This is the story of one global Fortune 500 company that bravely went where few have gone before: the mobile zone. To date, MetaMedia Training International has supplied one major hotel chain with more than 900 handheld Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) devices to deliver customer service training to the employees of its most popular hotels.
Employees include front desk staff, housekeepers, and building engineers who are dedicated to earning a customer's repeat business. The compact design of the PSP truly puts the "mobile" in mobile learning as employees receive their training by walking around the hotel, often finding themselves immersed in the same environment displayed on the PSP's screen.
As you read this, there is undoubtedly a hotel employee somewhere walking through the hotel with her PSP, looking well-appointed and dutiful, with a white halo emanating from her cupped hands and the faintest sounds of recorded audio playing from her headphones.
She is being prompted by an actor playing the role of Carter Riley, the hotel's quintessential business traveler and affable training host, to stand next to the front desk and watch a customer service transaction between a guest and fellow employee. In another segment, Carter will guide her into a hotel room and try its various amenities.
Entering the mobile zone
MetaMedia started providing the hotel company with more than 200 PSP units in 2005. To date, as a testament to the level of acceptance the program has garnered, we have added new modules to the program and are rapidly approaching a milestone of fulfilling 1,000 units.
What factors led the hotel's learning department to use the PSP as its delivery platform? What instructional design considerations had to be met to create an effective training program? Given that there is now a five-year history behind this initiative, how effective has the training been? Finally, what advice would we give to training professionals who may be considering implementing their first mobile learning initiative?
The hotel chain's need to find an alternative delivery platform surfaced when its leaders asked our company to help create a nationwide customer service training program. The challenge was that the hotel building does not have dedicated training rooms equipped with computers or DVD players where employees can receive training.
While we evaluated different delivery solutions, the details behind the training emerged. The course would place a strong emphasis on the use of video to model and demonstrate ways for employees to properly handle and resolve customer complaints. Video would also be used to highlight the unique features and key differentiators of various amenities found throughout the hotel.
We made a business case for the company to consider the use of the PSP for training purposes. Previously, the PSP has been used to watch movies and play interactive games. It showed promise with such features as its large screen size, easy operation, portability, long battery life, and considerable video storage capability delivered from an interchangeable memory card. And, given its size, it could be easily stored inside a desk drawer instead of a training room.
After careful deliberation, the PSP was selected because of its superior features and price. The unit cost in 2005 was approximately $200, and today the price is lower by about $20. The per-seat cost of the training was and remains cost-effective because current staff and new hires continually take the training. At the time of the first training implementation, the iTouch, iPhone, and 3G networks had not yet hit the marketplace. Even today, with the latest advents in smart phone technology, we would be hard pressed not to use the PSP. It costs less than the iTouch and is easier (in our opinion) for a "non-techie" to access and play the videos.
Once the device was approved by the hotel chain, we set out to develop creative instructional design approaches that took advantage of the PSP's portability. We developed a student journal that directed the employee to tour various parts of the hotel while playing the PSP: "Next you will walk from the lobby to the guest suite to which you have been given the key. Take with you the suite key, this journal, and your Sony PSP when you leave the lobby. Walk from the lobby to the guest room and pay attention to what you, as a guest, would experience. Play video segment 2B." After watching various videos, employees are prompted to write down answers to questions posed in their student journals.
Once the video was shot and edited, we produced a Spanish-language version of the same program in which the graphics were translated and the audio was dubbed. Both the English and Spanish media assets were then ready to be transferred to the PSP. Transferring consists of importing the video into the PSP's operating system, which automatically generates a list of scrolling video thumbnails with module titles. All of the content is then transferred from a computer to a flash card designed to fit inside the unit's memory slot.
Although the PSP has wi-fi connectivity enabling the content to be downloaded, we learned that not all hotels had wireless connectivity. We opted to pre-load the content onto flash cards to let the employee play the training out of the box. Each unit is rigorously tested for quality assurance to verify that the videos and navigation operate properly. Each PSP is shipped with a simple job aid that explains its operation.
Five years have passed since the first delivery, and not one unit has been returned due to malfunction. Moreover, the company has sent us only a handful of email from employees who have requested help operating the device.
The PSP has additional notable features that can be useful for training. It will reliably play Adobe Flash-based programs, and its toggle button can be used like a mouse to navigate screens (however, very large file-sized Flash programs can present issues). It can store video, photos, and documents such as job aids, blueprints, and technical manuals that allow the user to zoom in and out using the toggle button.
Recent upgrades to the PSP include a slimmer, lighter unit with improved sound quality, sliding control panel, and the capability to store up to 20 hours of video using larger memory cards. It also contains a video output so the device can be hooked to a television monitor or projector.
Another important advent is the PSP's capability to access RSS feeds via its wi-fi feature, which allows for the updating of content. With the push of a button, podcast lists can be pulled from a server, and the user is delivered new and updated menus of audio by simply subscribing to a particular feed.
Originally, Sony Corporation developed the PSP as a gaming device but has since recognized it can be used to open new markets in training. As a result, a division at Sony is developing new ways to enhance its menu and branching capabilities. MetaMedia is currently working with Sony's new beta software to develop a proof-of-concept training program for a maintenance application to be used by soldiers in the field. In addition, MetaMedia is testing the PSP to interact with a learning management system to track and report if learners passed assessments and completed their training.
Mobile learning considerations
The PSP is a delivery device that is well-suited to particular training applications such as the hotel's and is an excellent mobile tool to consider when
- Your location lacks a dedicated training room, computers, or high-speed Internet access.
- You have multiple users who can share the device, making it affordable to purchase and distribute.
- Portability of the unit greatly enhances learning or performance (for example, a mechanic who holds a wrench in one hand and a PSP in another).
- You need to deliver a video-based, rich-media program that cannot be distributed via mobile phone technology given its present limitations.
Compared to the PSP, mobile phones cannot deliver a similar rich-media experience because of the following factors:
- The majority of phone manufacturers use proprietary operating systems (although open-source operating systems are gaining traction) that make it difficult to program your course one time and to successfully distribute the content across the many different phone models used in the workplace.
- Screen sizes on phones range from the size of a matchbook to that of a deck of cards, making it difficult to scale content uniformly.
- Navigation schemes on phones run from keypad to touch screen, making it difficult to design interactions that work on all phones.
- Not everyone has 3G-type networks by which to receive rich-media content.
- If the phone is not issued by the user's organization, what is the organization's obligation to reimburse the employee?
- Adobe Flash presently does not work on the iPhone, and other phones use a watered-down version of Adobe Flash.
Training and the mobile zone
Presently, these are some of the barriers that have prevented a critical mass of training professionals from adopting mobile phone technology to deliver rich-media programs. Training professionals recognize that for now, it's best to continue to deliver the more protracted and media-rich forms of distance training to the worker's computer.
For the busy professional on the go who cannot be burdened with taking lengthy training on his phone, the prevailing trend in mobile learning points to providing short bursts of text-based information for notification purposes or job-performance support. This is far less taxing on the user and his phone.
The PSP falls into a nice niche. Videos, Adobe Flash, photos, documents, illustrations, and animations can be used to develop a wide variety of electronic training. Given its portability, the PSP stands out as tool that is well suited to support hands-on learning. Overall, it is an extremely reliable and viable delivery platform that is worthy of consideration when developing training for the mobile zone.