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.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Is Customisation a Dirty Word?

Despite constantly battling my spell checker as it tries to correct my Queen's English, I have to ask the question regardless of whether you use an s or a z is customisation something you should avoid at all costs or just a part of getting what you want from your learning technologies?

Once upon a time (a good start to any story) Customisation really was something that only the rich and famous went for. You basically accepted software the way it was developed by the people who wrote it and that was that. Go ahead ask Microsoft to make a few changes just for you (ooh don't get me started..) and see where that gets you. In fact sometimes even if you could get something that commercially targeted changed just for you, how much would it cost you, not just now but moving forwards whenever updates forced your customisation to be changed too? But surely things have changed haven't they? We're now surely driven by what a user needs and wants so software is more configurable.. Hold on, that's different too, let's start there..

For the sake of this blog and not just because it's right, let's take these basic definitions:
Configurable means that the software you are using has lots of options and can be changed to work in different ways through the front end (ie not through code). Customizable means that you can change it by changing the basic code of the program, a back end change that you generally need someone else with very thick glasses and no human interface to do for you. (customisable means the same but is spelled properly, but I can't fight the BlogPress dictionary this late at night).

In answer to how things have changed the answer is yes and no (yeah but nah as we like to say in New Zealand). Big corporate offerings generally are far less likely to deviate from their standards and you'll find a general resistance to any customisations that you may wish to instigate. If you opt for your LMS to be a big corporate offering like this, pick the one you think won't require changes that you may never get and accept your fate. This of course offers some benefits in that you often get a very stable product that is unlikely to be buggy and require changing processes once you align to their way of thinking. If you really don't know much about learning technologies and don't have a strong opinion about your processes this could be a positive as you can be led by a well-thought out LMS.  If you want to fit the LMS to your processes definitely not.

Your best option if you're looking to make the LMS do exactly what you want is to look closely at Open Source solutions.  Not only do systems like Moodle give you stacks of configurable options, they also allow you (yes, all of you) access to the code base.  That means making changes is soooo much easier than with a corporate offering.  There are also lots of 'off the shelf' plugins that enthusiasts have already put together for you - and when I say off the shelf I mean without cost too!  The downside sometimes is the same as the up.  When it's easier to make changes there is often too much of it.  Rather than changing your processes when it makes sense, it seems easier to just change the way the LMS works - this can leave you with a funny offering that has some strange idiosyncrasies that mean when someone new takes over admin or trainer roles they can struggle with the setup.
This is probably why I'm such a big fan of TotaraLMS.  It's a distribution of Moodle but adds in the functionality most modern corporate LMS's add in via plugins.  The good thing about this 'customised' version of Moodle is that you don't have to try and update it yourself; the good team at Totara do that for you (yes, there is a small subscription fee..).  Both Totara and Moodle allow one great 'customisation' that you should look at; changing the theme.  It means your LMS doesn't have to look like it belongs to anyone but you.  You certainly shouldn't have to have a logo from another organisation on your site unless you want it!

I'm not sure I'm helping that much here.. what I'm trying to say is that if you want a solution that you can customise then definitely take a look at open source offerings as they give you the best options.  Whilst that holds true, I would still think twice before leaping into custom solutions for common issues.  Ask yourself this question first; how convinced am I that the way I 'need' to do this is the best way? Too often we see implementations where someone tries to change the LMS before looking at their own processes.  That's where a good partner can help; part of my role is to assist clients in working out what they can and can't do and what they need to change (be it with the LMS or their processes).

In short customisation isn't a dirty word, but it's not the answer to every problem either (surprise surprise there's no silver bullet!). 

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad whilst at another bloody airport

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Love me Tender

I love learning technologies and trying to assist with getting the right LMS or Learning Management System into organisations, but there's a process that I'm not so fond of sometimes, and that's responding to some tenders that are out there. Unless you've been living under a rock modern businesses of a certain scale have adopted the procedure once seemingly reserved for government departments; putting their requirements out to tender.

Now the idea is sound enough isn't it? You want to see what is out there and have them come to you and compete rather than the other way around. But the problems occur when the organisations that put out the tender aren't 100% sure of what they want, but still manage to construct a lengthy set of requirements that eliminate the very options that work best for them. I remember being in a certain military service that shall remain nameless trying to select an LMS with the decision makers being largely clueless in the world of elearning. We managed to rule out Open Source software at the first hurdle, because the head of IT had it on good advice that this architecture wouldn't work in a military setting! As it turned out we ended up with the wrong corporateLMS (despite my best efforts) and they're only just trying to correct that error now.
The problem is writing the requirements for a tender relies heavily on either knowing what the systems that are out there can and can't do or having some pre-set requirements. Since the prior is often a shortfall in the organisation the best most organisations go for is a list of requirements for vendors to work through. These lists often go in to great detail on obvious features, and skim over the important features such as the integration with other systems and then there's subjective questions like how easy is it to use?

So tenders can be frustrating from a vendor perspective but perhaps even more so from the organizational perspective as the responses you get can often seem so cryptic, they ask more questions than they answer. Is there a better way to do this?

For some organisations tenders are not the best solution at all. If you have experts that know the learning technologies environment then empower them to advise you and get the right vendors in to demonstrate without an open tender process; if you have that expertise in-house you should take advantage of it. If you have no expertise and don't know what you're after, research with similar organisations; try asking them what they use and how happy they are with the product and services from the supplier. If you've seen the field have some ideas but want to get a good range of quotes and services maybe the tender is for you; here's a couple of tips on putting your tender together:
Spend the first part making sure you explain what your aim is and what you want to achieve. Vendors need to know about your size of organisation, software and hardware setup and key business areas you want your LMS to cater for. If you have a particularly challenging environment let them know early on to eliminate those not willing or able to take it on. Think about the requirements of the vendor you want to do business with; particularly geographical, size of previous clients and installations, company stability and track record. Is this their primary area of business or just something that they on sell? Do they have the people to deliver and support the process? Don't immediately put conditions on that are restrictive in this area though. I have seen tenders that we have not submitted based upon some requirements like not using any sub-contractors. We often partner with a hosting company that specializes in open source technologies and hosting; we subcontract them for the bit they're good at and they do the same with us, does this weaken or strengthen any of our propositions? Again, it's the track record and recommendations that are probably more important.

Involve IT and L&D early. It seems obvious but it will sit with your IT department responsibilities as a software system, but the LMS is a learning tool (yes really) so the involvement needs to involve heavily (if not be driven by) LnD teams. Either way you need the buy in of both to make the implementation run smoothly, and the tender process is an extension of that. It goes without saying that you also need to know budgets and have the backing of the budget holders early in the process. If you go to tender without that you just waste time and effort for everyone. It's also imperative that the key decision makers are either part of the selection team or have delegated their powers.

Finally if you're going to tender but already have your solution identified, you need to make the process as simple as possible and try to avoid wasting everyone's time.. In fact you don't need a tender at all. If you have to show due process however, then do it properly, don't write the tender for a product, write it for what you'd like to achieve and keep an open mind.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Albany, New Zealand