Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My 10 Ten Tools for Learning

I've been giving this some consideration lately as I've found myself populating and repopulating a couple of machines at home and work with all that I require to keep me happy. So, here they are:

1. Google Search
(Personal) Despite the never ending torrent of brilliantly useful stuff that the Big G churns out, it still is barely necessary to append "search" to their name to be clear what you mean when you say Google is a vital tool. It's not just the basic search, but all the other options like calling up definitions, or doing maths, or conversions, or that when all else fails, most of the time the relevant entry for Wikipedia is there on the first page...

I have Google on almost permanent standby, especially so now (see 10).

2. Microsoft PowerPoint
(Creating) The much maligned app is probably where I do most of my design work, either for scripts, demos or indeed, using Articulate, developing finished products. I also use it for cobbling together graphics in a hurry (2007's much improved graphical power doing much of the heavy lifting that I don't have time to learn in GIMP).

I'm also a fan of it's capabilities for laying out eBooks for publishing to PDF. Most of the time people read eBooks on PC screens, mostly on screens in portrait format, and PowerPoint is set up to do this well. Because of the ease of adding and handling hyperlinks it trumps Word for such activities.

Occasionally I also use it for {gasp} knocking together presentations though, ironically, I think it rather sucks at that.

3. iGoogle
(Personal) This is my blog reader of choice. I prefer the way this organises content compared to Google Reader (apparently there are other readers, but they aren't made by Google). There is so much good stuff written on the blogs that I can't possibly keep abreast of it all - lordy, it's a day a week simply to keep up with Scoble and Tim O'Reilly's spottings alone. iGoogle gives me a manageable selection of my favourites.

4. Twitter
(Personal) I'll admit I was a late early adopter. I at first went through the same denial that the rest of the population of the UK (outside of edu-nerds as far as I can tell) is still going through. Then, around the end of last year I 'Got It'. Truly a great resource, if it is used well (ie not for mixed pro/personal purposes). My client of choice is Echofon, nee Twitterfox, simply because for all the fact that the alternatives seem all to be written in Silverlight or Air, they don't seem to add a great deal of actual factual functionality over this tiny plug-in for the 'Fox.

5. Audacity
(Creating) Easy to use. Great results. Nothing more to say.

I have a Samson CO1u USB microphone. Bloody marvellous bit of kit which I can't recommend highly enough. Since it is USB it bypasses any sub-standard laptop audio circuitry so giving you a great portable studio, even on a netbook.

6. Jing
(Creating) I've done some horrendous jobs where I have been tasked to sit down and shoot, then edit, hundreds of screens of system sim, in Captivate and Camtasia, and other far less handy tools. Personally, I've only been subjected to the same as a learning experience a couple of times and it wasn't pleasant. When I want to learn something generic, instead I look at the thousands of walk-throughs available on YouTube or their professional equivalents at Lynda.com and get just what I need, when I need it. Jing makes it easy to create these for what you need and, more importantly, gets them online in moments. It is the best IT support tool I have found to help me as the "IT guy" supporting learners on a two year online programme we run.

7. Wordpress
(Personal/Creating) I love Wordpress. If it weren't for the fact that what few blogrolls I've made are pointing here to Blogger, I'd jump ship in an instant. It is a GREAT CMS. I use it for my own website, a couple of other blogs that I update even more infrequently than this one, and our still fairly new 'official' workplace blog (actually only there to create links in to our website to improve the Google rating as WP works so well with search engines too, but I still try to make it informative and fun). It is the yardstick for power, control and usability by which all other CMSs should be measured (are you listening LMSs developers?)

Blogs are obviously great ways to consolidate personal learning, but as it is such a great CMS I think that it lends itself exceptionally well to broadcasting content of a non-blog nature, or with multiple authors, as the centrepiece of an informal learning network.

8. Anki
(Personal) Most of my own personal learning is done in aid of expanding my grasp of Japanese, the other tongue in my multi-lingual household (there are only 2, but I avoid using bi-lingual lest anyone should think I can do much more than order a beer or congratulate the chef). To that end, Anki, a spaced repetition app is a vital part of my toolkit. It draws on the work of Ebbinghaus, as interpreted by the guys behind Memosyne, the granddaddy SRS tool, but puts it in to a great looking package that just works really well.

9. 5-clicks
(Creating) There are lots of little apps that I use for special specific tasks when developing, mostly around colour and screengrabs. A great guy I worked with, Rory Peterson, put me on to this extraordinarily simple tool which I'm loving right now, which takes only, surprise surprise, 5 clicks to complete taking a screen grab. Then you have a great shot ready for GIMP to do its magic.

10. Android
(Personal) I just got a new phone, an HTC Magic, which is a smartphone powered by the Android operating system. Or, an easier way to say it is, "I gotta Googlephone". This amazing beast rolls together several of the items above in to one extremely portable package. I'm really excited by the opportunities that this tech embodies. I sleep with it. I stroke its screen at night. I whisper sweet nothings into its mouthpiece as it lies in standby. Delightful.

Some omissions:
Articulate - I use it a lot, but it is so odd in the way some of the tools behave, and the default output interface so horrible, that I can't include it here. I suspect it'll do really well as most users are fanboys rather than objective users.
Moodle - Again, I spend much of my time using this, and now that I am finally using it to run a higher level educational course, it starts to make sense. But again, the user experience is so awful that I cannot bring myself to say that I like it particularly.
Firefox - It's a browser. A great, extensible cuddly browser, but a browser nonetheless. It's slow, a resource hog and really is only there to open the web to me. Chrome does that too. And neither of them is IE. However, much as I like it, picking it would be like saying that I rate "paper" as a tool for learning, or water as a medium for boating in.
XAMPP - I'd love to include this actually - it's a web server that takes about 15 minutes to set up - 10 if you exclude the download time. It's the digital equivalent of a training ground as you can set up all sorts of fun things in it, like your own version of every FOSS LMS you care to mention, all at the same time, or a CMS or wiki, and bugger around until you break it, without fear of annoying anyone or having to pay a web host for the privilege.
SurveyMonkey - great way of doing research, getting feedback, surveying needs, finding out what everyone wants at the pub on friday so you can preorder. Just not using it quite enough to think of it until now. Maybe one for my list in 2010...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Flash - when and where?

The cleverest part of this site's page is that it embeds an Articulate interaction directly on the page. Not thought of that before, but I can think of instances when that may be quite appealing.

However, I'm struggling to see why you would want to do this. Sure, it moves nicely enough and has pretty colours, and it 'chunks' thing up a bit. However, taking the content out of the HTML around it and embedding it in Flash means placing on it a couple of constraints:
  • you can't resize the text
  • you need to use a scroll bar to see all the text for a single entry
  • the learner can't cut and paste the content for their own use easily
This seems like an imposition of a gratuitous interaction where the learner's 'reward' for interacting with it is simply to batter them with more text. Perhaps if the entries were thinned out and had audio (beyond the irritating mouseover click sounds) appended I could see a point.

Surely this kind of thing would instead make more sense just being flat on the wiki page, or am I being unreasonable? Missing a crucial learning element that it brings?

These kinds of things are the missing part of my non-education in ID...

Monday, July 06, 2009

Virtual Respectability

The global recession has given air travel a good seeing to, and in this time of greater fiscal prudence at hitherto carefree organisations, web conferencing is showing that it is coming of age.

And it's easy to see why. At the bottom end of the market there are now a suffusion of free tools offering the kind of functionality that only a year or two ago commanded serious fees. For us as elearning bods this offers a great new way to help people interact and share ideas, as the crew of Onlignment have recognised.

At the top end of the market the technology is getting so good that the effect is truly remarkable.

So it is no surprise to see that TED, an organisation that is all about staying ahead of the curve, is now giving virtual presence the full stamp of respectability. For the first time, those that fancy it can attend TED online, with "a virtual front-row seat at the conference via a private, live web stream". This means you get to see all the bits cut out of the TEDtalks, like the introductions by Chris Anderson, the tech guys setting up the laptop/hacked Wii/brain-in-a-jar, Seth Godin getting up halfway through a talk to go use the toilet* and so on.

While this might seem the solution to the scarcity of tickets (as I'm given to understand it, $2000 a pop, by invitation only, or at least a compelling reason as to why you should get in), before you go reaching for your credit card, even this 2D rendering of the TED experience will cost you $995, without the chance to head to the bar afterwards to chat up Qi Zhang, spill your pint on Bill Gates** or ask Phillip Zimbardo if the SPE wasn't actually a hoax***.

If they are asking that much for the experience then they know that they can - web conferencing becomes aspirational. Cool.

I mean WTF? Would you take a guy seriously in Dennis Taylor shades?!
* Seth Godin has never done this at TED and is very well mannered - he won't even walk out of a Michael Bay movie early out of respect for other ticket purchasing members of the public.
** Not that I would suggest that you do this on purpose. He's just quite unassuming and it would be easy to inadvertently bump into him as you struggle to get away from Al Gore doing an impromptu rendition of The Inconvenient Truth on a Samsung Pico mobile phone projector next to the fag machine, egged on by Susan Greenfield and Robert Scoble.
*** I mean, doesn't it sound just a little too amazing? In six days you recreate Nazi Germany in a Californian basement, just because of a couple of a few uniforms?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Free, now with added capitalisation

I've just trawled through the working and reworking of ideas spawned by Chris Anderson's book Free. It got a big response from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin and on it went. I lost quite a bit of time in there.

The basic premise is that with the cost of production asymptotically approaching zero, you can more or less round it out to nothing. If it costs nothing to make, then you give it away Free. There are various broadsides levelled at the likes of publishers for daring to complain that people might reasonably be expected to pay for reading news or what have you, but there are counterclaims that Free TV is struggling (has anyone called an ambulance for ITV?) while paid for TV (cable/satellite) continues to do well.

While it is implied that Free can apply anywhere, I'm not so sure. In the case of mobile phones it is inverted, moderately priced phones are free when you pay for the facility to distribute or access content (voice, SMS or data). Similar models apply to broadband, and, increasingly, laptops, and it has even been suggested that such a model may apply to transport in the future, with the car being covered as part of a flat rate paid for the fuel.*

Of course, none of these are actually free - this model is a disguised form of credit with the cost of the hardware being spread over the lifetime of the subscription. But what's important, according to the commentary, is that the notion of Free is enough to change how people think.

However, content, it would seem, is where free really works. The discussions played out above centre on music, video, news and books.

I'm not sure how you might attach the same model to something like Adobe.
Pay $30 a month for our starter package with up to 10 layers per image and that will let you save out 75 raster file images that month. For $100 dollars a month get an additional 60 filters and get unlimited raster saves and layers.
Oh christ, I hope nobody at Adobe sees that.

The fact is, for leading edge apps, the monied option is the only way to go. Gimp is great for what I need, but it's not quite Photoshop. OO3 is a dog when placed next to Office 2007 (heck, for fun compare a rapid solution put together in Ppt 07 to one in OO Impress). Even Audacity, where the quality of output is indistinguishable from paid for alternatives, is still not the tool of choice with pros.

Sure, it costs bugger all to copy the files, but just as with Big Pharma, the cost of development of genuinely new products is so high that it can't be ignored.

At the same time, our industry is in the thrall of FOSS software - the most obvious of which is Moodle. This fairly mediocre application gets a lot of attention because of the Free label, but it's not without a great number of problems that are mainly attributable to the development model**. Cammy's tipping point post provoked some interesting replies, but for me the most telling query was Cammy's wondering about an OS authoring tool - there was one, eXe, and it was even made for Moodle, but it sucked and I think it may have died off now.****

My point, lost somewhere in my rambling, is that free content seems to be the bit that works. Yet I have not seen free elearning content.

Imagine, if you will, yet another piece of Brussels derived equality/compliance legislation washing up on the banks of the Thames outside Parliament. Six months later HR departments up and down the country are all of a panic about how to get their people "trained" on this. The usual model is for the ravening packs of the development companies to go to each individual company and create "custom" solutions. Perhaps the more forward local authorities will share this via Learning Pool (I think that's them) but not all will. A lot of wasted effort and money.

But what if an enterprising equality company was to simply give away the training in a packaged, generic course, or as a set of 'rapidready' ppt slides***.
  • Perhaps this could work fine for organisations that like that sort of thing
  • perhaps this would mean a lot of business for the company to tart it up and brand the content
  • Perhaps simply seeing the name on this would generate business later on
I see so much of the commercial elearning community discussing Free as it applies to us using other people's free tools, but isn't it about time that Free came in here too and started to disrupt things for us?

* God, I don't know where. This is the Internet, have a look for it. It's some smart bloke who made a fortune out of an Internet company and decided to put his money somewhere interesting. Israel may feature in this story and I know the BBC ran a story about it.

** Actually there is a really good discussion going on in the Moodle forums right now about usability and its absence in OS products.

*** an idea of a company which I cannot bear to name, for fear of seeming like a kiss ass, but whose new chief evangelist is more than welcome to claim credit for.

**** Actually, I'm not sure that this would even be possible since there are so many takes on what an authoring tool might look like the development community would probably tear itself apart, or produce a tool so diffuse it would be no things to no men (or women). [Actually the best bet for a clear project would be to work on building in Articulate/Adobe/PointeCast Presenter type facilities directly in to OO Impress - but perhaps there's another post in that idea]


***** There are very few people who will actually notice that there is no five-star comment in the body of the text. This is here simply to apologise to you for having taken up your time and to ask you to spare a moment more by adding a comment about which you think would be more awkward, a broken leg or a broken arm - let's say it's your writing hand - Your contribution on this would be really confusing to anyone who hasn't read this footnote...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What passes for work

I've just abandoned a post in which I wondered if it was time to ditch the 'e' in elearning. I was prompted to think about this as it is the question I have submitted to present to Eliot Masie when he speaks to an e-Learning Network seminar this week.

When you've got a term that encompasses Articulate authored text 'n next packages to online synchronous webinars to emmersive multi-player simulation environments to videoed lectures on YouTube to Ning social networks, it strikes me that you are working with a term that has lost any specificity and thus any real meaning.

I have been thinking about this as I have been trying to get back round to blogging a little more often after getting distracted by Twitter (@danroddy if you fancy it) but I'm struggling as a) I'm fairly busy and b) not sure what to write about at the moment as I am all over the shop. Tasks include:
  • developing and managing a new Moodle VLE for attendees of our ILT courses (codey stuff, admin and process mapping)
  • supporting and improving the learning experience of students on our foundation degree (nominally for elearning, but right now fundamental stuff like spelling, format and comprensibility)
  • creating a series of short learning objects for guided learning hours for our NVQ candidates (actual elearning in the sense I am accustomed to)
  • introducing and championing online working enviroments, Sharepoint and Basecamp
  • creating quick video how-tos for any of the above
  • recording and editing podcasts
  • creating videos for use in on-site training courses where access to units is limited
  • creating feedback systems (for trainers, not happy sheets for students) for the ILT events
  • bit of ppt coaching

And all this comes about as a result of my 'elearning' experience.

So there you have it - no real point to this post except to try and catalogue the diversity I face really more for my benefit than anything else. Sorry.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why I do what I do

Learning rocks.

Let me say that again.

Learning new things rocks. It's a buzz. Learning gives me a thrill. When I learn something new I feel good.

It doesn't matter if that is an immediate and interesting fact that won't materially change my life*, or the slow dawning that things I have read weeks or months ago are coming together in my head to be synthesized in to a powerful new understanding that I know will make my personal or professional lives easier, more productive or just plain better.

I suspect, or at least hope, that you also know this, as learning is a fundamental part of our lives, for I suspect that you, like me, are in the learning trade. Sadly, being a part of the trade does not in itself confirm an interest in learning*2, or mean that someone even shares the buzz that I feel - but I suspect that in your case it does. Why am I so presumptious? Well, you have gone out of your way to read something on an esoteric topic by a writer of no repute because something I have said at some point has resonated with you, or someone you trust, and as a result I have ended up on a blogroll or feedreader somewhere. You're not likely to be here by chance.

If we are lucky our jobs provide us with the reason, means and opportunity to learn. If we are less so, then perhaps it may offer one or two of those things. If we are blessed then we work for people who not only allow us the freedom to learn, but who are also actively a part of the process by which we develop and grow.

If someone is truly unlucky then they do not share our interest in, or enjoyment of, learning. For whatever reason those people have been turned away from learning, more than likely due to fear through association with things that have not been pleasant, helpful or explicitly worthwhile. Sadly then, the remarkable faculties that all humans are born with (to a lesser or greater extent) turn to other perhaps less positive activities, and potential withers or is subverted.

Because I love learning, and because circumstance (but not, I suspect, chance) has led me to a job where my love is my work, I see myself as a champion of learning - a learning evangelist as we might put it these days. Someone who has to go out there and make the case for learning. In doing so I have to recognise the limits of my influence and work within them to make sure that opportunities and reasons for learning and improvement are created and/or taken. I want to nuture 'the buzz' and create the circcumstances for more people to feel the way that I do about learning.

As with many things, giving learning at least as good as receiving it.

My tools are irrelevant - classrooms or online, studybooks or presentations. My power comes from study and understanding of how we learn and understand: learning begets learning. Buzz leads to buzz. Am I a learning pusher? I might be.

So, what is it that motivates you? Is it the buzz? If not, what brought you to the trade?*3

* The 'l' at the end of the name of my wonderful hometown, Bristol, is there because of the infamous local accent - it added that, and took away a 'g' from the old name 'Brigstowe'. I love that fact.

*2 It's my experience that there are a great many people for whom the learning trade, more likely 'training business', is a) profit making b) easy c) comfortable d) about power e) is 'creative' (even if it's not quite what they really wanted to do - ie broadcast media) f) just something to do. Yes, there is no reason why it can't also be some of these things, but let's not forget the primary motive, eh?

*3 Trade not profession? Far too full of cowboys, quacks and hacks. Myself included. You're excluded from that description mind you - you're undoubtedly a professional of great integrity.

This post was born out of discussions with my wife, observation of my son's development, numerous blog posts by many writers, especially a couple by Dave Pollard and particularly one by Donald Clark recommending TV show 'The Wire', feedback from some student clients recently, occasional discussions on and offline, satisfaction born of seeing postulated thoughts being confirmed, and so on. It started out in my head as something quite concrete and got a bit fanciful. It might read badly, but hey, this is my reflective learning space and I'll reflect how I want to - sorry. Now, I have to grab the shopping bags and get down 'Asdawl', as the locals say.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Internal Communications Manager - "trainer" for the informal learning era?

In my last internal L&D role, now some three years ago, I came to the conclusion that development of staff, in organisations large enough to have such things, really falls somewhere between three areas:
  • Training/HR
  • Communications
  • Knowledge Management
This (hardly revelatory) insight struck me as I wandered back across the car park to the ivory tower of the training department from yet another run to the top floor to get an IT 'hint' in the company magazine and a delve into the lair of the webby beasts to address yet another forum usability issue on our Intranet, all in the name of organisational improvement.

So is this qualification - Internal Communication Management PgDip - run jointly by Kingston University and Capita L&D, the future of L&D qualifications in an era of informal learning?

This item may have passed unnoticed, however, today I spotted another piece of junk mail that fed the same thoughts. The Internal Communications 2009* show boasts in the email (though not clearly on that link, but definitely on this PDF** ):
HR And Internal Communications Debate
Should internal communications and HR be integrated? Speakers from the BBC internal communications and HR teams share how they are working together to deliver an Employee Value Proposition and Employer Brand.***
Of course, the fault with both of these departments as they are traditionally arranged is that they are concerned only with information travelling in one direction: top-down. And I hardly need invoke the names of those commentators who would have something to say about such things.

Adopting an informal learning pose and looking a little more closely at the course spec, alarms bells ring louder:

Each module consists of a workshop, including expert speakers and topical case studies where you will study the role of the internal communication manager, employment practices and the nature of information and communication.

You will explore the effects of internal communication on the organisation and the impact of organisational factors on internal communication. You will look at the strategies and policies needed to underpin internal communication objectives and actions. You will also learn how to measure the effectiveness of internal communications.

Nowhere does the description suggest that any part of the course may take into account the changed nature of modern communications, or communications systems. In fact, it sounds so wholly academic and divorced from actual work that the only thing the course appears to teach you that you may apply directly back in the workplace is the measurement of IC - the old ROI game that training departments spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to prove - using up resources that precisely undermine their own case.

To be fair, I'd hazard that more than 80% of internal communication in an organisation is informal and I suspect that it receives a whole lot less than 20% of the attention of qualified internal communications managers.

Does your organisation 'get' peer-to-peer communication? Are you still having to develop 'training' solutions that really aren't?

* Is it just me or is it not beautifully ironic that an event devoted to the best in communications should have at the top of its blurb, A Sentence Written Entirely In Gratuitous, Distracting And Unneccesary Title Case? Oh, and there's a spelling mistake in the web page title. Makes me want to weep.

** Which you may care to look at if you really have nothing better to do with your time than wait for it to load. I really don't think these people haven't gotten over the age of print. But then, that's Hay Publishing through and thru.

*** I'm beginning to wonder if I've been too harsh. Surely this is the result of a faulty caps lock key?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Do you have a blogging policy?"

Just got back from another interview, but this was the first one where I asked "Do you have a blogging policy?"

I'm hardly a high profile blogger - there's only you that reads it - but nonetheless, a couple of the people I've spoken to recently have indicated that they are aware of my online activity. Perhaps because I am the top ranked "danroddy" (in categories as diverse as 'frisbies owned', 'slices of toast consumed annually' and 'Google rank') this should be expected.

But in this interview we were getting down to the nitty-gritty (me? Healthcare insurance? After the last lot they'd be spoiling me!) and it occured to me, since they seemed like the kinda folks who would allow me to develop rather than squash the life out of me, that while I'm there I may feel I have something to say to people. And this is where I would say it.

Their response was; if it helps you and you don't give away any secrets, and don't do it in company time, then that would be okay. And that's a good result I think.

Leaving aside then the issue of whether I get the job, what's your place of work like? Do they know you blog? Are they happy to have you train yourself with the words of others? Would they be less obliging than the guys I spoke to today? Do they think it's some novel diversion but not relevant to them in anyway?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A cure for the page/slide hangover?

One of the example demos for online presentation tool Prezi makes a very valid point:
slides are a side effect of an old unused technology, slide projectors. Still, all presentation software today relies on slides.
Likewise, most e-learning (asynchronous courseware) still exhibits features of its flat/linear predecessors.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing as some very good stuff has been done using those earlier technologies, but the computer screen is not a page or a slide. In fact, it can be so much more.

Comic book author Scott McCloud explores this theme in his presentation at TED2005 and shows how comic books have tried to review their relationship to the page/screen to avoid the mistake of carrying an old paradigm forward.


McCloud traces how linear graphic narratives such as the Bayeaux tapestry by necessity - cost, accessibility - gave way to fractured, paginated narratives. Then he shows how innovative graphic story tellers are beginning to examine again how to use the limitless space of the computer's memory to create joined up storylines. He emphasises looking at the screen not as a page, but as a window.

This is of course commonplace in games design - think of chasing Lara Croft or flying a sim - and as such is gaining ground in learning with the likes of Caspian's Thinking Worlds or people using Second Life as a classroom or even cheap filmset. But based on what I saw at LT09 this week, I would imagine the majority of elearing still uses the page/slide mindset.

Much is made of the benefit of tools like mind or concept maps and how they offer an additional visual element to how information is structured, allowing us to interpret their content in a wholly different way. But at their heart most mind maps are simply heirarchical outlined lists, and often computer based mapping tools are very restricted in the options for including graphical elements. Concept maps are often quite complex, showing the multiple relationships between components, but often requiring detailed re-reading to understand and rarely offering the interpreter any guidance on how to follow them - lacking the scaffolding that would help learners of novice content.

The Prezi pan-and-zoom technique looks like a good way to resolve this problem. It offers a page/slide-free representation of information; clearly posesses a capacity for a linear path (it's a presentation tool after all) but also allows free exploration; it literally allows the learner to pull back and get an overview of the subject or drill down for greater detail (offering a Mandelbrot or microfiche-like capacity for zooming).

I find this novel approach quite exciting. Of course, there's been nothing to prevent this sort of thing being done before in Flash - I saw it in a Casio mobile phone ad a year or more ago - but to try to create this would have been a complex matter and remarkably hard, if not impossible, to get all this specified in a way that designers I've worked with would have been able to interpret well. Prezi is yet another tool that would place advanced creative control in the hands of non-specialists.

So, do you think that you could meet Scott's call for casting aside our hangover from the era of the slide and the page - could it be what he calls a 'durable mutation' - or does the convenience of linearity and familiarity mean the page turning model of elearning, for good or bad, will stay with us?

Thanks to Jane Hart for the Prezi link, lost in the torrent of good stuff on her PotD.

UPDATE: It would appear that Prezi is in private beta. I've applied for it, but if you get in, please let me know how you get on. You can still look at a couple of working demos regardless. And check out the neat new GUI design - Office Ribbon? Pfft. Deckchairs on the Titanic that was...

Learning Technologies 09 - the exhibition

I've only been to LT a couple of times before, back in 2005/6. There seemed to be much more going on this year and that point of view was reinforced by a conversation I had with a former colleague who felt that this year there were genuine innovations in evidence, rather than last year which, for him at least, had been a load of waffle and hot air. Others may differ in this view of course.

In this post I'll look at the exhibitors and I'll talk about the (free) talks that I caught later.

As always with these things, some stands made a bigger point than others. The Adobe stand was the fanciest, a bold statement written in brand that diminished every other in the room. They had an entire auditorium put over to non-stop replays of their demos of Captivate/Flash and Acrobat. The new e-learning suite looks fantastic and looks to offer a new way of working to companies whose IDs are that bit more technical, offering seamless integration and movement between Captivate, Flash and Photoshop. People with the skill set to exploit the entire suite are going to be few and far between, but if you have a group of developers and IDs working across projects then by all accounts the new system could have a profound effect.

Other big stands included Mohive, Skillsoft, PPI, Epic, Line and Brightwave. Saffron Interactive were present again with a reprise of their kitchen of a few years ago, pushing the 'blended' learning angle with blended drinks (perhaps they do this every year). That year they were giving away copies of Clive Shepherd's blended learning cookbook, an underestimated work of great value that has probably given birth to many learning interventions over the past couple of years. This year, not representing a potentially valuable client, as I did in 2006, I was unable to score a copy of the new book. Sad really as the last one has been a good help to me over the years.

But frankly most of these companies were all saying the same thing, so their messages are barely worth repeating (though at last I got a handle on what Mohive's tool does that other e-learning companies find so useful - you can use it to storyboard and review, even if you ultimately use other tools to create).

Caspian were demoing their remarkable “easy to use” 3D tool for creating immersive environments. Following a couple of demos you could see the vestiges of click-to-progress e-learning hidden in some of the projects, but when your progression is through a well realised real-time 3D environment, who would ever notice? For big card learning, such as the airline and oil-rig safety demos they were trailing at the show, it's hard to imagine how or what else you might want to put in its place.

Small time players offered more delicate delights. Aardpress Publishing, who I saw over the summer when they announced their Moomis suite of corporate reporting tools was going to be made open source. These are guys who have wised-up to the potential of using software you don't have to pay for, and in developing their add-ons have made a useful contribution to Moodle. For giving away software that they have spent time working on, they deserve kudos.

The mood

One thing that was missing from the show was the general air of doom and gloom that seems to be prevalent just about everywhere else. I spoke to a couple of companies who were quietly confident about the coming months, though no-one was so incautious as to make bold claims for the state of play by the end of the year. The general feeling was that to be freelance right now would probably be okay. Hmm. We'll see...

Various presenters did mention stats that they had rustled up from their clients, but even those did not seem to be too terrifying. There were stories that people were cutting back, but it wasn't everybody, so the jury will have to remain out on this, for the next couple of months at least. Whatever happens I think that companies with diverse client bases will stand the best chance, while smaller players who struggle for business (like absentees Academy Internet) will get swallowed up by larger companies with the resources to ride out the troubles ahead.

Just a pointer for anyone thinking of going next year - the in venue facilities were lousy. The coffee was so-so, the food average and the service barely deserving of the name (I honestly thought the girl in the cloakroom was just going to give up and go home half way through trying to retrieve my case). If you want a decent break away from the floor next year try The Albion pub just up the road - decent food, nice enough beer, cosy environs and, hopefully fixed for next year, WiFi.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

eLearning breaking through - Articulate reviewed

Before Christmas I mentioned that I'd spotted a review of Moodle in a national magazine. Well, I bigger and more widely influential magazine, PC Pro, has reviewed the current darling of the rapid development movement, Articulate Studio.

They rate it quite highly, it scores 5 of 6; here's the summary:
A simple, fast and effective way to produce sophisticated online presentations, but it's expensive.
Interestingly however, the review throws up what they perceive to be two competitors - one is Adobe's Captivate, while the other, offered as the 'cheap and cheerful' alternative, is Wildform Flair which is something I've never heard of. Anyone else used it?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Will's Webinar - Learning Myths

Attended the Will Thalheimer webinar (sorry, I just can't call it webinosh). Struggled a bit since I signed in at the last minute (thought I'd registered in advance but I didn't get any reminder like last week - which I missed anyway...)

So, here are the notes I hammered down and later I'll add my reflection on the approach - this was my first non-sales type webinar. I liked it.

Contemp notes

Gathered 140 myths. Wow, that's a lot of myths!

Top myth, bad learning design is good learning design. I really can relate to.

I also relate to the mistaken proclamation - It's a training issue when it isn't. Been there, seen it, advised the client to call me again when they had actually agreed on the process to be 'trained' (there wasn't one - that's why there was a divergence in approach...)

Another myth I would have thrown in - 'there is only formal learning'. Rarely do we, as learning professionals, get to be able to promote peer-to-peer learning. It's almost as if that is not our remit...

Surprised by 'learning is always beneficial'. It IS. It rocks! (oops).

Bad is good:
Will gathers a huge list of things that I learnt as being 'true', underscored by formal training (CIPD CTP anyone?), backed up by books and supported by people I worked with. Thankfully, I'm a lapsed CIPD learning professional. I am now free of their dogma...

Shame the sound doesn't work.

I think the key piece we miss is the evidence - evidenced-based is the way to go, but the vast flood of material on learning design is mostly fluff - filler to sell a product or a point of view. Wonder how we can actually help add to the body of evidence. Is there a guide to how we can work on this? Some clients would welcome the opportunity to get associated with trials and so forth (wouldn't they? Anyone working with the BBC? Don't they have a public service remit?)
...

Err, that's it. I'm not a great one for note taking. I suspect you would do well to go and check out Cammy's...

Other attendees notes
Cammy Bean (I was right - she got it all)
Will Thalheimer (of course he was there - here are all his notes, including participant comments)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Training Specialist - one of the 30 best careers for 2009?

Just spotted this interesting article on the US News website - bit late as they posted this before Christmas, but better late than never.

They list their choices for the 30 best careers for 2009 and amongst those on offer (3 others: usability expert, firefighter, clergy) you'll find Curriculum/Training specialist. This vague categorisation seems to take in the job spec of just about anyone in the EduBlogosphere, but then we're a flexible bunch.

The list itself is quite interesting as they have tried to be objective and give their criteria for our consideration. They also give their selection of over-rated careers (two examples: teacher, architect) and sleeper careers for the future - most interesting of which is simulation developer, which is one that some of us would see as falling under our current description of training specialist.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Learning Technology - making the most of a learning opportunity

I sat last December eyeing up the conference line-up for this year's Learning Technologies , the UK's main commercial e-learning event and was drawing up a fantasy timetable.

Sadly, being a lowly freelancer with no-one to pick up the tab* for the eye-watering ticket cost, it was nothing more than day-dreaming, which was a real shame as the line up includes quite a few speakers that I'd like to see (how about Itiel Dror, Tony Buzan, or George Siemens?)

Still, never mind. Since I have the time I will still be going, to make the most of the some 50 free seminars that will be running over the two days. Any opportunity to learn from others in the business is good (and by extention I intend to share what I find with you).

The risk with these things, and I have been before to LT, is that they are thinly (and not so thinly) disguised 'advertorials' given by the various exhibitors at the stalls around the exhibition. A quick scan down the list reveal which to be wary of; for example, the first seminar in 'Theatre' 1 is detailed thus:

Have you ever come across two organisations that are exactly the same, with the same values and a common set of competences? We haven't. That is why we work with you to deliver customised online learning solutions.

This workshop will introduce you to some of the customised learning solutions we've created for clients over the past ten years and give insights into the direction that we believe learning is heading.

The first paragraph has all the hallmarks of having been taken out of the company's sales literature. The second sounds it would be the 'about us' part of a pitch presentation to new clients.

Others may be more neutral - it seems possible that a software company prompted the Royal Navy to tell us about how they are using PSPs, but it could be an interesting talk and I would hope the representative of HM's Armed Services will maintain a detached perspective.

This is not to knock the talks at all - it's good to see so many people willing to put in the time to give these talks and they have to be able to get something out it in return, or what's the point? But at the same time there is a distinction between a worthwhile presentation that reveals some kind of insight in to our business (and tells us about the comapny behind it) and enduring a 30 minute sales talk full of implausibly 'extreme' marketing jargon.

Thankfully, the various 'theatres' are open areas so I can always apply the Law of Two Feet and find another speaker. I'll report back what I find next week.

* If, however, you're an overseas organisation, keen to attend, but wary of overstepping your carbon footprint, I could be your proxy if you like! There's still time yet...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The 'learner' fallacy - delusions of influence in L&D

The training/development/HR profession is always intensely interested in its own use of language. Perhaps because it spends so much time alongside the diversity hounds of the HR department, or in the company of the mind-benders of NLP, the 'Training Department' has seen the change to 'Learning & Development' and is obsessed with its 'learners'.

While this is laudable, and shows a commendable attempt to place the focus on the recipient of their endeavours, it strikes me as a bit odd. Most business sections are named after what they do, rather than the influence they have on other people (after all, if the Sales team were called the Buying team, things would get really confusing, though of course the Buyers would now be called the Selling team).

If anything, grandly calling ourselves 'learning professionals' is rather presumptuous; we don't really have a great deal of control over whether the person sitting in front of the computer, or in the classroom (or holding the device or whatever) actually does learn anything - we can instead only hope to facilitate and influence them.

In classical media the people creating the material there are more realistic - they speak of viewers, readers and listeners, not 'enjoyees' or 'understanders'. Likewise, the teaching profession is a lot more upfront about what they do, as they at least admit to teaching (let's leave aside, for the moment, any discussion of whether anyone learns anything at school any more, or whether or not the person at the front of the class should be called a Tester).

What's the alternative?

Instead perhaps we should take a step back a think of our audience as 'users'.

More than enough type has been devoted recently to discussions on the (in)validity of learning styles, but let me add another thought to the mix. Should we consider models of 'user styles'? You might come up such designations as:
  • dedicated users removing themselves from distractions
  • multi-tasking users enlivening e-learning screentime with IM and email
  • technophobe users* struggling to read on-screen and hating having to use the infernal machine they'd rather not go near
  • impatient users* skipping as much as possible until they have a WIIFM moment.

The design of products better suited to the demands of people is called ergonomics; on the web this is 'usability'. Web browsers, the delivery vehicle of almost all e-learning, have settled on a common set of features that mean users can really switch from IE to 'Fox to Opera without a second thought, making the interface 'invisible' and living up to Steve Krug's demand 'Don't make me think.'

Yet many e-learning courses, even those for the same company, change their interface each time, making strange the experience and drawing the focus of the user away from content to dwell instead on form.

The use of knowledge

Knowledge=power, so the saying goes, and the benefit of recasting our audience as users goes on.

Our concern for our learners ends ends with the course - "have they learnt what we told them?" Thinking about our users prompts us to think again - "So they used our course, but how will they use what we have told them?"

I remember being told by one client how, as soon as we delivered the training course that she and I had been mandated to deliver, someone in another department would go through it and copy it up, more or less verbatim, to the KM system. It was there that most people would reach the information when they needed it (away from the walled garden, or should that be prison, of the LMS).

In that case the company processes that steered us to designing and delivering the course, focused as they were on returning course completion metrics, steadfastly refused to acknowledge how the staff used the information.

Aiding our users

Would a focus on how knowledge may be used influence our choice of the format? Advocates of the job aid supported approach to course development, like Cathy Moore, know full well that recognising the fallibility of cognitive processes is an important part in understanding how our users can make the most of the time you and they are spending in creating and using your outputs.
  1. Tell your users what's happening...
  2. ...let them know why it matters to them and where they can find out more...
  3. ...even give them an overview of the detail...
  4. ...but then give them something to use so they can get the precise detail when they need it - be that a job aid, a wiki, or whatever.

I'm not, I must point out, advocating forgetting about what we want our audience to do, ie learn, but I'm hoping that by rethinking the label we might be able to step back and make space at the learning table for other parties that have a part to play in helping people in an organisation get better at what they do - principally, in my experience, people involved in knowledge management and internal communications , but perhaps also taking advantage of your marketing team, all of whom have common goals - making your business better - but who rarely, if ever, ever think about learners.

So, are you confident that you are always designing for learners, or users?

* Okay, even I would baulk at these terms - perhaps we might go for reluctant users and outcome-focused users. You tell me...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

2009 - the year of consumer e-learning

We should all be aware by now that making any attempt to predict the future is a fruitless task, if our goals are to accurately anticipate what's going to happen. If, on the other hand, the goal is to have something somewhat amusing to look back upon and produce a wry smile 12 months from now, then I'm all for predictions. So here is my contribution to the Learning Circuits Big Question for January.

In fact, I'm going to make just one, as I believe it ties together a number of threads that other commentators have already: 2009 will see a rise in consumer e-learning.

The focus in the e-learning industry tends to be either academic applications or use in the corporate sphere - take for example the UK industry awards that are almost exclusively pitched at corporate development.

Part of the problem is the invisibility of the industry to outsiders. In the June 2008 edition of e.learning age I wrote about a company based out of Japan that have developed a really good model of language learning based around podcasting, and enthusiatically taken up by a global audience of linguaphiles. A great example of a web business, it is built around a large amount of free content - the podcasts - and a range of paid-for services that extend the usefulness of the audio. When I spoke to the head of the company, Peter Galante, and suggested that what they had developed, actually based upon a customized Wordpress blog, was a sophisticated LMS, he shrugged, not understanding the term. He was, however, keen to see how he could pitch his system to corporations as a great way of improving internal communication and learning.

Such examples are not rare. Wikipedia may just be another useful fall back story for no news days - 'Wikipedia full of lies' being the general tone - but for many of us the idea of a welcomed and fully supported wiki on the company intranet, making the most of peer-to-peer, bottom-up learning is all to often a dream. Yet Wikipedia is precisely the place that a majority of web-users now start any quest for new knowledge.

It's hardly a revelation that the likes of the Nintendo DS have opened channels to users that have previously been off-limits to technology, but with mobile telecoms finally reaching the point where we have very powerful - and crucially usable - computers literally in the palm of our hands, the reality of being able to fit e-learning around our daily lives gets ever closer. With always on 'net connectivity ('living in the cloud') meaning we aren't even reliant on having to synch devices - everything is always connected to online repositories - such technologies take a step closer to transcending that very label and just becoming 'stuff' around us. Indeed, for most of the people who read this post, and most likely their children, that's already happened, but the next step is to take our cousins, parents, aunties and even grandparents with us.

So why will this take off this year? Precisely because there is this confluence of themes that others have been supporting and engaging with - mobile technology, cloud computing, ever easier to use devices, openness to gaming - coinciding with the ongoing spate of "unpredictable moments of opportunity" that is the net result of global turmoil that will be the steady background hum for 2009. With so many people likely to need to increase their individual competitiveness in the coming year, we'll all be looking for ways to get or maintain that edge. e-Learning may have its moment to shine.