Friday, December 21, 2012

mylearningworx - a reflection on the launch event

Last week I was pleased to attend the launch of mylearningworx, a new site that offers individuals the chance to both make a course and take a course. If your passion is to teach people about local history or some craft or hobby, their platform allows you to quickly and easily pull a course together and sell it to others who want to learn.

While most elearning to date has been in either the mass market of formal K-12 education or in custom products for large wealthy companies, there aren't that many folk really addressing the "long tail" of online formal learning. There are a couple of players - is a video based elearning platform focusing largely on software and programming, and there are quite a few in languages (I even wrote about one, for e.learning age some years ago - not much in that in itself but the editor of that magazine is one of the directors of mylearningworx!) but I'm not conscious of any companies going after the individual learning market in quite this way.

Instead, arguably the market leaders in the consumer space are two collossal on-demand informal resources, Wikipedia and YouTube, supplemented by Google's Search to find everything else (actually, usually unearthing the content at these two sites also, hence their predominance).

Undaunted, mylearningwork is aspiring to be an eBay of learning - not the seller itself but the facilitator of a marketplace - for which they will take a cut. And good luck to 'em. They've got a sound product, some great people behind it and they are striking out in a field with, as far as I can tell, few competitors.

Before I bore you with my impressions, let me tell you you can get easier reads from Craig Taylor, who wrote a short summary of his day before most of us got home, and weelearner Gill Chester, who presented a "track" at the worxshop, and has taken a rather creative angle in her summary written/assembled for the blog.

So, my thoughts. What I liked about it:

  • It is easy to use and the feature set is developing. They are working on integration with Mozilla's Popcorn Maker video tool and that genuinely has the capacity to amplify the value of video, as well as possibly put something of a "seal" on some of the added value in the educators courses and not leave them open for use on somewhere like YouTube.
  • It already has a small but potentially committed community of course authors - though they will need to get more on there quickly
  • The company clearly "get" that their success rests on how lots of small producers take to it and by running events like the "worxshop" they are showing a commitment to fostering that community. It helps that they are all nice folks too.
  • They don't call it an "LMS" anywhere on their site. Good.

 Of course, I did leave with some things I thought could be worked on:

  • not sure about the name of the site - yeah,I know, it's a small thing, but the other instances I can think of of the use of "my" are My Little Pony and various primary coloured My First [insert item here] neither of which are necessarily aspirational. Come on, is free!
  • The concept of the "mini-MOOC" sounded more like responding to a buzzword than a genuine description of what the courses look like at this point, but I could be wrong. Without Ivy League or Russell Group sized marketing budgets, and sitting behind a paywall, however, I'm not sure courses are ever likely to be that massive and they aren't really that open and the feature set seems more applicable to solo study course than large scale synchronous study and collaboration, but there is time for that to develop I guess.
  • It seems to be pitching in two directions - it wants to be a site used by consumers ("create a course on flyfishing") and they want it to be a low-cost training system for businesses, albeit under a slightly different brand, "the Foundry". This confusion might dilute or confuse their message. But equally it might not.
In my opinion it's this second market where I think they stand the best chance. There are 10s, possibly 100s of thousands of small companies that will never be in a position to set up an LMS or speak to an e-learning company (or even know such things exist) but who will at some point need to develop staff or prove compliance with something or other. "The Foundry" could help them do it. One-man-band training companies have a fair shot at a larger market and transitioning out of expensive, one-at-a-time ILT, and having endured some truly dreadful fire safety compliance training this year I would welcome the chance to avoid it again by doing some short, sharp elearning and an assessment.

The other marketplace I can see is the community education sector, and in some of their suggested course titles I think the mylearningworx team see this too. From my involvement in the local community education partnership I know that local authority funding for these programmes, which used to be quite considerable, have been slashed or, as in the case of the Bristol area one, stopped altogether. Facing restrictions like that it's inevitable that at least some of the education programmes will do the same as the corporate sector and look to elearning as a potentially low-cost alternative. Mylearningworx could deliver on that need.

Will I be authoring a course and selling it? Well, actually that's a distinct possibility. I've run a couple of  courses in the past of which I can be fairly proud and have often wondered if I could re-use those materials again. Mylearningworx is probably the best platform yet for doing something with it, so maybe I will. I look forward with interest to the launch of The Foundry, which I believe should take place at, or in time for, Learning Technologies next month.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dan experienced 'creating a Tin Can API statement'

I've just read up on Tin Can API. I've been meaning to do it for ages and I'm kinda pleased that, as it turns out, Tin Can does pretty much what I had assumed it would do - but it does it better than I could have imagined and way more besides.

I'm also excited because I've also just generated my first Tin Can statement:
"id": "09888f33-2285-4c84-8ffa-18db65173171",
"actor": {
"name": "Dan",
"mbox": "",
"objectType": "Agent"
"verb": {
"id": "",
"display": {
"en-UK": "experienced"
"timestamp": "2012-10-24T14:46:34.354Z",
"stored": "2012-10-24T14:46:35.219Z",
"object": {
"id": "",
"definition": {
"name": {
"en-UK": "creating an Experience API statement"
"description": {
"en-UK": "Completing the Tin Can Api test generator on the Rustici website"
"objectType": "Activity"
This genuinely changes everything, it really does.

Something for everyone

All the LMS loving tracky types can love it because it does everything they need it to. Social learning types should be delighted as this reaches out and allows individuals to say what they learnt rather than only rewarding pre-ordained learning experiences. ILT luddites can feel good about themselves and come in from the cold and report on all the little parts of their courses. And ROI hounds should be cock-a-hoop at the notion of being able to track learning back in to the workplace in the form of results.

The main benefits as I would summarising them if I was making the case would be:

  • Freedom from the tyranny of the walled garden LMS
  • ability to account for non-online activity
  • able to take control of your own learning via personal learning repositories
  • builds tracking in to tools we recognise
I really am struggling to get a handle on how different things could be, and I'll tell you why I think this is so important. Buried away at the end of the description is the fact that the Tin Can API, or Experience API as it is also known, is based on common designed approach to the feeds you get on the social networking sites, but open and independent. That's it - this ties in to one of the most basic, and influential elements of the modern web and doesn't subvert it or lock it away - it sets it free. Brilliant.

Crucially however, it can't be a bolt on. I don't think that is going to work. Trying to retro fit this to an old school LMS isn't going to work. It would be like fitting four-wheel-drive to a Honda Fireblade* - sure it would work, but all the time you're going to be thinking "it was never designed for this". I really think that it will require a root and branch rethink of how we go about tracking and storing the results of our learning.

But do we want to track it?

My answer to this trope is simple - if we can, why don't we? The difference with this system is that we can build that tracking in to familiar feeling tools that we are comfortable with. Okay, so for now it's early adopters that use bookmarklets and phone apps to seamlessly join up our online and offline selves, but this has the usecase, this has the capacity to be the killer app for self tracking. Oh gosh, I am soooooo excited by this.

What can we do with it?

Question is, where does this go in the normal run of things? It's an obvious tool for CPD and some enterprising professional bodies should be all over this as a way of tracking it (doubt somehow that the CIPD will be early adopters, but maybe the LPI could get up on it?). Will we see it being co-opted by LinkedIn as yet another feature they draw in? Would we get this to work with Mozilla's badges? I can see all sorts of ways this could go.

Please let me know if you have spotted this going in any interesting ways. I'm off to comb the Learning 2012 and DevLearn conversation streams for bits now...

UPDATE: here's a great article by Gary Wise that does a more thorough job of explaining what Experience API can do.

* Okay - two things wrong with this statement. One, I doubt four wheel drive would work with this class defining road-going race bike and, two, most LMSs are not that well made or thought out. They are like 80s era Skodas (shoddy) or 90s American sports cars (great at one thing).

Thursday, August 02, 2012

eBooks - a potted guide to what I wanted to know

A great session at weelearning recently left me fired up and thinking about ebooks like I've never considered before.

What's the problem with ebooks?

I've had a number of ebook readers on my Android phones but have always been bamboozled by their boasts about compatibility with dozens of formats. In the absence of a simple choice, such as you have with  as with audio's MP3 format, I've never known which was the one to turn to, and as a consequence I've never thought of publishing ebooks as something I should really bother with. Stick it in a PDF and be done with it was my internal line, even if I'd never explicitly rationalised it as such.

Wikipedia's airy breeze of impartiality on the topic doesn't really help - it lists more formats than even the most comprehensive ebook apps claim to handle and by the time you realise it's including HTML in the list you start to wonder what exactly constitutes an "ebook".

Which was nearly the starting point for Zak Mensah's talk, but that he took it one step further and asked "what is a book?" He explored a couple of options, including the delightfully simple "anything that takes more than an hour to read" but since that rules out The Gruffalo, and no-one should rule out the Gruffalo, I think that you might usefully say "a book is whatever you damn well want it to be."

Sadly, this appears to be the case with ebooks too, or at least, ebook formats, as every man and his dog* appears to have approached the knotty problem of on-line publishing with the same answer - "what is needed is a new format!" So most major readers have their own formats (Kindle, Sony, etc) which line up against a handful of open formats of various ages and reaches.

Choosing your format for digital publishing

I'm not going to rehash everything. Zak was fairly impartial, but being a solution providing kind a guy I need hard answers. Thankfully the tech-agony-Uncle at the Guardian has done a great job of providing a summary of the state of the ebook world in late 2011 and I'm happy to report that not much has changed by mid 2012, so that all holds true now. His answer, in summary, is ePub is probably best, then mobi and PDF. Or the proprietary format tied to your Apple or Amazon reader if you are the kind of person who wants an easy life and can't done faffing about about with conversion.

If conversion is your thing, then the only real option I could find, prompted by Zak's initial recommendation I should add, is Calibre. The consensus seems to be if you are a serious consumer of digital books then Calibre is the tool for you to manage your library from multiple sources devices. Provided, that is, that they are already in ebook formats.

We should remember here though that Guardian techy guy is talking about consumer books. And what do consumer ebooks tend to be? Out-of-copyright classics,  softcore porn novels and celebrity biogs**, none of which make great use of visuals, which for any self-respecting designer of learning material should be an important part of your thinking.  So heed this quote from a good 2011 article on making ebooks by Smashing Magazine:
Unfortunately, EPUB 3.0 doesn’t support illustrated books, so we can expect to see some fragmentation as Apple and other vendors innovate around these limitation.
It's not really just EPUB; consider the black and white screens of the regular Kindle and the fluid rendering of text you can see a clear bias toward text only content.

A quick conversion in Calibre proves the point. I took a PDF of an excellent little guide to learning communities by Kineo - a great example of layout and design contributing to the overall perception of the content - and ran it through Calibre. Here's how they looked on my phone.

On the left the converted EPUB format is all over the shop. Calibre has tried its best, but the footer info has been picked up and is included in the body. Tables are removed, all the structure implied by colours and typefaces is lost. By comparison on the right, the original PDF version, scaled as you might expect for A4 paper is quite readable on my phone (though I should say it has a larger than average 4.3" screen). These screen shots have been shrunk to fit on the blog page which doesn't do their on-screen clarity justice. What you don't see here is the fact that the author, made more prominent by the way books are classified, has been picked up in the EPUB version as the file name and all sorts. Scrubby.

I'm not knocking Calibre, but it's not a publishing tool. It didn't like Word format as an input which would mean you'd need to use something else to get it there. Word to PDF to Calibre to whatever-format-you-want isn't quite the solution I am looking for.

So what do I take this all to mean?

I've done you a disservice if you've stuck by me through all of this post, because only now am I going to address the most important question for the learning designer: do I need to think about ebooks? And my answer has to be: no, probably not. It's simply not going to be worth it in nearly all instances.

You have a choice of writing your material in formats that work with different readers, or choosing the best. If your learners are predominantly accessing the content via a PC then the colour, paginated, predictably printable PDF is probably your best bet. In fact, any reader with a large color screen, so that include iPads and innumerable Android me-toos, will make a decent fist of reading PDFs. So you have covered by far the largest group of readers there.

At the other extreme, dedicated ebook readers, though increasingly numerous, are not as common as you would want them to be, unless you are creating training for librarians, so probably do not justify the exercise in creation. Where people do have them, they tend to be tied in to a specific publishing eco-system - iBooks or Amazon (and Google Play? Yeah, in Eric Schmidt's dreams) which is just another irritating barrier.

When you take in to consideration that very many of the readers out there are black and white, it imposes an additional limitation on your design. If you were in the lucky position of being able to furnish your readers with dedicated readers as part of your training package, then perhaps, but for the price of some of the colour screen readers you could just get a cheap Android tablet and be done with it. At least the recipient would be able to browse the internet, watch a few videos and play Angry Birds when they weren't reading.

So that leaves mobile phone users, by far the biggest mobile sector. As we saw above, many smartphones (now 50% of the market and only growing) will do a respectable job of reading PDFs, though will happily take most other formats you choose throw their way. Old-school 'feature' phones are not for reading. End of story.


So for me for the time being trusty old PDF is the best choice for publishing "ebooks" for learning. Some people don't like them - Jakob Nielsen still stands by his 2003 advice, but he's looking at it from a general web user's perspective and I think PDF is mature as a format and our technology  has made it much easier to use than back then.

For me, PDF wins because:
  1. It's easy to author - Word does it out of the box.
  2. It takes all your lovely images and words and delivers them to your learners pretty much exactly as you intended.
  3. It's supported by PC, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS and paper
  4. PDF readers are no longer the resource hogs they once were - some browsers read them natively even (yea, Chrome!)
  5. It's easy to share and distribute.
  6. It's far more sophisticated than we give it credit for - embedded video anyone?
Still, that's just my opinion. I'd like to know yours if you care to share.

* "dog" in this instance meaning "international media publishing conglomerate".
** Non-porn and serious political variants of the latter two do exist, but they are barely touched by the great book reading public.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

"Listen, Observe" - the sound of chances squandered

Day three of my PTLLS and, and after a whistlestop tour of TNA (training needs analysis, for the uninitiated; "straightforward" apparently) and teaching methods (PowerPoint isn't, but reading is, and so is "e-learning"* - best suited only to reflective/theorist learning styles though), we had gotten as far as lesson planning.

Building on earlier work on SMART objectives we were required to plan a lesson to meet the objective we had written. I, like a couple of others, had taken the easy route by writing my example objective to meet the first of the proffered suggestions - making a cup of tea.

Working on to a blank copy of our lesson plan template and in homage to the training we were burying that week, I thought that the requisite for any such training would be at least a good 45 minutes on the history of tea drinking and production, perhaps best taught by some videos, maybe starring Jonny Vegas and Monkey,  and summarised by drawing a timeline on flipchart paper (learning objective, where tea comes from) and a solid hour long facilitated discussion on tea drinking habits of the English (learning  objective, how different tea drinkers might ask for their tea - milk, sugar or lemon - fancy "foreign" teas were out of scope for this project).

I may have been facetious, but my point had been an important one - as a "tea making expert" or "tea-sommelier"  I may well have thought all these elements important in gaining a deeper understanding of the perfect cup of tea, but from the point of view of a manager wanting to get a member of staff up to speed on making passable tea as quickly as possible, I was way off the mark. But it went unchallenged - not a question was asked. Fair enough; perhaps my irreverent tone had the effect of making my whole plan a joke, not worthy of comment.

But another learner in our group had make a clear stab at doing things by the book and at least making a reasonable attempt to create a lesson plan on tea drinking. Over six separate sessions learners would learn distinct but related topics, culminating in a practical exercise that drew things together.

The sheet we were using included several columns, central of which were two headed "Tutor activity" and "Learner activity". In the first column my colleague had stated that the tutor would carry out a variation on presenting to the class, while in each of the boxes in the second column learners would "listen, observe". After a day spent discussing teaching methods (albeit somewhat confusingly), the first chance to put these in to practice was met with the same old response.

But the trainer did not pick up on that. For reasons of politeness and decorum I wouldn't have expected him to call anyone out by name, but I might reasonably have expected the summary for the session to draw attention to the value of a column listing at a glance all the learner activity for just checking that you are using different, appropriate techniques to support each learning point. At the very least, I thought the trainer might use it as an opportunity to tie these two elements of the course together - to show how element A fitted with B to produce a better outcome. But he didn't.

I'm not highlighting this particularly to shame my co-participant on the course - I'm not naming them after all. I am however using this one instance to highlight the parlous state of educator training in the post-16, or "lifelong learning" sector.

This course was being taught by an experienced independent consultant who has taught PTLLS course in many places. Besides the way this day was covered, we have been subjected to learning styles (my rebuttal of which by means of reference to an excellent summary article by Guy Wallace was dismissed as "another point of view"), murky exercises that seem only to aim to get us to list some words and call that learning the topic; course notes that comprise dozens of unnumbered pages of content often copied verbatim from; an implicit assumption that training can and will only take place in person, in the classroom or during one-to-ones in the workplace; I could go on.

And it's not only this one trainer - they themselves recounted their own experience of having been "taught" during their own PTLLS course about learning objectives by a duo at a local college who espouse a uniquely dogmatic approach: every session, no matter what the duration or overall goal, must include around five learning objectives that must be covered plus one or two "nice-to-haves" (and I think by extension, so must every session have a slide that gives the same). This peculiarly unique take on things seems to combine the usual "rules" with some half-remembered suggestions on the prioritisation of content (the "musts, shoulds and coulds" as I was told; but for private use only as a tool for time-managing engaged groups, not explicitly sharing with learners) and perhaps the "rule of seven" for remembering things.

That experience for our trainer had been some 8 or so years ago, but I distinctly recall puzzling at this same approach when another colleague undertook the same course at the same college only a couple of years ago. That means at least 5 years' worth of new entrants to the sector have been taught the same strange take on objectives; quite apart from a mandated curriculum that includes unproven theories, like learning styles, being taught as "holy writ".

How can the post-16 sector ever hope to aspire to anything other than punishing mediocrity if it not only allows this kind of thing to persist, but actively enshrines these approaches in the indoctrination of new disciples? At a time when state schooling seems to be failing the national need for adequately trained young people (not to mention failing those young people themselves), and the powers-that-be seem to be pinning their hopes on apprenticeships and other forms of post-16 vocational learning to remedy that failure, it is surely negligent of all concerned that those tasked to help are being so poorly served by the systems designed to prepare them.

Educators for those failed by education being themselves failed by education? Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

* Interestingly, my point that "e-learning" is simply a delivery channel - online learners can watch or experience lectures, read, engage in simulations, discuss topics with others, be tested and so on through nearly all of the other, somewhat arbitrary list of "teaching methods" - was not really appreciated. 

** There was no double asterisk, but one might appear in that final paragraph. I don't mean to suggest that vocational education is only for those failed by school - that would be a silly thing to say and completely untrue as members of my own family would attest - but I didn't want to ruin that pithy final sound bite by hedging my statement or garnishing it with hard-to-pronounce typographical symbols.