On Gravity, 3D, and miscellaneous

Hello all,

Thought I’d make a brief post, since I wasn’t able to make my usual weekly update this past week, for a combination of reasons. First, went on a nice trip into the off-the-grid wilderness of Eastern Algonquin. Some beautiful territory:


Second, have been busy doing paperwork in preparation for a personal business registration and for starting a new job (hooray!)

Finally, my old Vista-era laptop’s hard drive decided to fail a few days short of the Windows 8.1 update. (R.I.P old soldier). I think every computer I’ve ever owned has died of a fried or mechanically damaged hard drive.

Anyway, had to go shopping for a new computer. Almost went with a slick little lightweight, touchscreen solid-state-only number from Samsung. Only 128 GB and no DVD drive, but who needs DVD and who needs more storage space what with SD cards, external HDDs, and the cloud. (Also, no moving parts = no potential for mechanical failure) Sadly, they were out of stock. THIS CLOSE to slipping to the dark side with an on sale MacBook Air, but was ultimately turned off by their proprietary connectors (and the expensive proprietary adapters that go with them).

So instead went with a nice, functional, moderately priced HP number. Cost the same as the last laptop purchased 4+ years ago, with significantly higher clock speed, twice the RAM, and 3 times the onboard memory. Go Moore’s Law.

So, computer set up, Windows 8.1 update downloaded and installed, and ready to go again.

I wanted to just make a quick post as a substitute for last week. Actually, kind of a follow-up to a previous post about the potential for Stereoscopic 3D in education. I want to comment a bit on the phenomenal hit 3D film Gravity.


When I wrote the earlier post, I had been looking forward to seeing the film. I ended up getting out to see the film on the opening day on October 4th, and have to say it definitely lived up to expectations. This is one of those films that kind of have to be seen in the theatre to be truly appreciated, and one of those rare experiences where the steep surcharges for 3D IMAX are worth it.

This is an excellent example of 3D being used for something other than mere gimmick, to let you as a viewer viscerally experience a place where only a tiny handful of human beings have been so far been lucky enough to be able to go. The 3D gives a beautiful immersive sense of the vast distances in space, of the emptiness and isolation, of the sense of the altitude hundreds of kilometers above the earth’s surface, of the spectacular beauty of whole continents seen at a glance, and of the terrifying power of hyper-velocity collisions.  Here, 3D is used in an artful, highly effective way to immerse the viewer, make him feel a part of the situation, bring out the story and raise it to a level that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

This is largely to be expected, given the calibre of the director. Alfonso Cuaron is a truly world-class artistic filmmaker. He is probably best known before this for the dystopic sci-fi film Children of Men (Available for viewing on Netflix Canada and highly recommended).

Hopefully this spectacular film, bound to be nominated for just about everything, technical and artistic, at the next Academy Awards, will help to give a shot in the arm to more meaningful use of stereoscopic 3D in film and elsewhere. Stereoscopic 3D is a technology that holds such awesome potential to bridge the gap between ourselves and otherwise inaccessible locations and realities, to make them present and tangible.

And isn’t this, after all, what education is all about? To take the unfamiliar, and make it familiar? To take the inaccessible, and make it accessible? To take the far, and make it near?

Principles for Effective mLearning





The rise of use of mobile computing and communication devices like smart phones have dramatically changed our ways of life. How we navigate our environment, how we search for information, how we read, how we consume digital multimedia, how we browse the web, how we take photographs, how we communicate with others.

In recent years, this has come to include learning and training as well. Mobile Learning and Mobile eLearning (or, mLearning) have become popular buzzwords in training and learning circles in the past few years.

What we have to remember however, as designers, is that mobile devices are not just “another screen” on which to view content. Effective mLearning is not just a matter of shrinking your screens down and putting your existing content on a smartphone or tablet.

Mobile devices have certain characteristics as devices that enable certain usages within the context of education. They have strengths and weaknesses, things they do well and things they don’t. They key is to recognize the strengths of mobile devices and how they are most naturally used. Then to take certain appropriate content and certain appropriate types of activities and deliver those and only those through mobile devices.

The purpose of this post is to look at some of the characteristics of mobile devices and look at some useful principles for designing learning materials and learning strategies for mobile.

Mobile device capabilities

Mobile devices have a number of capabilities that can be drawn upon for learning and training purposes.

Network Connectivity

Mobile devices can be connected to the Internet over both cellular and Wifi connections. Connection speeds vary based on the technology:

  • 3G (up to 7 Mbps)
  • HSPA+ (up to 21 Mbps)
  • LTE (up to 100 Mbps)
  • Wifi (5-20 Mbps)


Interactions with content

Mobile devices offer many ways to interact with content- tap, double tap, tap and drag, swipe, pinch to zoom, two finger rotate, accelerometer based tilt/rotate of device, shaking of device

Interactions with other learners

Interactions with other learners can include both synchronous and asynchronous for communication and collaboration:

  • Synchronous – phone call, SMS, Skype VOIP, video conferencing like Facetime, Skype video calling, IM
  • Asynchronous – email, SMS/text, discussion forum, YouTube upload and commenting, Wikis, Cloud document storage and editing, Instagram/Pinterest photo sharing, Reddit link sharing and discussion, social media sharing and discussion on FB/Google+,Twitter,Tumblr.

Content consumption methods

Mobile devices include a number of ways, either built in or through third party apps, to consume content:

  • Text content – Web browser, ebooks/reading apps (Adobe pdf, Kindle)
  • Audio content – podcasting, music / audio players, Soundcloud
  • Video content – YouTube viewer, built in video viewers and 3rd party viewers like VLC
  • Mapping for location related content

Content capture, editing, production

Mobile devices include a number of tools to help learners / users capture, edit, and produce their own content:

  • Photo capture and editing
  • Video capture and editing, mobile movie making
  • Audio capture and editing
  • Text capture – Word processor, Notes apps
  • Drawing / sketching – sketching apps, stylus. Notes

Search and Navigation

Mobile devices include a variety of capabilities for search:

  • Web search
  • On device search
  • Navigation, mapping
  • Local based search – what’s around here?
  • Text search and voice search

 Organization, planning, and tracking

Mobile devices also have a number of tools to help with getting organized and keeping track of dates and times for tasks to do:

  • Calendars, including shared calendars
  • Notifications
  • Reminders and checklists
  • Alarms
  • Note-taking


Strengths of mobile devices

Mobile devices have particular strengths as devices to be used for education and training:

  • Portability / mobility – small sized, light weight, easy to hold and carry. This makes it easier for learners to always have these devices with them, making them an excellent potential device to use for learning and training.
  • Connectivity – devices can connect to other devices and to networks over micro USB, Bluetooth, Wifi, WiDi, cellular, NFC and can receive signals from GPS. Multiple modes to communicate and collaborate with others. High speed cellular internet means that the learner almost always has access to the internet to access content. The learner does not need to be chained to a desk or trapped in a classroom to have access to learning materials, whether formal or informal.
  • Location, position, orientation, and context awareness – sensors such as GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer tell the position and orientation in space of the phone, it’s motion through space, and data about the environment around such as pressure, temperature, light levels. Combined with the connectivity, this enables the device to “know” where you are and what else is in the area.
  • User personalization – mobile devices have a lot of data on device about the user, are cloud connected to various sources of data about the learner, and can “learn” over time the patterns of the user.


Limitations of Mobile Devices

Remember however to keep in mind some of the practical constraints and limitations of mobile devices:

  • Small screen sizes
  • Battery / power limitations – this will vary from device to device and will depend on features that use a lot of power such as use of the screen, networking, and processor intensive operations
  • Processor limitations – this is getting better in recent years with high powered multi-core processors, but mobile devices still tend to be less powerful than modern laptops and desktops
  • Multi-tasking is somewhat limited compared to desktop operating systems
  • Limited on-board storage. Some devices have microSD ports to take a memory card, but this is far from universal. Cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive can somewhat compensate for this.
  • Data plan limitations – when the user is not connected to Wifi, internet connectivity is through the cellular data connection. Cellular data usage is often limited to a certain maximum amount per month, with heavy overage fees.

Principles and Tips for mLearning Design

The capabilities and limitations of mobile devices lead to a number of principles to guide mLearning design.

Use a Primarily Touch-Based Design for Navigation and Interaction

People are used to interacting with and navigating through mobile apps with taps, double taps, swipes and gestures. As a designer, you should try to build this into any mLearning. Also be careful to adjust instructions in terms of the language you use to describe what to do. Tell learners to “tap” or “push” instead of “click.”

Design for touch and gestures. Touch shouldn’t just be an afterthought, but should be the primary mode of input and interaction. Remember that for now touchscreens don’t enable the “hover state” you see with mouse based interfaces. So any design where additional cues or material are reviewed when the cursor hovers over an area need to be modified.

Design to the size of the target device. Make scale sized templates to get used to the actual size and how much can legibly fit on the screen. Make sure any controls and buttons are an appropriate size for easy touch interaction. Keep interactive areas within easy reach of thumbs in the ways users usually hold the devices.

Use Other Modes of Interaction

Also, thanks to the different sensors in mobile devices, other creative modes of interaction could also be possible, including speech inputs, tilting or rotation, shaking the device, or taking a picture.

Consider Using Games / Gamification to Make it Fun

Gaming is one of the most popular applications of mobile devices. The number of hours spent playing games on popular mobile platforms like iOS and Android are similar to the number of hours spent on home consoles like Xbox, Playstation, and Wii. Consider using Serious gaming or gamification to increase learner engagement  and make the learner more likely to use the learning materials during spare time between other tasks.

Give Opportunities for Communication and Collaboration

Mobile devices are network connected and allow many types of synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration options. We know that interactions with other learners plays an important role in learning. Enabling learners to have contact and interaction with each other should be a part of an effective mLearning strategy. As mentioned earlier, there are a range of synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration tools that can be used.

Make Use of Mobile Content Capture Capabilities

Still and video cameras, microphones, styluses, and virtual keyboards on cell phones allow learners to collect and create material, whether text, audio, video, sketch for project based work out in the world that can be shared with others. For example, they could visit a site and collect digital “artifacts” to document noteworthy points related to their learning onsite. Learners can then comment on each others’ work.

Make Materials Short, Digestible, and Findable

Usage of smart phones for learning, tends to be for short periods, 5-10 minutes in between other activities. This may be better attuned to just-in-time information for support on the spot rather than sustained periods of learning. You could use text and images, audio such as a podcast, or a short video. This use case for smart phones has instructional design ramifications –  it suggests that you should design in smaller, self-contained bite sized chunks. This is in line somewhat with the older idea of learning objects.

Keep in mind that smaller pieces means more pieces, and that these pieces need to be easily searchable and findable. Remember as well that any interfaces for searching for content need to be simplified and rescaled to work within the limits of the mobile device screen. You may also want to tag content for smart phone appropriateness, so that smart phone optimized content comes up first in search.

Tablets tend to be more comfortably used for longer, browsing content while sitting in a chair or on the couch, for example. Still, the ideal is for shorter, bite sized chunks of content that can be easily digested on the go.

Be Conscious of Screen Sizes

Mobile devices come in a range of sizes. These range from around 4-5 inches for cell phones to 7-10 inches for tablets. This has consequences on how content can be presented. You will need to rework interfaces and the layout of items on the screen. There are resolution and screen aspect ratio issues. You may want to use scalable vector graphics rather than bitmapped, and relative sizes (percentages) for screen elements and sections rather than absolute (pixels)

Alternatively, you can use HTML and responsive web design, so that the presentation of the content and the screen layout changes according to the device and screen size.

Mobile devices tend to fall into 3 broad size groups that overlap somewhat.

  • Smartphones (4-6 inches)
  • Large smart phones and smaller tablets (6-8 inches), and
  • Full size tablets (9-11 inches)


Keep in mind that due to the small screen, it may be hard to make out small details in complex graphics, even with higher resolution “Retina” type screens. Detailed imagery is probably better viewed on a tablet than a smartphone. Tablets, because of their larger screens are more comfortable to read from and can be used for more sustained periods.

Smart phones however are an attractive target for training for a few reasons. First, smart phones are light and portable, and are something people always have with them. This cannot necessarily be said for large tablets, which take up more space and are heavier, requiring a bag to carry around.

Depending on the type of clothes people wear, certain smaller tablets such as 7-8 inch tablets (e.g. Nexus 7, iPad Mini, Galaxy Note) may fit in pants pockets, or, for women, a purse and still be portable. Some telephones, such as so-called “phablets” (e.g. Galaxy Notes, Galaxy Mega) also sit in this in-between “sweet spot” around 6 inches. Devices this size make a decent compromise between generous screen real estate and portability.

A thorough learner and context analysis during the Analysis phase of a project can help you to identify what sort of devices the learners will be using.

Keep Connectivity and Data Issues in Mind

In contrast to tablets, which are most commonly purchased in wifi only versions rather than wifi+3G/4G versions, smart phones include cellular data connectivity by default, with the majority of users subscribing to a data plan through a cellular provider. As such, smart phones are generally always available, always on, and always connected. This makes smart phone technology supportive of a “Just-in-Time” learning approach where learning can potentially be fit into any spare moment during the day, at the learner’s convenience.

However, keep in mind the user’s data access limits – the limits of cellular data plans and cost, availability of cellular signal, and the availability of wifi. You want to find ways to make any content “lighter” in terms of how much data has to be transferred.

This cuts down on potential data plan use and makes it easier to deal with any connection speed issues. In many urban areas today, cellular connection speeds over 4G/LTE can actually be substantially faster than home or office broadband, but you should not count on this in designing the content.

Data limitation issues are another reason why content presented in short, discrete chunks is ideal for smart phone based learning.

Consider a Multi-Screen Approach

An alternate way to consider the “m” in mLearning is multi- rather than mobile. As in, multiple types of screens and devices. Rather than making all content viewable or usable on every device, use a multiple screen approach where you use each available tool for the content for which it is most appropriate.

You can teach different parts of a body of content and carry out different activities with different devices, based on which devices are best for which tasks. Truly mobile devices like smartphones and smaller tablets may be better for reinforcement and on the spot performance support or informal reference rather than for sustained study of formal content.

Large tablets might be better for sustained, formal use due to the larger screen.

Large tablets however can also be useful as a performance support tool, especially when you want the user to be able to browse documents with detailed diagrams. An example would be for maintenance workers on site.

Delivering mLearning: Web Apps vs Native Apps

There are two potential approaches to delivering applications for mLearning:

  • A native app based approach. An app is developed for whatever target platforms (Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Windows Phone Marketplace, Blackberry Marketplace, etc)
  • A web application approach using HTML, JavaScript, CSS, server side scripting, etc, with content delivered through the device web browser.

The chart on the following page breaks down some of the pros and cons of these two approaches to mobile applications:

Type of App

Web App (HTML, JS, CSS, server-side   scripting) Native App Store App
  •   As long as you keep to what is relatively standard across browsers, the course materials will work on any platform. Develop once, and it can be used   anywhere.
  •   No   need to develop a separate app and distribute through the web store. User simply logs into a website.
  •   Developers   control the updating of the web app since the app runs off their servers. User accesses updated app by visiting the site
  •   Faster/cheaper   to develop and maintain
  •   With   responsive web design, can easily adapt to the range of different screen   sizes on phones and tablets
  •   Every   user, regardless of platform, can access the materials and has essentially   the same experience.
  •  Easier to enable capability to download when you have a connection and then view later offline
  • The fact that the app runs off the local machine itself, and is able to tap into machine specific optimizations can lead to smoother, improved performance for some types of apps and content.
  • More secure for the user in general, because apps are screened at submission by central app store.
  • Have more control access to device hardware due to ability to hook into OS-specific APIs. Allows more interaction between the app and device hardware.
  •   Harder   to set it up to download content for offline viewing, but possible
  •   If   content can’t be downloaded and stored for offline viewing, it will be potentially   more data intensive to use the app. Each viewing of a case will incur data   use. This is not a concern over wifi, however.
  •   Notifications   about new content for download would have to operate separately from the web app itself. They would have to go through email
  •   Web app doesn’t have nearly as much potential access to the hardware of the phone   such as camera (usually for security reasons).
  •   Formatting won’t follow distinctive native look and feel of the specific phone’s / tablet’s OS. Will be more general. On the other hand, material will look roughly the same   on all platforms.
  •  Multiple app stores to navigate
  • Have to build multiple versions of the app to hit whatever app stores are desired.
  • Even for the same app stores, need to add development time to customize, in the case of iOS or Android, for smart phone vs. tablet use. (Since phone optimized apps look ugly with lots of wasted space when simply ported without adjustment to tablets)
  • Involves using multiple development platforms and multiple languages
  • When app is updated, depend on users to download the update. They will be notified of an update, but they have to choose to download.


Tracking Mobile Learning

One of the important aspects of an organizational learning strategy is the ability to track the learning activities and achievements of workers / learners. For traditional eLearning, this involved an LMS serving up content through a web browser. The LMS records enrolments, grades, and course completions for the purpose of certification or career development within the organization. One of the challenges, until recently, with respect to mobile learning activities is that the dominant standard, SCORM, only tracked formal courses hosted on an LMS and taken through  a web browser. Mobile apps or serious mobile games would not have been trackable.

However, the latest incarnation of SCORM, called Experience API or “Tin Can” API is better equipped to handle a more flexible variety of learning activities, formal or informal, mobile or desktop. For more information, check out my earlier post , which includes a basic overview of the Tin Can API and links to primary sources with more information on details of the standard and implemention.



This post looked at some of the capabilities of mobile devices, pointing out some of the basic strengths and weaknesses of such devices. With this as a basis, we looked at some basic principles to use for mLearning design.

These were:

  • Use touch-based design
  • Make use of other modes of interaction
  • Consider using games / gamification to make it fun and improve engagement
  • Give opportunities for communication and collaboration
  • Make use of mobile content capture capabilities
  • Make materials short, digestible, and findable
  • Be conscious of screen sizes
  • Keep connectivity and data issues in mind
  • Consider a multi-screen approach

We also looked at the pros and cons of web apps vs native platform apps for delivery of learning content.

Finally, we discussed issues related to tracking mobile learning activities and achievement using the Tin Can API.





Tin Can API Overview


One of the rising buzzwords in the world of training today is the so-called “Tin Can API.” The purpose of this post is to give a quick and dirty overview of what it’s all about in an easy to follow Q&A format. I’ve also included some links for more detailed follow-up.

What is Tin Can API?


Tin Can API is a new standard for learning activity / resource meta-data that has rolled out recently. Tin Can API comes from Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), the makers of the SCORM standard. It is the intended successor to SCORM. Officially it is known as “Experience API” (xAPI).

What is SCORM?

For those not familiar, SCORM is short for Sharable Content Object Reference Model. It is/was a set of standards specifying how eLearning content is to communicate with a system hosting the content, usually a Learning Management System (LMS). The original standard came out in 2000, and went through numerous revisions, the most recent being SCORM 2004, itself going through four revisions, the most recent in 2009.

Why was SCORM developed?

SCORM was developed by the ADL initiative, which came out of the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, originally in response to a late Clinton-era executive order to the Department of Defense. The US military has long been one of the largest global consumers of training, and, as anyone who’s spent time in an Educational Technology graduate program reading research papers in the field can attest, funds a large percentage of educational technology research.

Part of the motivation behind the push that led to SCORM is that prior to this, as of the late 1990s, there was eLearning going on, but with many incompatible standards in use amongst private industry, between different agencies of the military, and between different civilian agencies of government. The eLearning built by one vendor for one LMS would not necessarily work in the LMS for another. If a client switched vendors, legacy content became potentially unusable, requiring expensive conversion. It was perceived that standardization would play a beneficial role to the eLearning market, allowing better interoperability of content, saving money, increasing efficiency, and encouraging innovation in the market.

Today there are many different products that will produce SCORM compliant eLearning content, and this content is usable in any SCORM compliant LMS. In this sense, SCORM has been a success.

Why go beyond SCORM?

However, the latest edition of SCORM 2004 came out back in 2009. A lot has changed, technologically since then, particularly the massive spread of use of mobile technologies, the rise of focus on informal learning, the refinement of Web services technologies, and the spread of recognition that learning is something that takes place continuously and everywhere, not just when logged into a company LMS. A serious update in approach was needed to keep up with changes.

SCORM compliant eLearning is been delivered using an LMS through a web browser. But learning activities happen outside of this. In reading a book, in playing a serious game, in taking an instructor led class, in using a mobile app, in participating in a simulation, in using an informal learning tool, in real world experience. These are all valid learning experiences for which data is not readily captured by existing systems under the current standard.

The Experience API is geared toward collecting and recording details from any learning experience, wherever they happen, in one central location. In terms of basic philosophy, though not in implemetation it is similar to the idea behind Open Badges and ePortfolios.

How and Where are Experiences Recorded?

Experiences are recorded in a format of actor-verb-object. For example:

  • “Cyril read the ASTD publication ‘Informal Learning Basics'”
  • “Cyril took the online course ‘Teaching With Moodle: an Introduction'”
  • “Cyril watched a YouTube video on configuring WordPress using plugins.”

Note that while this simple actor-verb-object format is core, other properties could also be captured such as:

  • Context
  • Location
  • Starting and ending timestamps
  • Source
  • Content rating, and
  • Results .

The sequence of such recorded experiences forms what is called an Activity Stream. Activity Streams are a concept already used in social networking; familiar examples would be the activity feeds we see in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or Tumblr. They are an ongoing stream of actions done by a person on a timeline.

Activity stream data is stored in a database called a Learning Record Store (LRS). An LRS can either be included in an LMS or may be standalone. A learner’s data could be sent to multiple LRS’s. For example, a learner could have records of learning sent to his own personal LRS in addition to his employer’s LRS.

Different LRSes can also share data amongst themselves.

What is the benefit of this?

There are a few benefits:

  • The learning record data is not stuck in an LMS, and does not require an LMS.
  • You can capture data on all types of learning activities, formal and informal, online and offline, documenting the full spectrum of learning and professional development activities in which a worker / learner takes part
  • You capture a richer, more complete view of a person’s learning path
  • Workers can potentially more easily document and demonstrate their professional development, and through the use of their own LRS and future data management tools, can curate this information for use in “personal branding” and job search activities.
  • Using advanced data processing, this richer data can potentially be more effectively correlated to actual performance

Can Existing SCORM Packages Be Made Compatible With Tin Can API?

Yes. Tools such as SCORM Engine can convert existing SCORM packages into the Tin Can API format for transfer to an LRS. Legacy learning records could be converted to the new format and new data from legacy LMS content can be recorded in the new format. Many commercial LMSes and content authoring tool makers are in the process of becoming compliant with Tin Can API, and plugins have been developed for open source tools like Moodle.

Links for Further Reading

Great site by Rustici software with additional info on Tin Can API: http://tincanapi.com/

Good post by another blog: http://www.open-thoughts.com/2012/10/understanding-tin-can-api/


More technical description of Activity Streams:   https://github.com/activitystreams/activity-schema/blob/master/activity-schema.md