Documentation and e-Learning (Part 6): Get Real! − Delivering Training to Mobile Users
By Dave Powell, Documentation Manager, SyberWorks, Inc.
Would you like (or do you need) to deliver current or future courseware and documentation directly to mobile users wherever they are… on their cell-phone screens… without having to make significant changes to your LMS? You can start doing so right now, thanks to the ever-inventive Japanese. Their amazingly simple technique allows you to bring greater reality into both the courseware students receive and the environments where they receive it… and, in fact, will let them receive it anywhere.
This is possible using “QR (Quick Response) Codes.” In Japan, youll see these quirky square “bar codes” everywhere… on billboards, magazine pages, advertisements, coupons, store windows, product packages, busses, taxis, and even T-shirts, caps, scarves, and tattoos. Theyve even covered skyscrapers with em. When a viewer (wherever they happen to be) points their cell-phone camera at one of these codes (wherever it happens to be) and photographs or “scans” it, their hand-held device immediately launches the web-page URL, displays the text block, calls the telephone number, or displays the Short Message Service (SMS) message that was “encoded” in the QR-Code image.
Many e-Learning Applications
The ways that QR Codes can be used in e-Learning, blended training, and even product documentation are limited only by your imagination. They could, for example:
- Bring mobile-phone learners directly to your training portal, to enroll in and take online courses.
- Enable cell-phone users to call up assignments, reference/reading lists, and other training-support materials in subways, busses, taxis, or anywhere… without using PCs.
- Build online training catalogs containing both web links (for PC users) and corresponding QR Codes (for mobile users).
- Let students at training PCs call up extra information and resources on their phones, through QR Codes in course screens, PowerPoint slides, Adobe Flash movies, PDFs, and printed class materials.
- Allow classroom attendees to call up schedules, building maps, and other useful information from QR Codes posted throughout the facility or campus.
- Permit students in seminars that aren't equipped with PCs to access extra information and resources through their phones.
- Allow students taking physical training (like police or fire-fighting drills) to receive information on their phones that's pertinent to both where they are and what they are doing at the time.
- “Tag” objects and displays in physical training settings, so that students can view instructional videos, usage guidelines, or safety information about them.
- Take students' cell phones to Google Earth destinations that are pertinent to course material.
- Take online or classroom students to assessment pages that run presentations and ask questions about them.
- Collect training feedback from students through SMS messaging.
- Make e-Learning materials accessible to people who don't have computers or can't use them (but who can use cell phones).
- Allow users to view product documentation wherever they happen to be… without using a PC.
A simple four-step process is all thats needed to pull this off in your e-Learning projects:
- Tell learners how to load free QR Code readers into their phones.
- Create needed QR-Code images through a free web service.
- Include these QR-Code images in your training pages, sites, and materials.
- Tell your mobile learners how to use the new codes.
Heres more about each of these steps:
Getting QR Code Readers into Users Phones
Theres a whole infrastructure out there to support QR Code applications. Both Europe and Asia are way ahead of the U.S. in this area. Several Web sites permit any cell-phone or iPhone user to determine if a QR Code reader is available for their device. And if one is, they can usually download it directly into their phone. (NOTE: Many BlackBerry devices contain their own “Messenger” QR-Code scanner for connecting with friends… and in our tests, this scanner could also launch web content from QR Codes.)
Here are just a few of the sites for doing this search:
Once a reader is activated in the users phone, its easy to read QR Codes. Depending on the phone and reader software, the user either takes a snapshot of the QR Code or simply scans the phones camera across it. The linked content then appears on the phones screen.
You can tell your mobile learners about these QR-Code reader sites through emails, ticklers, and your online training portal.
Creating QR Codes
The next step is to create the QR Code images that youll use in your e-Learning screens and materials. This too is easy, and the many generators out there include:
To use Kaywas, for example:
- Go to Kaywas code generator page:
- In the Content type area, select URL, Text, Phone Number, or SMS.
- In the Content area, enter the URL or other content that the QR Code will launch (http:// is already included… and necessary… for URL content).
- Select the Size (M or L is usually fine).
- Click Generate!
- Right-click the QR Code image that appears, save it, and then import/paste it into any document… Adobe Photoshop image, Microsoft PowerPoint slide, Word document, spreadsheet, class handout, online HTML course page, or whatever.
- Users cell phones can then go directly to the encoded content by photographing or scanning the image… wherever you placed it.
Snappr.net is an interesting generator. Once you open a free account, you can create QR Codes linked to music files, images, URLs, and polling/voting applications. Also of great interest for e-Learning applications is their:
- Geo-targeting controls, which can trigger alternative content based on user location.
- An application called MMS that supports users whose cell phones don't have available QR Code readers. These users can photograph the QR Code with their phones camera, email the image to Snappr@Sannpr.net, receive a link back to the content hosted on Snappr.net, and then use their phone's internal browser to launch the link.
And again, you can tell your mobile learners how easy it is to photograph/scan these codes, wherever they see them during their training.
See For Yourself
If youd like to see how this all works, I encourage you to load a QR Code reader into your own cell phone or iPhone (and if you have a BlackBerry, it may already have the software). Then scan these QR Codes one at a time and see where they take you:
A Few Downsides
While QR Codes are easy to set up and use, here are some points to keep in mind:
- Users whose phones dont have cameras are out of luck.
- Web navigation is still fairly difficult on most cell-phone screens. Standard website layouts usually require too much panning, scrolling, expanding, compressing, and squinting for easy use, and it takes a powerful device (like a Nokia N95 or Apple iPhone) to mitigate the pain.
This could be addressed through some page redesign on your end… or you could contact a service like Brand Attention (http://www.brandattention.mobi/mobile.php) that redesigns web pages for display on mobile devices. When their own page opens, note the how its nav controls and content run down the left side of the screen, in a narrow, mobile-readable column. We viewed it on several phones here at SyberWorks, and it worked quite well indeed.
If mobile users are an important part of your training market, you could create similar mobile-viewable duplicates of your existing e-Learning pages. Then, with those pages URLs converted to QR Codes, learners who scan the codes will go directly to your mobile-training pages through their phones.
- Obsolescence is another potential downside. Mobile devices are inching ever closer to being able to scan and interpret plain text through their cameras. When that happens, using QR Codes to encode URLs could become unnecessary. And tomorrows mobile text-recognition could capture and process an almost infinite variety of printed information.
But even if this happens, QR Codes are much less tedious to enter than URLs. They are also fun to use, which may always appeal to some learners… especially younger ones (most of whom will know what to do the instant they see one of them!). That may be why the BlackBerry includes a QR Code reader… to appeal to younger “mobiles.”
- Depending on your target users, your LSM may or may not need to be altered to handle QR codes. Most existing LMS web sites CAN be navigated by cell-phone browsers, though this usually requires a bit of scrolling. If this isnt a particular problem in your application, then QR Codes can bring users to your existing LMS and pages without major modification. For instance, a retail store where I once worked suffered from an all-too-common training weakness. Training PCs locked behind back-room doors described products that were out on the sales floors. This did not permit real-world reinforcement through touching and testing the products themselves. This training would have become immediately more effective if the LMS just let employees log into the training system through their cell phones. Employees could then walk around the store, scan codes beside products, and view descriptions, usage instructions, sales pointers, and demos during their training sessions. All this material would come from the existing training-page URLs… but it would now reach cell-phone screens through QR Codes throughout the store. (Regular shoppers phones would not deliver this data, if it is delivered as part of the password-protected training session.)
But if you really want to give mobile users the easiest possible access to your LMS and course materials, you probably WILL need to redesign your e-Learning pages for mobile use. Your own in-house experts (or firms like Brand Attention, mentioned above) can do that… though it will require both need and commitment! For example, lets say that you need to train customer reps to repair PCs, cars, or other consumer products. Like the above retail store, you could run them through a battery of online pages in some remote training room… and let them try to practice from notes and memory out in the shop floor. Or, you could redesign your LMS functions and layouts for easy access in the shop floor where practice units are located. Then, students can begin training by scanning a QR Code that calls up the login screen, and then view demo videos on their phones through QR Codes for each procedural step.
Here are a few interesting QR-Code resources:
And click this link for a list of sites that discuss QR Codes in mobile e-Learning applications. Here are some of the more interesting ones I found:
With QR Codes, students can access your e-Learning portals anywhere—in printed workbooks, online course pages, classrooms, or out in the streets. The codes can be taped to the walls of your training facilities, painted on the exterior of your headquarters, and even printed on the back of that ratty old baseball cap you wear to work every day. And I… standing right behind you on the subway or street corner… could scan your caps QR Code and immediately be taken to your e-Learning portal, marketing/blog site, or even your product documentation.
THATS very cool!
About the Author:
Dave Powell is Documentation Manager for SyberWorks Inc., a privately-held supplier of e-Learning software and training. For the past 15 years, he has written award-winning marketing collateral and user documentation for hardware/software companies like PictureTel, 3Com, Philips Medical Systems, Polaroid, and SyberWorks. Prior to that, he edited and wrote for publications like Computerworld, Infosecurity News, Networking Management, Digital Design, LightWave, Popular Computing, Harvard Business Review, and Leaders. (During that time, he also served as an author and Editorial Advisor for Sesame Street.)
SyberWorks, Inc. is a leader in providing Learning Management Systems and custom e-Learning Solutions for Fortune 1000 corporations, higher education, and other organizations. Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, the company serves the multi-billion-dollar e-Learning market. Since 1995, SyberWorks has developed and delivered unique and economical solutions for creating, managing, measuring, and improving e-Learning programs at companies and organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other countries.