Thursday, 6 December 2012

eLearning and Learning Technologies for Smaller Businesses

Thanks to NZATD in Auckland this week for letting me prattle on at their Christmas function and try to involve the crowd in a bit of a story boarding and learning technologies exercise to produce them a free SCORM piece for their respective LMSs. The scary part for me was looking around the room in a BYOD event and not seeing many devices (yes, if you don't know the acronym you know the first part I suspect and device was the last!), talking LMS and getting some blank looks and generally getting the feeling that maybe I'd time warped back a few years in L&D. That's not meant to sound like a criticism, they were a great crowd and I think we moved forward really well but it does highlight a real misconception that I'm probably not the only one that held; elearning is mature and well-established in the majority of businesses regardless of their size.

Whilst most major organisations across Australia and New Zealand are engaged in this space to at least some extent, it is amazing to see that so many medium and smaller sized enterprises have yet to even take a serious look at learning technologies and how they can help their organisations. Essentially this itself is the issue; WIFM. The well used acronym of what's in it for me seems fairly obvious to a large corporates (although they often go with the money saving options rather than looking at effectiveness). Smaller businesses often can't see the immediate gains from investing in learning technologies and what seems like a waste of money now for possible future savings that may never eventualise is a risk they may not be willing to take. If smaller organisations are going to embark on elearning and learning technologies they need to see real advantages for them to move in this direction.

For smaller businesses the first look should be at your current investment in your people. These are your most important asset and don't just play lip service to that. Developing people is something often forgotten in times of growth and hard-times alike but it's not surprise that without exception successful organisations invest in their people; whether that's team building, through formal L&D and training or just by the way they are truly involved in their organisation it's a must for success in modern business. Assuming you do invest, what do you do and how effective is it? A single unresourced staff member who can't access anyone's valuable time is a common scenario or sending people on external courses without truly measuring the gains is another. In both these scenarios the return on your investment is low in all aspects. Where elearning can really help you is that it can reduce the variability of training exercises and increase our ability to measure outcomes and how people feel about the training they have learnt. Things change when we measure them (if you don't believe me go in search of Schrödinger's cat) and it's time you looked closer at your investment.

eLearning certainly provides some greatly improved effectiveness and measures and it is also very effective financially too if you approach it the right way; this means getting reusable content with source files and a community of support or off the shelf content that exactly fits your needs. That's the elearning part sorted right? Almost, the toughest thing for small business is the hosting and tracking environment, but fortunately there's been an explosion in that area recently of low cost SaaS based LMSs offering great and affordable services for smaller organisations. Recently iSpring launched Rocket with a package of authoring tools bundled at a few hundred a month, then offerings like Litmos and a couple of others all providing SCORM support and tracking. These are limited in functionality but provide the basics to get you up and running with consistent training and measurability. There's even full blown LMSs now available in this model; you can get a fully functional Totara for under a $100 a week (yes, call me).

None of the above means your small business should disperse with its L&D function or trainer(s), but it does mean their role may change to support and use the learning technologies to greatly increase their penetration in your organisation. Imagine the gains in actually engaging with the learners beyond the one session you may initially get with them, not to mention the opportunities to let them shape some of the content and actually start learning from each other and others in similar positions? I'm getting carried away and ahead of myself I know, perhaps we should start with a chat... Your business needs to invest wisely in its people and learning technologies can be a very wise investment indeed.

This blog is quickly opening a longer subject than my flight allows for so maybe I'll stop here today and get back to this topic in more depth another time, let me know if you want to know more, I'm located at the centre of the Internet so finding me is easy!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Airport and air as usual

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Face to face with systems training?

As I'm flying down to Wellington (or the Middle of Middle Earth if Air New Zealand have it right) to deliver another face to face training session on Totara LMS the irony of delivering f2f training on cloud systems is not totally lost on me. I can't take full responsibility for this myself, I try to use webinars and coaching wherever possible with clients, but the fact is plain and simple that most of them simply expect their systems training to be delivered on site and f2f. The question is does that make it the best way to deliver? Or is it even what they need?

There's no doubt when you're learning a new system that there's a certain need for systems training, the issue is actually around how much and how it's delivered. Before you instantly dismiss webinar training, look at the typical length of training. The sys admin training I typically deliver in 4-6 hours. The trainer training (how to create content) in the system is typically 6-8 hours. I tend to run that over two separate days and often in separate and adjacent weeks (sometimes with the same people in both). Max numbers tend to be around 8-10. Very traditional, couple of 15 minute breaks and a spot of lunch somewhere around the middle. My web training sessions are typically no more than an hour each. They tend to be very focused and are distinct sessions covering the main topics. The number of sessions I would recommend is around 6 formal training webinars.

The training sessions aren't the total deal though; I like to run a few coaching sessions entirely focusing on what the learners are struggling with or feel they need more help with; they're coaching rather than training as they are far more user led than trainer led, much more interactive and targeted at learner needs. The key to success for the training is getting the learners to do something. In f2f this is usually predominantly done in the session I run, in the webinar model this is largely occurring between the sessions. I think that systems training is only ever truly successful if you put in to practice what you've been taught within a reasonably quick timeframe before the knowledge fades away. The problem with the single hit approach is that it's very much like front loading all of your training when a new employee starts and then assuming that their training is done with for the remainder of the time with you; it simply doesn't work that way. Learning is a lifelong journey not a day long session without follow up.

Sounds logical enough so far right? There's also cost to consider as always. Some clients want web training at the same cost as hourly support rather than at training day type costs. This simply isn't realistic or reflective of the work that goes in to webinars and the support and coaching (and of course the tools to deliver). Generally the amount we would invoice for a two day training session is higher than for than say 6 webinars and a few coaching sessions, but it's not twice as much either for the reasons above, you could probably expect a bill around 2/3 the size so their is some savings for sure. There are also your internal savings and these can be significant; you have to book and pay for your facilities of course; not to mention the staff time, potentially travel and accommodation, lunch etc etc.

The real reason though is about effectiveness rather than efficiency. Spread out your training and provide coaching to supplement the targeted sessions and you undoubtedly get better learning; if it costs less too that's a bonus rather than the main driver here.

So before you book in your next f2f session externally or internally perhaps you need to ask yourself is there a better way to achieve this? Should I be talking the talk of learning technologies and go as far as walking that walk too?

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:In the air

Thursday, 22 November 2012

To Host or not to Host

Okay they're warming the engines on my private jet (okay, technically there's a whole bunch of people I don't know on here too) as I prepare to go and deliver a coaching session in Wellington on Totara LMS to the health service here in New Zealand, that means as usual the majority of my blog gets written on my trusty iPad from the clouds (Cloud in the clouds?). Today's issue is all about your hosting and who hosts your technology. This can be an incredibly emotive subject it seems for some organisations, but we really should examine what the advantages and disadvantages are for the hosting options.

There are essentially three options as I see it;
1) host it yourself
2) a SaaS offering or Cloud solution without options
3) a third party hosts (although 2 is technically is too)

I'll host thanks
Working in open source learning solutions the self-hosting option always seems like a good idea at the start. It's a bit like deciding to have your kids birthday party at home; it can cost you every bit as much, is considerably more work and who gets to clear up the mess afterwards eh? That said it can give you a greater sense of satisfaction and ultimately you have full control over your system (in theory at least). I've said here that the cost can be as much to host yourself but surely this is a typo right? I'm afraid not. The problem is often in the set up and services that your technology piece requires, do you have the right servers, access, operating system, web services and expertise to be able to put the system in place and ultimately the ability to make the updates and changes necessary in running a scalable operation. The real key here though is what is your relationship with your IT people (unless you do it all yourself, in which case just allow time, lots of it). In the open source world if your IT people are Windows people then I'd probably happily pass at that point and move on, Linux based systems are different and there will almost certainly be troubles ahead. There are options here and a good one is to consider getting your supplier to build you a VM or virtual machine. In layman's terms it means you host a 'box' and it does its magic for you!

Hosting internally doesn't necessarily mean working unsupported either, ask your vendor if they can provide technical or remote support to you; watch again though as it may well cost as much to support your system remotely as it does to have them host and support. If you do get remote support, make sure your IT people are on-board and give the vendor the access they need otherwise the relationship can quickly become very difficult and time consuming to get things done.

Finally if you are hosting internally get commitment from your IT peeps to continually support the system. All systems require regular updates and patches for security and functionality and you don't want to be left with an outmoded system that in a few months isn't performing the way it should be.

Let's get SaaSsy
Having your software as a service (ah, that's what SaaS stands for!) is pretty trendy these days. What it means in simple terms is that you just use it through the web interface and the database and code is held centrally somewhere or another that you don't have to worry about (or do you? More later). This is the best option when your IT department sucks, is slow and unresponsive or frankly non-existent. You just need to make sure that you don't have a viscous firewall that won't let you through and you're 99% of the way there! For simplicity you can't beat a SaaS offering and for setup speed it ranges from the time it takes to swipe your credit card to a few days... Either way it's the fastest way to get your learning in place.

So what's the catch? Well... There are a few things to consider. Typically interconnnectivity for SaaS systems is difficult if it allows for this at all. That means if you want it to actively link to your other systems and hierarchical structures or have SSO (single sign on) you will typically find this is a no-go or very difficult. Since these are typical requirements for larger vendors true SaaS offerings are often targeted at small to medium business only; and so is the pricing. That means for small users it's almost certainly the most cost effective way to set up a learning system; great for pilots or smaller organisations. If you're a larger organisation with thousands or tens of thousands of users upwards you'll probably find the SaaS option is actually dearer. It also becomes far harder to completely customise a SaaS offering both in terms of the way it looks and the way it acts. The code base is typically the same for everyone and this may not suit the way you want to work.

Back to my side note earlier SaaS offerings can be slower because of where they are hosted. Usually they use cheap locations for obvious reasons and this means your server can be a long way away from you and this can affect how quick the pages and content load. Always worth checking where the hosting is being operated from before selecting SaaS offerings if performance is important to you and your organisation.

Be my host
So hosting is the third option and this means someone other than your organisation looks after the system and the updates etc. This means it's going to be hosted somewhere in the cloud and they look after it. If you're wondering what the difference between this and the previous example is, you're right to ask as essentially this is still SaaS in most instances, but the differences is that it's hosted for you rather than hosted for everyone and you're just a user. Think private jet rather than economy space; well... Maybe it's more business class, but it sure makes you feel a bit superior, though you pay for that of course. The point about scale comes in to play here, if you travel often and far enough it's cheaper to own a jet than use one... This translates to if you have enough users it may be cheap to have it hosted than SaaS offerings, and even if not cheaper it certainly feels more like it's yours.

The advantages here are several but most notably that if you want to customise or link to another system or two you can. If you want SSO or things that aren't available to economy class you can have them. You also get a system hosted by a company that knows the right environment to host their own system; the performance difference can be massive, particularly with large databases that LMSs typically rely on.

The disadvantages of this approach tend to be the start up costs, particularly for a low level number of users or pilots, and that the timeline can be slower than the almost instant SaaS offering (although better than an internal hosting where people don't know what they're up to!). Control isn't normally an issue as the site is essentially yours, but some hosters are decidedly better than others so do your research I guess!

For me there's no single answer as to what's the best option. Sometimes the decision is made for you by the powers that be and their policies, but as a general rule, if you want to set up a pilot for a few users without customisation then you can't really find a better choice than SaaS. The internal hosting is an obvious choice when you have the internal skills, capacity and systems but otherwise I'd avoid it unless of the aforementioned policies. That means big and custom installs tend naturally to fall into hosted systems where they belong. All in all though it really depends and a good vendor will talk through the options with you and help you in your decision.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Andrew McKee Avenue,Mangere South,New Zealand

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dressed for Success?

Stuck with another song in my head I thought it was an appropriate time to raise it in the forum of Learning Technologies.  Using my speciality of putting things in simple terms (hey, I'm a simple guy) does the way your Learning System or LMS look really matter?  I mean sure, we all want good looks but it's the performance that matters right?
Is this a substance over style argument though?  (Yes, I'm aware of the number of questions exceeding the answers right now).  Isn't this actually a question about usability and how the system meshes with everything you do and where you expect to find things?  Some of it undoubtedly comes down to how you use your systems; if you're wanting everything to work kind of seamlessly behind the scenes and have that portal style of approach where the user doesn't really know that they're not in the intranet any more then you really want your LMS to emulate and have the same feel as the site itself.  This isn't just about getting your collars and cuffs matching, it's about immersion in a system or series of systems so that it flows and feels straight forward for learners.
At the same time a tart's handbag (sorry, if you're unfamiliar with the phrase think Ferrari on the outside and a Citroen Dolly under the hood) won't cut it for anyone. The World is full it seems of all-in-one systems that include a poor LMS that only a sap (!) would truly be interested in if it wasn't for the fact that it looks like the rest of the suite. Often the LMS is an afterthought of a CMS or an HRIS or some other tool. Unfortunately for many organisations this is reflective of their investment in learning and development; fortunately these organisations are normally limited by their own lack of investment in their people, but it doesn't stop these nasty bolt on LMSs being out there and looking okay with no real functionality. No, I'm not trying to claim that a good looking LMS without the engine is any good, just the converse that a good LMS must look the part too.
Lotus is dark and moody.. of course!

Branding is such an important tool in the modern market place. Can you imagine big brands not having their identity obvious through their learning systems as well as their advertising and marketing material? Take it further still and try and place a different brand alongside theirs and see how quickly you find yourself in court. For me dressing your LMS to make it yours should be an absolute, not just a bit of lippy and an icon on the front, but a full build up that says this is us. The other no-no is to have the name or company name of the LMS provider somewhere on the system. I can understand it for Cloud offerings whereby you're buying some space on essentially shared infrastructure, but not for a big corporate offering. If you're choosing your LMS right now, demand that it looks like you want and loses any identity it previously had.
Would you expect Sony Learning to look less Sony?
That brings me nicely to naming your LMS. Just because someone named the dog I bought for the SPCA doesn't mean I have to stick by it.. Pauly (yikes) became Milo and the rest is history. Name your LMS something that means something to your organisation and stands for what it is. Totara LMS as my regular reader(s) will know is my favourite LMS and I install more of these than any other offering, but not one instance is known as Totara (shame, 'cos it's actually a very cool kiwi name - big strong tree). Personally, I'd love to see more not less going in to picking the name and look for a system; does it change the functionality? Maybe not, but it sure changes the way people look at it and think of it. People who call their children ridiculous names take heed, if you label your LMS something very sad or with an acronym like the puss from a tree people will ridicule it. If you leave it with the name that the dog pound put on it you might just as well call your dog 'dog'. It's all about vision and inspiring people and yes, the name contributes to that.
This is Milo... Not Pauly
As if that wasn't enough for taking out your proud new offering there's the issue of language. It's a bit of a killer if your organisation has taken a huge amount of time and effort (and a bit of spare change too) to build its identity around the appropriate terminology to have your LMS come in and heavy-handedly ignore everything you've worked for and say 'no, this is a module not a unit or activity or whatever you said'. When I configure a system for end users I like to take the time to learn a bit of their language and make sure the system ends up speaking that language too. If you don't use the word course in your organisation I want to make sure that your LMS doesn't either. This idea alone will make some systems defunct if you take the look and feel seriously, but don't underestimate the damage that can be done by having your systems talking in a different language to your people. I haven't even touched on foreign languages yet...
To conclude, remember that when you install a new or virgin system in your organisation it involves change and selling the benefits to your organisation. It may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, but it surely makes it harder to sell if the cover doesn't fit and this will ultimately put the acceptance, use and success of the system at risk. But what do I know? Just do something without the investment or effort, you might just get something that works out anyway... what could possibly go wrong?   ;)

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Optimising Cloud Training

I've called it 'cloud training' here but you can easily replace the term with a raft of others, in basic terms I'm talking about synchronous training using the web. I'm also looking at this from the learner perspective in this blog rather than suggesting how to give a great webinar, this is because a learner can shape learning (shock, horror, but yes) and really needs to if they're going to get the most out of it. As you may imagine I hold plenty of these sessions with a wide range of clients and the best ones are those where the learner or learners have input into the session; otherwise you're left with a presentation or lecture and if that's the case you might as well stick up a PowerPoint (/sarcasm hey you could probably host it on your shared drive and call it elearning /s)!

Now I'm not suggesting that the entirety of the content should be driven by the learner because the old saying that you don't know what you don't know still applies here, but ask your training provider to give you an agenda and then challenge and question if you don't understand why. If it's high quality training they will have a rationale about order and process that will help your understanding. If the agenda has come from you then get feedback from the trainer; learning is at its best when it's a two way process. You also need to be able to interject and interrupt the trainer throughout the session. Don't suffer in silence when you don't understand or challenge if you can see error in what they're doing, of course pick your points and try not to criticise for the sake of it. Your focus should be the same as the trainers; getting the most out of the session for YOU. If not, you need a different trainer!

Hardware and software. If you're getting instruction at your desk and you work in a multi-user environment a decent headset is a must. Ideally a USB one as they get better audio quality than their 3.5mm jack equivalents and a stereo over both ears is best to immerse yourself in the training. I like the wireless one I've got as it gives me the benefit of being able to stand up but I probably spend more time in these things than you will! If you can get yourself a meeting room or quiet corner somewhere you will definitely benefit. If you have a twin screen set up you may also be able to follow on your own system as well - this works really well but let your trainer know so they don't think you're slow! Keep a note pad (I use my tablet and note taking apps) so you can make a note of important stuff but don't try and turn the session into comprehensive notes or you'll miss more than you'll get. If you want to gain everything you can ask your trainer to record the session but you may find the files are prohibitively large depending on the length of the session. In fact whilst we're on length of session don't opt for long sessions, use shorter sharper sessions if you want to get the most out of it. Most people like one hour sessions but 30 mins work really well as long as you've not stored up the technical issues for the session. Anything longer than 2 hours is a no go for me and I think 1.5 hours is about the tops before it gets difficult.

Follow up the session... Yes you! Use it to effectively give yourself homework and try out what you've just learned. If you encounter difficulties or things don't work the way they seemed to in the session then fire your questions back to the trainer. In fact go one step further, try and show someone else what you've learned. This effectively turns you into a teacher and there is no single better way to try and understand a subject than to try and teach someone else. If you want to extrapolate and take this further still, you could try and do the next step too. No, not the next topic, leave that for the next session, but take what you've learned and test it on an example that stretches a little beyond your comfort zone. Again any issues should form your follow up questions and work for the trainer. If you can make this process more two-way you become a more active learner and your trainer becomes more of a coach; great outcomes for you both.

Before each session you should run through the agenda and familiarise yourself at some level with what will be covered. This isn't so you can be a smarty pants and know the stuff first it's so you can pre-plan your questions or scenarios that you'd like to see answered. Your content for the session can also be better shaped if you feed this back to the trainer, particularly if you can do this ahead of the session. I regularly coach or train with clients who take me to unexpected places in the session itself. Generally I have no problem with this as I know my stuff pretty well, but it's more effective to give your trainer preparation time too. The exercise is not a test of their knowledge any more than it's a test of yours, it's about how you can get the most out of it and that's all that's important.

Finally, training sessions should actually be fun! It's great to learn something new and gaining new capabilities in your system. But to achieve this you must approach the session right, look for gains and real life examples and share these and the successes with your trainer. Be enthusiastic as you will undoubtedly learn more when you want to. Don't get hung up on things the system simply can't do; remember there's no perfect system and this is about getting the most you can... A good trainer will have strategies and work arounds that may be even better than your perceived path. Finally, finally... Be positive, it's the best receptive mind state for learning of course and your trainer should feed off your energy and attention too.

About to descend back down to earth so we are about done, take care and learn a little every day :)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:30,000 feet above Middle Earth

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Asynchronous Collaborative e-Learning

Sorry, been a barren period for Learning Technologies blogging as I've been dealing with family stuff for a week or two, but I'm back, fully engaged and we're cooking with gas, so let's get down to how we can share knowledge and engage learners through some new twists on some old tools.

It's easy to get impressed by the synchronous learning tools that exist these days.  Let's face it the virtual classrooms can have quite an appeal, video links, real-time experts and presentations with live white-boarding.  The problem comes two fold; one they're often heavy on expert resource and secondly they're often costly on resources (both financially and bandwidth in countries like this one!).  What often gets overlooked is the seriously useful asynchronous tools that we have at our fingertips.  Possibly the best of which is the forum.  Forums are all too often underutilised in online learning or simply used as a throw in for a course just in case someone has something to say, but there's a number of great ways you can utilise this resource to enhance learning.
Firstly, try a simple question and answer forum; pose a question (particularly good with a controversial type question) and get the learners to respond, but more than just responding they can respond to other responses.  It's a great way to explore depth of knowledge and understanding and from a trainer perspective you only have to ask a question.  Better still, write a scenario type question as the starting point but rather than having to leave three options to pick from, the learners answer with their own thread, then others can comment on these threads.  As a trainer you can re-engage and take the thread further if you find one that's particularly interesting.

You can use Q&A type forums as well; these are great as the answerer doesn't have to be a trainer or expert.  Sometimes all the trainer has to do is go in and endorse the right answers and leave learners to do the rest.
You can also use forums as assessment types, in Totara LMS I like to use forums with a completion condition that they must post either a discussion or respond to a thread.  You can then set this as a completion condition for the course that makes contribution part of the overall assessment.  You can even go in and have contributions assessed by the trainer on a custom scale.  How about using something like a forum with a voting option (like a Choice in Moodle/Totara) to take further pressure off the trainer and get peer review involved.

One of the most underrated tools in all of collaborative learning is the wiki.  We're all aware of Wikipedia (and most of us use it to look up everyday things, although hopefully accepting that common wisdom doesn't necessarily equate to fact), but as a social learning exercise wikis have real value.  So there's the simple question and answer type similar to forums to get a collective answer, but better still use those scenario based questions to get your collective learners to come out with an answer to a 'what should so-and-so do?  Wiki tools also allow for you to comment on different parts or overall; this is great as a wiki you can't really add to or contribute more to you can at least agree with or put your point across.  Again you can assess wikis and use those voting buttons to see who agrees with the end result and even challenge and feedback on them.  It can certainly make for a great exercise in getting the answers to come from learners themselves rather than the trainer being the single source of wisdom.

My final asynchronous tool that may come as a surprise to you is to use feedback or customs surveys.  Using a simple survey you can get learners to effectively vote, choose and justify on a wide range of topics.  It becomes interactive when you let them see the results of the polls and then combine that with a forum or even a wiki on the responses.  Again from a trainer perspective you just have to set the questions up and leave the tool to do the analysis.  I don't subscribe to the old adage that knowledge is power; it should be more like the sharing of knowledge is empowerment and that will help you unlock the potential in learners.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Time Management in Learning Technologies

I'm actually quite relieved to be in the air for a couple of hours, I'm thinking a little blog work and then maybe a movie will be good for me before landing in Melbourne doing a couple of meetings and then returning tonight to my beloved New Zealand. All in a (long) day's work I guess, but I've had a very busy few weeks and I'm not sure my time management is always the greatest, but it does remind me that when you're at your busiest that's the time when you must make time to manage your time!

So time is one of the few things along with money (or love if I'm feeling pink and fluffy and less materialistic) that we really never seem to have enough of. The real problem 99% of the time for me is not the physical quantity of time but distractions; this I have to say is fairly typical of people in learning and technologies are no different. I once ran an elearning unit (I know, hard to believe) and when the guys or I were off-site they were very hard to get hold of, claiming they needed to be disconnected in order to work effectively in their creative space. I'm not sure I was wholly sold at the time, but this is true in many ways, when you are 'deep' in to something, it's all good, but the start ups and slow downs can be a killer. How in the modern world do you stay connected to the resources you need but disconnected to what you don't need? I'll get back to this...

Firstly it's all about prioritising and ordering. It's not the sexiest topic I'll ever cover, but you know what really needs to be done and this is determined by how important it is and how soon it's due. I've seen a variety of systems from A1,C3 priority type to you standard high, low etc. whether you classify or not, you need to work out what needs to be done soonest and is most important and start there; of course remember the resources you'll need too if they are time bound and there's your schedule. There are a number of tools to help you work modern and collaboratively regardless of your geographic location. One I'm a fan of is Trello. It's a collaborative todo board with plenty of configuration options and the ability to assign and prioritise tasks any way you like. I'm not a big fan of the Gantt project type programs as they just don't work so well for me, I like to use a non-time based task planner and my calendar, but however you work you need to be organised to at least a basic task level.

I work from home mostly, that means a fair deal of isolation if it wasn't for the telecommunications and the web. The key practice I use is to always use two screens, I have one for communication; email, Skype, webinars etc and one purely for my focus; whether that's a text document, a Totara LMS site I'm configuring or elearning. For general use this works fine, when my phone rings or Skype rings (same same technically) I take it like any vaguely normal person. When time tightens and I'm working to a schedule that's when I go in to my 'black ops' mode. For me the primary communication screen becomes my research and comms screen; that may seem the same to the uninitiated but it means turning on my do not disturb sign and using the web more 1.0 than 2.0; that way I initiate the outgoing calls and use the web to bring my information back in. I use my calendar far more aggressively with actual programming for tasks than in general use and stick to the times more rigidly. My advice with your calendar is program the vital stuff in and stick to the time and go 'black'. Also you need to book serious time slots. In Wall Street they may book in 5 minute calendar appointments but that doesn't work in learning technologies; for clients everything is in 15 minute blocks for me and whilst that's okay for being reactive for pro activity I work in 30 minutes or larger.

If I've got something programmed for 30 mins and it takes 15 the 15 minutes remaining I can split into two options; I either return to normal, pick up emails and messages, make a cup of tea (hey, I'm still a pomme at heart) or I move to the next major task. The big thing to not do is to get deep into something on the nice to do list. This is another productivity killer as it takes me away and I get involved and can't get back to where I was and the schedule goes all over the place and I end up working till very late (again).

So what about modern open plan offices? My first recommendation would be a good set of headphones and even a sign up letting people know you're in development mode. Again, you can talk to others and get information you need but be the initiator rather than just someone to chat. If this all sounds a bit too rigid for you then try blocking out breaks too and if that's sounds a bit anal then overbook a couple of tasks to allow, but try to start them at the beginning of the time slot whenever possible.

So what happens when it turns to custard? Yeah it does doesn't it some times. Whilst generally putting out fires is more fun than plodding along, it is far less productive in the long run. If an emergency pops up, use the first period of time to reschedule and work things out; you may not be able to avoid working a little longer than you planned, but try and sort it on your terms. Resist the urge to just leap in.

So here's my disclaimer; I'm practically nothing like the individual described above. I would much happier work in the vision space and be far more spontaneous than the methods above describe and when work eases back (please.. Soon...) I return to holding far more in my head with far more white space on my calendar, but I recognise the need for time management and I put myself into that space to be as effective as possible. If I fail? Well, there's always the airplane and the night time (where most blogs get written!).

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Over the Tasman

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Separated by a common language

I've launched a new blog for those not aware 'The Techo Translator Blog', but that doesn't mean I can't still talk about one of my most common topics here under the LT blog; the use of language in Learning Technologies. Whilst the new blog is intended to be a little but humorous, this one is only funny by accident, this is serious stuff you know?!

Dealing with your techos is a major linguistic challenge that I address in that other blog, but the use of language in your site and learning is something you do have control of and there are definitely some things you should aim to do and somethings you should definitely try to avoid doing. Firstly, my assumption here is that you are working in English, with my first-class English education (as far as you know) and my extensive world travel you may think I'd be talking about your language conversion abilities for multi-market platforms, but you'd be a little off the mark. Possibly another conversation for another day, this is about how you use the Queen's English or variants of that (and boy there are a few).

Before you get that far this blog today assumes you have input into the language of your site (if it's Totara or Moodle you do!) and your learning. If you don't then your first step should be to seriously consider why you are using that tool or company, language is one of the singularly most important things to elearning. Studies show that retention is improved by over 70% when the language used is completely understood by the learner. Now of course this is just as much an issue for any type of learning as elearning, but hey.. My blog is all about learning technologies so it kinda figures that's the focus... That will smoothly segue to the first tip:

Must Do

It seems almost too obvious to state (almost) but the first thing in setting up your LMS or learning objects is that you must take your audience into consideration. If you're dealing with a certain literacy level that means keeping the language as simple and clear as possible, but it's more than just avoiding those big words that most people don't understand, it's about the language of the subject too. This is a learning focused blog so it's fine for me to talk about training needs analysis and quality and expect most people to follow, but if I use an excess of technical jargon say from a different sector or focus it would be poor practice. For example, if I tell you that you that you must stay within the required parameters and only use wild-cards in search strings half of you switch off instantly. Of course we know what parameters and wild-cards are but the context doesn't match and it will quickly upset your audience and switch them off to the system.

Secondly I'm a big fan of analogies (read one of my blogs on the topic of analogical elearning) and metaphors. This isn't the best way to set your system up, but if you're training and writing guides then putting things into simple terms that your audience understands is a great way of aiding their learning. It also helps to portray things in some different way, the misplaced
pedagogical approach of simply speaking slower and louder doesn't help in elearning, try a different approach, putting your point across in an example the learners will understand. I'm also a big fan of scenario based learning, another great way to make learning relative.

Be consistent. Easy for me to say in my rambling mess of a blog, but you want learners to get used to the terms that you are using or the areas of your site. If your record of learning is called that then links and instructions should use that phrase too. A small step to 'courses completed' may seem harmless enough but it can throw those users off the trail and lead them to think there missing something. Likewise with fonts and colours just like you would for the rest of your learning, keep them consistent.

Language Killers

Don't use 20 words where a couple will do.

Don't use jargon unless you know your audience know it too.

Chuck fur spalling mistooks and typ0s

Use imagery to reinforce language and not just pretty pictures

Don't use txt spk and overly informal language (scenarios can though)

Don't use overly formal and archaic language

Avoid ambiguous statements

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Another AirNZ black plane

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Launching with Technical Difficulties

It's not the first time I've blogged from an airport and neither is it the first time I've written whilst on the plane, but this may be the first time I've blogged on the plane and at the airport. My second flight in as many days and the 'technical difficulties' here make it two for two on that count unfortunately for me and my fellow travellers. Thing is, in the learning technologies world these kind of things are (hopefully) more fatal to a launch than for an aircraft.

So your brand spanking LMS is a hot jet ready for its maiden voyage and you're ready for take off, just the final checks prior to launch.. Fully loaded with passengers all excited, lots of cool luggage.. Oh no! Something's awry somewhere, technical difficulties and the sync isn't working or the payment gateway doesn't work or.. You haven't got enough band-width, or nobody even remembered to check the firewall to make sure it would allow the LMS or content through. Whatever the technical issue you have it can be a killer to your project as your launch opportunity only really exists once, it's that first impression time and as they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

The answer to your problems is really simple, the problem is it starts a way back before you got this far into your solution. If you have a time machine, or you haven't got this far yet you need to ensure you have a good implementation plan in place with time for testing and correcting any issues required, go back earlier whilst you're at it and remember to involve your IT department at the start and get them on board, you don't need them to fly your plane but you sure need them to clear you for takeoff and fix any issues along the way so involve them.

So what if you can't go back in time and the implementation is in full swing, how do you avoid disaster? Firstly you need to understand that this isn't a quick win situation, but it doesn't have to result in total disaster either. They key to saving your first impression is a combination of communication and planning again. Secondly our plane metaphor happily rolls on here as there's no way you would fly in a plane you thought may have fatal flaws and the same is true for your LMS. If there's a real chance of crash and burn, or even it not getting off the Tarmac then stop right now before you make a massive mistake you won't be able to undo. I was on a so called flight once that didn't happen for nearly two hours and not a word of what was going on was passed to the passengers, I had another flight once delayed for nearly 12 hours (yes, I travel a fair bit) where the staff were awesome; meal vouchers, humour and above all honest and plain communication. One of those companies I would not fly again, the other was an unacceptable delay handled very well and I simply would fly them again happily.

So the key to surviving this mess is to open up and not close down the communication lines. Start to re-plan, involve the right people, don't promise what you can't deliver and allow the time to get it right. You can recover with a re-launch once if you go about it the right way, but do it again and it looks like you don't know what you're doing and no one will have faith in a flight without a flight plan that will work. The last tip is that you need to use the gap time between failed launch and re-launch to positively reinforce everything you did (or should have done) first time round. That equates to getting champions, walking and talking the vision and above all else communicating what's going on to everyone on board.

Speaking of which, the engineers have now signed off my flight so we're off in a second and I have to turn off the blog here. With a bit of luck I'll see you in the skies!

Chocks away!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 7 September 2012

Who's driving your learning?

I think for a forward looking organisation that's looking at or using a blended learning framework a key question needs to be asked about who's driving it?  Who is the organisation looking to for guidance and leadership, and who should they involve (or not involve) to make it go smoothly?

Firstly it seems obvious if you're looking at bringing in, upgrading or changing your LMS that the answer lies in the question.  It's a learning management system.  You'd think it would be fairly obvious that whoever is the driving force behind it has some vested interest in learning (and hopefully has some management responsibility to boot).  The issue I sometimes see though is an organisation where the LMS implementation is driven exclusively as any other software development or IT project.  The issue here is that even if you consult and bring in your L&D people at some stage, the drive has to come from the people looking to utilise the end result.  An LMS is about providing the services for learning, that means your principal aims are all around learning so this is your key driver.  It doesn't mean you have to have a project manager who comes from L&D (if you have a PM in L&D it really kind of does), but L&D/HR or your training department need to have the biggest influence in your end result.

But it is an IT system essentially right?  Could be (although if you've opted for an externally hosted system that's cloud based with no integration it's no more IT than any other portal or web system) but you have to look at the key aims.  Would you install a financial institution without engaging and listening to your financial department (you know you have no choice there as they won't pay for it otherwise!)?  For me, seeing IT leading an LMS installation is a sure fire way to get the wrong system installed, or at very least, get the right system with the wrong set up in place.

That brings me swiftly to the next point.  If you are in L&D leading an LMS change/integration or installation then you MUST and as early as possible involve IT.  This is not at any way in contradiction to the piece above, I'm just saying it's learning so lead it out of learning, but it's an IT system and you need to have them engaged and early.  Don't wait until you're about to launch before checking that IT is all good with what you've done.  Same could be said of a few other departments too, if you have a marketing and/or communication department you need to engage with them as early as possible to make for the most successful of projects.

So if all that seems pretty obvious there's one last point to consider when choosing who to work with to help install your systems... and it goes right back to my first point, it's all about learning.  If you want to buy (!) or install (Open Source) an LMS then look for a partner/distributor that's all about Learning and has its focus firmly in that area rather than an IT or simply an onseller.  It makes sense of course, but you want to match the expertise of your team with that of the team you're linking with.  No-one will doubt there's a different language when IT people speak to each other, but don't underestimate the language of L&D people too, when you talk about performance, development and competencies surely you need the key contacts in the LMS provider to be thinking along the same lines.  It also means that when you get trained on the system it will be geared at getting the most out of the system rather than which buttons do which, big difference eh?

In conclusion, the old adage is true about making sure the dog wags the tail and not the other way round, that's both for your team and the team you're engaging with.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Emerging Learning Technologies; An Open Source Approach

Well, back from Learn X since Saturday morning and it seems like I've almost caught up to where I was before I embarked upon the Learn X journey!

If all you wanted was my Prezi link it's here.. Emerging Technologies; An Open Source Approach

I've seen some interesting points of view about what was learned (or not) and who was interesting (or not) and sales pitches (did I fall into that category?), and as usual I partially agree and partially disagree. One of the key trends I see is that people were a little disappointed at two things; the knowledge of many 'peers' and the amount of advertising.

Taking things in reverse order to be funky, I can't help but think it's a little naive that we want a sponsored event but we don't want to see the sponsors or hear what they say? I heard one suggestion that we should essentially segregate them off from the participants, now for any event organiser that would just about be the nail in the coffin. Sure, you need to vet your speakers and make sure people have something beyond a simple sales pitch, but surely most people are smart enough to pick through and disregard that. The alternative may be that people don't sponsor the event, but keynotes will probably be even more commercially focused then as it may be the only way to get something back financially. I actually like the stands and speaking to people; I think it's great to follow up on people who have spoken or are giving sessions and often more interesting than talking to some of the peers you came with. I very quickly work out who is worth talking to and who is.. well, those that don't do anything for me.

On the second one it's quite ironic in a way. If you want to be a leader in your field it's part of the necessity of that to out-grow your peers and forge on ahead. Perhaps, one should take it as a compliment that you know more about things than some others, perhaps it's a great opportunity to share what you know and perhaps you just spoke to the wrong people.  I like to seek out people who challenge my thinking, and that sometimes is hard to find, but it's always about the people and that's even more important when you work in elearning.  Then again it was probably easier for me than most as I mostly work out of my home office and just plain don't get out that much (yes, I know it shows).

On giving my keynote, that was good fun on the whole. I know it was probably a bit vanilla for a deep expert in Open Source, but with the number of people there I felt it necessary to pitch it somewhere that the majority of people could follow easily.

I continue to hear a great amount of criticism leveled at Moodle (and it's distributions) but I think Moodle is the ultimate clay system. The prettier LMSs always seem so very simple but limiting, and I think Totara is way ahead of most other offerings I've seen and used. Lastly on that, there were questions about branding your Totara/Moodle. I even saw one comment that suggested you needed a team of graphic artists and designers to make it work properly! Totara 2 has a pretty adequate self-design mode, and many Totara themes are put in place for around $3k and can look pretty slick. Sure you can spend more, but that's what Open Source is all about - choice as to how you spend your money! Finally, here's the link to the Prezi I used for the keynote.. hope it's of use to you!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Open Source Learning Management

In my last blog I talked about how learning itself was Open Source; drawing from experiences and collective knowledge rather than a simple formal teacher/learner environment. To follow that up I'm going to talk a little more about Open Source technologies and their use in the learning space. This is essentially the second part in the piece I'm flying to Learn X in Melbourne to deliver. After I've given the presentation I'll link it to the blogs too but for now you'll have to make do with what I can put in here!

Open Source learning technologies have to deal with a huge amount of preconceptions and myths, only last week I was talking to a military client who told me they couldn't choose an open source solution because of the security risks. This is ironic when you consider most of New Zealand's government, a huge number of banks globally, and even electoral data is held securely on Totara LMS. Sometimes internally hosted, sometimes externally hosted, but at a level of security well-tested and trusted by government agencies and big business alike. The caveat here isn't about the security but about the organisation. If you don't believe open source solutions can be secure then stick to your big corporates, but wonder how much of their profit goes into software development over issues like security? Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here..

The first preconception I get is usually around control. 'If I opt for open source I lose all control over the software'. In fact, this couldn't be further from the truth, when you choose a corporate LMS the developments are controlled by them pure and simple. They push out the updates and change your product as they see fit, the closest you get to control is sometimes having the option on the updates, more often this is a financial decision rather than a control one as the updates generally don't come free (when did you last see a free 'Windows' major upgrade? With an open source solution like Moodle you install what you want as you want and that includes plugins that enhance your performance. Yes, if I'm a large organisation with concerns around security and content then I would use an open source specialist to help me do this, but I retain control. If you like a bit more of a business model in the open source world then consider Totara and a managed set of plugins where the decisions are limited to major versions or customisations. Add to this a raft of options around how you host, whether or not to use dedicated space or shared sector or commercial space can give you exactly the type of solution you're looking for.
See my last blog for the discussion between free and freedom, but a misconception is that open source is simply a cheap option. For most organizations it is usually the case that an installation like Totara will be cheaper (yes significantly for large organisations) than a corporate offering, but that doesn't make it free. What it really gives you is the freedom on how your money is spent, instead of spending money on the advertising, branding that isn't yours and a direction you don't control, you spend your money on the hosting and security at the level you need, the look and feel of your own organisation and people like myself to help you implement and support the installation throughout the life of your LMS.

Believe it or not the most common misconception seems to be around scalability and the fact that an open source solution is targeted for small business alone. Whilst the flexibility and configurability is highly desirable to small business we are seeing a trend towards large organizations looking at Totara and Moodle solutions. I'm not naive enough to think that this is solely because the open source solution is a more adaptable and a better fit, but I do believe that is a bonus more important than the saving of money that attracts these larger organizations. In Sweden an installation of Totara is about to become the first to hit 1,000,000 users and there are already several in the hundreds of thousands with an exponential growth in its first 18 months or so. Moodle accounts for approximately 25% of registered LMSs globally with around 100,000 registered sites and 60 million users, that figure is growing as I hurtle through the air and that's not even considering the immense number of unregistered and unaccounted for sites that exist.
So the most likely thing holding back your organisation from turning to open source, has nothing to do with the open source product, it's probably got far more to do with the current inferior system that you are still stuck with based upon the lengthy contract that you entered. Of course it may simply be that you're just not ready, that's okay take your time, open source learning will continue to improve at a faster rate than your system and eventually the decision won't be that hard for you.

The facts is open source does work and is not industry or product specific (yes you can use whatever HRIS and performance management, word processing and accounting software you like). It's cloud based whether you host it or someone else does, it connects securely to other systems and itself, has the latest social and interactive features and offers freedom in every sense; if my blog inspires you to speak to someone other than Kineo then that's cool too, welcome to the community and I look forward to sharing with you soon.
If you haven't seen Totara 2 yet then drop me (or another open source provider) a line and prepare to move on.. Just wait 'til you see Totara Social in the not so distant future!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 17 August 2012

Learning is Open Source

So I'm preparing for delivering a keynote speech at Learn X in Melbourne in a week or two and my piece is entitled Emerging Learning Technologies; An Open Source Approach.  Two things strike me about that; firstly that it is a very fancy title and someone else must have come up with it (thanks Zack) and secondly that an Open Source approach is more than just about elearning and LMS it's actually about the way we learn first and foremost and importantly the way we teach too.

Firstly what is Open Source?  Surely OS just means free right?
Actually no, not quite.  Whilst it's true that the vast majority of OS software is just that, that's not the point.  You can download freeware or get free software (just watch out for the trial's that expire!) but that doesn't make it OS.  OS is about access to the code that the software is written in.  Having access to this means you can adapt what someone else has done to your own needs; it means you can make it your own, fix it, customise it and then.. well, then you can share it again, let someone else take what they want, let everyone benefit and get support or you can choose to sit on it if it makes you feel better (but that's not quite the open spirit).  So OS is more than free - it's freedom!

Learning is Open Source.  Modern learning theory will clearly identify that by far the largest amount of learning does not come from formal education but from copying others and experiencing doing things yourself.  So if you think about it, this is very much the same approach used in OS software.  When you learn you build upon what others have learned before you and their experiences, you then adapt it for your own circumstances to form your learning.  If learning worked the same was a corporate LMS you would ask someone about something you didn't know and they would either tell you nothing at all or show you the answer without giving you the working out and knowledge would still be the gift of the entitled alone.

Training is Open Source too.  If you take this model and try to teach out of original ideas only where would you be?  Each great person only saw further by standing on the shoulders of those that went before them and building on that, not returning to square one each time.  When I used to teach I would take the things I saw in other teachers, in other classes, in books I'd read and films I'd watched and make it my own.  I then shared that freely with others, students and teachers alike.  Not for my only financial gains or intellectual rewards, but because it is the very nature of learning.. it is Open Source.
The same goes for this blog, it's all my own work (I know hard to believe) but the ideas and the learnings that come together in my babble has come from a variety of people, many smarter and more educated like than I am.  (as a side note I think it's amusing that Open Source has a TM next to the logo).

And here comes the point.  If learning is Open Source, if teaching and training are Open Source, if the very nature of understanding is Open Source.. Shouldn't the systems you use to teach, train and learn on be Open Source?  I mean, who wants a system built into a corporate model that isn't remotely connected to the model of function it supports?  So for learning technologies if you're not in Open Source are you out of touch as well?

Long live Moodle, Totara, Mahara and actually the different things that they will become that are far and away better than the original products because (again) that's the nature of Open Source.