Are you eager to start creating some mLearning content but feel like you don’t have the right skills, tools or technology? Interested in developing an mLearning application but not ready to learn Objective C, hire a developer or invest in a full blown mobile solution? No problem.
In this article I’ll show you how to get started creating mLearning for the iPhone or the iPod Touch. I’ll show you some very simple techniques, using common file formats and free (or nearly free) tools. Using these simple tools and techniques you will be able to create some impressive mLearning content within a few hours. What’s more, you’ll begin to discover some of the design skills that are needed to design effectively for the small screen.
The iPhone has built-in document viewers for doc, docx, htm, html, PDF, txt, xls, and xlsx documents. It can also view gif, jpg and png graphic files and mpeg4 video files.
One of the easiest ways to develop and deliver content is to use one of these formats. Most people are familiar with the tools that create these formats and so designing mLearning content for the iPhone is simply a matter of applying your existing content development skills on a smaller canvas. In this article, I’ll address developing content in:
- Word (doc and docx)
- PowerPoint (ppt and pptx)
- Portable document format (PDF)
- Hypertext markup language (htm and html)
- MPEG 4 video (mp4/m4v)
Word, PowerPoint and PDF work well for simple static content. If you need more sophisticated navigation and interactivity, use HTML. For animation and narration, use mp4 video.
One of the first things to consider is how to best utilize the available screen space. When you are faced with the tiny screen of a mobile device, you need to rethink your design approach. You must pare your content down to the very essentials and make each word and graphic count. You need to use every millimeter of your canvas to good effect. One of the advantages of designing mLearning is that it forces us to express the most with the least; it compels us to design concise, elegant content and remove the superfluous.
If your content is primarily textual then you may only have space for about 100 words. With a graphic in addition to the text you may have half that. With such limitations you need to choose words and design graphics carefully. Reusing text and graphics from a traditional e-Learning module is not going to work. Design your content from the outset for the small screen. This is one of the reasons why narrated content is well suited to mobile learning because you are less restricted by screen size to deliver information. We will talk about narrated content later in this article.
Refrain from forcing the learner to zoom in to read text (whether it is content or labels on a graphic). Your default text size should be easily readable. (See Figures 1 and 2.) Whenever possible use the whole screen or a large portion of the screen for graphics, particularly labeled graphics. This is often the source of trouble when content developers attempt to reuse existing e-Learning content for mobile. See the section “Porting content” for more guidelines on converting traditional e-Learning to mLearning.
Figure 1: Text and graphics too small
Figure 2: Graphic adjusted for small screen
Aspect ratio and template
The aspect ratio is the ratio of the longer dimension to the shorter dimension of a shape. When you view any content on a desktop or laptop the aspect ratio of a page or screen of content is not too important because whichever way you view it on the screen it will be easily readable. You don’t need to develop your content to have the exact same aspect ratio as your monitor. When developing content for the iPhone, it’s important to have your content aspect ratio match as close as possible that of the iPhone screen. Smaller would be wasteful and larger would obscure content.
The iPhone screen is 9 cm (3.5 in) across. The pixel size is 480 x 320 which gives it an aspect ratio of 3:2. If you want to take advantage of this whole screen then you need to create content sizes of this ratio when using PowerPoint, Word, mp4 video or any other format. When using PowerPoint or Word a page size of 11” x 7.3” will provide this aspect ratio and will ensure that when the content is viewed on the iPhone it fits snugly to the whole screen. (See Figures 3 and 4.)
Figure 3: PowerPoint aspect ratio results in cropping content
Figure 4: Content with correct iPhone aspect ratio
Don’t create mobile content in Word or PowerPoint using the default templates and font sizes. Create a specific template for the iPhone,based on the 11”x 7.3” page size. Use a font size no smaller than 26 point to ensure readability.
Creating the content
Determine the purpose and context of your content. Is it a quick reference, a short learning module, or support material for an instructor-led workshop? Keep in mind that mobile content is typically digested in short time frames – at a bus stop, on the train, in the coffee shop, in line at the grocery. Chunking content needs to be more rigorous for the mobile device. If traditional e-Learning involved 30-60 minute modules, mLearning content is best delivered in 5-10 minute chunks for learning modules and usually no more than 5-6 pages of reference materials (I am making these numbers up but they sound about right).
Using PowerPoint and Word
You can develop content in Word or PowerPoint but you will find that the viewers do not always render the content accurately. In the case of Word, line spacing, font size and font type rarely view correctly and in PowerPoint some more complex graphics and images get completely lost. By converting your Word and PowerPoint files to PDF format you can overcome these limitations and have the added advantage of a much smaller file size. PDF also gives you more responsive navigation and zooming. (Download the free Microsoft “Save as PDF” add-in for Microsoft Office 2007 if you don’t have a good PDF converter. This provides a high quality conversion.)
If you want continuously scrolling pages on the iPhone, create and deliver the content in Word format. (See Figure 5.) If you want individual screens or pages use Word or PowerPoint converted to PDF. I recommend creating content in PowerPoint because it’s easier to set up a simple template and manipulate graphics.
Figure 5: Continuous scrolling content in Word
Here’s how you create content in PowerPoint or Word.
- Create an iPhone template for your page or slide. (Have any default font be about 26pt or larger if you are using the recommended 11”x 7.3” page size.)
- If you are using Word reduce the margins so that text and graphics are closer to the edges of the screen.
- Develop your learning content on the PowerPoint slides or Word pages.
- Convert your content to PDF format. (Or leave it in Word format if you want continuously scrolling text without page breaks.)
- Distribute the PDF (or .doc file) to your learners.