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.