Most often when we think of optimizing e-learning, we focus on instructional design and content, or basic access issues like bandwidth. But perhaps we should be focusing more on the delivery platform itself.
“Doodleschweet!” exclaimed my six-year-old daughter in what I assumed was a positive affirmation. She was instantly hooked on her new gift, a Leapster Multimedia Learning System, made by a company called LeapFrog. Not to be confused with a Gameboy, Leapster is a handheld educational game console for kids aged four to eight. Games come on separate cartridges covering topics like math, reading, logic and art.
There were two things that immediately caught my attention and imagination when I saw the Leapster: how easy it is to use and how affordable it is for a rich-media experience.
At first glance, the Leapster is a bit odd-looking. It’s smaller than a laptop, but at 10 inches wide it’s much bigger than a PDA or other handheld game systems. It includes a 4-inch color screen, a couple of buttons, a navigation pad and most uniquely, a plastic stylus for pen-style input. With the color screen and clear audio, it offers a presentation quality much greater than any PDA I’ve seen. This design seems to have captured the important balance between being small enough to be portable, yet big enough to be usable.
The list price for a Leapster is about $80, which is expensive for a toy, but cheap when compared with the other employee gadgets we routinely buy, including cell phones, PDAs, laptops and other tools. Each software cartridge retails for about $20, but probably only costs a couple of dollars to manufacture.
Today e-learning is deployed across a wide spectrum of digital devices, including desktop and laptop computers, tablet PCs, PDAs and soon, even cell phones. While most pundits are predicting a convergence of these devices (so one day we’ll just have a single phone/organizer/computer), others are suggesting that having separate devices for distinct uses is a better idea. The Leapster is a good example of a device that does only one thing, but does it very well.
So let’s wave our magic wands and pretend that we all had a personal, learning appliance. It would be an adult Leapster-like device—let’s call it LearningBuddy.
What might you do with your LearningBuddy?
You decide to lose weight and get into shape. In addition to a gym membership, you purchase a $20 cartridge on the diet plan of your choice. Your LearningBuddy then teaches you how to cut carbs or count points, lets you look up dietary information and even enables you to track your progress toward your health goals.
Your doctor tells you that you have high cholesterol, or diabetes, or something worse. She “prescribes” a disease-specific cartridge to immediately teach you about the condition and how best to manage it. Your financial planner urges you to accelerate your savings for college education and gives you a cartridge that describes Section 529 plans.
As CLO, you make sure that every new hire gets a library of cartridges covering must-have topics like financial fundamentals, diversity and computer security.
As you read these examples, you might be thinking, “I can do all that stuff on my PDA or on the Internet.” What’s different is having the mobility with quality that’s better than a PDA. What’s interesting is that my children still do play games on the Internet using our desktop computer, and they play Playstation games wired to TV sets at their friends’ homes. But there seems to be something magical and special about their little Leapster. The explanation might be as simple as its rugged mobility; they bring the game unit along in the car, up to their bedroom at night, on the couch in the day, in a suitcase on the way to Grandma’s house. But I suspect that they’ve also developed a psychological bond to this reliable little friend.
Maybe the e-learning “killer app” we’ve been waiting for isn’t an application at all, but rather an appliance. Maybe we need a device that is affordable, easy-to-use, always there and a little fun.