Online learning unplugged
- By Michelle Speir
- Dec 02, 2001
Online learning systems have revolutionized the way people can take classes. Students now save time and money by taking courses via learning management systems (LMS), which eliminate the need to travel to a classroom. They also allow students to progress at their own pace and take courses at convenient times.
However, most online learning systems require a live Internet connection, which limits their scope and eats bandwidth. Traveling employees have no Internet access on airplanes, and hotels charge high connection fees. Soldiers in the field and in foreign countries have the same problems. In Europe, for example, users must secure and pay for connection time. And soldiers often work in locations far from Internet connections of any kind.
But now a new technology from Latitude360, a division of RWD Technologies, promises to change all that. It's called 360Sync, and it allows users to take courses off-line. With 360Sync, the off-line version of a course contains the full content, including multimedia and testing. In fact, it is impossible to tell the difference between a live, online course and a downloaded version.
The advantages of such a system are obvious. A business traveler can download courses before a trip and have the content available anytime, anywhere. Soldiers in the field can continue their e-learning programs no matter what their location. And office workers can save bandwidth by working off-line. Then, the next time an Internet connection is available, a click of the mouse synchronizes the system, updating test scores and course completion information.
360Sync can integrate with any LMS, so agencies and companies can keep the look and feel of their courses both online and off-line. For organizations that do not already have an LMS in place, Latitude360 offers its own, called University360.
An easy way to understand 360Sync is to think of it as the "plumbing" behind off-line e-learning. It's not an out-of-the box product; instead, Latitude360 builds a customized solution and integrates it with an organization's existing LMS. The only difference users see is the ability to download courses and a synchronization button.
Incidentally, 360Sync can be set up to automatically synchronize whenever an Internet connection is available, but the company usually recommends installing a manual sync button so users can control the process when a connection is slow and automatic synchronization could bog down the system.
360Sync is completely Java-based and uses an http-based transport protocol. While off-line, it can track learner progress such as courses taken, completion status, test scores and bookmarks.
Installation requires a server/client architecture. When Latitude360 finishes customizing the solution, the company deploys it to a customer-designated server and tests the system.
For customers worried about the resources needed to run a course off-line, have no fear: 360Sync runs on any Microsoft Corp. Windows-compatible PC with at least 10M of free disk space and 24M of memory. It is compatible with Pocket PC and Windows 95/98, 2000, NT 4.0, Me and XP.
To get a feel for 360Sync, we explored the system through two learning management systems. The first was Element K LLC (www.elementk. com), one of Latitude360's first customers, and the second was University360, the company's own LMS.
Each site has a different look and feel, but in each case the off-line course content matched the online version perfectly. In fact, the University360 course uses a dif.ferent color off-line so users can tell at a glance whether they're connected or not.
Downloading courses was simple. Element K uses a "shopping cart" approach, similar to that used by online retailers, while University360 uses check boxes. Of course, this process can be customized to a customer's specifications.
According to Latitude360, a typical customer installation takes approximately 30 to 40 days. The cost is $40 per user, including maintenance and support. Volume discounts are available.
We recommend 360Sync to agencies whose employees would benefit from the ability to take e-learning courses off-line. This includes travelers, soldiers and office workers who would save network bandwidth by working off-line. The system could have enormous implications for the LMS industry.