Thursday, December 18, 2008

Open Source life, LMSs beyond Moodle

I've recently become a fan of Open Source Living, a site that rounds up the best of the many and varied OS apps that are out there.

I find it rather more useful day-to-day than the more far-ranging but rather bewildering SourceForge, probably because while that site seems more targeted at developers, OSLiving is a bit more selective - it seems to weed out the thousands of half finished, one-man-in-a-bedroom-every-second-Sunday-in-months-ending-with-'y' type apps that fill out any search on SourceForge. (Incidently, if like me you haven't visited SourceForge in the last few weeks it's had an overhaul, so do pop in, won't you?)

One area that naturally caught my eye was e-Learning, given an unusually prominent position as the second section under content management, after blogging, but ahead of illustrious app categories such as forums and wikis! No doubt this is due to the prominence of Moodle which appears to be breaking out in to mainstream consciousness - popular British computing weekly MicroMart is even carrying an article extolling its virtues this week.

Moodle is of course THE open source e-learning item of the moment*1. You know something is big when it even starts to be worthy of parody, but the fact of the matter is it's a success. The Open University have spent a lot of money on it, which has in turn seen more people pick it up, it is getting an enormous established user base (for something in the educational sphere its remarkable apparently*2) and its adoption in the corporate sphere is championed by no lesser luminaries of the UK scene than Kineo (2).

But OS software is really no different than other software and where one project blazes a trail, there will be others tagging along*3 and so it was with a certain amount of excitement that I found some other LMS projects:

eFront
Hailing from Greece and available in two flavours, the Enterprise edition is pitched firmly at the corporate sphere, but incurs support fees I think. From the limited screenshots it looks pretty.

Docebo
Like eFront this includes chats and wikis and allsorts of lovely web 2.0 stuff to supplement your training, and claims to support 'blended' learning. I hate that term, but if that means it helps manage classroom learning (so is a true LMS rather than an LCMS) then that's cool.

Dokeos
Interestingly OSLiving doesn't even list educational establishments as the potential userbase for this LMS. Again, looks pretty. For a better insight, and an example of great minds thinking alike*4, check out Steve Rayson's review at the Kineo website. You can even log on to their demo site. Can't begin to say how cool it is that it integrates with OO Impress in a presentation-to-SCORM content model. Brilliant, and it's even called Oogie. Marvellous.

Claroline
Unabashedly targeting the educational sphere, this proclaims to have the stamp of approval of none other than UNESCO! What other e-learning app, or of any other flavour for that matter, do you know of to get a thumbs up from the UN? In 35 languages apparently, so hardly a fly-by-night project this.

What's amazing about these (to me at least) is the level of sophistication of these apps straight out of the wrapping. The demo site of Dokeos set up by Kineo featured a chat room and even a virtual classroom. Simple they may have been, but there they were. Almost no organisation can say that they can't afford e-learning now. And what's more, the feature sets on show here eclipse any corporate LMSs I've been in contact with recently.

In the brave new world of the freelance e-learning specialist that I find myself from January, I will be exploring at least Dokeos as it seems a very interesting proposition.

*1 if moments can be said to last a couple of years or so.
*2 it would seem schools are a fractious, clueless bunch and don't often do things together, so the edu-soft market is awash with crappy two-bit offerings or large corporations selling crap.
*3 except GIMP - has anyone spotted another decent OS image editor?
Or for that matter, do you know of a simple graphics app suited to sketching diagrams? Small, quick, simple? GIMP's a bit heavy for that, you know. Answers in a comment please...
*4 I found Dokeos on Tuesday then read Steve's review on Thursday - I thought this was us both picking up on the zeitgeist early, but I may have been late to the party. Still, OS is Steve's business, so he should know quicker than most...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Moving in to the Cloud

I've been an enthusiastic convert to Cloud living since I discovered Gears, the Google extension that allows me to take web apps (Google Docs mainly) offline with me.

It creates a local database that backs up your Docs data and synchs it with the online version as soon as you connect back to the 'Net. The interface for Docs suits the way I like to think more than the now clunky, hand-me-down files and folders concept of Word and its ilk, and being able to carry it around and switch between my works PC and my two home machines without needing to copy files back and forth actually helps me a lot.

With this kind of platform neutral feature adding real strength to the 'the-browser-is-the-OS' argument, you could be sure that the boys in Seattle weren't going to let their stranglehold on the desktop/office slip away too easily.

The response is Mesh, a kind of synchronised folder for the net generation. It requires that you install Mesh on each machine and as far as I can tell, still relies on nominated 'meshed' folders, but the basic principle is the same - work on one machine and the files will be available on any others just as soon as Mesh can check back in with the mothership (ahem, connect back to the 'Net).

Since this will still, as far as I can see, perpetuate the files and folders system, I am unlikely to feel the need to opt for this in a personal capacity, but if it means flexible working without lugging the laptop for example, then I can see clear benefits.

The real star of this post is actually the 2008 Learning Trends collaborative tools mindmap, but then I like to hide the subject of my posts down here at the bottom as a special treat for those of you that read this far.

Right then, I listened to the blog and other tales

I've decided that it is time for a change. Reflecting on what has been happening this last year I have come to the conclusion that if I'm going to get to blog more often I'm going to have to make changes to how I fill my day.

So in the interests of Learning Rocks I have opted to change jobs.

Okay, so my decision to leave my current employer is not entirely about blogging, but it would be too sensible to say that it wasn't at least a tiny factor in it.

You can expect more on this channel, and more frequent updates, from now on.

In the meantime, I would really suggest you take a look at Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe (Series 2, Episode 3) on the fantastic BBC iPlayer. Brooker has pulled together some of the best TV writers in the UK - Graeme Linehan, Russell T Davis and more - to talk about writing. There is a lot to get out of this (especially if like me you are terrible procrastinating writer) about the creative process generally, some of which I think can be said of good ID. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Say goodbye to your name tag

Once again something I've been thinking about is something that Donald Clarke commits to type. This time he's calling for a change to conferences. I was musing on the same thing earlier in the month, but like the point made in my last post, I'd let it slide and not gone back. Incidently, in the time that elapsed since starting this second attempt at addressing the issue I notice that Viv Cole from Academy Internet has also added to the debate - an important voice on the matter given his involvement in organising the eLearning Network events.

The source of Donald's ire this time is the rather bland structure of the usual business conference (you know the kind of thing - seating in neat rows, predictable sandwich fillings and snacks on sticks, coffee in insulated jugs, venue stamped pens and stationary). The structure of all this, Donald notes, is nothing more than our school days writ large. As such we should not (if we're behaviourists I suppose) be surprised if this inspires the same sorts of reactions as the classroom does - like wanting to sit at the back, only listening with one ear, shuffling away as soon as time is called.

Really, with all the other changes that have taken place in society over the last few years, surely we should expect to see changes in business conferences? Well, yes we do - sign up for WoLCE now and get a free DS Lite...*

But that's not really fair. These kinds of events are under pressure to be conservative - the various bodies that have a vested interest have certain expectations: sponsors want their name treated with respect; companies paying for the attendees to be there will only want to pay for something that seems legit; the venues running the things know "what people want" and so on.

So the traditional conference structure is unlikely to be able to change, even if the participants, like me and Donald, would prefer to see something a bit different.

But, there are alternatives.

Jay Cross et al are putting together the second (I think) Corporate Learning Trends and Innovations unconference. An unconference is a self-consciously labelled attempt to draw attention to the fact that it is NOT like a conference. And by reputation last year's event, despite a title that is sooo straight it could walk in to a room full of reggae dancehall singers without fear of violence, was a great success - the participants reported a genuine sense of getting something new out of the experience and I will be there myself this year round (if I can manage it).

However, I have to say that there is nothing like actually getting together and MEETING people in the flesh to make new connections and try new ideas.

So what are the offline alternatives? Here are a couple of ideas that I rounded up recently:
  • BarCamp is a West Coast inspired get-together for codies that has expanded to take in all sorts of messages. It takes the format of a free weekend camp out (typically in the offices of a friendly sponsor) organised collaboratively via a wiki. There areBarCamps planned in Senegal, Tajikstan and more than a dozen in the pipeline in the UK alone. BarCamps also feature elements of...
  • Open Space Techology. Frankly the web evidence for OST has more than a little of "cult" about it, but the basic approach is very informal and democratic. One of its key features, and one that Donald explicitly calls forin his blog, is the two feet rule. The event should encourage people who aren't getting, or adding, anything from/to the debate to use their two feet and move on**.
  • Lightning talks, Ignite, 20/20 presentations, Pecha Kucha. These are all variations on a theme, and could really be part of any of the above. The common thread that binds these together is the idea that brevity helps when you are trying to get your message across (a point clearly forgotten by the author of this post). Pecha Kucha is phenomenon started in Japan by a couple of foreign architects who wanted to get others from their profession together to share their knowledge. Aware that given half a chance there is nothing an architect likes to do more than stand around and talk about themselves, they imposed a limit of 20 slides to accompany them, and only 20 seconds per slide; meaning that presentations can fair whistle along. If 20 seconds is too long, the Ignite format shortens it to 15...

* Seriously, the headline sponsor for WoLCE is the Daily Mail. Now, while I can understand the benefit that tawdry hate-rag gets out of associating itself with the Ski Show and such like (I'd swear they used to be behind the Ideal Home exhibition though it's EDF now), I'm stumped as to why they are involved in WoLCE. Do they run a spread on the show? I doubt it (though I'll never know unless someone else tells me).

** though in the spirit of true freedom I suspect that should you wish to hop, roll, crawl or slither away you are just as welcome.

What blogging tells you about yourself

I realise I've been blogging intermittently for more than two years now. In the time that I've been doing it I've had bursts of creativity and feeling that I've just had to get down on the page, and other periods (much of this year if I'm honest) where the mojo has been lacking and I've not felt that I've had quite so much to say, or at least that I've been prepared to say.

But looking at the post admin pages for the blog, and at the posts that I've started and not ever finished, or bothered to post, I'm conscious that, for all the wonderful effects that blogging can have on your learning, the fact that it is public and open to the scrutiny of your peers and colleagues, clients and competitors, means that there is usually a need to be circumspect in what you commit to the page.

There are posts that I've started that I've never published since they run contrary to my employer's position on the matter, or pieces that I've re-read and dropped since they could be interpreted as a critique of work by colleagues and clients (or even my own) that some people may not intpret as being helpful. There posts where I've simply not been comfortable with the way that I've articulated by point and I've left them with the intention of coming back to edit them and, well, they're still waiting. Heck, there are even comments that I would like to have made on other people's blogs that I've pulled after typing.

Is this right? Should your employer's line on something stop you from having, or exploring, contrary points of view? Should the fear that someone may have thought you knew about something stop you using your blog to reflect on it when you have something to say? Should the thought that a piece of advice you might make to another blogger as a comment may not be politically sound, even if it is unrelated to your day job? If so, does this raise questions about how you choose to blog, and make it available? If a blog is for CPD, is it right to place it in the public domain?

My discarded comments are lost in the digital dust of cached pages and autofill memories but looking through the subject matter of unpublished blog entries I can see that there are themes to some of those abandoned posts that are telling me some interesting things about me that perhaps I should look to revisit and do something about.

I guess that this fits the adage that what is not said is sometimes as important as what is said.

Questions that this whole issue raises, what does your abandoned scribbling tell you about your self?

This post with thanks to Clive Shepherd whose own exploration of what his blog means to him and to others prompted me to commit this comment to the page, and, crucially, the 'publish post' button.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sweet moments in web browsing

Following Cammy's discussion on seat time in elearning (far more interesting than this post btw) I found myself at the Brandon Hall site where Janet Clarey had taken up the same question.

While you are there, and hopefully adding your contribution to the debate, just check out the sweet tag cloud that seems to take its name quite seriously. Nice touch.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Snapshots of 21st century learning #1

My friend has just started his first teaching job as a graphic design lecturer at three different FE colleges.

The levels of the students varies from establishment to establishment, but he admits now that setting a research project as his first major piece of work with one group was perhaps a little optimistic.

Dismayed at the lack of progress that was being made he accompanied them to the library. The source of their problem was clear. Students would take books off the shelf and leaf through them at random, wondering how they were supposed to find what they were looking for beyond seredipity. My friend had to introduce the idea of the index and the contents pages as the crude, real-world precursors to the search function...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Getting perspective - the geophysical view

I've been working with a client in the financial sector lately, so I've had my focus directed at the markets perhaps even more than I might otherwise (not that we can avert our stares from the car crash).

So this is not really elearning related, but is instead a beautiful take on perspective in these interesting times - from a great blogger who is, I think, a Brit working in the financial sector in Tokyo.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Three tiny tools to help your course development

I am still doing a lot of work with development tools such as Articulate/PowerPoint, Captivate and most recently KSTutor, supplemented with standards such as GIMP and Kompozer.

In the line of this I have at various points had cause to look to add to my toolbox with some very nifty, but tiny micro apps. Here are three I am using at the moment:

GetColor SF: In essence a standalone version of the dropper tool offered by GIMP, Photoshop et al.

If you are working in PowerPoint you don't have the same luxury. GetColor offers a great way to get the hex value of any colour on the screen, and even save them for reference.

Arguably an essential addition to the PowerPoint learning designer's desktop.



Colour Contrast Analyser: Not sure if your imagery will meet accessibility requirements? This little app assesses contrast between colours. If you are working with the likes of Ufi you may know about this, but if you aren't, especially if you are doing your own SME-centred in-house development, this is a great way to get "free" accessibility.

This is a product of an Australian organisation called Vision Australia and a great example of an interest group that not only campaigns for equality but actually goes out there to make it easier for people to comply (overcoming inertia) after all - choosing colours wisely is essentially a 'free to implement' accessibility standard.


Sizer: A simple little tool that allows you to set the size of a window. With screen sizes now rapidly diversifying this allows you to choose to view at standard size, or to set your own sizes. Useful for viewing courses as your learners will see them, or for setting them prior to a capture session if you are using things like Captivate or KSTutor.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On the side of the good guys

From time to time I get a bit worried that what I'm doing isn't, well, "worthy". Each week I meet a group of guys to play Ultimate Frisbee. As a game it's a bit different and the crowd that gather are a bit different - renewable energy engineers, sustainable development advisors, livestock researchers, conservationists.

"So what do you do?" comes the question, to which I mumble "elearning designer". Once I've explained what elearning is, "You know, that stuff you get sat down at a computer when you join a new company and have to check off..." they roll their eyes, if they haven't completely glazed over.

Against the roll call of fascinating, planet saving jobs my team-mates boast, I feel like perhaps I could be doing something a bit more useful right now instead of taking the comfortable option of cosying up to big corporates for a living.

But then again - I could be doing stuff like this: The story of stuff.

The first "internet documentary" I've seen (as opposed to video documentaries broadcast via YouTube or similar FLV based sites), this short piece is a great example of high fidelity knowledge sharing online - easy to watch, well animated, easy to navigate (reminds of TED which is no bad thing). And it is, of sorts, elearning (without a concept checking quiz or list of objectives in sight).

But cool technical points aside, the documentary reminds me that elearning is on the right side - elearning helps to make a positive difference:
  • People don't travel as much if they are participating in elearning.
  • By and large we don't make huge demands on people's systems that they are forced into another cycle of consumption on their hardware - we just piggyback on a tool that is there already.
  • Training online can help cut down the consumption of additional material (have you ever seen how classroom training EATS pens, paper and flipchart stands?).
  • Heck, we might even expose people to interesting new ideas that make their jobs better and/or their lives more worthwhile (perish the thought)
Get ready for the goldrush?
I've heard a variety of outrageous claims for elearning's future - one I half recall is that elearning would "make the internet(?) look like a rounding error" in terms of value. I'm sure there have been many more over the generations of forms of technology assisted learning.

Well, people are using technology to learn in huge numbers now, just not in the way that was ever expected (think how many people start learning about something, anything, everyday just by firing up Wikipedia - but of course that's free). But as far as I can tell the claims have always been made on the strength of the idea itself, or a new technology.

I stumbled across a link just now to Monash University (does Australia even have any other universities?) which claimed the elearning market, including the higher education sector, was in 2008 worth US$100m - sorry I closed the link before I realised I'd want it for this rant). If recent developments in the price of fuel are anything to go by, this will be a figure that will rise sharply, and soon. As the price of fuel escalates it becomes ever harder to ignore the associated costs of running classroom events. With cool technology making the online classroom ever more appealing, people's remaining objections will only diminish. As learners become ever more accustomed to using the internet everyday,

While the current economic blip may delay the push to a more sustainable model of business from gathering the momentum it looked like it was building up last year, it will only be a matter of time before it will return with a vengence - just as soon as the "no environment, no economy" relationship finally sinks in.

For all the reasons above, but most importantly for economic reasons that will influence the decision of people with real influence - the accounting department, elearning could be about to come in to its own.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

When PowerPoint is wrong...

Last week I spied, tucked on a shelf following a recent office shuffle, a copy of The Cognitive style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, by Edward Tufte - a critique of Microsoft's infamous presentation app as an effective method of communication.

It had been bought by a colleague, who has since moved-on, who was a great fan of Tufte and skeptical of the use of PowerPoint as an authoring tool; though I'm not sure there was necessarily a direct causal link. Since I'm spending a lot of my time (ie most of it) elbows deep in slides, images and Articulate Presenter, it seemed an opportunity ripe for seizing.

On 1 February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia burnt up on reentry.It actually makes for pretty shocking reading. The central strand of evidence is the example set at NASA, where PowerPoint usurped all the traditional methods of inter-scientist communication and ended up being the de facto reporting tool - of one of the premier scientific organisations in the world. Tufte gives us reasons that show that it was patently absurd that this should happen - the inability of PowerPoint to accurately present scientific formulae is only the beginning, and other flaws in its suitability to the task at hand meant that it could be argued that Bill's beloved slideshow generator played a part in the chain of events that led to the 2003 space shuttle disaster.

The deeply hierarchical structure of the default layouts in PowerPoint comes in for particular criticism, the root cause of the tendency of users to bullet EVERYTHING, principally it seems, because they can. As a result of the layouts chosen and the implicit level of importance that the bulleting hierarchy imposes, argues Tufte, crucial aspects of evidence that pointed to the risks posed by a seemingly minor incident on launch were missed by those taking the decisions to proceed with re-entry. In the event, damage sustained to the heat shielding on one of the wings caused the shuttle to burn up as it tore through the atmosphere.

With this point firmly made, Tufte moves on to the information density of PowerPoint. If you've read Tufte at all (and I wholeheartedly recommend that you do if you haven't - try this or this), you'll know that he loves the elegant display of data. His books are full of slick maps of Japanese train timetables that merge the beauty of ukiyo-e with the simple brilliance of underground maps and neatly tabulated rows of data that at a glance allow the reader to compare multiple 1000s of pairs of data with nary a flicker of the eye. Tufte's point is that, with careful planning (and not a shortage of artistic flair in many cases) it is possible to fit extraordinary levels of comprehensible detail in to quite small spaces. Even straight forward words can achieve this effectively. Examples of text density he cites include comparing characters on a page (Guinness Book of Records, 4,600; NYT website, 4,100; BBC News website, 3,400; PowerPoint, 98-250) or characters per square inch (for the above, 162; 43; 36; 1-3 - though this will obviously become mere fractions once you project it on the wall).

Pravda - hardly a barrel of laughsIn another list of examples, PowerPoint rather damning comes only second to worst in amount of detail conveyed to Pravda, the old Soviet corporate adver-zine. Enough, surely, to have all but the most die-hard Microsoft fans scrabbling for the uninstall button?

Of course, Tufte is not alone in these criticisms. The "death-by-PowerPoint" meme has been around the block a number of times, and having myself witnessed meetings and training courses where the facilitator or trainer has read every word on screen, or plumbed the darkest depths of the standard Office clip-art files for the same image as I saw in the last course. Where Tufte stands out is at least he has some measured criticisms that make it easier to avoid the same mistakes - though I'll let you go to the source for these.

And so to the, "Yes, but..."?

These criticisms are entirely fair. Scientists at a major organisation like NASA should not have been encouraged to make all their reports in PowerPoint. The established method for, well, centuries, has been the written account or report. Simply because it is established doesn' mean it always has to be this way, but as Tufte forcefully argues, they are far more suited than a slideshow to the large quantities of evidence that scientific enquiry demands be provided (after all, peer-review can't happen without it).

It's surprising that even in a an organisation as august as NASA, the modern urge to boil everything down to soundbite, or elevator pitch had taken a firm grip to the point that everyone was scurrying around clutching sheaves of slide handouts. Surely with something as serious as spacecraft re-entry with a crew of talented, dedicated people on-board warrants careful consideration of all the facts - after all, for once it is rocket science.

I think that what was missed is PowerPoint is PRESENTATION software. It is designed to assist you in presenting something. It shouldn't be the thing itself. Which would appear to be the problem at NASA and is all too often the problem that other users fall prey to - the same problem that gets characterised as "death-by-PowerPoint". The presentation itself became the focus instead simply of the medium.

PowerPoint in the context of presentations is a quick, functional way to get images, graphs and key messages on a screen, to support your main message. It is not a place to write lengthy reports - it simply isn't designed to cope.

However, if you step back from the all-too-easy-to-adopt position of the "death-by-PowerPoint" crowd, and evaluate Microsoft's bete-noire as a simple, screen orientated page layout tool that even the most ardent technophobe can get familiar with, suddenly you can begin to evaluate it in a new light, and it this use that I will look at in my next piece: "...and when PowerPoint is right."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Learning how to rest

We all now that in order to be able to learn effectively, just as if we want to do anything effectively, we need to be alert, energised and ready to perform.

One sure fire way to damage learning before it starts is to not be well rested. Various studies show that paying attention to getting enough sleep can have a profound effect on school students' academic performance. Here are a couple: here's a pretty good article from NY Magazine, and here's a meta-study on university student performance.

But getting enough sleep at the usual time can be tricky: pressures of school, work and daily living can nibble away, or simply chomp, at our time in bed, leaving us tired, run-down and running at sub-optimal levels. The solution is to nap - we've known this for a while of course, but I still get mocked for downing tools, kicking my feet out and snoozing in the office.

The view from my closed eyelids, taking 5 before typing this entry.I usually find a quiet sofa to chill on, and set a quick 12 minute timer on my phone so I can take the edge off. It would seem I've been getting some of the best practices right too, according to this brilliant article on how to nap from the Boston Globe.

I am posting this here because not only is the information useful, but I like the simplicity of the article as a learning object. Nice graphics give it visual appeal, but they carry information too. The "timeline" in the middle is great because it evens outlines the nap-tactic to use for the right occasion.

Thanks to Merlin Mann at the excellent 43 folders for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Let go of old technology - out with email

For a while now I've had the funny feeling that email creates at least as much work as it facilitates.

Wondering if there were any other malcontents out there - I guessed there would be - I found this in an old blog entry from a guy called Lars Plougmann. He works at an organisation that promotes social software as far as I could tell. This rather amusing (though obviously made up) breakdown from August 2006 sums up how I feel about managing projects with email.

  • 9 people read the email
  • 8 people file the email (in their private folders, thereby duplicating effort)
  • 7 people are interrupted in their work or thoughts when the email arrives
  • 6 people will never be able to find the email again
  • 5 people didn’t actually need to know about the change
  • 4 people joining the project in the next phase wouldn't have received the email
  • 3 people will be able to find the email again, should they need to
  • 2 people will check back to the email at a later date when they need the information
  • 1 of them will understand the email in context, be able to find it at a later date and action it

Based on my own experience of taking even just a day off, and then contending with the swamped inbox full of things I, at best, may need to know, some I definitely do and a fair load I certainly don't, this seems a reasonable stab at summarising the waste.

A hint that its time may have passed lies in the "e" tag which effectively marks email out as something of a digital antique - everything is "i" or "pod" now.

Email is over 40 years old, but its growth in popularity and arrival at ubiquity really occurred in mid-90s, the heyday of desktop computing and the beginning of the wide-spread adoption of the Internet. At the time "always on" Internet access was something of a luxury. We were still paying by the minute for access, and in any case, the 56k speeds were so slow as to limit what we could achieve.

But email, able to step online, pull down these messages from anywhere, that may have been sent only seconds before, was a miracle. Working on separate, isolated desktops was the norm and email was one of the best ways to make bridges between them.

Email changed how we could communicate, work and behave, just as effectively as the postal service, the telegraph and satellite communications did before it. And, just as the post continues to play a unique part in the way we communicate, despite the fact that in many instances it is now easier, quicker and cheaper to use email, email itself will probably continue to be relevant for years to come.

But for some tasks, in particular group working on shared tasks - ie projects - email, for the reasons above, has been itself replaced by a generation of tools, mostly web-based, that allow us to work in shared spaces. They allow us to easily and very effectively keep all our communication in one place, track tasks, hold meetings, share files, collaborate on documents - the list goes on. Instead of working on isolated desktops, we can work in our own project offices, each the size of the world if needs be.

Or rather, email should have been replaced in this way. But it hasn't. Sadly, these email killers are not new - collaborative tools like Google Apps, Zoho or BaseCamp, forums and wikis - and yes, even blogs - are now established, familiar and robust. Yet there continues to be a blindness in those who should spot the problems and their solutions, so we are stuck giving our time to the inbox instead of something useful.

For me it is ironic that so many people engaged at the intersection of technology and learning should take so long to see it.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The perfect voice, the perfect podcast?

I've been given thought lately to the effectiveness of podcasting as a tool for delivering training. After discussing the issue with an expert in the field I can see how it could easily be classified under the "rapid" banner too. The expert, Peter Galante of JapanesePod101, revealed that he felt that success or failure of podcasting as an enterprise lay in one or two keys features, chief of which was an an engaging voice.

So, today's spurious-advertorial-disguised-as-science* piece on the BBC, courtesy of Post Office Telecoms, was actually fairly interesting.

The research purports to reveal the perfect voice. Researchers tested people's reactions to a variety of previously unknown voices (ie there was no bias based on previous exposure) then the voices that scored best were analysed to find out what traits they shared. It revealed the sorts of things that people found most appealing.

Issues they looked at included the tone, speed, pauses and so forth. The top voices for women included Mariella Frostrup and Dame Judi Dench; for men it was Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman. While these folk are probably out of the budget of most elearning projects, they at least give you an idea of the kind of voices you should be looking to if you want people to receive your learning most favourably.

I guess that this would come with caveats - the antithesis for these plummy tones was Jonathan Ross, but with his listening figures contributing to Radio 2's position as the most popular radio station in the UK, clearly there are plenty of people who like him. That said, he was a TV personality long before radio so it's possible he simply brings existing fans with him.

However, key issues like clarity of pronunciation, richness of voice and sensible pacing are goals that can be aimed for by all podcasters.

* usually these are marked by a commercial sponsor (check) and some nonsense equation (check). The best champion in the fight against most of this kind of rubbish is the Guardian's Ben Goodacre in his Bad Science column.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Moodled - at last

For a while now I've wondered just how good Moodle is.

On the prowl for a new project last month I decided to upgrade my package with 1&1 hosting to a compatible LAMP affair, and which gave me, for free, the option to get hold of learingrocks.co.uk which will just bring you straight back here.

This afternoon I finally managed to get my head around the tweakery that was required, courtesy of the volumes on the subject in the very useful Moodle forums, and so I have a working install of Moodle.

Next up, reading the manual to work out what to do with it...

For a reasonable assessment of Moodle and its prospects, here's Darren Sidnick of Ufi/learndirect.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Enter the Grand Learning Renewal Project

Google have announced that they are swinging behind the social revolution with Google Friend Connect, creating APIs to enable any site to incorporate features usually associated with the likes of MySpace, Bebo and Facebook. Here's the Beeb on subject.

This should mean that the task of renovating our existing learning ghettos - the soulless, dank, lonely homepages of most LMSs - should become a whole lot easier.

Places of learning should not resemble the online equivalent of the East End of London, circa 1970, or the Detroit of countless straight-to-what-was-once-video -but-is-now-more-likely-to-be- DVDs - that's to say empty places where all you will hear is the echo of your own mouse click.

No, if we want people to learn, or more importantly if we want them to want to learn we need to create hospitable places where they get the sense that there are other people around doing what they're doing. Learning.

Vive la revolution sociale!

On a more balanced note, Brent Schenkler has a great post that tries to combat the erroneous binary opposition that it's social networking OR face to face.

Image by detroitderek on flicker

Monday, March 10, 2008

At last: AICC and SCORM elucidated!

When I crossed the fence from elearning organiser to instructional designer, I half expected to be indoctrinated in to my new world, perhaps with a funny ceremony in a darkened room, or a the very least with a FAQ of top elearning bepuzzlements and an explanation of what LMSs did.

I never got my first wish, and blogging was what took care of the second, but sadly it's taken nearly two years to get the solution to the last issue. RoboNekp, or perhaps more likely, Rob on NKP, has published this comparison of the two main standards, SCORM and AICC, which finally clarifies a couple of points that I've wondered about.

If only the introduction to SCORM in the ADL documentation was as clear, or that the tiresome series I read last year in one of the print journals that laboured the idea that SCORM was internet dating for lonely hearts learning (or something) had simply never been written...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Thinking about not thinking

I'm probably a latecomer to this particular party, but I recently read Steve Krug's "Don't make me think".

If you're not familiar with this great book but you design elearning, or work with it, I really suggest that you at least spend an hour down your local Borders and flick through it (it's so well put together that you'll get most of the take-away points in that time). Krug is a web-usability expert, and since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2002, I think he probably deserves the epithet "guru".

Krug central premise is summarised in the title of his book - anything that makes your users think twice about anything other than what they are trying to achieve when entering your website is an error. For Krug, the enemies of good design lie in splash pages, deviant navigation, unnecessary words, buttons that don't look like buttons (and non-buttons that do), CEO-inspired "wow-factor" - in fact, Krug's enemies are, by and large, enemies that should be common to elearning designers.

Krug's lesson is a simple one, but one that segues neatly with the work of elearning sciencey types like Clark and Meyer. Where Krug sees a fraction of a pause and a loss of good will, Clark and Meyer would probably sees cognitive interference.

One part that really struck a chord with me is Krug's advice to try to stick to recognised navigational patterns. As a reference he unapologetically refers to Amazon's way of doing things - many of the best facets of commercial web-design are on display there - if perhaps they weren't devised for it in the first place.

I'm doing quite a lot of rapid approach content of late - mostly with tools like Articulate - and one good feature of these tools is the interactions are quite straight forward; the learner soon forgets about the interface and can concentrate on the learning. At the same time, reviewing a couple of courses I wrote a couple of years ago I can see some instances where "cool" interactions I thought up to explore content are more than likely going to cause my learners to blow a fuse, or at the very least break the flow of their learning.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What we want and what we get - the difference

I'm not sure whether you will be able to see this article from MSN, but if you can't, I'll summarise:

The author, some MSN intern, looks at a Which? study (Which? is a consumer magazine in the UK) that reveals that the majority of people would like simpler gadgets. Our author, let's call him Patrick, thinks on this and spots a very reasonable reason for the dischord between what people are after and what they get - 'feature lust'.

Okay, so Patrick doesn't put it in those terms, but he may as well have done. He draws the point that while we may want a TV that we can slump in front of, switch on and watch, we also want to plug seven different gadgets into it, fiddle with the colour settings, tweak the sound...

In short, we think we know what we want - a simple TV - but we go and buy bells and whistles.

Much like elearning.

The shopping list is usually pretty simple upfront: cheap way to train X,000 staff in Y weeks, budget £Z. And often enough this could be achieved with a little thought and sacrifice. Except that what gets added to the mix is the need for vip videos, branded graphics, pizazz, wow factor, "engaging interactions" - the list goes on. And the list rarely includes anything that will impact the learner in a positive way.

More often than not, of course, the person buying the TV will go into the store knowing what they're after but will be "persuaded" by a sales person to buy the SuperBlack screen and the 7D Immersive Audio. And likewise the elearning sales person is as much to blame for some "training" decisions that are not in the best interests of the learner.

I think that this point also crosses with Donald Clark's article on the UK eLearning press - these magazines, that land on the desk of pretty much anyone who as ever so much as hinted at the idea they might buy or sell any amount of elearning, sell a vendor-friendly view of elearning, typically hinging on the next great technology that one or more of their advertisers is looking to make a return on.

Which is a shame, for there is a lot to be said for keeping things simple.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

When the school is part of the curriculum

As a parent of a young child I'm only now really aware of how little schooling has changed since I was my son's age, a quarter of a century ago. For all the advances in society in that time, there is still the playground, the sand box, the quiet corner and so on. This is nothing surprising - the unchanging state of schooling is something that exercises other edu-bloggers fairly frequently.


In the case of my son's school, one of its strengths is also a weakness; the solid Victorian structures are packed on a very small site, hemmed in on all sides by densely packed housing and in the architecturally sensitive Clifton region of Bristol. While this size means small class numbers and no way the authorities can expand it to capitalise on the strong reputation it has, at the same time the classrooms reflect an approach to education that came into being when the docks down the hill were alive to the sounds of ships from all over the world trading their wares and the paint was still drying on Mr Brunel's fabulous suspension bridge just around the corner. That was a while ago and the city, and society, have changed somewhat.

So this excellent narrated slideshow, showcasing a unique new elementary school in Tachikawa, a city in the sprawl of the Tokyo megalopolis, is really interesting. The very fabric of the building itself is part of the children's education: there are no classrooms, only an open plan interior that extends around the playground; the playground spreads onto the roof, with a slide into the yard and rope ladders from the class areas through skylights set into it; a tap in the yard spills water out across the wooden floor so the children can watch and observe how it runs away.

Japan is a hugely traditional country. Many of its schools (like the one below, in Toba-shi, Mie-ken) were built to short order in the massive urban expansion of the post-war period, seemingly from the same handful of plans. Consequently they look identical and are easily recognised as you ride the trains. The institutional look, as the designers of the new school say, reminds you more of a prison than a place of learning.


In order to be radical the Tachikawa school had to be private to bypass the otherwise restrictive planning regulations. Unfortunately this highlights that, regardless of where you are, genuine originality and innovation in education seem available only to those who can afford it - the rest have to make do with what's always been there.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Using a natural voice

A neat summary of some key ways to express yourself in a friendly, conversational tone here on a post from Pick The Brain.

All too often, writing on behalf of an organisation seems to disengage the normal part of the brain that people usually rely on to communicate and instead adds some kind of 'quasi-formality loop'.

The article discusses the research in the book 'eLearning and the Science of Instruction' that shows that there are real learning gains to be made in addressing learners in a way that reflects conversation - in effect 'tricking' the brain in to thinking that it is part of a conversation which is an activity that we somehow rate as more valuable, hence more memorable, than simply reading.

Since we all know how to talk, ensuring that we use a more relaxed tone in addressing learners is, in effect, a free benefit. Great stuff.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Dr Ishii's Brain Training

Not really anything to do with elearning as such, but an interesting exercise in problem solving.

Have a go at this unusual little flash game, aided only by the curious bit of Japlish to start.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New year - new tongue?

Got a NYR to learn a language? It wouldn't happen to be Spanish, would it? If so, I have the thing for you.

JapanesePod 101, my favourite Learning 2.0 opportunity (even if the LMS behind it could do with some work), have now extended to other languages, Spanish and, given that they are based in Japan this is useful, English. They are offering extended free trials to anyone who has signed up to J-Pod, and to anyone they know.

In the holiday spirit of giving and exchanging
gifts, I'm going to give YOU, and ANYONE YOU
would like to INTRODUCE, a 30-DAY FREE
TRIAL of all our Premium features on both the new
SpanishPod101.com and EnglishPod101.com.
I ask for no money in return, just a subscription
through iTunes and if you have the time, a review
on iTunes of what you think (and please be nice).
Again, it is our community that makes
JapanesePod101.com such a special place to learn,
and we think SpanishPod101.com and
EnglishPod101.com will be just as special for students
of Spanish and English.

To subscribe to our podcast and post a review
simply follow the links below and click the "subscribe"
button on iTunes.

EnglishPod101.com iTunes Store
SpanishPod101.com iTunes Store

To get your 30-Day Free Trial and to test drive
all of our Premium features, simply sign up for a
7-Day Free Trial using the links below and you'll
automatically be upgraded to 30 days:

EnglishPod101.com Registration Page
SpanishPod101.com Registration Page

Please be sure to share this with anyone who you
think may be interested.
I can endorse the approach of J-Pod and if they are extending the same model to these two offerings it can only be good. Give it a go!
Oh yeah, happy new year by the way.