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 Gears allows you to push updates to offline content, so you don’t have to worry about the local copies being out of date.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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AG08 Day 2

I’m a little more rested today, and only slightly lagging from the time zone shift.

I started off again with a Breakfast Byte, this time on Decision Support strategies present by Janet Emery. Wow, that was the right way to start my day. Janet is absolutely brilliant (she’s won multiple awards from ASTD and ISPI) and I’m surprised I haven’t heard of her before. She has a ton of experience working with call centers and improving performance of agents. What I learned from her is that we should provide support tools first and think about formal training second. In other words, use basic Human Performance Technology strategies to get people to perform. Those strategies may not include training. Early in my career I was fully indoctrinated into HPT. Janet reminded me of what should be my primary objective – find the best solution to improve performance. Train less, support more. I could do a lengthy blog post on just this session. It was so good I went to round table discussion she did later in the day just to hear it again.

After that was the keynote by John Patrick. Like yesterday, Clark Quinn provides a great summary. I do want to highlight one thing John said – America’s large telephone companies are the biggest threat to the Internet. They avoid competition and have an army of lobbyist making sure congress keeps it that way. Think about it. What has your ISP done for you? If network connectivity doesn’t get better and come up to the level in other countries (Europe, Japan, Korea for example) how will that impact your eLearning?

Next I attended a session on the future of SCORM. First of all, hats off to Rovy Brannon for being brave enough to come talk about SCORM. Many people have a love/hate relationship with SCORM and a few vented frustrations which Rovy handled graciously. Bottom line, SCORM is moving from an ADL standard to an IEEE standard, which should help improve the standard and make updates faster and more reliable. The new organization taking it on is LETSI. And the cross-domain scripting issue is not being fixed in SCORM 2004 4th Edition (due sometime in the not too distant future.)

After lunch I went to “I’m Busy Enough…What Do I Need a Second Life For?” mostly because Angela White (who I met at the conference) was so enthusiastic about Second Life. I went in as a skeptic and left intrigued. It does have applications in the learning space, but probably not in my organization. Alan Levine from NMC presented the session and “demystified” Second Life for me. I’ve heard of it, but never tried it. I have enough ways to kill time as it is, but I will be trying it out soon. I think it has a lot of potential.

The last session I attended was “The Great ILS Challenge”. (ILS = Immersive Learning Simulation = Serious Game) The three panelist (Alan Levine, Jan Cannon-Bowers, and Kevin Corti) were presented a scenario and had to give a short presentation on their solution. Each had a completely different solution to the same problem, but all used games or virtual worlds as the main delivery tool. What struck me was not the technology or platform each came up with, but that they all had such different ideas. My take away was that every learning problem has multiple solutions, each of which may work as well as the others. We just have to think creatively to come up with them.

Like yesterday I ended the day with a group dinner, this time with a different group that included Brent Schlenker from the eLearning Guild. Again, this was probably the high point of the day – just talking casually about learning and technology and social networking and whatever. The online contacts I’ve made blogging have turned into real world contacts and greatly enhanced my experience at this conference.

ELearning Guild AG08 Day 1

What a long and inspiring day it’s been. Being a solo elearning and training developer it has been great to just talk with people about eLearning. The community here is second only to the caliber of the presentations. The eLearning Guild did a fabulous job picking the sessions for this year’s event. I’ve had to make some tough choices about which sessions to attend. A lot of people are blogging the event. You can find many posts here.

Setting an eLearning Strategy

After a day of travel to get here, I started AG08 at 7:15 with this “Breakfast Byte” facilitated by Clark Quinn. Half the reason I choose this particular session was because of Clark Quinn, but equally because my company is trying to figure out how to best use eLearning. I’m happy to say I’m not the only one, but also surprised that getting eLearning started is such an issue for so many. After more than a decade of the Internet, eLearning should be run-of-the-mill. Even with robust tools we still struggle with the basics (like management and IT buy-in).

Keynote Presentation

Next I was off to the keynote by Keith Sawyer. Clark Quinn already blogged about it and has a cool map of the talk, so you can read more about the keynote on his blog. While I enjoyed the presentation, I wasn’t blown away. It was well worth the time and Keith had a lot to offer the eLearning community.

Positioning Your Career in Social Networking and Collaborative Learning

Ray E. Jiménez, Ph.D. started by saying as of today, the LMS is obsolete. He also gave us several new job titles like Collaborative Learning Anthropologist. His point was that social networking is all about people, not about technologies. You need to know about people; you have to understand the nature of your organization and how people behave. His blog is http://vignettestraining.blogspot.com/ if you’d like to read more of his work. He definitely made me think about the skills I need to develop. Technology changes rapidly and tools become obsolete, but people are always going to be social animals.

Learning 2.0: Harnessing the Potential of Contextual Informal Learning

I attended this session because informal learning is the most obvious buzzword currently being used. I also think it holds the future of eLearning. Maybe with mobile tools the buzzword is gaining momentum. Janhavi Padture presented some good information on why informal learning is so important, most notably that 70% of learning is informal. She then showed us FlockPod by Harbinger. FlockPod is a tool that adds social networking functions to learning content using an floating toolbar that sits in front of the browser window. Conceptually, I think it’s a cool idea. I’m not sure I like the implementation, but I did get a lot of food for thought.

E-Learning 2.0: Dynamic, web-based Technologies Enable Personalized Learning on Demand

This presentation covered a lot tools and introduced a lot of concepts that I was already familiar with, but a surprising number of people weren’t. Web 2.0 is old news to me, so I’m surprised when people haven’t heard of Facebook or Twitter. Nevertheless, the session showed how Web 2.0 can be used in learning. I really enjoyed this session. One thing Mr. Shaw said that stuck with is that Elearning 2.0 is, to a certain extent, dependent on Web 2.0 adoption in the enterprise. That seems obvious now, but struck me because it makes so much sense. If your organization is resistant to using the tools or IT won’t support them, their use in learning will be severely limited.

Feeding your Inner Power Learner! Learning to Leverage RSS

I ended the day with this presentation by Brent Schlenker. Again, I was looking at more informal learning tools. Brent did an excellent job of explaining and demonstrating how RSS works. Again I was surprised that more people didn’t know more about it. One of Brent’s points was that if we want to use these new tools (like RSS) to deliver content we need to first use them for ourselves. He encouraged everyone to get a Google account and start using Google Reader, or another reader. I recommend Google Reader. We absolutely have to use new technologies as consumers before we use them as content creators. I took eLearning courses before I developed them. It just makes sense.

That was it for formal sessions. It was a lot for one day. I think the highlight was actually dinner. I connected with B.J. Schone and a group of eight others and went out to eat and talk. We all are one person development shops (except B.J., but he was until recently). Just talking with others about eLearning or family or whatever was the perfect way to end the day. Thanks to everyone.

Now, I need to sleep. More tomorrow.

Starting a fire, or just smoldering?

Last month Amazon released the Kindle eBook reader to somewhat mixed reviews. It seems that people like the idea of Kindle and are generally happy with the functionality, but the $400 price tag seems a bit high especially when coupled with the monthly subscription rates for news and blogs. While eBook technology has been around for awhile, eBook readers really haven’t made an impact in the market. Most people still want to pick up a real book and read it the way we humans have read for centuries.

The book lover in me is most certainly intrigued by Kindle, but the consumer in me doesn’t want to pay the price. I rarely buy hardback books, so $10 per eBook doesn’t compare with paperbacks, especially used paperbacks. I’m a sci-fi fanatic and old Asimov or Clarke is pretty easy to find for a couple of bucks. Time will tell if Kindle makes an impact in the eBook market, but it will take a new pricing scheme to get me to buy one. Price hasn’t deterred others; as of today the Kindle was sold out at Amazon.

A New Mobile Learning Device?

But what impact will Kindle have on learning? Is this a viable platform for mobile learning? Can it compete with the iPhone in the mobile learning space?

Kindle may actually be a better mobile learning device, at least for reference materials. For starters, it’s designed for reading text. I’m thinking of all those sales people having instant access to volumes of documentation and product specifications. Think about medical sales people who visit doctor’s offices many times a day. They can have all the information they need in an easy to read format on a device they can easily carry around. Many companies still have volumes of data locked in Framemaker, Word, and other print oriented tools. Kindle would be an ideal platform for distributing (formerly) print based materials.

Although I’m an eLearning developer and love Flash, I still do most of my learning by reading. I read a lot, mostly for work. I look up a lot of information online and read it, and refer back to it on a regular basis. A lot of informal learning happens through reading. I have an iPod Touch and have tried reading web sites using Safari, but it’s not a great experience. I assume the iPhone experience would be similar because the Touch uses the same browser and touch screen technology. I would much rather read from my computer or a book than from an iPod. If the Kindle has even a 10% improvement in readability, that’s a huge plus for me.

Additionally, Kindle has a bookmarking feature. Do you know how many yellow stickies I have in some books? Here are some other features that give Kindle an edge:

  • Claim to be able to read easily indoors and in bright sunlight, just like a real book
  • UI looks easy and intuitive – designed to be used while being held, looks like you could use either hand or hold it with one hand, although the scroll wheel is on the right, not ideal if you’re left handed (about 7-10% of people are left handed)
  • Built in dictionary
  • It has a web browser (although it is “experimental”)
  • Access to Wikipedia
  • Incredible battery life

Summary

Kindle has potential for mobile learning, especially for documentation, but the price is a barrier. If the price were even $100 less, I might buy one just to experiment, but there are many other things I’d rather spend $400 on.

If you have a Kindle, or have used one, please share your experience. I’m curious to hear about some real-world experiences, especially regarding readability.

If you want to read more, Boing Boing has a good review and more detailed discussion of specific features.

DevLearn 2007 Expo

Wednesday I took a (long) drive to San Jose to check out the DevLearn 2007 Expo. I did not attend the conference because the registration fee was a little high for my non-existent budget, but figured the Expo would be a good opportunity to check out the latest new tools. Truth be told, the size of the expo was disappointing. It was much smaller than I expected in terms of the number of booths. It also seemed the conference didn’t have a lot of attendees because every time I walked by a session room they seemed mostly empty.

The small expo size and small number of people did allow me time to really talk with some vendors about their products in depth. I talked with a dozen or so vendors, but only a few really impressed me, with both their product and professionalism. Most did not impress me, and some were actually rude. I don’t want to dwell on those, but I’ll just say that two of the biggest names in eLearning tools were the most unprofessional and unimpressive companies I talked with.

Rapid Intake

The company that impressed me most was Rapid Intake. A few months ago I gave Flashform a negative review. Garin Hess, Rapid Intake’s CEO, contacted me and did a personal demo of Flashform. I changed my mind about the product and wrote a new review of Flashform. Garin was at DevLearn and spent very long time with me talking about the next evolution of Flashform and even demoed the beta version for me. I can’t say much about it now, but it is cool. Very cool. For the first time (maybe ever) I have seen an authoring tool that I’m genuinely excited about. I wish I could say more and tell you all the awesome features, but Garin swore me to secrecy until they are ready for release. What the iPod did for music this new product may do for eLearning development. It really is that cool. Remember when Authorware was the tool? This may be next. This is one tool worth your attention. Keep an eye out for it.

Also, the folks at Rapid Intake deserve kudos. I’m just a guy that has a blog, but they treated me with the utmost respect and truly valued my opinion. Rapid Intake actually listens to the people in their target market. Other vendors were reluctant to get out of their chair to hand me brochure and give me their robotic sales pitch, but Garin and his co-workers had an actual two-way conversation with me.

Exceptional Software Strategies

Who’s Exceptional Software? I’d never heard of them, but that’s normal for a convention expo, half the companies I’ve never heard of. Exceptional Software is software development company with a division that focuses on eLearning. What made them standout was their game, Never Rest. Never Rest is an Instructional Alternate Reality Game (I-ARG). This game takes scenario based learning to the next level by making it realistic – learners actually do things in the game that they do on the job. “Game” probably isn’t the best word to describe it since it really is training, but cool like games.

MediaEdge (the division of Exceptional Software that developed the I-ARG) has developed a Flex based platform for deploying the training that allows instructors complete control over the environment. I haven’t played with a demo myself, but what they showed was impressive. Well thought out, professionally designed, and very engaging. From what I saw they’ve found the sweet spot where games and training mix. The development team was a combination of Instructional Designers and Game Developers and the strengths of both show in the final product.

It was refreshing to see this platform and talk with them because it was totally different than anything else I saw. Most tools are focused on the traditional development paradigms or try to sell you on “rapid development”. Never Rest is really about making something realistic, engaging, and truly interactive -real learning based on real world scenarios. You learn by doing the job you’re being trained for. I’m going to spend some time with Never Rest and researching I-ARGs because it looks fun.

Summary

There were a few other companies and products that I need to look into a little more before blogging about them. There were also plenty of LMS vendors there, but none had anything that really jumped out at me. Same old LMS stuff I’ve seen before, just with a UI face lift.

If you’re looking something to get you excited about eLearning, make some time to look into both Flashform and Never Rest. They are developing new products that will hopefully breathe some new life into the eLearning development tools marketplace.