Through the Portal Into Interactive Learning

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A digital avatar explores Second LifeTo prepare for his role as technology editor for TrainingZone, John Stokdyk embarks on a voyage of discovery into the interactive possibilities of the latest digital tools.

The world of training can play with the preconceptions for anyone more used to frontline operations. Someone anticipating a quieter, less frenetic environment of worthy textbooks, classroom sessions and role-playing exercises is in for a big surprise.

Opening the door into the TrainingZone community, I carried with me an assumption that I had already seen the most interesting and innovative use of mobile devices, business intelligence and online tools in sectors such as manufacturing, distribution, finance and design. I arrived expecting to explore the nuances of learning management systems and programs for recording and assessing personal development activities.

"Interactive tools such as collaborative wiki documentation projects and blogs are making a big impact on how learning materials are being created and delivered."

John Stokdyk, technology editor for the Sift Media portfolio

Instead, I was greeted by trainers talking up Facebook, or inviting me to their synthetic properties in Second Life. Adobe's Steve Allison explained that accessible design tools made it much more feasible for trainers to create and capture content themselves rather than having to rely on external agencies. This creative portfolio has expanded to include podcasts, video, and the 3D animation technology we're more used to seeing in computer games.

Who ever said kids should be the only ones to play with this stuff?

In an early scouting mission to identify emerging trends, I visited the recent BETT education technology event in London and found myself thrust on to IT's cutting edge. Olympia's Grand Hall was packed with hundreds of stands and I was caught up in a huge tide of educators keen to lay hands on new software and devices. This was one of the busiest and most frenetic trade shows I have visited in more than 20 years.

The buzz at BETT had a lot to do with the government's agenda to promote ICT skills and creative innovation. In his keynote address, the minister for schools and learners Jim Knight announced a £30 million plan to encourage universal access to the internet for school pupils. Companies including Microsoft, Intel, Nokia and O2 were all there, obviously keen to get their hands on some of that cash.

The event helped me to draw up a rough map of the different technologies applicable to training. Consider this my mission statement as I set off to explore the following territories in more detail over the months to come. As a self-confessed novice in some of the wider aspects of learning theory and training practice I need help and would welcome any pointers you can give me, using the Add comments button below.

Serious gaming

Computer games and training simulations may not be a new idea, but they sit right at the top of the industry's technology agenda. It's worth remembering that the first pioneering 3D projects were flight simulators created by Evans & Sutherland for US military training. Microsoft's ubiquitous Flight Simulator PC program and the joy-stick powered games found at your local arcade continued the tradition. US Navy recruiters, for example, were reported to have frequented suburban arcades during the 1980s, pouring quarters into machines and telling players about even cooler toys they could play with in the military.

Caspian Learning chief operating officer Graeme Duncan recently wrote that gaming is no longer the preserve of adolescent males, but has entered the corporate mainstream. Mavis Beacon programs feature less violence and glitzy graphics than typical shoot-'em-ups, but have helped teach millions to type over the past two decades.

"Interactive gaming enables organisations to provide training that is motivational, learner-centric, personalised, contextualised, gives immediate feedback, and allows users to practice in a safe 'failure-free' environment," Duncan explained.

At the BETT exhibition, for example, I was particularly taken with the Referee's Assistant created by RSL Media Partners. These CD-ROM-based programs use live video and animations to illustrate the laws of football and other sports. What a perfect, natural medium to put across concepts that can be difficult to interpret in the split-second scenario of a live match. It's also completely familiar, as many of us watch Gary Lineker and his colleagues doing much the same thing every Saturday night on 'Match of the Day'.

"The question hovering in the background was the speed and degree to which the assembled technologies would cross over into the professional training market."

Web 2.0 - Wikis, blogs and social networking

For the past year or two, the big technology buzz has been Web 2.0, which is based on the infiltration of communal web-based exchanges into business processes. Social networking on the web may not be big news to the denizens of TrainingZone, but interactive tools such as collaborative wiki documentation projects - think of small, work-and process-focused versions of Wikipedia - and blogs are making a big impact on how learning materials are being created and delivered.

Second Life is particularly fascinating because it combines online networking with 3D simulation and online role-playing. Karl Kapp, author of the book 'Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning', claims that virtual worlds "just might be the future of e-learning".

Big technology companies such as Cisco Systems and IBM have set up training shops on Second Life. Cisco has created a 'training island' virtual campus, while IBM's Second Life learning workplaces are being used for new employee orientation and mentoring experiments. As Kapp explains: "It is not uncommon to see two virtual people fly overhead discussing business issues as the 3D world passes beneath."

The Facebook generation

Facebook captured the attention of the latest generation of social networkers when it emerged from its academic roots at Harvard University in September 2006 and opened its arms to the wider world. Facebook is based around friendship and affinity groups and provides tools to share photos, videos and instant feedback about what the members are thinking and doing. By publishing information about how data is transferred in and out of the online environment, Facebook has also made it possible for third party developers to plug their tools into the system. In contrast to straight-laced, closed learning management systems (LMS), Sarah Robbins claimed on her Ubernoggin blog that the new tools available within Facebook make it a "near perfect course management system".

An outlandish claim, perhaps, but one given serious credence by Mark Aberdour of Epic, one of the UK's leading interactive training consultancies. "Customer satisfaction with LMS feature-sets is low, and the LMS vendors have largely failed to embrace m-learning with handheld devices despite customers crying out for it," he blogged.

"But Facebook works just fine on your mobile or PDA... The core ingredients are there: it's social, it's mobile, and it's open."

M-learning
M-learning refers to mobile learning, the process of delivering content to people via their iPods, smart phones, games consoles or the net. M-learning allows people to develop themselves as and when they choose, for example during the 'third time' when they are travelling between work and home. As Aberdour comments, Epic has been pushing the idea that learning can happen anywhere for years, and the dovetailing of m-learning with social networking sites such as Facebook is causing considerable excitement.

Back at BETT, the Finnish mobile phone giant announced a partnership with its compatriot learning software house Sanako to market £295 Nokia N810 handheld internet tablets alongside Sanako's Study 500 class management application.

UK mobile network provider O2 was at BETT too, announcing that it was collaborating with the Learning Possibilities Group to create LP+, an online learning solutions for schools that pupils can access from their O2 mobiles. Rather than assuming every student will get a PC at home, the mobile giants are positioning lower cost, handheld devices or smart phones as the means to deliver the government's vision of universal access.

As Sanako's UK director Ian McDowall, explained, the N810 was "a cool device" that could "catalyse engagement and learning".

BETT was certainly an eye-opener, but the question hovering in the background was the speed and degree to which the assembled technologies would cross over into the professional training market. Having drawn up my action plan, I'm looking forward to the Learning Technologies event at the end of the month to find some answers to that question.

And just in case you're thinking that yet another boy-journalist has had his head turned by glitzy but inessential technological toys, I also promise to look into the current state of the art in learning management tools as well.

John Stokdyk is the technology editor for the Sift Media portfolio.

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