Missing the Point of Twitter

I recently read an NPR commentary about Twitter in which the author says he won’t use Twitter because he thinks people should keep their lives private and not broadcast every mundane event to world. Unfortunately, the author is missing the point, and missing it badly.

The power of Twitter is not in telling the world that I’m having a turkey sandwich for lunch. The power is in learning from other people. Twitter is an ongoing conversation about what is happening in the world around us. It’s a stream of consciousness medium that you can dip into whenever you want, or ignore for as long as you want. It’s me as an individual learning from the collective tweets of those I follow, and being able to contribute to that collective experience.

Yes, there are a lot of people tweeting away about every nuisance of their life, and that does get old, fast. But the cool thing about this stream is that you don’t have to follow everyone. You get to choose who you want to listen to – you can filter out the noise. It’s not a broadcast to the world, it’s a selective tuning in to the people and organizations you want to hear from.

With the increase of marketing, spammers, and blatant self-promotion on Twitter you have to choose carefully who you follow, and potentially who you block. I do not automatically follow everyone who follows me. I’m not trying to collect followers, I’m trying to make meaningful connections. There has to be a connection, or I won’t follow.  I also don’t feel bad about un-following people that add too much noise to the Twitterstream. Author Matthew Wayne Selznick (@mwsmedia) summed it up pretty nicely with this tweet:

“Sigh. Even the tweetstream of one of my favorite blogs, @WritetoDone, is mostly linkballast. Communicate! Be human — at least mostly!” (link)

The key to Twitter success is not having thousands, or millions, of followers. It’s following the right people and building connections. It’s who you follow, not who follows you.

It’s time for upgrades, and a Poll

It looks like it’s time to open up the wallet and start purchasing software upgrades. In the past couple of weeks two important eLearning software upgrades have hit the virtual streets:

  • Adobe CS4 came out this week
  • Articulate released the Studio 09 update to all their tools a couple of weeks ago

Tools are constantly going through upgrade cycles, but these are two of the biggest names in the eLearning development tool market, so they caught my attention.

Adobe CS4

This is a huge upgrade, and the first time Adobe has released a unified upgrade for all the Adobe and former Macromedia products. They’ve also changed the bundles – thank you Adobe. The CS4 Web Premium bundle now includes:

The upgrade from most CS3 bundles is $599, even the old Web Standard which did not include Soundbooth, Photoshop or Illustrator. I think Adobe has finally gotten their bundles right making the new CS4 Web Premium bundle an essential upgrade for eLearning developers. I will be upgrading my license at work as soon as possible. The full version is $1699 if anyone wants to buy me an early Christmas present for personal use.

Articulate Studio 09

Articulate Presenter is arguably the most popular PowerPoint to Flash conversion tool available. That’s no fluke, the tool works well and streamlines development. With the right hacking, you can accomplish a lot with Presenter and make it do things it wasn’t designed to do. It’s also an easy way to create Flash animations from slides. I’ve used it for several months and haven’t been disappointed.

Studio 09 Standard includes Presenter, Quizmaker and Video Encoder. The Professional version adds Engage. I downloaded Studio 09, but haven’t tried the new Presenter yet. There were a few quirks and bugs in the old version of Presenter that I hope are fixed. When I have time, I’ll publish some courses and let you know what I think.

For Studio 09, Articualte added Articulate Video Encoder ’09. This tool converts video files to FLV for inclusion in courses. I did take some time to test out this tool and can’t say I was overly impressed. If you don’t already have the Flash Video Encoder (which comes with Flash) then this tool will be useful. It works fine, I just prefer Flash Video Encoder. One feature that Articulate Video Encoder includes that the Flash encoder doesn’t is the ability to record your webcam and convert the file to FLV. I didn’t test this feature, and probably won’t use it. I wouldn’t buy this product as a stand alone purchase, especially for $149, but it’s a nice addition to the Studio 09 bundle, especially for people who don’t have Flash.

Poll

WordPress also added a new tool recently – Polling. Let’s give it a try and see how it works.

And the adventure continues…

My current research project of finding an LMS continues, albeit slowly. I’ve said before that my needs for an LMS are pretty simple – basic tracking, nothing fancy. All the systems I’ve looked at so far do more than I need and charge accordingly.

Then last week some people who are starting up an internal training program came to me asking what I use to track online courses. I have a homegrown LMS that sort of works for me, but definitely won’t work for them. However, now all those features of commercial LMSs that I don’t need may be relevant for the new internal training. For example, with external training we have one user group – customers. We don’t have learning plans based on job roles or skills matrices. We just have courses. Internally, we do have job roles. Everyone will need certain courses, but engineers might not need customer service training.

I want to help the internal folks come up requirements and then help them make a good choice. I figure there’s a 99% chance that whatever works for them will work for me. Working together always benefits all parties.

In terms of what I’ve seen lately, GeoLearning was the last product I looked at. The product looks great – lots of features, very robust, well thought out user interface, easy to use. The demo was not so great. I didn’t actually make it all the way through because the presenter’s wireless connection kept dropping forcing him to reconnect to WebEx. After the third time, I left. Fortunately for him I’d seen enough that I forwarded the sales person’s contact info to the internal training folks. Here’s a helpful tip for giving online presentations: Use a wired Internet connection, especially if you are presenting to eLearning professionals who probably know a few things about online presentations.

I was scheduled to attend a demo of Outstart’s LMS, but project deadlines got in the way, and my workgroup took a half day off to go wine tasting. Sometimes you need to relax to gain some perspective. The perspective I gained is that riding around in a limo and sipping wine is a good way to spend the afternoon.

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.

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.

Have you seen Unison yet?

In case you hadn’t noticed, the eLearning development tool landscape changed significantly about a month ago. Rapid Intake released Unison, and now other vendors have to play catch up. For once it feels like a tool developer is actually paying attention to course developers and including features that make our lives easier.

I first blogged about Unison after seeing a demo of it at DevLearn 2007. Since then I’ve had a chance to beta test it, and have not been disappointed. Aside from creating media like graphics, sound and animation, Unison has all the tools I need to manage and develop eLearning courses in one user friendly package. But don’t take my word for it, sign-up for a free account and see for yourself, or attend the upcoming webinar on March 20, 2008.

What makes Unison so cool? For starters, Unison is much more than a course authoring tool; it’s an eLearning project management tool. It breaks the mold of traditional development tools by wrapping authoring, testing, issue tracking, and media management into a single, user friendly package. They’ve made it both easy and robust, something a lot of other tools vendor completely fail to do.

Because Unison is much more than a development tool, a full review would take a long time to write, and would probably be too long to read. For now I’ll just talk about the features that got my attention.

Web-Based Development

Unison has done something a little different. All you need to do to get started is log into the web site. Unison uses the Adobe Flex platform so all developers need to use Unison is the latest Flash plug-in. I tested it mostly in Firefox and never ran into browser issues. Being a web based tool means you have access from any computer with a network connection and don’t have to worry about backups, or upgrades.

Web-based applications are nothing new, Google and others have had them for a long time, but still most software is sold based on an installed license. Rapid Intake understands the old model of install-based licensing is a thing of the past, in much the same way the Apple understands brick-and-mortar music stores are a thing of the past.

What it means for you is simplicity. You can just work without being hassled with installation and managing licenses. Managing who has a license and where that license is installed has always been a hassle in every organization I’ve worked in. Unison frees me of that hassle.

Media Manager

Unison comes with a media manager that creates a library of all images, audio, video, and SWFs used in all your courses. Media can be uploaded from within a course or from the Media Manager tool on the main page. You can upload multiple files at once. Images are automatically converted to JPG files and sound files are automatically converted to MP3. You can choose the compression settings for both JPG and MP3 conversion. Video files are converted to FLV. I tested AVI, MOV, and MP4 files with no issues. Larger files take longer to upload and convert, but I was still impressed with the conversion speed for all media formats.

The Media Manager also allows you to tag files. Tags are essentially keywords that allow you to quickly locate files. The more media files you have, the more important tags become.

I found the Media Manager simple and intuitive. It doesn’t show thumbnails of images, but clicking any media file previews it in the Media Manager, including video, audio, and SWF files.

Issue Management

Simple and efficient. The issue management tool allows you to quickly enter issues, and then track and manage them. Additionally, issues can be assigned to specific developers. The issue entry form only has a few fields (title, description, assigned to, category, and priority) but automatically tracks the page in the course, timestamp, operating system, and browser version.

There are probably more robust issue/bug tracking tools available, but this one is integrated into the development tool and it has what I need without a lot of overhead – streamlined data entry and easy tracking and management.

Price

I’m not going to do a sales pitch here, but the price should make other vendors sit up and take notice. Plans start at Free and go up from there. Yes, free. All the plans include the full set of tools and add more support and capacity as the prices go up. When you add up the number developer licenses and support contracts you currently have for whatever tools you use and compare that to Unison’s pricing, you’ll see what I mean. You get a lot for the money.

Summary

Unison incorporates development and management tools into simple, elegant environment at an incredibly affordable price. There are tools with more robust features, but generally that adds complexity and makes them expensive. It’s not about having more features, it’s about having the right features. Unison has the right features. For the price, you will be hard pressed to find a tool that delivers as much as Unison.

Thanks to Garin Hess and Isaac Hess of Rapid Intake for giving me access to the beta version and putting up with all my questions during the beta test.

One last thing, Brent Schlenker thought he was the last to blog about Unison, but his post reminded me I needed to blog as well. Thanks Brent for the reminder.

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.