Get Your eLearning in Gear

In writing my blog post earlier this week I saw a blurb in the WordPress control panel about Gears with a link to the WordPress blog. I like bike riding, so the word “gears” got my attention and I followed the link. WordPress is now using Gears to speed up web site load times.

What is Gears? It’s a plug-in and API developed by Google that’s designed to speed up web site load times by caching content on your local computer. It’s sort of a browser cache, but is site specific and doesn’t get erased when the normal cache gets full. It allows web sites to store elements on your computer for quick display when you visit the site. These elements are updated only when necessary. It’s ideal for interface elements, CSS files, and Javascript files.

How do you use Gears? First, the web site has to be using Gears. WordPress is one such site. There is a server side component that manages the offline elements.  As a web surfer, you have to install the Gears plug-in. There are Mac, Windows, and Linux versions for IE and Firefox. Once you install the plug-in the site will ask you if you want to allow it to store content on your computer. You can choose which Gears enabled sites are allowed to store content on your computer and can manage the list of allowed sites from the Google Gears Settings. When I allowed WordPress to use Gears it downloaded 212 items to my local computer that use about 1.75 MB of space. I’m on a LAN with a fast connection, so the download was quick.

What about eLearning and Gears? The most obvious answer is load time. If you produce a lot of courseware that people access either on your LAN or remotely from home, then you can use Gears to download interface elements so they don’t have to load for every course every time. You can also download the interface elements for your LMS.

But interface elements for standard eLearning courseware is the low hanging fruit. What about mobile learning, or learning on-demand? You can cache templates for learning objects so only the content needs to download. A lot of content these days is XML that is rendered by a browser or in Flash. The display logic in Javascript or SWFs can be stored locally and not downloaded every time a page loads. Gears allows you to push updates to offline content, so you don’t have to worry about the local copies being out of date.

Gears is still in its infancy (the current version is 0.3.24.3 as of this posting) with many more ideas and features to come.   One thing I’d really like to see is a Gears implementation of SCORM for offline learning, especially on mobile devices. The Gears web site has examples of offline search engines, secure financial data applications, and applications that use Flex and Gears.  At this point, the future is wide open for Gears and eLearning. I haven’t jumped into Gears too deeply yet, but I get the feeling it’s far more than a glorified cache and could have a huge impact on eLearning.

You can get Gears and learn more at http://gears.google.com, or read the FAQ. There’s are also a developer site with information on the API.

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The Great LMS Selection Adventure

Well, lucky me finally convinced people that we need an LMS. Now I just need to figure out which one will work best for us. About a year ago I started down this same path, but the project was put on hold. I’ve been in touch with one vendor from my earlier list, but I have a sneaking suspicion the landscaped has changed in the last year.

At the eLearning Guild Annual Gathering I was surprised by how few LMS vendors were there. I figured there would be a bunch of companies promoting their products. Maybe most vendors have hit a saturation point where they are living off the support/upgrade/maintenance agreements. Based on my research, ongoing support adds up to a lot of money, which is why I’m comparing prices over five years. Some LMSs have a relatively low initial cost, but high support costs. Others have high initial cost, but low year-to-year costs. Some are just downright outrageously expensive no matter how you look at it.

I’ve started doing my homework, starting with the eLearning Guild’s Learning Management Systems 2008 report and their 382 Tips on the Selection of an LMS. Both are great resources. I’ve been coming up with requirements based on our current processes and what can save us time. Requirements are tough to define. You can base them on what you currently do, but some things always fall through the cracks. Just today I came across Tracy Hamilton’s post My 300th post is a call for LMS Help which deals with managing classroom training in a LMS. She has some interesting issues with scheduling that I would have never considered. (Thanks Tracy!)

Then you have to consider what is possible, not just what you currently do. “What if…” scenarios can hold the keys to future efficiencies. Just imagine if about 5 years ago the record labels had asked “What if we embrace this peer-to-peer stuff?” how different the music industry would be today. I don’t want to miss future opportunities.

Then there is the money to consider. Last year I told a vendor that 90% of LMSs do 90% of what I need them to, so the biggest factor in selection is cost. If an LMS saves me $20K over five years but doesn’t have a couple of minor features, I’m going to save some money. Sorry, but that’s reality. Money matters most to me in this decision.

In my current search I’ve looked at seriously at Inquisiq, talked with the folks at SyberWorks, and looked into ClickCourse.  I have a list with a few others that I’m going to look into. So far, I like Inquisic because they put their prices on their web site and allow you to quickly setup up a trial, without spamming you. ClickCourse is in my budget, but I’m not sure it will handle the classroom training. I’ll be posting more as look at other vendors.

At this point I don’t want vendors contacting me. If you’re not a salesperson and you want to recommend an LMS, please leave a comment or email me directly. My email is in the right nav bar. I give a lot of weight to peer recommendations. On second thought, if you’re a salesperson with an LMS that costs less than $10,000 for the first year for 2000+ learners, you can contact me. I like hosted solutions because my IT group is busy with Office 2007 upgrades.