDA screen (320 x 240 pixels) without compromising the pedagogic integrity, use of multimedia and interactivity of the original. The interface and navigation controls in the original were retained in a simplified form. All of the multimedia components were successfully simplified and/or scaled down in size. Text instructions and explanations were replaced with audio guides performing the same function, to allow room on the screen for the programming code examples. The self-test quiz at the end had to be changed to suit the functionality of the PDA, as the original drag and drop exercise could not be achieved. Figure 1 shows an example from the ‘while’ loop, and the object can be tried out online: http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/ltri/learningobjects/pda.htm.
Figure 1: A screen from the ‘while’ loop learning object
Both applications have been evaluated by representative users to help us understand the resulting learning experiences. The history tour was taken by 10 users. All of them said that the PDA provided an enhanced tour and that they found it a process of discovery that would not have been achievable by just walking around the area. One commented on the added value of the audio saying “I didn’t have to read anything”. Some problems were reported, for example some users commented that they found the equipment awkward to handle and said that it was difficult to see the contents of the screen in sunlight. One user said they “felt vulnerable in busy places”, whereas another said they enjoyed the use of the handheld and being in control of the information. Whilst some aspects of the tour attracted mixed views, overall it received a very positive response.
Four computer science students evaluated the Java programming learning object, and their feedback was revealing. They liked the PDA version of the learning object and thought that it offered an enhanced learning experience compared to the PC version: “I found the PDA explanation was much more helpful”; “The PDA was more comfortable to use and provided a more interactive learning process”; “It is easy to use”. They felt that the PDA could provide enhancements to learning not provided by lectures, tutorials or private study: “I can use the PDA wherever I am, bus, tube, car, etc. It is better than a book because of its interactivity.” They particularly liked the use of audio, finding it an easier and more effective medium to learn from. They also liked the portability of the PDA and the freedom it offers in time and location of use, and they can see themselves using such a device to support learning. Disadvantages were limited to the high cost of the devices and the concern of being mugged when using them.
Multimedia design issues for the PDA
We encountered a number of issues during the design and development process. Whilst the PDA screen is small (320 x 240 pixels) compared to a desktop computer, the screen size does not compromise the design of interactive, multimedia learning resources. We found that Flash could use the whole screen of the PDA, avoiding the display of the browser and its menus, by installing the software FlashAssist (available for $10 from http://www.antmobile.com/). In order to make the most efficient use of the available screen space, interfaces need to be clear and simple, and buttons need to be small and should use clearly recognisable symbols where possible. Content may need to be presented over several screens to avoid over-cluttered and complex screens.
The user controls the PDA with a stylus, which is used to make selections by pressing on buttons or items on the screen. There is no cursor, and standard mouse controls such as ‘roll-overs’ and ‘drag and drop’ are not possible. This affects the type of interactivity that can be incorporated; for example the quiz in the learning object had to be adapted to suit the functionality of the PDA. Large quantities of text can be difficult and tiresome to read on the PDA screen, and text has to be made large enough to be easily read. We decided to use audio clips where possible, to avoid the need for large areas of textual information, for example for introductions, instructions and explanations.
We developed specifications for the content assets (images, audio, text), standardising the file formats and maximum files sizes to optimise performance and quality (see the tips later). Maps were created as vector-based graphics, so they could be quickly navigated in each direction. Images were created as small JPEG files. Image contrast was tested and often increased to improve visibility on the PDA screen. Audio clips were carefully scripted and people with clear and pleasant voices were selected to create a more personal and friendly experience.
These tips summarise our experiences in developing multimedia for a PDA:
- PDA screen resolution is 320 x 240 pixels: content will need to be designed or adapted for this size.
- The whole screen of the PDA can be used (avoiding the display of the browser and scrollbars) by installing FlashAssist from Ant Mobile Software (also allows you to open SWF files without a browser).
- User control and interactivity is confined to stylus point and click, so some standard mouse controls can not be used, e.g. roll-overs, drag and drop
- Buttons and icons need to be small, clear and simple.
- Keep asset files small for quick loading e.g. JPEG 40k maximum, MP3 audio files split into short 100k maximum clips.
- Large amounts of text are cumbersome to read. Text is legible at a minimum size of 14pt.
- Audio can be a more effective method of providing explanation and commentary than text.
- Audio quality is effective in MP3 format, saved as clear mono 11,025 MHz, 16-bit audio.
- Use vector-based graphics for images that need to be larger than the screen size and panned around (e.g. maps).
- The contrast of images may need to be increased to avoid glare on the screen from artificial lights inside and sunlight outside.
- Animations can be effective especially when small and simple.
The development of these prototypes has resulted in a better understanding of the multimedia learning content and experiences that can be created for the PDA. We have established that we can deliver Flash-based rich multimedia content (graphics, animations, audio, text) that provides a high level of user interactivity and control of content and pace. The small screen does impose limitations on the amount and scale of multimedia content and text that can be included. One of our solutions has been to increase the role of audio and to use it as a replacement for textual description. The use of graphics and animations still play an important role in providing visual information and explanation and these can be effectively designed for the size of the PDA screen.
We have had very positive feedback on the prototypes from both user groups. Both have embraced the PDA technology and found that it has provided added value to their learning experience. The increased use of audio over textual information has proved to be particularly beneficial. In a mobile situation audio is easier to focus on than reading text, and feedback has shown that the students find listening to audio very effective for learning. We have found that the combined effect of listening to friendly audio commentaries on a handheld device creates a very personal and intimate learning experience.
This work has shown that ‘any time, any place’ multimedia learning can be created for the PDA, and that the resulting rich learning experiences offer a number of advantages that only portable, personal devices can offer.
This article is based on a research paper presented at ALT-C 2005:
Bradley, C., Haynes, R., & Boyle, T. (2005). Design for multimedia m-learning: lessons from two case studies. In Cook, J. and Whitelock, D. (Eds.) (2005). Exploring the Frontiers of E-Learning - Borders, Outposts and Migration. Research Proceedings of the 12th Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C 2005). Held 6-8 September 2005, the University of Manchester, England. ISBN 0-9545870-4-9.
Other sources of information on the use of mobile learning
Kukulska-Hulme, A., Traxler, J. (eds) (2005) Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers, Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-35740-3.
Website and proceedings of mLearn 2005, the 4th World conference on mLearning: http://www.mlearn.org.za/
Learning Technology Research Institute,
London Metropolitan University, 35 Kingsland Road, London E2 8AA
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