Friday, 29 August 2014

Gardening and your LMS

Now I've been known to drift into the world of physics at times (check out my relativity and quantum articles for example), but the world of horticulture seems a far stretch even for me, but I guess it's just another example of relativity or at least talking about things in the world we're more familiar with.

I've moved house a fair few times recently which is great because each time I've moved house I've got a great looking garden!  Maybe you could do the same with your LMS and be happy :)  Just like moving house, the downside is that there's quite a good deal of expense involved in the move - real estate agent fees alone are enough to cripple the fittest gardener (yes, my metaphor's are starting to get entwined).  The point is that physical act of changing house presents you with a new garden - that new garden has been looked after by someone else (probably because they were moving or just in to their gardening).  Same with setting up a new learning management system - it's configured and set up the way it should be at the start (hopefully, if you've had it done right) and away you go with a great system.

You may even look after your new garden for a bit after you move - it's always easier to maintain something that's in great condition than to work it up from a bad state.  But gradually we have a tendency to sink in to our old ways and the garden starts to look less like the way it did when we started and more like our old garden.  For me gardening consists of cutting the grass and (perhaps less frequently) cutting the edges and... that's about the end of my abilities in that space if I'm honest.  If you have perfect lawns and not much else that's great, we have roses and fancy bits and pieces and if it's left to me they won't look very fancy in a few months time without help.

When you get a new LMS there's a great deal of effort that goes into it early on - not to mention a great deal of investment.  But if your skills in gardening your LMS consist of just checking and trimming your main categories and edging a few users, pretty soon your LMS doesn't look as neat as it did at the start.  The weeds appear, the untrimmed users and hierarchies start to spread beyond their intended borders and some rather unsavory growths appear where none were planned.

The good news is that there are two solutions here.  The first is the simplest; get a good gardener in and pay for the solution.  If you have the budget to have someone who can help maintain the system the way you want it then that's a pretty good investment.  The second involves work unfortunately; you either have to do that work yourself or find someone internally (the wife? the kids? - but only in the gardening sense, try employees for your LMS) who has the capacity AND the interest.  If you can't afford the first option and can't be bothered with the second you can either live with your untidy garden or you can make friends with a professional gardener who can at least give you tips and the odd bit of help - same is true with your learning technologies.

Of course just like your garden your LMS has a tendency to grow organically whether you want it to or not.  The trick in either case is not to try and stop the growing process (nature will tend to thwart you if you try this) but to shape the process so the end result is something you can be proud of.

Alternatively you can always just move again...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Open SaaS and me!

Okay, that was a pretty poor play on words, but after a meeting with Richard Wyles (CEO of Totara LMS) last week I picked up another new term that I kind of like.  Since I guess it could be the key to opening up a world of learning treasures I figured it was a reasonable stretch.

So by now you know what SaaS is?  Software as a Service (for those that didn’t) means that rather than having local copies of software on your individual computer you can have centrally held programmes somewhere in the cloud that you just use.  Once upon a time I used to really hate these (read my old blog ‘Pain in the SaaS’) because the internet was never up to the job.  What that meant was that the tool you were trying to use would just stop working as the connection came and went or if you had a slow connection the tool was too slow (waiting for a few seconds after each click is incredibly frustrating).  The emergence of high quality internet nationally and globally has changed the way we think about SaaS products and more and more we see our major services being provided in this way - not least of which is your learning management system.  If an LMS is SaaS then what about an LMS that utilised Open Source technologies like a Moodle or Totara LMS?

So you can probably see where this is going, open source technologies as a SaaS is going to take us to Open SaaS.  But what does that actually mean?  If you look at what open source software means the most obvious thing is access to the source code - usually to allow you to customised the end solution.  If you host someone’s open source product for them, then although the solution is open source it may not be quite the same as them having access to the code.  In some hosting models that’s exactly what happens and you have the benefits that go with the solution, but sometimes you can’t get access to the code because it’s on shared server services like many SAaS services.  So what’s the deal then, what’s the advantage of open source software if you’re going to give it the SaaS treatment?

I’m glad you asked.  Open SaaS can provide us with a couple of good things.  Firstly there’s the actual possibility of change.  Say you do want to customise your LMS - if it’s Open SaaS the chances are you will at least be able to achieve this through your technical provider.  We often do this for lots of our clients.  Essentially you can ask for modifications to be made and then the provider can give you a cost for making those changes to you - it can be quite cost effective and definitely can improve your LMS in matching to your business needs.  That’s all well and dandy, but sometimes you really can’t change it, then the benefit is less obvious.  One thing you don’t get in this case is access to the code base, but you do get the advantages of open source that have brought it to this point.  For example, if you’re using Totara Cloud as your SaaS LMS you can’t get to the code base to change it but you do get the latest code on an LMS that is constantly evolving and updating due to upstreaming of the latest add-ons and additional functionality.  This is pretty much the best of both worlds - a totally managed solution, but with the collaborative build to get it there.  There’s more.  Open SaaS also spreads the market penetration of great open source solutions.  What that does is increases the community and users on systems that are built around the collective knowledges and experiences.  In other words, organisations that wouldn’t necessarily opt for an open source solution, can access it in its SaaS format and then can increase the experiences and help the product to grow.

Of course, I’ve not even mentioned cost; but try to think beyond that for a second.  An Open SaaS LMS can give you access to really great features and functions that you could only get from a full-on proprietary implementation - that’s worth having even if it wasn’t so affordable.

So, standing in front of the big rock I’ll happily say ‘Open SaaS and me' - but yeah, you may need to change the alphanumeric characters...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Responsive Design in Learning Technologies

Once upon a time web pages on your phone were rubbish.  Back in the days when phone screens were smaller than watch screens (no this has nothing to do with the new Apple watches about to hit the market) the only way to go ‘online’ would have been to use WAP pages which were text based and only a few lines long because scrolling was something that involved awkwardly clicking down the page.  Then came the iPhone and the world would never be the same again.  Scrolling became far more natural and the screen sizes grew and grew.  Then tablets came along and gave you a slightly smaller version of a desktop and things went crazy.  Significantly more people now access the internet from mobile devices than they do from desktops or laptops and we think nothing of switching from one device to another to another.  Initially we were able to accomplish this through the clever use of zooming on these mobile devices so that we could zoom into a web page and make it big enough to work with and then back out to get the overall picture, but really that meant the experience wasn’t always that great.

We then went further and produced mobile views so that you saw a totally different screen on a phone to a tablet to a computer - each optimised for the typical size of screen.  The limitations were that everything had to be done at least two or three times over - or at least contain multiple lines in HTML code to account for this.  For those of you not in the know already Responsive Design was a breath of fresh air and instead of redesigning the look and feel based upon the device it meant you design one look - but that it changes based upon the resolution of the screen (or size if you will).  That means that your web page is cleverly designed to scale to move around images to give you a great experience on all devices without the need for device detection and multiple pages for the same thing.  Look at the example below - it shows the same webpage with different resolutions to get an idea of what I mean.

Great.  But this was initially limited to websites or HTML and where does that leave us in the learning technologies world?  Well, the potential was and is immense for us, because learning, like every other facet of life these days, is becoming increasingly mobile.  The problem isn’t that responsive design can’t be achieved, it’s that not many people are actually doing it - and some don’t even know what it is let alone how to do it.  At Kineo we’re kind of lucky, we’ve been pioneering responsive design for some time and if you’re engaging with us it will come up in the discussion if you’re planning your content.  There’s more to technologies than content though, there’s also the systems they sit on and the tools we use to create content.

Those who read my ramblings regularly (you poor souls) will now that I work principally with Totara LMS and Moodle.  I love the way Totara in particular has embraced responsive design and out the box you get a responsive design theme builder for your LMS.  This is not just good news but is fantastic news for organisations who have learners (and trainers etc) who are mobile and want to access their devices on the go.  It means you can theme your sites to look great on a desktop for that corporate look but not at the expense of those users who are mobile.  It may not seem that much of a big deal to you, but remember that an LMS is a system (it’s in the acronym but you’d be amazed how many times I need to remind people) not just a web-page (or series of them).  That means making a system with numerous menus and sub-parts all responsive is no small feat, but it works and the end result is really cool - let me know if you want to see a demo in action!

The problem is not now that the LMS is responsive it’s that you still get the option to put things on it - and they’re not necessarily responsive and can ruin your look and feel.  The most likely issue is that you’ll bring in images into course or page design that aren’t designed the same way.  If you do this very quickly your responsive design will not have the effects you want with cut off images or the menus and everything else being forced into a smaller space.  The key to working with this for images is to use a little bit of html or css styling.  One of the best ways is to size your images by width or height and percentage.  I often put images at 100% width and then they take up the space required changing height as they go - again hit me up if you need some guidance on how to do this.  But the bigger problem still comes from your ‘content’.  I’ve already mentioned that speaking to your elearning provider about responsive design these days is a must, but what about the thousands of you (most who never read my blog of course!) that use rapid tools to produce your elearning?

Rapid tools are great and I’m a big fan of them for helping to unlock the potential of internal teams to produce elearning.  I’m a particular fan of the way Storyline has engaged with the concept of scenario based training.  But the issue comes that tools like Storyline and Captivate aren’t yet at the place they need to be around responsive design… and some of that is the mobile world’s fault.  That seems ironic, but back in the day when you put all your content out to Flash it was easy to resize everything because Flash player did that automatically for you so effectively it was already responsive.  Flash died (you knew that right?) when mobile devices by a certain big(gest) player weren’t able to play Flash files and movies and a new solution was sought.  Now your rapid programmes output in HTML5 which allows you to run them on tablets and mobiles regardless of the brand - but not all HTML5 is created equal and lots of the time we’re predefining screen size when we write the learning.  That’s madness because what we should have learnt from rapid design is that screen size is going to change depending upon the device or screen resolution.  The solution is in the HTML and if you have the abilities to go and tweak everything yourself you can still achieve that responsive aim.  If not, it’s a step backwards - what’s the point in a responsive system around content that doesn’t sit well in it.  The good news is the tools providers are on the case and we’re starting to get fixes on things like Storyline to stop some of the early issues with fitting content to the page on mobile devices.

And if you love the Open Source world then let's go a little further.  If you haven't already heard of Adapt then that's worth a look too!  An open source authoring tool that won't cost you a bean and produce responsive design - that's got to be the right direction! The link here will take you there and even the community page is responsive so you get a pretty good test drive of how it looks 

The future is that responsive design will just be a given I hope.  In the meantime think about the benefits of a mobile world, think about your end users and what they may be using and where they may be doing their learning and make your LMS and your content fit with their world.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Every LMS has at least three characters...

Okay another quote I've slightly misused but an important one and something to consider when taking on an LMS or when you're looking at a new LMS.  The original quote actually goes something like this:  

“Every man has three characters - that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has.”
Alphonse Karr

Whilst I leave you to ponder the psychology of that, with an LMS there is something very similar.  An LMS has a similar multi-personality type trait and it will often depend on the way you look at it - yes, similar to a previous blog piece on relativity again!  From the perspective of the vendor the LMS is often 'whatever you want it to be', which is about as helpful as being told nothing at all, but realistically each LMS has its own strengths and weaknesses - again, remember that there's no such thing as the perfect LMS.  Most vendors should be able to at least portray the strength of their LMS; be it 'slickness' or ease of use, reporting or its ability to be configured or customised.  That strong character is the most likely you're going to see presented to you and that's the first character to consider; but if you rest on that alone to make your decision things can go wrong for you unless your needs exactly match the LMS's strengths.

They say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but that's a somewhat variable entity when it comes to the users of an LMS.  You could be of the opinion that if you really want to know how good an LMS is, ask someone who is using it.  That helps, but there is so much more to it than that alone.  Many 'users' use the LMS in a very specific way and their LMS may or may not match the way they want to use it.  Some users have unrealistic expectations of any system (and this is not limited to an LMS) such that they expect it to do the decision making for them or automate things without guidance or coordination.  Others require such easy tasks that basically any LMS would do them.  If this means this isn't a simple second 'character' then yes, I guess you're right; but if you found an organisation with somewhat similar needs to you using the LMS in a somewhat similar fashion... well, they'd still have more characters and here's why.

When it comes to looking at an LMS from the perspective of an organisation, there are many traits or characters to it.  Firstly you have the chief exec or board type type view.  As any of us who work with these types know they see things in a slightly different way to the ‘real world’.  I don’t mean that as any form of criticism, it’s often necessary for them to have a certain level of detachment when they analyse things and visionary or idyllic views on how things should be and work.  Obviously I’m generalising a bit here, but your top level stakeholder may have a contrasting opinion; maybe they’re interest level is around the aesthetics of the system, maybe it’s around how it integrates - it may be as simple as how much it costs, but ultimately at the highest level it is always around some form of KPI or key performance indicator.  Your highest level people are ultimately looking at organisational satisfaction with the LMS.  The trick to viewing from this perspective is to understand the high-level motivator (KPI) and view from that angle.  It’s likely if your indicators are humming along nicely that your top level will be 100% happy with the product (unless your CEO is the dreamer, then be prepared for the unexpected - as if that were even possible).  What this means is if you engage at the highest level for an opinion on an LMS that they are using you must be ready to look from that angle or you may not get a response that’s of any use to you.

Your CEO isn’t going to do the majority of the work with your LMS though are they?  Who is really leading the LMS?  Maybe it’s your L&D lead or HR, Training Dept or (shock/horror) IT.  Find the key driver of the system and you’ll see another side of the LMS.  This will probably be more at the organisational effectiveness level than the overall satisfaction.  Yes, there are still KPIs pointing to what success is measured like, but the simple question here is usually does the LMS do everything we need it to do now and in the future.  If you’re at this level, this is the closest you may find to the same perspective, but as always it will be flavoured by the experiences of the individual organisation.

One opinion that frequently gets missed and is often the most important is that of the systems administrator.  I’ve preached the importance of this role in the past, as there is probably no-one in your entire organisation who knows the system like the person who works day in and day out with it and, perhaps more importantly, supporting the end users or learners.  The only issue with an administrator’s opinion of an LMS is that they are likely to know all the things wrong with it!  They problem solve and see the majority of issues that come in and have found out what they really can’t do in the system.  It maybe that they don’t look forward enough to be able to stretch the system, but if you want to know the chinks in it, then they are a very important person to speak to.  Of course I’ve omitted the end-users here, and a great measure of a system is to poll the users - but like all statistics take them with a grain of salt (88% of users say it was… depends on the options usually).

Is that it?  No, I have yet to put in the final and perhaps most relevant of all, that which it has.  In other words, what the actual system itself is like.  No matter who you speak to you will get a flavour, if you could find a way to add all that up and analyse it you’d get a picture of the actual system itself.  There are a few people who probably know this and they are in truly short supply and what’s more they may not be able to give you their view without a bit of bias in there too.  I think I’m probably one of these when it comes to Moodle or Totara LMS.  The issue is, for example, that whilst I think I know the LMS for its true self (and noting all the preamble above, I only think this I don’t know for sure), I’m also a vendor (of sorts, in open source world we’re ‘partners’) of the system and that presents a problem, why should you believe me if I want you to choose this system?  The good news is people like me work in limited market areas (mine is Australasia) and if we’ve got the right blend of experience, knowledge and desire to help people, we can actually identify when the system isn’t right for you too.  You could ask a truly independent consultant; but they often don’t have a fully in-depth knowledge of all the systems or have a bias.

In fact if we really get to the heart of it, we all have a bias - it’s really about balancing those to get the right information and advice.  Lastly, if you need help it always helps (as I said many blogs ago) to choose your partner wisely.