A Review of the “Moodle 2.0 for Business” Book

 

Moodle 2.0 for Business

Moodle 2.0 for Business

Packt is a new type of publisher. They have found a model that allows them to publish books (likely on demand) in what other publishers might call niche markets. They are usually the first publisher to have a book out about a particular open source product. They leverage the enthusiasm that exists in these communities in how they recruit writers, they stroke people’s egos by asking them to become (technical) reviewers of the books and they do most of the hard work that is necessary to create a book in countries that have lower wages than (Western) Europe and the United States. All of this means that the quality of the books is a bit hit or miss.

Another trick up their sleeves is the way they promote their books. They seem to understand the Internet well and offer bloggers review copies of books. I was offered a free copy of Moodle 2.0 for Business, Implement Moodle in your business to streamline your interview, training and internal communication processes by Jason Cole, Jeanne Cole and Gavin Henrick in return for a review. So here goes!

Most books about Moodle assume an educational setting. As I know a lot about Moodle and am starting to understanding corporate HR more and more every day, I was curious to see what I could learn from this title. The authors of the book have a very deep understanding about Moodle and have all used it for years (as they write “The authors of this book have collectively spent more than 5,000 hours experimenting, building, and messing about with Moodle”). They are active members of the Moodle community and work for a Moodle partner. In many places their hard-earned experience comes through like when they point out a fundamental flaw in Moodle richly complicated roles and permissions system on page 194. The books contains a few suggestions and warnings and I would recommend any reader to heed to them.

The books kick of by trying to to answer the “Why Moodle?” question. It nicely lists five learning ideas that form the core of Moodle’s educational philosophy (I must have mentioned them before many times, but they are worth repeating):

  • All of use are potential teachers as well as learners – in a true collaborative environment we are both
  • We learn particularly well from the act of creating or expressing for others to see
  • We learn a lot by just observing the activity of our peers
  • By understanding the context of others, we can teach in a more transformational way
  • A learning environment needs to be flexible and adaptable, so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the participants within

The authors also mentioned the 2008 eLearning Guild survey about Learning Management Systems: “Moodle’s initial costs to acquire, install and customise was $16.77 per learner. The initial cost per learner for SAP was $274.36, while Saba was $79.20, and Blackboard $39.06”. Even though I think the survey is comparing apples with pears, I still think it says something: Moodle could be a way to get more functionality out of the same budget. Another good reason to choose Moodle is is that it “makes it easy to try things, figure out what works, change what doesn’t and move on”.

The meat of the book is a set of chapters which look at different parts of the HR process finished with a case study of a company or organization which has done something similar (see here for an overview of all the chapters in the book). Through these chapters a lot of the different Moodle functionalities are explained in very concrete terms. Many of the examples make quite creative use of Moodle. One of the first chapters for example deals with the hiring and recruitment process. Moodle is used to capture people’s resumes, rate the resumes, let people choose an interview slot and assess people with a simple online test. The authors have a pleasant tone and are not afraid to share their own failures to make the reader learn (like when they set up quiz questions in the wrong way, page 47).

Some of the case studies give real insight into the path that these organizations have travelled. I particular like the enlightening example from the Gulf Agency Company (GAC) corporate academy starting on page 164:

After a less than successful strategy of purchasing off-the-shelf SCORM content, GAC has now move to developing courses with a combination of internal subject specialists, HRD e-learning consultants, and facilitators. The course content is uploaded into Moodle course page with GAC-specific assignments and discussion forums added. There is a clear strategy to ensure that the learner does not simply click through a series of screens without context or interaction. Interaction and collaboration in courses is now a fundamental part of the learning process, with the courses tightly integrating content, tasks, and collaboration.

Through these chapters we get some good explanations of functionality that gets glossed over in many of the other books on Moodle. There is a good explanation of the database module, outcomes (a Moodle word for competences) are explained, the new way of setting conditions for accessing particular parts of the course and for considering a course complete get good attention and they have found some useful examples for relatively advanced role configurations. On the slightly more technical side they give sensible advice on how to install modules (page 209) and I love the fact that they explain how you create your own language for the interface (something that is usually very hard to do in other systems) on page 285.

The book ends with a few chapters that show you how you can integrate Moodle into application landscape. There are some good explanations about using webconferencing/virtual classrooms, the portfolio and repository APIs are used and they show you the first steps towards integrating authentication and enrollment.

The book has some minor areas that could be improved. It is written by three authors and seems to keep switching perspectives between the author as “we” and the author as “I”. Also, ocassionally the case studies become too much of an advertisement for a Moodle partner: “The uniqueness, and in some ways, complexity of the project meant that A&L were keen to engage with a service partner that had extensive knowledge of Moodle to enable them to bring the project to a succesful completion. Ennovation not only had the Moodle knowledge and experience that A&L were looking for, but also a proven reputation in the legal sector with their long term customer, the Law Society of Ireland.”

There are also a few things missing that I was hoping to read more about:

  • The explanation of the portfolio and repository APIs wasn’t conceptual enough. I am not just sure that the average reader will be able to generalize from the exampls and see what a gamechanger this type of technology can be when it is embedded correctly in the organization.
  • There is small battle going on in corporate Moodle land. Multiple service providers are creating their own more commercial “distributions” of Moodle with extra functionality that is relevant for enterprises: Remote Learner publishes ELIS, Moodlerooms has joule and Kineo and Catalyst have come together to create the aggresively marketed Totara LMS. The book never mentions this (I can think of good reasons why this is the case), but it is highly relevant to know more about these systems if you are considering using Moodle in your organization.
  • Related to the previous point is reporting. Moodle is not known for its strong enterprise reports and this is something that many organizations commission some functionality for. It would have been nice if reporting had gotten a similar treatment as web conferencing. Maybe we can get that in the next updated version?

All in all this is strongly recommended reading for any curious person who uses Moodle professionally in an organization, no matter the level of their expertise.

Get it here if you want to let Packt know that you’ve read the review, they use this link to monitor which blogs give them the highest amount of traffic and might ask me to review another book if this link gets clicked on often. Get it here if you don’t want to pay any shipping costs and don’t mind me getting a 5% percent commission. Get it here if you like Amazon and don’t mind me getting a neglible commission. Get it here if you don’t like be tracked, live near London, love bookstores and are willing to call first to see if they have it in stock. Seriously, Foyles is a treasure.

Looking Back at Learning Technologies 2010

Learning Technologies

Learning Technologies

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the 2010 Learning Technologies Exhibition in London. In many ways this event is very similar to the Online Educa in Berlin (e.g. most Berlin exhibitors were in London too and the conferences shared a keynote speaker). There are two main differences: Learning Technologies seems to draw a slightly less international crowd and it focuses more on the world of corporate learning. In this post I want to capture the people I met and the technologies that I looked at. What caught my eye?

Mobile Learning, Social Media and Serious Gaming
Those were the three buzz words that most exhibitors thought would sell their services best. I made it a point to enquire with any exhibitor who used any of these terms in their marketing and found out that most of these claims were very hollow. For example, I talked to a developer of mobile applications who told me they would gladly convert all my existing e-learning content into a mobile format (why would I want to take something that does not take advantage of its medium and move it over to a medium where it fits even less well?). Another one on the ridiculous side of the effectiveness scale was the vendor that showed me a screenshot of an internal social networking site where people could do a daily crossword. Honestly? Where is the first vendor that can show me a scalable mobile learning event/application that can only work because it is delivered through a mobile Internet enabled, location aware phone with a camera? The medium is the message right?

Technology Companies versus Content Development Companies
Luckily there were some exceptions to the rule. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the knowledgable people of Caspian Learning. They have developed a serious gaming platform (Thinking Worlds) which utilises Adobe Shockwave to deliver single user 3D virtual worlds in the web browser of the participant. I have been a participant in an excellent course that used their technology and was very curious to see what the authoring environment would look like. After a solid demo I came away very impressed. The way that scenarios can be created and managed looks wonderful. I believe it is fair to say that Caspian’s technology is good enough to enable a new way of designing learning events. The ball is now in the court of learning designers (I like that better than “content developers”), they have to explore this new technology and have to learn a whole new set of skills. Authoring is easy, but how do you design effective scenarios? The field is very immature in this respect. Here is a demonstration video of a game made with their engine:

Caspian’s business model is interesting too. They consider themselves a technology company foremost, and not a content development company. Their business development efforts are spent on finding content partners. They already have a deal in place with IBM and I wouldn’t be surprised if companies like Accenture, Tata and NIIT will follow soon. This is the perfect way to make your business scale and it will allow you to focus on developing your technology (managing technical people like programmers is fundamentally different from managing learning consultants).

In my quick chat with Gavin Cooney from Learnosity I advised him to pursue a similar strategy: the core competences of his company are their technical skills (I call them “Asterisk plumbers”) and their ability to find strategic partnerships (not that he needs any advice, I am sure his business development skills far outshine mine!).

Some companies seem to sit on the fence when it comes to being a technology or a content development company. LearningGuide Solutions has an Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) and develops content for it. I believe that EPSSs could be a very efficient way of getting people up to the task with a piece of software. The demo of their product left me underwhelmed.  They have been on the market for quite a while now, but their LearningGuide does not seem to have evolved past a an improved version of an online help system. The granularity of the context sensitivity was disappointing, the authoring has no version control and there are no social features. Wouldn’t it be great if people could write their own tips with the guides? How come LearningGuide has not kept up and emulated some of the functionality that platforms like Get Satisfaction have?

Learning as a Managed Service
I was interested to know whether any vendors would be able to deliver a large part of the learning function (at least the technology and support for the technology) as a managed service. I talked to two vendors:

I asked the people from Learn.com why they keep winning the reader’s choice for “Best Enterprise Learning Management System” category of Elearning! magazine (“Is it because all your customers get a free subscription to the mag?” wasn’t really appreciated). The first answer came from the sales guy: “Because we guarantee Return On Investment”. I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, but they seem to think it is relevant (check out the relentless Flash-based ROI counter on their site). Luckily the next guy had a more sensible answer: Learn.com has all of their customers on the same code base and has a rapid development process for this code. This means they are able to deliver new functionality and fixes faster than corporations would be able to do for themselves. According to them they have the authentication problem solved and are able to integrate with HR systems like SAP through a mature web-services based architecture. They also had really smart answers to my questions about reporting. One thing I appreciated was their support for all web browsers: it is not often that somebody can promise me support for IE, Opera, Firefox and Safari without blinking. I always take that as a sign that technicians might be in charge instead of marketeers.

Another company that I checked out was the Edvantage group. This UK based business has signed a couple of large contracts recently. They deliver a completely integrated content development and delivery street through a Software as a Service solution. In that sense they are similar to Learn.com.

I would be interested to hear from anybody who has some real world experience with either of these companies.

Moodle Everywhere?
Moodle has become ubiquitous. It seemed that about one in four stands at the exhibition had something to say about Moodle. You can see that this is very market driven (open source finally has become cool), as a lot of the exhibitors had no idea what they were talking about.

My personal favourite was somebody from Saffron Interactive whom I asked about their social networking offerings. Their whole stand was adorned with logos from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I was wondering if they maybe had thought of a smart way to integrate these services into learning offerings. She showed me a couple of screenshots of something that looked a bit like Ning and told me they created social communities for their clients. She then proceeded to tell me that the platform they used for this was Moodle and that an implementation of Moodle in general only takes three(!) days. I love Moodle, but I would never use it to create a social community and to make Moodle look like her screenshots takes a lot more than three days. I had to move on after that.

A very impressive Moodle offering came from aardpress. They have invested a lot of their programming talent (months and months of work) into creating Moomis, a set of tools that fills some of Moodle’s gaps for the corporate learning world. Unlike the corporate Moodle solutions that I have seen so far (e.g. ELIS), Moomis is not a set of successful open source projects that are integrated into Moodle. Instead, all functionality is created inside Moodle itself, using Moodle’s libraries and its add-on architecture. This had advantages on the usability side, but could have disadvantages on the side of functionality (i.e. it is hard to write a very rich tool from scratch). aardpress (they don’t seem to want to capitalise their name) is hard at work getting Moomis ready for Moodle 2.0. I hope they are successful in turning this into a sustainable project and maybe even collaborate a bit more with Moodle HQ in developing this type of functionality.

In the conference part of Learning Technologies there was a small meeting of corporate Moodle users that I crashed into in its last 15 minutes. I am glad I did, because I met Mark Berthelemy there, who I had only seen on Moodle.org before.

Monkeys with typewriters

Monkeys with typewriters

Wisdom Architects
Another meeting I thoroughly enjoyed was my talk with Lawrence O’Connor from Wisdom Architects. We chatted about implementing learning technology in very large organisations, discussed theories of memory and the Mind Palace 3D iPhone app he is developing. This app will help people memorise better using the time-tested technique of building a memory palace. I find it fascinating how we are both using technology to outsource our memory (my phone keeps all my to-do tasks, phone numbers, etc.) and to help us get a better memory. I am wondering whether we will see more study tools like this app and like eFaqt in the near future.

Lawrence very kindly gave me a copy of Jemima GibbonsMonkeys with typewriters. This book about social media at work is published by Triarchy Press which has a lot of other interesting titles. I really liked Gibbons’ unconventional approach: she went out and interviewed about fifty people that have either changed the face of social media or have run succesful social media projects in companies. The book is divided into six chapters titled: Co-creation, Passion, Learning, Openness, Listening and Generosity. Each chapter starts with a myth and a reality (e.g. Myth: Social networking is a time waster, Reality: Building connections is vital to business). My copy is now full of dog-ears. A couple of the concepts/ideas that I want to explore further:

Here is an O’Reilly quote:

You design applications that get better the more people use them, then the applications that work get the most user data. The winners are those that harvest collective intelligence: Amazon, Google… Google is actually harvesting the intelligence of all users. […]
One of the things that I suggest to any company is what data assets do you own and how can you build new fresh data services against that data? I think a lot of traditional businesses have enormous data assets, they just need a slightly different mindset.

Then there is IBM’s idea of reverse mentoring programmes, where younger employees teach the older staff about social technologies. And a great quote from Clay Shirky:

All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, they rely on the managing of information.

Gibbons formulates an argument that I use often when I try to get people to be more transparent about what they are doing:

Today’s smart businesses are not so much about creating an owning knowledge as about applying and learning from it. If [a company’s] blog posts and research papers are freely available, to be used , re-mixed, mashed up and built upon, that’s fine: the core competence of [the company] lies in the minds and knowhow of its consultants.

The book ends with “30 ways to get social”: great practical advice.

Other Meetups
Learning Technologies really does seem to be the place where all the British e-Learning people come together. It was chance for me to meet a lot of people that I had only met virtually before. I had a good chat with David Wilson from Elearnity, talking about innovation processes and about his research network. I met some of the people from Brand Learning and The Chartered Institute of Marketing with whom I have been working in the last couple of months on a marketing curriculum. I got to shake Rob Hubbard‘s hand and talk to him about his excellent Rapid eLearning Development Course. The only appointment I missed was the one with Jane Hart, maybe next time!

Bersin Executive Roundtable
The day after the event I joined Josh Bersin, Allan Keetch, Donald H. Taylor, Barry Davis, Ghassan Mirdad and Christina Tsirimokou for a corporate roundtable organised by Bersin & Associates. This was a diverse group of people with very different problems, so occasionally it was hard to find some common ground.

We did manage to have a good discussion about integrating talent management and learning. Doing this from a system’s perspective seems to be the holy grail for many organisations. Bersin thought the overlap between these two things is not as profound as most people think it might be. There really isn’t that much integration to do. On the other hand he has seen many organisations crumble under the weight of their completely systemised and integrated competence management systems.

Allan Keetch noted how good talent management systems are important and useful when an organisation is restructuring. I agreed partially with him. We all know that nowadays it is not only what you know, but also who you know that is important. There are barely any talent management systems that take this into account. My employer just went through a restructuring exercise and I am quite sure that my hiring manager had a good overview of my formalised competencies (and those of my competitors for the job), but had no insight into the network that I would bring into the job. As organisational network analysis (ONA) will mature I imagine we will see more and more tools that creates these social graphs automatically based on existing communication and collaboration patterns. (Remember O’Reilly’s quote, earlier in this post?).

Josh Bersin had keynoted on informal learning and it was therefore fitting to have Barry Davis at the table. He works for Creganna Tactx Medical and he believes that learning is working (or is it the other way around?) and that everybody in his company should be a trainer. His organisation is just the right size for his ideas to have a lot of impact. For example, he has managed to “formalise” (“organise” or “facilitate” would probably be better here) the 70-20-10 rule of Charles Jennings.

Finally
I am not the only who has written about Learning Technologies. Jane Hart had some good comments (with a post by Jay Cross in her wake) and Mark Berthemely wrote an extensive post which is very worthwhile to read.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJh464LEDac