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A Bumpy Road to Mobile Learning

Dec. 20, 2012 - 03:52PM   |  
By MICHAEL PECK   |   Comments
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No revolution is painless, not least the mobile one. Smartphone and tablet sales are outpacing those of desktop and laptop computers, the U.S. military is embracing apps and the face of humanity appears glued to tiny screens.

But just as the computer game industry has discovered that it can’t simply copy a PC game to a console and expect success, the Pentagon and its contractors will have to carefully consider mobile training’s strengths and limitations. The road to tablet utopia is a bumpy one.

“Some of the first solutions were people taking PowerPoint briefs, burning them on to PDFs, putting that on a tablet, and calling it mobile learning. I don’t call that mobile learning,” said Todd Richmond, director of advanced prototype development and transition at the Institute for Creative Technologies, an Army-funded research group at the University of Southern California.

Even when a developer claims to have created a mobile version of a desktop application, don’t be fooled, warns Richmond. Some things are intuitive on a tablet, but others aren’t.

“You can’t just click a box, spit out an executable and expect it to run on a tablet. You run into issues of user interface, because instead of a mouse and keyboard, you have a touch screen,” he said. “You do not have the graphics and CPU horsepower of even a garden-variety desktop.”

Richmond views apps as not only a technical challenge, but a design challenge that requires maximizing the capabilities of tablets and smartphones. And like everyone else, he is busy creating mobile apps. One ICT project is Dismounted Interactive Counter-IED Environment for Training, or DICE-T, a training game that runs on a PC-based server but that users can play on their Android tablets.

DICE-T, which is being funded by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, combines 2-D maps and a 3-D first-person perspective to teach users how to avoid IEDs. The scenario requires a patrol to reach a typical Afghan village.

Players first receive an intelligence briefing. Then they plot their route on a 2-D map and, using their tablet’s touch screen, tap the most vulnerable points along the route for IEDs. The game then switches to 3-D, first-person mode. As the user proceeds along the route, multiple-choice questions occasionally pop up.

“If you walk past a telephone pole” — a potential marker for command-detonated IEDs — “a popup will ask you: ‘Is this a threat?’ If the system also thinks it’s a threat, then it will bring up a multiple-choice quiz that asks why you think it’s a threat,” Richmond said. Periodic videos also appear with more information about avoiding IEDs. The game concludes with an after-action review that focuses on vulnerable points missed.

DICE-T, which runs on the Unity game engine, comes in two configurations. The first, a prototype that is at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., consists of a 45-foot Conex box with three kiosks, each of which has four stations with an Android tablet apiece, plus large TV screens to show video learning content.

The other, more mobile prototype consists of 13 tablets and a central server that are shipped in Pelican cases. Richmond describes DICE-T as a quick prep for soldiers before they proceed to a complex, immersive trainer such as Dismounted Soldier Training System. DICE-T lacks the lifelike avatars and weapons of a DSTS. On the other hand, DICE-T offers immediate, interactive learning content that the more elaborate trainers do not.

“I will never get out of a tablet the immersiveness I can get out of a head-mounted display or a multiperson network,” Richmond said. “But mobile lets you do it anywhere, anytime. You can’t do DSTS standing outside a phone booth in Mobile, Ala.”

Actually, you can’t play DICE-T while standing on a street corner, either. Users need to be in a facility or trailer. But mobile apps offer the possibility — if connectivity and network security can be assured — of distributed learning to anybody within range of a cell phone tower.

The University of Central Florida’s Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab is tackling the mobile challenge by including tablets and smartphones in the design process from the start. METIL designed a family of learning materials, from playing cards to augmented reality, with content designed to easily fit across all platforms.

It started with physical decks of flash cards for medics, with three decks available in Combat Medic, Combat Lifesaver and Improved First Aid Kit versions. The material then appeared in an online version playable on desktops, followed by a version for mobile devices, and finally by an augmented reality variant that should appear next year.

“The goal was to see if we could switch between modalities from the same exact base of content,” said METIL Director David Metcalf. “Instead of building each one and not thinking about the other, you can do each delivery method for 10 or 15 percent additional cost.”

The mobile version has information on medical procedures as well as topics such as viruses and fungi, with hyperlinks to allow drilling down for further study. The physical and virtual flash cards have medical procedure codes that not only teach medicine but double as playing cards that can be used for solitaire, rummy or any other 52-card game. Metcalf estimates the cost of the physical cards at less than $5 per deck.

Beyond the technical hurdles of designing content for tiny screens, there are other issues that hamper deployment of military apps. The most daunting is security.

“The Army has to figure out how these things are going to play on their network and fit into their ecosystem, because the last memo I saw said Android and iPhones are not allowed on any Army networks,” said Richmond.

Metcalf also sees issues such as security as holding back the development of mobile apps. “We can’t do the transition from R&D to full ops until some of these issues are solved,” he said.

Michael McCarthy, director of the Army’s smartphone program, admits that the security issue has been his biggest hassle, especially with mobiles precluded from connecting with mission command systems like Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below.

“We haven’t been able to get it done as quickly as we hoped to,” he said, but he expects the security issue to be solved soon. “We’ll get the security piece sorted sooner rather than later. It’s a matter of months or weeks.”

McCarthy believes the other issues with mobiles are solvable: “If you think about it, a smartphone is really nothing more than a really small computer with a phone attached to it.”

He notes, for example, that the challenge of tailoring content for different platforms is a routine problem in the tech world, where new versions of Windows or Adobe tools periodically hit the market. As for the issue of screen size, McCarthy said this is why the Army smartphone program includes tablets as well as smartphones. “It depends on the environment,” he said. “In a classroom environment, for example, a 10-inch tablet is absolutely the right answer. In a vehicle, it’s just OK. If you’re dismounted, it’s too big. That’s why we’re now looking at 7-inch tablets.”

If the issues with deploying smartphones elicit déjà vu, that’s because they are all too familiar. Many of the same issues, from security to designing appropriate content, were there when desktop computers were used for training and laptops after that.

“In some sense, we are where we were when laptops started to gain traction back in the mid-to late 1990s,” Richmond said.

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