Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Help wanted - virtualize me!

Due to an unfortunate confluence of events it looks like I won't be able to make it to WOLCE this year. Fact is, I wasn't intending to go. I was a little disappointed by it last year, and now that Learning Technologies has Learning & Skills to run alongside, I really couldn't see the point in going. Not to say that it is bad, only for my needs right now, WOLCE isn't really right.

However, at my company we've been experiencing a spot of trouble with our software systems and it's quite likely that WOLCE is the sort of place that someone with a solution might show up. Unfortunately, at short notice I'm not really able to make it either day that the show is running, so if you are going, take a look at our needs and if you spot someone selling anything like this, ask them to get in touch with me via learningrocks.co.uk or @danroddy on Twitter.

Our need
My employer runs residential training courses at our training centre, and on-site training if clients have enough of a need. We need to be able to plan and schedule face-to-face courses, sell them, share data with partner organisations and reconcile everything with our finance team. We also need to be able to store learner data so that we can answer their queries in the months and years after they attend - some of our courses ensure that they are able to get on registers for certified personnel so our training is important to them - they just sometimes misplace the certificates...

It would be cool too, but not vital, if there was the option to tie up to an LMS (we run Moodle) and if the student record system was capable of tracking other training types, like vocational courses. If it were capable of managing resources like rooms and hardware, then we would be scrabbling for a chequebook. And we'll offer the hand in marriage of any unmarried member of the team if it also can run a conference venue.

In short, we are looking for a student management information system for short course providers, with all the trimmings. The emphasis has to be on supporting face-to-face training.

But we can compromise.

There are only two products that seem to match our need*. CourseBooker, which pretty much does what it says on the tin, but which we abandoned a few years ago, and a newish product called onCourse, which looks very exciting, but which doesn't have a UK supplier just yet. Any attempt to search online for this kind of thing unfortunately seems to hit every keyword for an LMS, no matter how you try to cut it, and frankly I'm skeptical of LMSs' ability to do what we are after - they are nearly always elearning first, anything else as an add on (since the developers can't make much from it).

So, if you are at WOLCE, or frankly just reading about this and think you know of a suitable product, PLEASE let me or them know and try to get in touch. I'll buy you a beer at the Learning Techologies after party** in 2011...

* There is also the product that we have, but just because we have it, it doesn't follow that it matches our needs. Seriously, we used to be public sector and the procurement mess on the current system shows how far we've come in some ways***
** First I need to get invited. Or arrange it. Let's say the pub across the road from Olympia, about 5pm on the Tuesday? Brilliant, see you there.
*** Not very.

Meta-learning: educational fungus

When I was at school we showed up, we were told a bunch of stuff and we went home. This model pretty much continued throughout my education - A levels and degree were all completed in a bubble of self-ignorance. Work-place learning similarly was usually fairly direct: "here's a bunch of stuff you need to know. We've told you. You know it. Now carry on"*

Not so any longer it seems.

It appears that all learning these days needs to be presaged by a lengthy study of what it means to be a learner. I first noticed this in my first job as a trainer with a government agency - we ran a course that simply focused on how to develop your skills as learner, but this was optional thing. My colleagues in the "soft-skills" team were switched on to getting their delegates (always "learners" in their parlance - never "trainees") to reflect on their development, and mandated by things like Investors in People, we encouraged everyone to discover their learning style, keep a CPD folder, start a journal of reflective practice and so on.

This was something that was at the heart of the Certificate in Training Practice too - my first formal step in qualification as a workplace learning "professional".

And now it seems it is a primary part of ANY learning opportunity. The foundation degree we offer has extensive opportunities to reflect on the experience of being a learner - indeed the first module our students undertake asks them to think about nothing else!

Now I am looking at a variety of off the shelf NVQ type qualifications aimed at lower level learners - Levels 2 & 3 in the UK structure - and as much as a quarter of a qualification can be taken up by learning about the process of learning.

I am wondering just how useful all this is in some cases. In knowledge based work, characterised by variety and difference in activity, reflective learning might pose a great help in considering how to approach similar but different material in future. In in the type of repetitive, process driven work I am looking at in these qualifications the opportunities for reflective learning are surely somewhat limited. Often there is not a great deal of variety in activity and the focus is more on following guidelines quite closely for compliance issues as much as anything. Even if there is any variety, the nature of the work means that time for reflection in the workplace is somewhat limited - the emphasis has to be on simply getting the job done.

While I'm all for the reflective ideals of continuous professional development, surely at the point at which thinking about yourself is 25% of a qualification - ostensibly aimed at getting you up and running as an entry-level technician - things have gotten out of hand. It's too much and misses the imperative to focus on the needs of the business in producing effective training interventions that will be valued by managers?

My feeling is that this is self-aggrandisement by the learning/education/training people responsible for developing these qualifications. By playing up the knowledge of learning they are keen to show that learning has to be held in some kind of complex structure; almost as if they are building some kind of arcane lore about it all. I'm not sure, but my instinct is that for many learners this is a turn off. For lots of people the goal is to show up at work, do it right, then go home, and hopefully not have to think about it. Perhaps I wouldn't be so worried, were it not for the fact that from what I have seen and what I have experienced, this part of their learning experience is going to be occupied with thoughts of learning styles, Maslow, "10% of what you read", left and right brain and other elements with a hint of "truthiness" about them.

Which may not really be to the advantage of someone who simply wants a decent qualification so they can earn more money.

* This wasn't THAT long ago, I'm only 34.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Verifiable CPD? Really? What do you mean?

Now, when I learnt about CPD way back in the day I got the sense that it should be an intrinsic thing - something that I recorded and to some extent defined. CPD could come from anything - reflections on activity; useful blog discussions I had been part of, books read, talks attended, and of course training courses. Then from time to time I would show what I had recorded to someone and they would approve some or all of what I had done.

But it would seem that for some professions there is a wholly different notion - that of "verifiable CPD". Here's what the British Dental Association have to say on their CPD site:
In partnership with Eastman Continuing Professional Development, the British Dental Journal offers a CPD programme to enable all UK dental practitioners registered with the General Dental Council to collect a maximum of 48 hours of verifiable CPD per annum.

Each issue of the Journal contains two papers that have been selected for verifiable CPD and four multiple choice questions will be linked to each article.

Practitioners will receive one verifiable CPD hour per paper, giving a potential total of two CPD hours per BDJ issue. A record of CPD credits will be maintained by Eastman Continuing Professional Development and certification will be forwarded to the participants. Answers to the questions will also appear in the Journal a month later.
Now I find this kind of thing bizarre, but it's rather telling that it is attached to the BDA Journal.

From a cursory search for "verifiable CPD" it seems that most of the references here in the UK are related to dentistry (to the extent that @verifiablecpd on Twitter is dentally themed), but that's not the only profession that calls on it. Here's an interesting definition from the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Cyprus (!?):
Non-verifiable CPD Non-verifiable CPD is a learning activity which has taken place, but doesn't have a defined or specific learning outcome.  This would include, for example, general reading of professional magazines; following financial and business matters in print and media; and discussions with colleagues in an informal setting (for example, learning about developments in business or finance at a social event, or informally through networking at a business event, etc).  ICPAC requires you to provide a summary of this activity each year.
Verifiable CPD Verifiable CPD is activity where you can provide evidence that the learning was relevant to your current or future career needs, and you can prove that it took place.  You will need to be able to explain why you chose the activity and how it is relevant to you, when the activity took place, what you learned and how you will apply your learning.  Verifiable CPD does not have to be about attending courses - an example of verifiable CPD is outlined below:
Well, so far so good. The crux of the argument appears to be that CPD only really counts if it is planned in some way. But the example, to my eyes, seems to cross over the non-verifiable side:
In order to write a business paper, you might need to undertake 4 hours of research on the internet, learning in a subject area that is new to you, or where regulation has changed.  You would then write the report.  The report is the evidence of your verifiable CPD.  It shows that you have applied the learning you acquired.  The research you undertook is the learning activity.  You will therefore have completed 4 units of verifiable CPD.
Such verification as there is exists solely on what you say you did in order to do something else. I'm not sure that I would say that this is an entirely legitimate model. But that's not to say that I don't believe the learning that has taken place is entirely legitimate - it's simply the notion of quantifiable CPD that I struggle with. One person's hour of research might be 30 minutes to someone else with better Google skills. And that's just one hole I might pick with the concept. Feel free pick more in the comments.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Gaminess in learning

Just wanted to catch an important point about what constitutes gaminess - can't remember where it comes from, but I'm fairly sure that Simon Bostock would have been involved in bringing it in to my field of vision:

Five points that mean gamey:
  1. Collecting (ie badges)
  2. Points and levels
  3. Feedback to lead to improvement
  4. Exchange (for P2P activity)
  5. Customisation (for an individual experience)
So, gaminess is not a quiz dressed up as hangman or a car race - this is the gaminess that creates re-playability and the desire to improve.

Who knows, one day I might think about how you might develop say an induction programme around these principles - or maybe you know where someone else has already done that.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How to create a lightbox in Moodle

A lightbox effect is a great way to improve how pictures are displayed within Moodle, especially in fixed width themes where the space may be at a premium. I use it to zoom in on thumbnail images, but you can also use it to display images from a link on a word too if you like. It uses a nice "modal zoom" look and feel that fades the background and will be familiar to anyone who uses the web more than infrequently.

This hack requires a small change to some HTML, but this is only to insert new code - there aren't any actual changes - so it should be considered an intermediate level tweak. As this is a hack, I add it to my own folder of hacks that I create in Moodle for just such a circumstance.

The lightbox effect is a Javascript feature adopted from Dynamic Drive.

The process of adding this effect is quite simple.
  1. Download the lightbox.zip from the Dynamic Drive website. This contains the 5 files you need.
  2. Create a folder in the Moodle folder called “hacks” and copy the unzipped lightbox folder in to it, so:
  3. Paste the code for the javascript in to the header.html file for each theme that will use the effect, in the header section, directly before the closing header tag.
  4. Tweak the inserted code slightly to give the correct path to the files. You need to change the file location from:
  5. You'll also need to repeat this link change for the lightbox.js file in the second line of that javascript snippet.
Save your changes to the file and now you are nearly ready to go. This should ensure that a) the javascript is enabled across the site b) is in one location for working with.

You simply choose what you want to link from, either text or image, then turn it in to a link, linking to the fullsize image you want. In my case, I insert a large image, but use the Moodle "Insert picture" dialogue to restrain its size as it appears within the img tag, then create the link pointing to the same picture on its own.

So far, so good. The magic happens when you add the following attribute to your link element:

Then save all the changes and have a look at your webpage. Click on the image and you get the lightbox appear. Click it again to remove it. Sweet

In summary: add files, tweak theme's header code, add a link to your big image, include rel attribute in link.

Now, I'm sure that someone else somewhere else has already done this for Moodle, or something very similar, but I couldn't find it. I'm also sure that it can be done in such a way that it can be inserted to the course just once, instead of in each theme, but I'm new to tweaking Moodle in such a way, so I'll explore that later and let you know how I get on.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bandwidth issues - why they're a problem

As ever, a brilliant article on website usability from Nielsen that has ramifications for elearning.

In the post simply entitled Website Response Times Jakob Nielsen points out that although increased bandwidth has largely eliminated the old drag of image sizes, responses times should still be given thought in the design of websites in the era of ubiquitous broadband.

The article cites common problems as being "complex data processing", eg lots of server-side activity, be it script or database activity, and slow "widgets" or too many of them.

With LMSs, especially those adopting more "web 2.0" features, the temptation to load up on widgets to provide the rich opportunities for social interaction that learners may be looking for is a risk. Especially if the server setup it is delivered from is less than optimal. Of course, the far greater hazard from the point of view of elearning is poorly produced Flash content. In a post from last year, Gavin Hess muses on the fact that many "rapid" tools actually save time only for the producer - the product they produce not always being the fastest.

Still, what is the impact of a delay? Nielsen summarises the impact of increasingly longer delays:
  • 0.1 seconds gives the feeling of instantaneous response — that is, the outcome feels like it was caused by the user, not the computer.
  • 1 second keeps the user's flow of thought seamless. Users can sense a delay, and thus know the computer is generating the outcome, but they still feel in control of the overall experience and that they're moving freely rather than waiting on the computer.
  • 10 seconds keeps the user's attention. From 1–10 seconds, users definitely feel at the mercy of the computer and wish it was faster, but they can handle it. After 10 seconds, they start thinking about other things, making it harder to get their brains back on track once the computer finally does respond.
 What will happen if this covenant is broken? Well, Nielsen is worried about lost sales and conversions. From an elearning point of view we can assume lost attention will result in poorer retention, less chance of completion (if that's an important statistic for you) and a generally less positive reception to your courses.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

How much "design" for the instructional designer?

When it comes to the instructional design in the context of traditional elearning development, how much of the concept design should the ID be suggesting, or to put it another way, how much of the visual design should be left entirely to the graphic designers and developers?

As an instructional designer I often have thoughts on how to present the information I am trying to arrange and I usually try to communicate these by means of rough sketches and crude diagrams - either as pen sketches captured on my phone camera or as crude diagrams cobbled in PowerPoint if I want to play around with layouts. My reason for doing so is that, as the old saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, and frankly I can't be fagged writing out an idea when I can far more easily summarise the suggestion in a couple of lines. I'm always as pains to make clear that these are ideas to try to get across a concept.

However, sometimes the results from these suggestions are returned to me in far too literal interpretations of my diagram. If this was a one off, then I'd write it off as an individual response, but it's happened with a couple of designers. So what am I doing wrong?

Do designers and developers prefer to work from the raw data, so I give them the content and outcome and say "do your best", or do I have to give more detailed ideas about how to get a fancier finish? Does my attempt to be helpful in providing ideas actually have the counter-productive result of hemming in the thought processes of the developers? How do I encourage designers/developers to pick up the phone/fire up Skype and just run an idea past me before they commit it to the screen? Should I accept that there is something intrinsically wrong in my development approach or write it off as desperately bad luck that I encounter the same problem with different developers? Am I actually just expecting too much to get a whole course back without any significant problems at all?

I'd dearly love to know what other people do to manage this.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Formality, just go away and die won't you?

How informal a learning experience is seems to matter a great deal to many people. Whether someone has been set a "course" of learning or whether they navigate their own path seems to have taken on a life of its own, akin to whether or not you accept the views of climate scientists or Sarah Palin.

What confuses me is the vehemence that seems to be part of the debate.The tone from the informal side has always been fairly militant, set by Jay Cross's calls to get ride of training departments. It gives me visions of a baying pack of line managers and consultants marching on HR brandishing pitchforks and flaming torches.

It's always struck me that informal learning is any learning that happens outside the classroom - the idea that informal learning doesn't get a fair share of the attention of those who should be encouraging it is a fair one. But in an environment where commentators ruthlessly hunt down and expose the various neat model myths (like Dale's Cone for example) the off-stated "80 percent of learning is informal" seems to go unchallenged (okay, perhaps it was intended as a rule of thumb, but it seemed to take on a life of it's own).

The latest development seems to be tool-sellers stepping in and trying to offer ways to formalise informal training, and once again you get virulent protests that this is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

I absolutely disagree.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but "tools" that help create an environment where staff are empowered to collect information and share it to the common good is part of the cultural shift to a "very different workplace".

Okay, perhaps it is a different point of view, but time and time again I have worked in or with organisations where some staff are simply not that engaged with the tools at their disposal to be able to self-educate - these are not necessarily people who don't want to improve, but simply aren't that motivated to spend their lunchtime playing with apps, or who know enough about computing (and it's usually computing where I see this) to sense they could improve the way they work. I'm thinking about people who use PowerPoint on a daily basis but aren't able to use master slides properly (wasting huge amounts of time on basic formatting) or who can't sort or filter data on a spreadsheet when half their time is spent collating information for which a spreadsheet would be ideal.

Such people need help and encouragement to get to the first rung, and most likely will need help and reassurance even after then. And what's more will need stimulating later on to move on again, because there is always improvement to be had.

Sure, we could leave it to chance, and hope that somehow they will get the support they need, but it's true that without a map it can be very difficult to know where you are going. It's all the more difficult if you don't even know what the available destinations might be.

For me, this is the role of the future learning department - as tour guides to improvement who can set people off on their own journeys, or create appealing advertisements for why someone might want to improve and either provide them their own itinerary or if necessary the whole package deal to take the effort out.

For me and pretty much most people I read and communicate with online, learning is the pleasure, it "rocks" in and of itself, in just the same way that the journey for me is as much a part of the holiday. But there are plenty of people for whom learning is a chore and who just want to get to their destination as quickly as possible.

Entirely free learning will never suit all portion of a community, so tools that help provide access to quality, relevant information that their peers produce.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Set fazer to Ignite

On Friday I put together a quick talk for our new intake foundation degree students. I put together about 90 minutes worth of material in a morning. Easy. Nothing special there.

Since then I have been hard at work, once again, on my talk for Ignite London this week. Couched in modern parlance - O. M. G.

Who would have thought that thinking of 5 minutes' worth of material would be sooo damn difficult?

When I went to Ignite London last year I immediately thought of a topic on which I wanted to speak - dying towns. From various resouces I wanted to piece something together about Japan, the North West of England, Detroit, Russia and fill it with great photos that I've seen on my tours of the Interweb - sadly I don't have much in the way of primary source material.This was a doozy though, and I had a rough idea of where I wanted to take it.

What with the pressure of organising Ignite Bristol this week too, and a whole bunch of things going on at work. I decided at the last moment to change to something that, theoretically at least, should be a lot easier - something L&D related.

I called up Craig on the Ignite London team and gave my reasons and he was very shilled about it - do whatever was his reply. He had a stab at summing up my point in this entry which is probably the source of some of my resulting concern.

I mean, seriously - check out some of those other talks! They sound great. And that list doesn't include the two "star" speakers. What's more, my cousin's near namesake, Tristan Roddis*, sounds like he is going to do something not a million miles away from the photo show I was thinking of, so there's no backing up.

So I'm now terrified of how this is going to go. And I'm prevaricating even by writing this damn post.

So far, my talk looks like it'll take in: sleep, checklists, exercise, spaced repetition, gaming/competition. Allowing for about a minute on each, that is far more than I can fit in, but do you think I can get this down on slide format? Can I hell! If you can think of anything that I could add on this topic, or a great way to spin any of the points I'm making, please drop me a line...

* both Tristans live in Brighton too - what are the chances?**
** yeah, I know, not as low as I think they are.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

5 Things I love about my Android

Last October I signed up for an HTC Magic with Vodafone. It's been one of the best tech decisions of my life.

There are still many folks out there who doubt the case for mobile learning, simply not sure how it can be done. These are probably folks who don't have a smartphone, because once you do it's instantly apparent how it can be done. I know this process because it's what happened to me.

But this post isn't about that so much, I'll save that for after Learning Technologies when there will doubtless be much more to say. Instead, here a some reasons why I love my Android:

1. THINKING SPACE a neat, very usable mindmapping app which can export my ideas for reuse elsewhere

2. TWIDROID PRO I probably read my Twitter accounts more on my phone than by any other method. It's the perfect way to fill a spare 5 minutes. It makes easy work of managing multiple accounts too - I have @danroddy and @IgniteBristol.

3. GMAIL you have to have an account to make the phone work. I did, but didn't really use it. What was I thinking? And the mobile experience with it is great.

4. BEACON if you use 37signals' Basecamp at all, this is the app for you. Sync, follow messages and comments, check To-do lists, review milestones. Easy, great.

5. ASTRID a powerful to do list organiser that embeds with Google Calendar and has a great way of reminding you.

6. NOTE EVERYTHING from the Ronseal school of product naming, this was the first app I paid for. The persistent list tool is brilliant - there are real serious applications for this idea as mobile performance support. I use this for my project context lists.

7. BLOGLINES a neat Blogger app for mobile blogging. I'm using it now. Not too shabby.

Okay, so that was more than 5, and I could add others yet (I've said nothing about having usable search in my pocket or gps enabled mapping), so let's leave it there and say it's a draw, eh?

Actually, looking at what I've described here, I'm struck by the similarity between what I've written and the whole 'personal learning environment' discussion we participated in a few years back. I have turned my phone in to a mobile PLE - that's a real powerful tool, right? 

So, how does your smartphone experience change up the way you work?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Excuse me

I've been a bit busy lately, putting together Ignite Bristol. It's all set for 4 March now, and we're sold out already! But that's not really the point of this post - this really just to test a blogging app on my Magic. Excuse me.