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 Gears allows you to push updates to offline content, so you don’t have to worry about the local copies being out of date.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 3

The last day of the eLearning Guild Annual Gathering was only a half day, but my brain was ready for a little rest.

Amazingly, for the third day in a row I made it to one of the 7:15 Breakfast Bytes (only a few minutes late). The speaker for the one I wanted to go to didn’t show, so I went to “Is SCORM worth it?” No one came up with a conclusive answer, but the discussion was lively and engaging. In general people seem frustrated by SCORM’s limitations and problems, but understand the need for a cross-vendor standard. My opinion is that SCORM has a place, but not for all training. Probably not even for very much training.

Stefan Sagmeister delivered the keynote based on his book “Things I have learned in my life so far”. The talk had nothing to do with eLearning, but was the best keynote of the conference. He showed some of his recent work which is based on ideas from the book. There’s a companion web site at http://www.thingsihavelearnedinmylife.com/ where you can contribute lessons you’ve learned.

After that I listened to David Metcalf talk about design for m-Learning. m-Learning design is really about information design for the platform you are targeting. You have to take the device into account. He gave examples from sales, service, and process training from different companies that used a variety of mobile devices. He also showed a couple of impressive educational examples including http://www.mysportspulse.com/.

I ended the conference with “What not to design: Visual makeovers for eLearning Content” presented by Donna Safo. I wasn’t able to attend the entire session because I had to leave for the airport, but what I saw was useful. What I got from the session is that the visual design of your eLearning matters. If it looks bad, people will be distracted and have a hard time focusing on the learning. Donna went over some basic design principles that can help even the most graphically challenged (like me). I stayed long enough to learn about alignment, repetition, and contrast. Her examples were simple and clear and I felt I learned something useful in the short time I attended. I wish I could have stayed for the entire presentation.

That ends my short series on AG08. I’m looking forward to DevLearn in November and will make every effort to attend the entire conference this year. As I write this I realize I have a bunch of links to go through, and share. As I do, I’m going to add them to del.icio.us and tag them AG08. If you do the same thing we’ll have a comprehensive catalog of all the links.