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

Did You Know Moodle 2.0 Will….? (Online Educa 2009)

Martin Dougiamas spoke about Moodle 2.0 at the 2009 Online Educa in Berlin

Martin Dougiamas spoke about Moodle 2.0 at the 2009 Online Educa in Berlin. Photograph by David Ausserhofer and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Germany License.

I have written about Moodle 2.0 before. But last week in Berlin I had the opportunity to attend two more presentations by Martin Dougiamas about the plans for the next major version of Moodle and I have gotten a better idea of how things will work.

Moodle.com is completely transparent about their plans. You can read the roadmap and view the latest version of the planning document at any time. 16 developers are in Prague right now, making sure all of this will actually happen (search for #moodledev09 on Twitter).

My overview below is not complete. It is just some of the things I thought were interesting. Here we go! Did you know Moodle 2.0 will…

  • …look much better. The way that themes work will change completely. This will allow for much more flexible templating and theming. Moodle has Patrick Malley as the theme coordinator. He has been commissioned to create 20 beautiful themes that will ship with Moodle 2.0. Moodle will not ship with any of the old themes. The old icons will be replaced with a new set based on the Tango guidelines. All of this is great news as most Moodle sites do use the default themes (see this 12.6MB image of registered Dutch Moodle sites for examples).
  • …break most things. The 2.0 release is seen as the chance to do things differently. A lot of code will be refactored. There will be a smooth upgrade from 1.9 to 2.0 for the core code, but any customisations and extra modules will more than likely need an update. Examples? Every designed theme will need to be updated, 1.9 backups will probably not restore in 2.0 (update: there is a workaround) and old ways of getting files into the system (FTP anyone?) will not work anymore.
  • …allow you to search for Flickr images with a particular Creative Commons licence and will add the license to the image itself. This is one of my pet favourites, because it shows how anyone who is willing to be part of the dialogue around Moodle development (regardless of whether they are a developer or not) can influence the feature set of Moodle. I created a request for this feature in the Moodle Tracker and Martin demoed it in both his presentations in Berlin. We still need to get the user interface right, but the functionality is there.
  • …have the concept of a finished course. In current versions of Moodle there is no way to let the system know that a particular learner has finished the course. The concept just doesn’t exist. A lot of people require this functionality. It could be used as a trigger for sending the course grade to some other system, or could trigger the creation of a certificate.
  • …allow for conditional activities. In 2.0 you can make the availability of activities and resources for a particular learner dependent on certain conditions. These conditions could be the completion status of a particular activity (what completed means depends on the type of activity) or a grade for a particular activity. Finally it will be possible to set up your course in advance and then let it run by itself! No facilitation required! If Skinner is still your educational philosopher of choice, you will be very happy with this functionality! On a more serious note: this will allow for even more flexible Moodle course setups and that is never a bad thing.
  • …import external blogs. I believe blogging should be done on a platform that is as open as possible. This way your audience can be as large as possible and that means the interactions and dialogue around your blog will be at its most valuable. This is the reason why I don’t use the internal blogs that my employer provides me with and why I don’t have an active blog on Moodle.org or on any other Moodle installation. Not only will Moodle have a proper RSS feed for your internal blog, it will also allow you to import an external blog (based on a feed URL and on tags) and make it available internally. Moodle will make sure that the posts are in sync: so if you delete a post on your internal blog, it will also be removed from your internal blog. Brilliant!
  • …have a decent HTML editor that works in more than two browsers. HTML Area, the HTML editor that current versions of Moodle use, is old and crusty and does not work in many browsers. Moodle 2.0 will integrate TinyMCE, an HTML editor that has a larger and vibrant development community. It will work on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome/Chromium. All Moodle users will really appreciate this change (even if they might not be aware of it).
  • …allow comments on everything. This is the pedagogical big winner for me. It is possible to add a comment block to nearly every resource/activity in Moodle 2.0. This will allow for a lot of peer feedback which can then be aggregated in different places (in the course, in a users profile?). I recently did a course on Rapid e-Learning Design where one of the core activities was commenting on other people’s work. The richness of interaction that this created was amazing. I am just hoping that the development team will think real hard about some of the user interface decisions around the comment API: that will make all the difference.
  • …have a workshop module that you are not scared of using. Currently the workshop module is broken. I would not recommend anybody to use it. The peer feedback concept that it embodies is not broken though! David Mudrák has completely rewritten the workshop module and the first comments are very positive.
  • …will have a built-in feedback/survey module. Modules that implement survey functionality in Moodle have always been the most popular add-ons. Andreas Grabs’ Feedback module will become part of the Moodle core code from 2.0 onwards.
  • …will not eat disk space if a file is used or uploaded multiple times. We all know the problem. You have a course that has a 300MB presentation in it. The course is duplicated for another run. Now you have two courses with 600MB of presentations. This problem is a thing of the past in Moodle 2.0. All information about files and where they are used is stored in the database (drastically improving the security around who can access a particular file). The files itself are stored on the filesystem. A SHA-1 check on each new file will make sure that identical files are not stored twice.
  • …have a completely new way of navigating. The way users navigate a Moodle installation has gotten a complete rewrite. Tim Hunt has done a very commendable job involving the community in his design plans and there is an excellent page in the Moodle Docs explaining what it is going to look like. It boils down to a more consistent navigation bar, a new Ajaxy navigation block which allows you to jump to any resource/activity in any of your courses in one step and the moving of many of the module related settings that were hovering at the top right corner of the page to the administration block.
  • …be a reinvention of itself as a platform. Moodle was approaching the end of its life cycle as a “Walled garden” product. Moodle was ahead of the game in 2001, but has been passed by many of the developments on the Internet since its inception. When Moodle was first conceptualised things like WordPress MU, Ning, Flickr, Delicious and Wikipedia did not exist. Moodle needed to reinvent itself. The repository and portfolio APIs in combination with the Web Services layer will allow Moodle to become much more a platform than an application. Moodle will keep its relevance or will become relevant again (depending on your viewpoint on the state of educational technology). I am already imagining the Moodle App Store.
  • …change the world of education (if nothing else). I think that Moodle already has had a very positive impact on the world of education, but if the Moodle Hubs scheme works, it will be a lot easier for teachers to share the share their best practices and collaborate with other teachers the world over.

I am certainly looking forward to its release! Are you excited yet?

New Paradigms for Course Delivery

The Ministry of Instructional Design

The Ministry of Instructional Design

As I write this I am participating in two exciting courses. Each course is an example of how new paradigms for course delivery are coming to the fore in this online world. I will probably write more about both of them in the near future, but will kick off today with just a simple explanation of both courses.

Rapid eLearning Development
LearningAge Solutions has developed an online course about Rapid eLearning Development. I am a participant in the pilot group: I don’t have a course fee to pay, but have committed myself to giving weekly feedback so that the course can be fine-tuned.

The “Ministry of Instructional Design” (LearningAge Solutions)

Part 3D computer game, part social network, part collaborative learning, the ReD course will teach you how to build effective elearning and informal media using leading elearning author tools.

Designed by Rob Hubbard of LearningAge Solutions with input from some of the smartest people in the elearning industry including Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and Patrick Dunn. This is a course unlike any other,  designed to show how great elearning can be and built using tools that you too can master.

The way that this course is created/structured is smart and inspiring (regardless of the content which is good too). The course is made from a loosely coupled set of (mostly) free online web applications.

The core of the course is a private Ning network which has links to all the other parts of the course. This is the place where participants do reflective blogging and where people hand in their assignments and comment on other people’s assignments.

Mindmeister is used for mindmaps that contain the learning objectives for each module, ClassMarker contains a couple of knowledge checks/assessments, Dimdim delivers the web conferencing functionality and there is a 3D game made with the gaming technology from Thinking Worlds.

To me this type of course design shows that it is not necessary to assume that one single tool should deliver the full learner experience. It is perfectly viable to use a collection of tools and use each for its strengths. Once I have finished the course I will post a bit more about my experiences.

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge

This is the second year that George Siemens and Stephen Downes (actually my two favourite learning gurus) organise the  “rather large open online course” Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. It is their attempt to destabilise the concept of a course.

The course is open to anyone. You attend freely if you do not need any university course credits, or you pay if you do. The course is decentralised (or maybe “loosely federated” is a better word): the two facilitators set out reading materials and organise a couple of webcasts every week, but the meat of the course is to be found in the discussions that participants have (online in Moodle forums) and the reflections that participants post on their blogs.

A single tag, CCK09, is used by all participants for their posts. This pulls the all the course activity together and makes it easy to find course related postings (e.g. on Twitter or in the blogosphere). By connecting to people with similar interests, it is possible to go on a tangent and explore the things that you want to work on in relation to connectivism and connective knowledge.

A daily newsletter is sent out. This is an edited version of the aggregated posts and discussions and includes commentary by Stephen Downes. Just reading the newsletter is already incredibly valuable.

I tried to actively participate in this course last year, but was not able to keep up with it. It requires a lot of discipline to study this way: there is no passive consumption of information. Instead it requires a lot of effort to select what you want to read and post your reflections. I hope I will be able to do better this year (although things are already not looking good right for that to be the case)!

Corporate Social Networking Part 1: Elgg

Over the next couple of weeks I will write a series of blog posts about corporate social networking. I will be looking at some open source tools that can facilitate the creation of these kind of networks in a corporate setting and I will try and make a business case for why you want to start experimenting with these kind of tools in your company.

Elgg

Ellg.org

In this first post I will take a look at Elgg, a tool that will allow you to build your own social network. You should see it as an open source version of Facebook, Ning or Hyves. Unlike these services, Elgg will allow you to retain full control of your implementation and of your data.

Elgg has been around for a couple of years now. Recently the core developers have completely rewritten the application and version 1.0 came out on August 18th 2008. They have used the pretty standard PHP/MySQL combination to implement their own MVC framework. This will allow you to easily change the user interface without changing the functionality and makes extending the existing functionality a pain-free experience.

In 2008 Elgg won the best open source social networking award in Infoworld’s Best of Open Source Awards. Examples of Elgg sites are:

  • Community@Brighton: a social networking system for students and staff at the University of Brighton. This university has been using Elgg for quite a while now (they seem to use the old platform still), using it for blogging, sharing of different media files and for the creation of internal communities.
  • Rucku: a virtual clubhouse for rugby. Rugby enthusiasts share forums, videos and pictures. Note how even the language of the site is rugby themed (e.g. “sledge” instead of “message”).
  • Harvard University: recently some courses were taught in an Elgg environment instead of in the standard (home brew) Harvard LMS. Weekly blogging instead of threaded discussions was the central activity. This way the content of the posts stayed with the students even after the course had finished.

If I were to summarise Elgg in a couple of words I would say that the core functionality revolves around a dashboard, user profiles and groups and that these are linked through tags and a flexible access infrastructure allowing users to build their own networks.

Each user has their own dashboard. This is their launch page and contains widgets showing recent activity in the network:

The dashboard, each user has one

The dashboard, each user has one (click to enlarge)

Users can add their own widgets to this page by clicking on the “Edit page” link and using the drag and drop interface (Elgg makes extensive use of jQuery) to fashion the page to their own liking:

Adding your own widgets to the page (click to enlarge)

Adding your own widgets to the page (click to enlarge)

Developing your own widgets is trivial for any web-programmer. This will allow Elgg to play nicely with other systems (e.g. a Twitter widget already exists). The Elgg developers write on their homepage: “We are committed to open source, data portability and transparency”. Their support for OpenID, OpenSocial, openData and Elgg’s RESTful API clearly demonstrate this. Because of this it is very possible to use Elgg data inside another application.

There is a user profile for every member of the site. Users can upload their own picture and fill in a couple of profile fields. These fields can be created by the site administrator and will allow connecting different users on the basis of their interests, location or field of work for example. The user profile has the same widget based approach, so that the user can decide what people see when they view their profile:

User profile, note the Twitter widget (click to enlarge)

User profile, note the Twitter widget (click to enlarge)

One of Elgg’s most celebrated features is the way that groups can be created inside the system. Users can start their own groups around projects or communities of practice. A group has their own files, forums, activity stream and pages and can have open or closed membership:

The group homepage (click to enlarge)

The group homepage (click to enlarge)

Every thing that is added by users to the system will allow multiple tags to be attached. These tags make finding relevant materials in the network very easy:

A search for the term "Elgg" (click to enlarge)

A search for the term "Elgg" (click to enlarge)

Finally the access controls make it a snap for users to share any of their materials with the world, their friends, a particular group of friends, a group in Elgg or to keep them private. You can set these permissions for anything, be it user profile information, uploaded files or blog posts:

Tagging and providing access

Tagging and providing access

All the other functionality inside Elgg is completely modular and can be turned on or off with a couple of clicks. The main modules that are relevant for businesses are:

  • Each user can have their own blog. The blog is quite rich in functionality: it has comments, pingbacks can be installed and access to each post can be set.
  • The files repository will allow the uploading of any file type. Files can have a description and tags and their level of access can be set. Image files get special treatment, automatically allowing them to be viewed in a gallery.
  • Messaging comes in two forms. There is an internal messaging system allowing one to one private messaging and there is a facebook-like “wall” connected to the user profile page.
  • Elgg calls their wiki functionality “Pages”. It is a mix between a true wiki and a collaborative hierarchical web-page writing tool. Each page has separate access permissions for reading and for writing. A very simple revision history is kept.
  • The social bookmarking tool (including a bookmarklet) allows users to store their favourite websites and share these with selected friends. Websites can be tagged of course.
  • A user can easily update their status. Each status update is stored so that this can also function as a microblogging platform, especially in combination with the activity river which shows the most recent updates of your friends. There is a plugin that will push status updates to Twitter.
  • Many information streams inside the Elgg installation have their own RSS feeds pushing the content to your feedreader of choice.

In the next social networking post I will try to build a business case for a tool like Elgg inside corporations. Why would it be useful to have this inside your business? I can imagine that you as a reader might have ideas of what could be the added value or maybe you have some examples of businesses that are already doing this. It would be great to get your input and feedback in the comments.