Monday, January 29, 2007

The future of LMS

Tony Karrer has put a post about the future directions of LMS.

It's funny because we've been working on some thinking similar to this internally within Elearnity. Some recent corporate discussions together with some of our futures research has also pointed us towards rethinking the model underlying the LMS, but to be honest, not necessarily many of the drivers for wanting an LMS.

Its interesing about you and Lee likening it to Google Analytics. Our current thinking is that the LMS will become like Google - a diversified mix of services and interfaces - anarchic but inherently with underlying structure and connectively. Systems that can optimise our experience of it are critical, but so are systems that can optimise how the connections work behind the scene. This is potentially what the LMS will become.

... an interesting discussion ...


Collaborative learning?

Donald Clark has turned his attentions to collaborative learning.

Here are my thoughts ...
Collaborative learning is slow learning??? Donald - to be honest, I think that's rubbish as a generalisation, although I do agree that poor collaborative learning can be slow and ineffective - just as poor individual learning can be. Unfortunately there's probably far too much of both.

The issue, as with all learning, is to understand the dynamics of what will make collaborative learning more effective rather than to trash it completely. An awful lot of effective learning and education is heavily reliant on a collaborative learning as a fundamental part of the learning process - with or without the 'e' bit.

Gill Salmon has written extensively about her experiences in the academic space, and our experiences back that up. Were Epic's projects with Arena all failures?

Collaboration may be natural but it is also difficult - even face to face it is difficult. People learn to be good collaborators - unfortunately often compensating for poor early experiences in our education systems. My belief is that the nascent e-learning market was hijacked by the e-course companies - both generic and custom (!?). Using technology to enable people to people interaction for learning is as important as using technology for access to static and dynamic information and knowledge.

Much of the new parts of the Internet you advocate are reliant on people-centric approaches rather than content centric. Let's look for more of this, not less.

;) David

What is e-learning?

Clive Shepherd has posted a presentation on his site attempting to reposition e-learning away from just e-courses, to a more diversified view including collaboration, simulation, live e-learning and so on. A view I would strongly endorse.

Here's my comments on his post ...

Clive - I like the walkthrough, and predictably the de-emphasis on e-courses as the only form of e-learning. I've always felt that was wrong (see an old white paper from 2000).

But you still haven't actually defined what e-learning is ... just listed out a number of forms of it.

I also think the inclusion of informal learning as e-learning is mistaken. Why is informal learning e-learning any more than it is book learning or video learning or people-talking-together-learning??? I know it is trendy to bang the informal drum now, but artificially adding it to the e-list is not very illuminating or productive. Sure some aspects of e-learning are informal, but why is informal, e-learning?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Future for E-Learning

David Wilson is founder and Managing Director of Elearnity and one of the leading authorities on learning innovation and e-learning in Europe. He speaks to TrainingZONE about the present and the possibilities for e-learning.

Has e-learning come of age, or does it still have some way to go before it reaches its potential?
An interesting question Claire, in reality I think both are true. E-learning is definitely a mainstream capability in many of the leading corporate adopters, and there has been a well established and fairly robust supply-side market for e-learning for a number of years. So e-learning is now a fairly mature and is becoming increasingly pervasive in many market sectors and companies.

But that doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere, or that e-learning is fixed in what it can do. We still encounter large organisations that have little use of e-learning, or are only piloting it. Whilst there is a perception that this is driven by learner acceptance, actually we see it as more of an L&D cultural issue first, and then a combination of infrastructure and learner acceptance second.

While e-learning might be a mature capability it’s still evolving rapidly. It’s diversifying away from the structured e-course model that came from computer/web-based training, towards a more holistic view of technology-enabled learning with many approaches and solutions.

Where does e-learning truly excel and where do you feel it has its limitations?
If by e-learning you mean e-courses, I would say they have a role in supporting basic knowledge or skills development in almost in any area. The key thing they deliver is a consistent learning approach on a scalable distributed basis. That’s a huge advantage for a large organisation or for training large numbers of people. This especially works well for the “acquisition” part of the learning process, and for some subjects, also for “practicing” it too. This is especially true for anything involving an IT system, or that can be modelled into an online role-play or simulation.

Other aspects of e-learning, such as e-assessment, can be used very broadly for all forms of learning, both for formal testing and assessment, and also for personal diagnosis to streamline the learning process. Both of these areas are very interesting now and very generally applicable in most mainstream learning programmes.

I haven’t just said use e-learning for compliance, which has been a massive driver for e-learning over the last few years. It’s not that I think e-learning isn’t any good for compliance, of course it is. But e-learning has been unnecessarily pigeon-holed as a tool purely for compliance and mandatory learning in many organisations. Clearly there are big benefits for compliance; both in terms of consistency and scalability, but also because of the automatic tracking and reporting benefits as well. But e-learning can and should be being applied more generally, both as a standalone solution and integrated into blended programmes, and also for assessment, performance support, specialist advanced learning and so on.

What is it not good for? I think e-courses definitely have their limitations, partly because of the constraints for doing them properly, and sometimes due to subject matter. People often focus on subject matter limitations but I am less convinced. I think you can find high quality and effective e-learning on almost any subject you can think of. But delivering structured e-courses that require 30 minutes plus to complete obviously creates constraints. Elearnity’s research shows a shift towards performance support and referenceware materials for just-in-time needs, and collaborative learning tools for deeper learning needs. It’s about horses for courses, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

When it comes to rapid e-learning, often members ask which tool is best. In your opinion is there much difference between products, and what are the limitations of rapid e-learning?
In my opinion, there’s much too much attention at the moment on the tools part of the rapid e-learning question. There’s no doubt that rapid e-learning is a growing area in nearly all corporates, and much of the current debate is about tool selection. But Elearnity’s research doesn’t endorse this. Yes a bad tool will be a barrier, but a good tool is not a guarantee of success. The biggest issues are around process and expertise rather than tool. And by process I mean the whole process, not just the development task.

Rapid e-learning for most companies is part of what I described as the diversifying of e-learning. It is about collapsing the supply-chain for e-content and pushing it closer to the subject expert, either directly with them doing it, or with someone they can work with closely. To do that you need tools than can be used by non-e-learning specialists, and you need to create valid learning, and that is the challenge. Companies have comprehensively proved with PowerPoint that they can generate tons of presentation materials, but how much of it is high-quality learning? Rapid tools can aggravate that problem further – especially if the people producing it don’t have instructional expertise or understanding. They may know about the subject matter, but do they understanding “learning”?

Content is only useful if its accessible and usable, and if its valid. There are big challenges for organisations with many people creating content, but then trying to push it through a narrow pipe (called their e-learning team) to get it loaded onto the corporate LMS.

In short, rapid e-learning concepts are an important part of the diversification of e-learning, and have a real role to play in enabling local content creation. But they are part of a much larger story, and the short term exclusive focus on tools is misplaced.

There is a good deal of talk about how a VLE/intranet can facilitate informal learning. Do you feel that the potential of technology is being explored by organisations in this respect?
Informal learning emerged last year as a big topic amongst the market commentators, but I don’t think it has really impacted mainstream corporate thinking yet. Some of the leading corporates have been publicly talking about it, but most organisations are still focusing on their formal learning agenda. I don’t expect this to change much this year, but maybe it will become more of an explicit issue in 2008 and beyond.

I do think that technology has a role to play with informal learning, but we need to understand what we mean by informal first. This is where all the discussion of “80% of all learning is informal” starts getting a bit vague. For example, is coaching formal or informal? Is spending some time with a colleague to learn how to do something, formal or informal? Is accessing some performance support materials live in the work process, formal or informal? A lot of learning in companies is not managed or tracked by L&D but that doesn’t make it informal. It can very structured, and facilitated or delivered by professional training staff or coaches, but it isn’t described centrally as a formal programme or course.

Technology can clearly help facilitate informal processes of learning, both through search and through access to content and to people. Arguably the biggest learning tool on the planet is called the Internet, and one of its main LMSs is called Google, but that’s not how people think about it. Adoption of more informal thinking internally within companies, coupled with tools for live collaboration will be the start. But I also expect to see more pressure on integration of learning processes and content with work processes and content. At the moment they tend to be pretty distinct in most companies, but informal learning will blur the boundaries. At the back-end, this will also mean growth in content management and integrated search as well.

How have technologies such as podcasting, wikis etc added to the potential of e-learning?
As someone who spends most of their life learning online and informally, especially over the Internet, I find podcasts on their own to be too limiting. I have to listen to the thing to find out whether it’s worth listening too, which is nonsense. Having said that, I still feel it’s an important direction, especially for delivery to mobile and non-visual devices.

In some recent research we did only 13% of early adopter companies were using Wikis for learning on a regular basis. So they are not mainstream yet (for learning). But the concept of collaborative self-generation of learning content is a really powerful idea – especially when if you can everyone engaged as an active participant. Research shows that retention of learning is significantly enhanced if you become the teacher rather than just the learner.

This dynamic is under explored currently and I think it has potential to be very useful, particularly for developmental learning rather than basic knowledge acquisition. But as with any collaborative approach, there are the problems of non-contribution (lurking), editorial control, and so on. But these can be resolved. I expect we will see more use of Wiki-like approaches in the future, although probably with embedded learning structure in the Wiki templates to make it easier to manage and validate the learning process and outcomes.

And finally, how do you feel we will be learning in five years time?
Ah the million dollar question! Well I guess that partly depends a bit on how you are learning now!

If you are currently (individual or organisation) still pretty much focused on formal and traditional learning approaches, then I think the next five years will see slow but increasing change. Increasing pressure of business will force you to change your assumptions about how, where and when you learn. You will have to be learning online and probably by mobile devices just to keep up, and keep compliant.

You will be using e-assessment to focus your learning time as well as to certify you’ve completed it successfully. Much of your learning time will be tracked and reported (you’re in that kind of company), and tracking will help you access learning that is more relevant. Much of this is available today, but it will have become pervasive, at least within large organisations.

If you already learn online, and mainly informally or through your own research on the Internet or through your personal network, then I think things will change even more significantly.

Learning anywhere will become a key requirement, via any connected device. Much of your learning will be informally delivered, but through formal mechanisms to help you find it, access it, and deliver it using a variety of media types depending on your context. Much of this will be about access to people, not just access to content. All of it will need to be focused on your specific needs or context, and to be integrated with other learning mechanisms to add more depth or context when you need it. More learning will be collaborative rather than individual, both synchronous and asynchronous.

Companies will need to offer a holistic learning environment, skewed to delivering the above services rather than generic learning content. Formal learning programmes will still exist but be a lower proportion of recognised learning time. Programmes will be blended learning processes, utilising e-learning and face-to-face learning time to maximise value and impact, and to maximise flexibility.

There are other new areas of learning for which we expect to see increasing adoption. I have talked about wikis and collaborative tools already. We also expect to see increasing use of gaming and complex simulations, and use of intelligent learning agents to aggregate and to personalise learning for you. Will this happen in five years? Yes, at least in part, but many of the mainstream implications of it will be beyond that period.

In summary, much of the technology to do this is around today, but it’s not well-connected or pervasive. The challenge for many big organisations will be to be able to consume this fast enough to stay up with some of their more nimble competitors. This is especially difficult on a global stage, and when you have to migrate a corporate IT infrastructure. But there will be an increasing realisation that not learning like this is an indulgence that the majority cannot afford, either in cost, but most of all in terms of time.

David Wilson will speaking at the Learning Technologies Conference on 31 January.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Big Question - Rapid or Quality

Clive Sheppard has posted an interesting response to Learning Circuits Big Question for January. As I quite like the point he is making, I'm commenting to that rather than the original question per say. I like the sentiments but think he's (maybe deliberately to state his point) misinterpretting the question.

Rapid e-learning is a marketing label being put on the use of a new form of tools for use by non-elearning specialists for creation of e-learning content. This will tend to be done rapidly as its a more collapsed development model - especially if its the SME doing the development. Or that's the theory anyway - and quite a popular one at this point in time.

But I don't really buy that.

If tools are more rapid, then they should be being used by the professional developers anyway. That's unless they turn out not to be very good, flexible, reliable or expensive. The reality is that these tools often have limitations. The ones that don't are often complex to use and therefore are just a more modern authoring tool.

But the issue for rapid e-learning is not about the tools, it is about the process, and about the expertise of people in the process. A collapsed development model also means collapsing the expertise involved. With SME production that means minimal e-learning or even learning expertise (e.g. instructional design). It also often means limited technology understanding or knowledge of the tools and associated standards. "What do I have to do to get this to create SCORM 2005 conformant content that can be uploaded into the LMS?" is not necessarily a question we would expect a SME to ask.

In many ways, this the essence of the debate; rapid versus professional content production.

Our (Elearnity) view is that rapid is a necessary part of a diversification of e-learning away from a pure e-course model (which was always too limiting) towards a more holistic technology enabled learning model. We also believe that tools for supporting mass internal production need to be more connected or shared in order to be more scalable and manageable. Individual local content production replicates the bad experiences of unmanageable document-based content. Finally, for the "rapid" elements, the whole process must be rapid, not just the development process. Rapid content needs to be able to be quality assured and tested, uploaded deployed and accessable, and maintainable or removable all in a rapid timescale at low cost.


Virtual Classrooms - do we need specialist tools?

Donald Clark has raised a point about Virtual Classrooms tools as part of a post he made on Vapid Development Tools. "And while we're at it, why bother with all of this fancy virtual classroom stuff when we have messenger, netmeeting and Skype. If you want collaboration, it's already there, usually on your toolbar!"

I agree with the sentiment, the case for VC as distinct tools is much more marginal than it use to be. That was always part of Microsoft's long game - to embed the capabilities for collaboration into their core infrastrastructure. Don't forget that Microsoft bought Placeware (one of those VC tools) to for a core component of its Live Meeting capabilities.

Innovation with messenger/sametime tools and voice over ip services like Skype have accelerated this further, but more importantly made these services highly available with a very low cost of entry, i.e. free or virtually free, especially for the individual user. But there is still a reality gap for those stuck in corporate IT infrastructures. For those of us outside them who are able to use any tool we think will add some value to how we work it is much easier. As a small business we frequently find our options for live collaboration and virtual meetings decrease with corporate clients! A virtual classroom that provides a single integrated capability can still have some value here, but less than it used to.

The other key factor with VC tools is the specialist functionality they have embedded to streamline use of the tool for supporting learning events. This used to (5 years ago) include whiteboard tools and app sharing but now this is common in the collaboration tools. But there's other functionality too. Standard web collaboration tools can be fine for virtual meetings, and webinar tools are fine for large 1 to many events, but running high-quality structured learning with a group of 10-20 people can require additional help to make it work effectively. A good example of this is virtual break-out rooms.

But this kind of functionality will also make its way into the basic web collaboration tools too - if it proves to be really useful. That's why I find the discussion of functionality has become second in this post rather than first. A few years ago it would have been the other round. Now the limitations of the popular web collaboration tools are much less and their reach is much greater. The challenge for the VC vendors is to continue to differentiate their products or to integrate them into other solutions that have sufficient commercial value to give the VC away within an integrated offer. Our guess is that this is where the LMS/e-learning suite vendors will be forced over time, even if (as in Saba's case) it currently represents a significant revenue stream currently.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

5 things meme

I'm not a lover of chain letters or similar but Don Taylor has just tagged me with a 5 things meme, after he himself was tagged by Clive Sheppard. So in the spirit of the new year and peer collaboration, here goes nothing ... five things you may not know about me:

1. It's now been over ten years since I escaped serious employment and founded Elearnity. My longest period of serial employment in one organisation, and means I'm probably borderline unemployable by anyone else!

2. At 6 foot 7" (or 2.01m in new money) I have significant challenges with door ways, cute cotswold cottages and beds with foot-boards. All of which result in recurring headaches and occassional lacks of consciousness. Or maybe that's the alcohol ...

3. I would describe my taste in music as eclectic. My wife describes it as awful. Afraid my early rock roots were well as truly polluted by a hairy-hatted cousin who introduced me to Gong, resulting in life-long interest in the off-the-wall view, as well as the music! Ou est mon camembert?

4. About ten years ago, I started playing golf, after seeing all these corporate sales guys spending half of their "work" time on the golf course. This turned out to be more challenging than I expected - both to get the time to play, and then to manage to hit the ball in the direction it was supposed to be going. I now play off 17 handicap on an irregular basis, but working in the L&D/HR field is seemingly not a rich vain for potential golf matches. All reasonable offers gratefully received.

5. And vaguely back to subject, I spend almost my entire working life learning, but haven't been on a formal training course in years. I guess being an analyst is almost the perfect role for an habitual learner as I spend most of my time trying to understand the story beneath the story, both corporate and vendor. The downside of this that sometimes Elearnity becomes too interested in the exceptions rather than the rules, the alternative rather than the mainstream. But heh, I guess we should reference point 3 above for the cause of that!

Not sure who to stitch if anyone on this, but for variation let's try:

Barry Sampson

Susan Smith Nash


Ron Edwards

John Curran

Have fun .... David

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy New Year!

Just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year and best wishes for a busy and prosperous 2007. Work life is looking good at the moment with some really interesting research and client advisory work on the table, which hopefully is reflecting a positive direction and commitment for innovation in corporate learning!