Friday, May 16, 2008

e-Learning in Mid Air

Singapore Airlines Airbus 380 at Sydney AirportThe new Singapore A380 airbus is equipped with a Linux computer in every economy seat, but traveling Malaysian Airlines, I had to bring an ASUS EEE PC. Even so I noticed that the entertainment in the Boeing 747 economy seat came with e-Learning, along with interactive games.

The interactive system did not make a good start. The system crashed with a segmentation fault and I had to wait a minute while it rebooted itself. This was useful in that the diagnostics showed the screen was at 640 x 480 pixels. Newer systems such as the airbus have a higher resolution, but even with the maximum practical screen of about 9 inches, there is only so much that can be displayed.

This is the second time within a few weeks that I have seen a problem with an airline entertainment system. The previous was on a QANTAS 747 to Perth which had to be rebooted. It is a little disconcerting to see the aircraft rebooting Microsoft Windows 3.0 in mid-flight, but then that is not running the flight controls. The report of a software failure which could have brought down a Boeing 777 flight out of Perth was released recently.

But back to e-learning; the system offers: Travel guide, Berlitz languages, b-Wise (business topics) and Soundview executive book summaries. The display showed an email address at and so presumably is from Panasonic Avionics.

The travel guide is a little out of date, having been last updated in December 2005. There are a few seconds delay after selecting a city guide, while the next module is loaded. Modules were offered for Asia, Europe, America and the Pacific. The interface makes good use of the limited screen size with simple graphics and menus operated by the hand controller's games buttons (up down, left right, select). Selecting the city guide for KL, I was disappointed to be confronted with a frozen menu bar as the system crashed again:
“galib: Signal 11: Segmentation fault received. ... System is going down NOW !! Sending SIGKILL to all processes. System is halted. Press Reset or turn off power.”
But then this was an old aircraft. Some of the panels in the toilet are, quite literally, held together with adhesive tape (Polyken 290FR aircraft cargo compartment tape to be precise). No doubt newer aircraft have newer entertainment systems.

While the system was rebooting (again), a little about how the EEE PC goes on an aircraft. What makes the EEE PC difficult to use on a desktop: the small screen and keyboard, is very useful in an economy class seat. The notebook sits firmly on the tray table (some larger notebooks tend to tip over). There is plenty of space around the computer for coffee, seat controllers and the like. The keyboard is less difficult than on a desk and the tiny touch pad is easier to use than a large one.

The language package for the in flight entertainment system is from DTI Software . This offers a large range of languages to learn in and from. However, the disappointment is that this is not multimedia: the system shows you images and words, but there was no audio pronouncing the words and so making it of limited value.

One interesting aspect is that the language package uses the controller in landscape (games) mode, whereas the travel guide uses it in portrait (telephone) mode, thus the up-down/left-right keys are rotated 90 degrees, which is confusing.

b-Wise was also also developed by DTI Software . This was the most disappointing of the e-learning packages. It provides a few paragraphs of text per screen, with some maps and photos. However, the screen resolution is so low that the text is all but unreadable. The resolution of the text generator does not appear to match that of the screen, the anti-aliasing is not set correctly, or perhaps this is a JPEG image, complete with text, but for whatever reason it is not usable.

Soundview executive book topics provides very abridged versions of business books. These have such titles as “Putting the Moose on the Table”, “Leadership Lessons from Lewis and Clark's Daring Westward Expedition” and “The Wisdom of Crowds” (TWOC). I selected TWOC and found it consisted of 50 pages (screen fulls) of text, plus 23 minutes and 40 seconds of spoken book. As with the business guides, the screen text is not really readable, but the audio worked well. The screen text is more abridged that the audio, but is useful reinforcement, however, the screens do not automatically update to keep up with the audio, the pages have to be changed manually.

The audio has a tinny quality, as if it has been decompressed and re-compressed several times, but is adequate. The controls for the sound are limited to pausing, there is no fast forward, rewind, or chapter skip. Overall Soundview is the most useful of the e-Learning units. The simplistic nature of business books particularly suits this summarising and presentation style. Books such as TWOC present a few simple ideas which can be summarised in a few pages; the books tend to repeat examples of these few simple points to reinforce the lesson (almost to the point of being indoctrination, rather than education). However, there was not test, or review at the end, so this is not really e-Learning anyway.

Also it is a little worrying that if it books such as TWOC are what the average business person can cope with, then then more sophisticated techniques for online business now being developed may be beyond most people in business to understand. ICT professionals, myself included, may be vastly overestimating the ability of business to absorb new online developments. One problem might be testing these ideas on university students, who are not be representative of the average business person. My ANU students in particular are far above the average. I had to get that plug for the ANU in, as they paid for the EEE PC. ;-)

But while criticizing the features of the in-flight system, it is worth keeping in mind how remarkable it is to have such systems while traveling over the South Australian desert at 756 kph (courtesy of iXplor moving map system a .On a previous trip aboard a RAAF C130 transport aircraft, things were a little more primitive. When I asked the navigator on the flight deck where we were, he gave me the longitude and latitude.

ps: After the flight,
Malaysia Airlines sent some details of their systems:
The following is what we gathered from our Inflight Services Dept. Further information can be found on our corporate website at

We update our movies title monthly .

B747/777: 3000i system which gives the passengers audio/video on demand (AVOD). More than 300 hours of inflight entertainment, including 50+movies, over 100 tv shows, 70 games, and 200 CD albums.

A330-200: Inseat Video System for Business and Economy Class. More than 3 movies and 10 TV programs are available.

A330-300: Overhead video system for Economy Class. For Business Class, it is the portable media player that carries 100 hours of on-demand movies, tv shows, and 10 games.

Portable Media Player : PMP available on A330- Business Class only with 10 latest Hollywood movies playtime for 02 months. ...

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