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.