Will Social Marketing Kill Social Learning?

Twitter may be the hottest thing online right now, and is probably the fastest growing social networking tool around. Twitter is all over the news, both online and traditional. Everyone from Barack Obama to the Chihuahua next door has a Twitter account. It’s becoming as commonplace as email.

A couple of days ago ZDNet posted an article about a commercial Twitter spamming tool. Not surprisingly, I heard about the article on Twitter. Twitter spam is nothing new. If you’ve had an account for more than a couple of days, you’ve probably gotten followers who are spammers trying to get you to follow them. The article got me thinking about the negative impact social marketing  has on social learning.

Twitter seems to be changing from a fun way to connect and share into a promotional tool. I got hooked on twitter because I enjoyed reading little snippets about what people were up to. I’ve found a lot of great resources through Twitter. From that perspective, Twitter is a great social learning tool. You can find resources and even get help from your Tweeps (people you follow or who follow you).

I think social marketing could negatively impact social learning. With so many companies getting accounts and pushing their products and services, it’s becoming harder and harder to find value in individual tweets. Companies don’t seem to really understand Social Marketing. Social marketing works when Person A tweets about a product and gets Person B interested. Person B then passes it on to others, and so on.

Just because a company has a Twitter account does not mean it uses social marketing. Using a social networking tool to spam us with ads is not social marketing. At that point it is just advertising, and I get plenty of that already. Social marketing is also not viral marketing. They are very different and companies need to learn the difference.

For me the value of the resource or tweet comes from the source. If B.J. Schone or Tony Karrer posts a link about training, I’ll check it out. They are real people who contribute to the online community. Company X posting links to their own white papers do not have the same value for me and I probably won’t follow the link. More precisely, I won’t follow them to begin with.

I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of followers I’ve gotten over the past month or so. I usually wait a few days before checking out their profile, and about half the time the account has been suspended by the time I check it out. I don’t typically follow people unless their profile indicates we have something in common, either professionally or personally.

At least with Twitter we have control. I don’t have to follow every entity that follows me and I can block ones that really offend me. I can unfollow people who do nothing but promote themselves or the companies they work for. I can follow cool services like @php that will help me, or people like @DarthVader that make me laugh, or people like JC Hutchins that I’m a fan of. I can still take advantage of social learning, but I first have to separate the signal from the noise.

Twitter is still awesome even though corporations, spammers, and “social marketers” have jumped on the band wagon. We just have to not follow them. You should measure the value of Twitter by the quality of the people, real people, that you connect with, not by the number of followers you have.  Twitter and other social tools have the power to be great learning resources, just don’t let the spam get in the way. Now I have to go reduce my Twitter noise.

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5 Best Improvements in Articulate Presenter 09

I’ve been using Articulate Presenter 09 for a couple of months now and have come up with the five things I like best about the new version. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen my posts about having problems with the new version. Articulate has released two updates to Presenter 09 and most of the problems I had have been cleared up, or I’ve found workarounds.  Even with the issues, I wouldn’t go back to the previous version.

So, my top 5 improvements:

1. Articulate Tab – Easily the best thing about the new version, Articulate integrates Presenter into PowerPoint 2007’s ribbon bar. All the functions are in a tab on the ribbon, making them easy to find. The button are grouped logically to improve your work flow so you don’t have to hunt around for menu options.

2. Improved Quizmaker Integration – I was never happy with the integration of Quizmaker and Presenter, but Articulate has fixed the issues. Now you can seamlessly jump from Presenter into Quizmaker and back with no errors. You also see a thumbnail of the first question (or instruction) and the quiz options on the placeholder slide. Thank you, Articulate.

3. Video – I’ve only used this for one project so far, but it was completely painless. Video needs to be in the FLV format, but Articulate supplies a conversion tool just in case your video editing software doesn’t convert to FLV. Inserting video uses the Insert Flash tool and has the same options as SWF files.

4. Improved Previewing – Now you can preview the current slide, the next three slides, or a range of slides. I use this feature a lot. It comes in handy for seeing how well a series of slides flow without having to publish the entire course.

5. Articulate Branding Removed – This is actually an option in the presentation template; the Articulate logo is still there by default. You just have to un-check the box to remove the branding. Obviously this has nothing to do with improved functionality, but the forced branding in the old version drove me crazy. No other development tool does that, nor should they.

Presenter 09 has several other features that have been improved, but I wanted to highlight the five that I like best. It’s a good tool and has definitely sped up development for me. You do need to plan carefully and make sure you don’t just put up a bunch of text slides that will put you learners to sleep. Remember, rapid development is not necessarily good development.

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 LMS selection winner is…

After over a year of looking and talking with several LMS vendors, I finally chose an LMS – ClickCourse from Rapid Intake.

My requirements were pretty simple with cost at the top of the list. I wanted something that could track courses reliably, integrate with our existing customer extranet, generate basic reports, and be relatively easy to use. ClickCourse met those criteria at the best price. With ClickCourse I’m not paying for a bunch features I don’t need. Inquisiq was my first runner up. It’s also very affordable and was recommended by a few people.

There are well over 100 LMS products on the market and they all do mostly the same thing – track training. True, many do a lot more and offer some impressive features for managing learning and learners, but in the end I just wanted SCORM tracking at a fair price. If money were no concern, I probably would have chosen a different product and expanded the scope of the LMS. In that case I probably would have went with Thinking Cap or SyberWorks.

Price wasn’t my only consideration. Another primary factor was the company and their customer service. If you’ve been following this blog, you may recall my past posts about Rapid Intake’s Unison and Flashform. (By the way, Unison just won the Brandon Hall Gold Award for Best Innovation in Learning Technology.) Through this blog and subsequent in-person meetings I’ve gotten to know Garin Hess on a professional level and have been impressed with his (and others at Rapid Intake) willingness to help me and answer my questions. Even though I have yet to purchase any Rapid Intake products, I’ve gotten better customer service from them than from many companies I’ve purchased products from.  I’m confident Garin and his team can help us get our LMS up and running smoothly.

Now that the decision is behind me, I’m looking forward to the implementation. I know that will be… interesting. On a related note, Tracy Hamilton has been blogging about her experiences with her LMS over at Discovery Through eLearning. I’m sure I’ll be in touch.

Finally, to all those that have helped with this process through comments and emails, thank you.

Why it’s hard to find an LMS

It’s been several weeks since my last blog post about my LMS search. The search moves ever so slowly. I can’t say I’ve learned anything new about LMSs, but I am increasingly surprised by how much they cost. I am seriously considering building my own. Why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars year after year for something I can build myself? Time is the only valid reason – I don’t really have the time.

Shopping for an LMS is nothing like shopping for eLearning development tools. For example, if you want to compare software recording tools it’s pretty easy. You go to the various web sites, download trial versions and compare prices. Shopping for an LMS is not that easy.

I’ve found three areas that make it hard to find an LMS: they don’t all post pricing online, they don’t all have trials available, and the feature sets vary greatly.

Price – As a rule of thumb, if the price is not on the web site it’s going to cost a lot. Vendors want you to contact them for the price so they can get your email address and phone number so they can make person-to-person contact. I understand that, but I prefer to contact you when I am ready. I research online because I don’t want to talk to sales people until I am ready. Putting your prices online saves me time and saves you time. If your product is out of my budget, then you don’t have to waste time calling or emailing me.

(Side Rant – don’t hide your phone number on caller ID. I will not answer the phone unless I can see who is calling, and I might just delete the voice mail without listening to it. I consider it a professional courtesy to show your phone number on caller ID.)

Trials – Several vendors do give you free trials, which I greatly appreciate. I can’t imagine why any vendor would not offer a free trial. Webinars can give an adequate overview, but I want to get in and poke around myself. I don’t make any major purchase without some kind of test drive, large software purchases should be no exception.

Feature Sets – Most LMSs cover the basics pretty well (course tracking, user management, reports, and catalog management), but they can differ greatly once you get past the basics. Don’t let this get in your way. Before you start talking to sales reps, nail down your requirements. If you know exactly what you need, you can easily weed out products that offer too much. Keep in mind that you will pay for all those features, even if you don’t use them. I’ve seen incredibly robust LMSs that have awesome features that I would love to have, except that I don’t really need all the features. If you don’t need it, don’t pay for it.  You have to find the LMS that meets your requirements without too many extras you don’t need.

And don’t be afraid to tell the sales rep that their product is too robust.  You have to be honest with them; even if they don’t get the sale they will appreciate your honesty. Tell them up front what is most important to you and don’t get distracted by bells and whistles. You have to compare products based on how well they meet your requirements, not on the features they offer.

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.