e-learning is more pervasive, since trainees are no longer
confined to a small training room. Here are some tips on setting
up a wireless e-learning infrastructure. by Dr Seamus Phan
is big news these days, especially for human resource directors
and training directors. Enterprises today are more concerned
with measuring effectiveness of education not through hours
and costs, but through the resultant productivity of the employees.
E-learning is not entirely new. Back in the 1980s, I designed
an in-house manufacturing-related training program running
across a small network, where production operators of one
of the largest manufacturing plants in Asia were put through
the self-paced training program. Unlike many other similar
self-paced computer-based training (CBT) programs, the modules
I designed ran on a network, and were completely developed
in-house rather than allowing external developers to do the
job. The delivery was obviously not as sophisticated as those
found today, but trainees found the program engaging nonetheless.
In today's context, e-learning is more pervasive, since trainees
are no longer confined to a small training room, but can easily
be learning from home or any remote location with sufficient
network connectivity. But the concept of wireless e-learning
did not materialize until the use of 802.11b wireless LAN
network became affordable and easy to manage, circa 2001 onwards.
What works with WLANs
Since 802.11 WLANs are basically wireless Ethernet-equivalent
LANs, most technologies would work seamlessly on them. However,
there are some considerations when designing a wireless corporate
education facility. WLANs are great if you are working on
an open field campus with lots of base stations across lots
of green. But in Asian environments, it is unlikely you get
the luxury of that much open space. More often, companies
occupy tight quarters, perhaps across several floors.
Assuming you run an operation across three floors each of
2000 sq ft (total 6000 sq ft), it is wiser to hardwire the
backbone of each floor by wire, since it is cheaper than creating
extra WLAN grid equipment to link between floors.
Some vendors would have you upgrade to the new 802.11a technologies,
which offer much higher transmission speeds than 802.11b,
but for the purpose of e-learning, I would suggest that as
overkill. Remember that your Internet connectivity would normally
be a T1 line running at 1.5 Mbps (or less for many other organizations),
and streaming media should be properly authored to work with
lower bandwidths that cater to remote access employees as
The most bandwidth efficient and compatible data types would
be RealMedia (www.real.com), since Real video and audio files
can be streamed or downloaded to almost any major client platform,
including Mac (only under the Classic OS 9, but not yet the
OS X environment), Windows and Unix. Depending on how lossy
your compression is, Real files can also be exceptionally
small, although you sacrifice visual and aural quality.
If your client environments consist of Mac and Windows only,
with OS X clients as well, then Microsoft Windows Media (www.microsoft.com/
windowsmedia) and Apple QuickTime (www.apple.com/quicktime)
would be great, since these two formats can be played natively
on OS X as well as other Mac and Windows platforms. Microsoft
Windows Media and Apple QuickTime can offer similar visual
and aural quality at about the same file sizes, assuming you
use the Sorenson 3 codec (www.sorenson.com) on QuickTime.
All three streaming formats can either be streamed using a
streaming server which often requires additional licensing
fees or downloaded. For e-learning environments, it may not
be necessary to spend the additional licensing fees for a
streaming server, since users can easily download the files
without excessive waiting. The caveat is that course and content
developers have to put in due diligence in preparing and compressing
the data to ensure reasonable quality at the smallest file
Another essential piece of technology is multi-party conferencing,
audio or video-based. iVisit (www.ivisit.com) is one such
technology that would work across Mac and Windows platforms
(although it is currently still incompatible with Mac OS X).
Using multi-party conferencing software, educators and learners
can interact using voice and visuals as if they are in the
same room. Another piece of technology, ispq Video Chat (www.ispq.com),
is perhaps more suitable if you have Mac OS X clients, since
it is compatible with Windows, Mac OS Classic and OS X. The
likes of ispq Video Chat is not just restricted to video and
audio, but also allows textual chat as well.
Many e-learning content providers also use Macromedia Flash
(www.macromedia.com), which has its pros and cons. Flash is
extremely fast and lightweight, since it uses mostly vector-based
graphics. However, it is unwise to use Flash as your navigational
system, since some Web browsers, notably those that do not
accept Netscape-style plug-ins, will not understand your content.
Flash is more useful in e-learning when used for interactive
simulations, although you can also use Apple QuickTime for
some degrees of interactivity. Use Flash sparingly.
Framing the content
There are several ways to frame the multimedia content, either
through HTML, or through SMIL (synchronised multimedia integration
The easiest way to frame content is use variants of HTML,
such as HTML 4.0, XHTML, or even XML. HTML 4.0 is perhaps
the most compatible right now, since it caters to most version
4.0 Web browsers. XHTML is a transitional standard of W3C
(World Wide Web Consortium) that seeks to bridge the HTML
standard with the eventual XML standard. XML is not quite
compatible with many Web browser applications now, and should
not be used as the basic denominator until most Web browsers
can parse and display XML code effortlessly.
SMIL is also a transitional standard that seeks to allow time-based
media to play back in Web environments. The beauty of SMIL
is that you can play back a video in one framed window, and
time it to synchronize with slides. Therefore, SMIL is exceptionally
powerful and elegant in the display of learning content. However,
there is a big problem. SMIL is not entirely compatible with
most Mac and Unix platforms, and there are playback problems,
depending on how SMIL code was authored in the first place.
There is a HTML workaround to SMIL, by chopping the video
segments down to discrete segments that should be synchronized
with each slide on screen. For example, if slide A is displayed,
only the video segment A will play in a binding frame for
both elements. When the user clicks on the "next"
button to go the slide 2, he or she effectively loads the
next HTML page that displays slide B as well as video segment
B. This is less elegant than SMIL, but it will at least guarantee
compatibility with more users.
Jabber (www.jabber.com) is an interesting replacement for
instant messaging tools such as AIM (AOL IM), Microsoft MSN
Messenger, and other instant messaging tools.
The beauty of Jabber is that besides being able to work via
a dedicated Windows-only client, like AIM or MSN Messenger,
it can also operate via a Web browser. This creates a pervasive
platform for any client from any platform to use Jabber, as
long as port 80 is available. Jabber works through XML (similar
to how Apple defined the Aqua GUI in OS X), and is therefore
open architecture and future-proof. Jabber even offers a 100-user
Jabber server (known as Jabber Communications Platform Express,
or JCP Express).
IM tools like Jabber are useful for learners who may not want
to voice opinions or raise questions in front of an open class.
This is especially true in Asia, where the conservative nature
prevents many learners from making greater progress in their
With the emergence of GPRS and eventually 3G running on cellular
networks, Jabber also provides the possibility of instant
messaging on cellular networks. Since GPRS and 3G phones will
eventually conform to XML, learning content can also be streamed
to these users-assuming that you can provide alternative displays
for screens of different sizes. Learners using advanced cellular
phones should not see the same display width as one using
a desktop 17-inch display.
It is exceptionally important to remember that whether you
learn from a remote terminal (broadband connection or analogue),
a 100Base-T connected PC on your desk, or a notebook computer
running 802.11b, the content you develop should be as lightweight
on bandwidth utilization as possible. It is also important
to cater to as wide an audience as possible by relying on
either open source or widely accepted standards, rather than
to adopt cutting-edge technologies without consideration for
Seamus Phan is research director at KnowledgeLabs News Center
(www.knowledgelabs.net), an independent technology news bureau
and writes for Network Computing-The Asian Edition. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.