Sunday, January 27, 2008

Content Management, Eedo, and the Philosophy of Web 2.0

This article is one of a series that explores examples of companies using Web 2.0 approaches in their solutions. Since its origin, Eedo Knowledgeware has been dedicated to creating learning solutions and content management that capture the spirit of Web 2.0, and employ its power.

Audio / podcast.

Web 2.0 may bring to mind a wild and woolly world of anonymous role-playing (Second Life), obsessive social networking (MySpace), proliferations of "reaction videos" (YouTube), and an endless array of PHP-based relational web applications and mashups that "almost" work as intended. This is not altogether a positive thing when one contemplates Web 2.0 in the learning organization, whether it be a university or a corporation.

Nevertheless, the basic functions of the Web 2.0 applications and their underlying philosophy are invaluable, and the companies that are able to employ the underlying architecture and philosophy of user-generated content, modification, sharing, and deployment will have significant success. This is the case not only because their solutions are effective and cost-efficient, but also because their employees, especially those who are a part of the "gamer" generation, are comfortable with Web 2.0 approaches to computing and communicating.




An example of this is Eedo Knowledgeware, a provider of learning and knowledge management systems. Eedo's approach has been in direct contrast with the course management systems such as Blackboard and the early WebCT solutions which originated in the old "Web Course in A Box" environment of the 1990s when elearning was evolving from lab and CD-ROM-deployed computer-based learning. Certainly Blackboard has tried to make itself open enough to be integrated with relational databases and content management solutions, but, as any IT director can tell you, doing so has not been pretty.

Eedo allows companies to develop in-house online training solutions which can be developed, modified, and deployed in many sets of circumstances and situations.

For the most part, the online training environment is not an open one. Most often, the material is hosted on an intranet, rather than the internet, which can be accessed from outside computers, but only if they have the proper type of software (generally a "thin client" solution).

The fact that the training programs and employee information must be kept on secure servers in an intranet may confuse some individuals who have not been exposed to the new ways in which the positive aspects of Web 2.0 can be built into the solution.

Built for Controlled Flow and Managed Growth.

Eedo Knowledgeware has largely avoided the "in a box" problem because their solution was built for sharing from the very beginning. The core solution comes in the form of Eedo's flagship product, its ForceTen learning and content management solution.

Web-browser based: Perhaps the first thing that sets ForceTen apart is the fact that it is web-browser based. The collaborative authoring function is consequently accessible anywhere, anytime, with no need for plug-ins.

Collaborative, with Version Control: While most learning platforms allow multiple people to have authoring rights to a course, instead of creating a harmonious work environment, what often happens is that people author over each other, and the end result is something more like a free-for-all wiki than a smoothly functioning virtual factory, with clear workflow and quality assurance. Eedo's Workflow capability allows multiple individuals to author content and add it to a course. The sequence is clearly defined, with version control. Further, there are points along the way for sign-offs and quality assurance. In this manner, quality assurance can occur as a formative process, rather than a summative evaluation long after the fact. Subject matter experts, e-learning instructional designers and IT specialists will understand immediately how valuable is Eedo's Workflow engine within ForceTen. Workspace is a web-based collaborative development and project management facility available in ForceTen that builds on, but goes beyond, mere workflow management. Project managers can establish roles, security, content distribution and workflow related to a specific project within a particular “workspace.” Workspace is the basis for supporting the inherently multi-disciplinary and collaborative nature of learning content development.

Content Management In A Controlled, Secure Environment: One of the most exciting aspects of ForceTen is its content management system which can be used by developers and by end-users (students) alike. In the past, objects and content had to be copied and placed into each section of the course. As a result, content was often out of date, which, in the case of training that involved time-sensitive information, could be disastrous. ForceTen's content management system uses a Web 2.0 approach, which is to say that the applications are integrated and they pull from a central repository, rather than being duplicated and housed in individual course shells. Items are assembled dynamically. Eedo's content management function even integrates well with open-source learning management solutions such as Moodle.

Scalable: The fact that individuals can contribute to a single, centralized content management system, and that ForceTen allows reusing templates, modules, and other aspects of the architecture, means that courses can be created and added easily. More importantly, the object-oriented, dynamically assembled content means that adding users and course sections is a simple task. Companies that find themselves faced with the task of quickly training a large number of new employees or team-members are able to accomplish this task efficiently.


User-Generated Content Across the Organization. Using the Storyboard function, team members (users) can create user-generated content, modify the content of others, integrate new designs and templates, and incorporate information from corporate databases. Not only does this save time, it also allows an object-oriented approach, in which content can be reused.

The "Viral Video" Energy in a Controlled Environment. Web 2.0 is an exciting environment where ideas and images rapidly disseminate. This type of enthusiastic buzz is often completely lost in the rigid environment of the typical learning management system. However, Eedo's Workflow and Storyboard encourage innovation and sharing. Team members can send each other notices and updates -- they are instantaneous. A sense of excitement and esprit de corps can quickly flare up and help create true "authoring communities" which transcend barriers of culture, language, and distance. Working in such an environment creates a strong sense of affiliation and helps in the long run develop a solidly shared vision and sense of mission.

Success Stories.

Not surprisingly, Eedo Knowledgeware has a host of success stories and satisfied users, which is, frankly, quite unusual in today's environment in which corporate and organizational change manage to sabotage even the most well-meaning learning management system provider or content solution provider.

Eedo Knowledgeware is being used successfully by large corporations (banks, manufacturing, service providers), by colleges and universities (graduate programs, training providers), government entities (military, social services), and more.

Challenges and Opportunities.

Needless to say, with every wonderful solution come a few possible stumbling blocks. Eedo's ease of use and ability to incorporate distributed users (authoring, quality assurance, etc.) may require a bit more leadership from the company, and a clearly defined vision in order to make sure that the workflows are well-organized.

At the same time, the opportunities to improve processes within an organization using Eedo products are significant.

Temptation to repurpose and reuse bad content. How many times do companies decide to digitize old training tapes and make them available through their online training? It's a shortcut that seems good at the time, but it can put a halt to real learning, as students become passive. However, Eedo can solve the problem for clients who will take the time to really review the objects in their learning object repository. Eedo's Workflow allows for quality control.

Temptation to eliminate solid instructional design. Eedo makes it easy for corporations to produce content. However, they may be tempted to take shortcuts and avoid solid instructional design. This problem can be avoided, however, by using Eedo’s reusable cluster templates.

Over-reliance on storyboarding, animated powerpoints, and simulations. Simulations and animated powerpoints are effective in moderation. However, they must be designed well, and punctuated by assessment and learning reviews. Otherwise, there is no assurance whatsoever that learning is taking place. The training provider needs to be sure to not stop once the content is developed. Assessment and evaluation tools (which Eedo provides) and reporting should be incorporated in the course.

Discussion boards as learning occasions overlooked. Corporate training seems to shy away from collaborative learning, even easy-to-implement asynchronous means such as discussion boards. Eedo could provide guided solutions for effective asynchronous collaborative learning. Eedo has an answer in the works and has recently added a digital portfolio which allows for collaboration.

Corporations need learning program evaluation. Colleges and universities are often forced to do self-studies and self-review in order to obtain and retain accreditation. Training programs have no such pressure, usually. As a result, they may be working in a vacuum. This represents an opportunity for the learning organization.

A survey capability has been built into Forceten to collect end-user feedback, or feedback from trainees’ supervisors or managers. Also, there is a toolset to create assessments using a wide variety of item formats, and it is possible to manage tests and test item pools, and evaluate tests.

Sadly, few organizations avail themselves of these features and specialist knowledge is still needed to interpret the analyses ForceTen can provide. Failure to evaluate the quality of learning assessments is common across organizations. Consequently, it is possible to be mistaken about what learners are actually taking away from a course or training program.

Web 2.0 is a Philosophy

One can argue that the Web 2.0 philosophy has been around since the inception of intranets. Technical limitations and human perversity created an openness backlash after the dot.com crash and the proliferation of hackers, con artists, and people behaving badly under assumed identities. However, the benefits of openness, information sharing, networking, and collaboration have always outweighed the bad, and Eedo, dedicated to an "enlightened path," represents that type of company that will simultaneously pioneer and guide organizations in a way that fully utilizes the tools available now and in the future.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Hires Role-Play as Action Heroes in Serious Game by Enspire

Austin-based Enspire has developed a series of training courses that incorporate alternative realities and serious games for companies requiring training for distributed populations. Enspire's recent serious game / simulation allows new employees to role-play as action heroes as they learn about the company, company policies, and other necessary procedures. While serious games have been used in corporate training, the way that Enspire used game technology in new hire orientation opens a number of new possibilities, and makes one ask fundamental questions about the nature of new hires, and the "boomer to gamer" transfers of knowledge and experience.
Created for Sun Microsystems, the action-hero serious game, or, "new hire portal," was for new hires. The new-hire portal recently won Best Synchronous Learning Course at the E-learning Guild's Demofest in San Jose. Through this portal, employees can participate in social networking, read and write blog entries, and play educational onboarding computer games.

Specifically, Enspire created "Rise of the Shadow Specters," a platform game and "Dawn of the Shadow Specters," an adventure game. Both games teach Sun's core businesses and corporate culture by navigating Ray (the hero) through Sol City.


A demo is available at http://learning.sun.com/sls/staff/display/NEWHIRE/Play . Enspire’s Interactive Content Experience™ (ICE) game engine powered the experience, which was honored at the DevLearn 2007 DemoFest and featured in the Austin Business Journal.

Onboarding is a great place to incorporate serious games and role-playing because it allows people to develop a sense of community. Better than Second Life or There.com because the environment is controlled, content is official.

There are other perhaps unanticipated results of using an action-hero video game for new-hire orientation:

1---Corporate culture. The simulation provides a wonderful opportunity to introduce individuals to the corporate culture.

2--- Developing community of learners. Having a sense of a community is absolutely vital for individuals who can learn from each other and ask questions in an environment that encourages questions, support, and answers.

3--- Instructing one in procedures. Role-playing and practice are effective ways to learn.

4--- Engaging the learner, maintaining interest. Using serious games and simulations is a great way to engage the learners and keep them interested and receptive to learning.

5--- Developing a belief in the corporation that is very positive. Perception is reality, they say, and if employees perceive their employer to be very forward-thinking, caring, and innovative, it helps develop a positive belief about the company and encourages vision and mission coherence.

6--- "Boomer" to "Gamer" Knowledge and Experience Transfer. The challenge of finding ways for employees with distinct learning styles and preferences can be overcome. Specifically, "digital immigrants" of the Baby Boomer generation have an opportunity to share knowledge with the "digital natives" who grew up playing video games.

Opportunities

Managing Expectations: There is always the downside of arousing expectations, and giving the impression that the company is a lot cooler than it really is. This can be a challenge which will need to be managed very carefully, with a great deal of coordination with the Human Resources department.

Assessment Tools: What are the learners really learning? Assessment tools need to correspond with the learning style used in the original training.

Program and Training Effectiveness Evaluation: It is important to have a non-interested independent third party take a look and make sure that learning styles are being accommodated and that ADA accommodation requirements are being met. This would not be expensive, but it is invaluable. A trained instructional designer / program evaluator would be ideal. Adjustments could be made quickly and easily.

Enspire White Papers

In addition to providing custom solutions, Enspire offers white papers on games and simulations used in training. They are available at the blog: http://blog.enspire.com/

The white papers also describe how Enspire's solutions for training and professional development can be best used. The fact that Enspire offers a full suite of services is comforting. It indicates that the individuals understand the real needs of the entity and are focused on learning, rather than simply repurposing game code.

It would be very exciting if Enspire devoted an entire series of pages to assessment via simulation. This is where most serious games and simulations fall short. In courses such as conflict resolution or training, it is important to understand the underlying principles (or, in the case of a new-hire orientation, the corporate policies). The problem with most simulations and serious games is that they do not test in the same manner in which they present the original material, nor do they offer practice tests.

There are huge opportunities for serious games and simulation programmers to show how they are accommodating multiple learning styles, not just in interacting with the interface (and other avatars), but also in assessment. This is most acutely the case when learners must perform in standardized tests (licensing boards and other exams). Enspire is doing groundbreaking work and I am looking forward to more examples of their innovative use of simulation and games for training and e-learning.

Links:

New Hire Portal

http://enspire.com/

Friday, January 18, 2008

Creating Mashups for Fun and Venture Capital

Although dynamic, integrated web applications (often called "mashups") are increasing in number and popularity, very few manuals or guides exist that take the user step-by-step through the process of creating them. PHP Web 2.0 Mashup Projects, by Shu-Wai Chow, and published by Packt Publishing (http://www.packtpub.com), provides valuable step-by-step instructions. With this book, uses will have strategies for using the customizable homepage platforms such as iGoogle and MyYahoo, which allow users to take advantage of the client-side Javascript scripting language and the always-growing list of "gadgets," which are applications that retrieve information from a database and then display them in the central site. It could also enable a user to build gadgets that could attract venture capital if they could form the basis of a viable business.



The term, "mashup" can be misleading. After all, ordinary web users who copy and paste code into their blog templates in order to add search tools, questionnaires, polls, maps, and links to products in order to provide functionality and entertainment for their visitors may not realize they are creating mashups. They may not have any idea that the functional chunks of code they're importing can be called "gadgets" or "widgets" and that the dynamic links to books and products illustrate a "long tail" approach to marketing.

What those web users would acknowledge is that they appreciate how exciting it is to be able to generate your own dynamic web applications and to put them on a single page. They would love to be able to do more. For those users, Mashup Projects is ideal.

PHP Web 2.0 Mashup Projects starts from the beginning and defines a mashup as an application that allows users to "remotely consume services like Google Maps, Flickr, Amazon, YouTube, MSN Search, Yahoo!, Last.fm, and the Internet UPC database, not to mention the California Highway Patrol Traffic data" (preface) and more. The author acknowledges that many users will not really want to have to write PHP code, nor will they necessarily have server-side privileges.

Typical dynamic, integrated web applications / mashups fall into a few well-established catagories:

Maps
Social Networks
Photographs
Demographics
Financial Information
E-Commerce
Ads
Calendar
Dictionaries
Language Translation

Mashup Projects explains which platforms enable users to bring together already written scripts in order to have the functionality of a mashup. Examples include iGoogle, MyYahoo, amazon, MySpace and others. This is a kind of mashup "lite" since the user will not actually be writing any scripts to create a unique gadget, or to modify an existing gadget.

There is money to be made in gadget-building, and Google realizes this. In fact, one can apply for funding to support building a gadget, if the idea is sound enough, and useful for Google. One can submit a proposal and receive $5,000 for funding the venture through Gadget Ventures (http://www.google.com/gadgetventures/). If a viable business can be built around the gadget, up to $100,000 is available as startup capital from Google.

Google provides a guide, but it is quite minimal. Mashup Projects could be a perfect book for those who wish to develop a Google Gadget, and then obtain funding for a startup venture. (Example: building an application for http://shoppingmallzombies.com/)

Mashup Projects begins with Amazon, one of the friendliest databases around, which actively encourages individuals to dynamically retrieve information in order to sell it. Chapter 2 shows the user how to work with an XML-RPC structure, which forms the core of the dynamic retrieval function of mashups. The request and retrieval functions are clearly details. In addition, the chapter discusses how to use other types of requests, including REST.

Readers will be able to practice projects in by following the Chow's step-by-step instructions. The user can make his or her own search engine using PHP SOAP, and then can build his or her own Video Jukebox. The process is clear and it moves from the simple to the complex, starting with writing the application and then "mashing up."

Chapter 5 shows the user how to create a mashup using public safety data and maps to predict traffic snarls and situations. Chow very responsibly discusses the ethical issues involved in a "screen scrape" and that one should always seek approval to pull data from that is displayed on one's website and importing it into one's own site.

Chapter 6 shows how to integrate maps and image repositories (Google maps and Flickr). Chow builds the mashup around data on the London Tube.

For the more sophisticated web user and web programmer with experience with servers, creating mashups can be one of the most satisfying activities around. It allows one to demonstrate very creative thinking by being able to bring together unrelated clusters of information -- unrelated databases, unrelated web applications - and to uncover really amazing and unique aspects. For example, shmapplets.com (http://www.shmapplets.com) brings together city maps, photographs, cultural information, and personal information to create virtual tours. As an example of a mashup that has been created by a user and made available for the public free of charge, schmapplet is pretty typical. It's a great application, but it has a number of rough edges and limitations, which I found when I started to create my own schmapplet of Oklahoma City: http://www.schmap.com/published/beyondutopia/1267/

However, very effective mashups exist, with and without glitches, and they provide the user with very valuable information. There are a few very important considerations, which should be mentioned.

First, there are ethical considerations in developing some mashups. Chow discusses issues involved in "screen scraping" and he touches on the questions one should ask oneself when putting together information that could be confidential or lead to security and/or privacy breaches.

Second, there are important data quality issues that must be addressed. The mashups are only as good as the information that is retrieved. How do you know that the information is valid? Are important business decisions being made on the basis of the information retrieved in a mashup? Some serious errors could be made if the maps are out of date, the customer reviews are biased (or completely inaccurate), and other information is flawed.

Caution should be used when creating mashups. Good planning is of paramount importance. Shu-Wai Chow's PHP Web 2.0 Mashup Projects (Packt Publishing 2007) is a valuable tool.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Neulio Does for Training What YouTube Did Simple Video Content

Neulio's new educational video platform makes it possible for individuals to easily create educational and training videos that follow sound instructional design and have a measure of quality assurance, which is, as we all know, quite rare in the wild-west, anything-goes world of user-generated content (UGC) and Web 2.0.

Anyone who has ever tried to create their own video-based course by using existing hosting services or by hosting it yourself is familiar with some of the obstacles. Google video and YouTube make it very easy to upload and share videos, and even restrict access to certain users, and, they make it possible to embed a video in your course website or download videos to your mobile devices. Sounds good? It is, to a degree. It's a great way to make your videos accessible across platforms, but the problem is that the platform itself is not pedagogically friendly. You have to do a lot of work. Further, you're never really sure if your students are experiencing the video content in the way you'd like them to. You can try to make sure that they see the videos in a certain sequence, but it is very difficult to link them.

Neulio (http://www.neulio.com/) - a new educational video platform, hosting service, and instructional template framework – could provide a solution.


Neulio is as easy to use as YouTube or Google video. The user can upload a video directly from his or her camera or phone. In the case of Neulio, user generated content -- all of it -- is free to view and free to post.

What is different about Neulio is that it is designed specifically for online training and learning via user-generated video content. It's a simple solution that allows individuals to create useable video training without having to have an extensive IT department or a team of instructional designers.

Neulio does for training, learning, and how-to content what YouTube did for simple video content.

---The ability to create multi-lesson courses without IT involvement
The coursebuilder tool is engaging, and its ease of use encourages the individual to create content and to use it in innovative ways. Changes are simple and do not require the involvement of IT teams, instructional designers, instructional technologists. In addition to time savings, cost savings can be significant.


---Support for multiple media types in a single course
It is not uncommon for individuals to have content in different formats. Neulio accommodates different types of video content, and further, it converts it to a flash format that is compatible with many other types of players (mobile devices, phones, laptops).

---User-configurable gates that control movement between lessons
Gates are user-configurable controls that allow the user to regulate a course consumer's movement between lessons. Types of gates include passwords and quizzes.

---An integrated, online quiz-builder
Neulio allows the course developer to create quizzes that are used by the student in the way they were intended, and at the point and in the sequence. This helps assure that learning is taking place.

However, one would be remiss if one did not mention that there are potential downsides. Like many new programs (especially those that emerged during the dot.com times), the service must achieve critical mass. That means that many users need to use it, and the UGC must be of sufficient quality and relevance to excite other uses.

Further, it will be necessary to find productive partnerships in order to assure large user groups and to test out the bugs. Needless to say, this requires the architecture to be massively scalable. That is not always the case.

Finally, one must avoid the pitfalls of getting a partner that is too large too soon. How many potentially useful products are still languishing in Google’s sandbox / beta-testing area and have never actually seen the light of day?

Those provisos notwithstanding, Neulio represents a breakthrough for e-learning. It allows user-generated instructional content to be used in a meaningful way. Further, it allows the user-generated content to be much higher quality than one would ordinarily expect. Neulio functions as a virtual instructional design team and it gives the guidance that users need to create video content that is pedagogically effective.




The Neulio concept is potentially revolutionary. In addition to being used in online courses, the "how-to" element can span many uses. Theoretically, it could be used in conjunction with textbooks and e-commerce as well.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

IBM Predictions for the Future Spell Web 2.0 Business Opportunities Now

IBM has released their annual “Next Five In Five,” a set of predictions released at the end of each year, to predict where technology will take us in five years. http://www.ibm.com/ibm/ideasfromibm/us/five_in_five/12312007/index.shtml

The December 2007 predictions, however, seem to have already come true, or, at least, be on the verge of coming true. Thus, as predictions, they are not as engaging as some of the futurist visions that discuss really radical new technologies and techniques. However, as indicators of where real business opportunities exist now and in the immediate future, IBM's predictions are pure gold.

The “Five in Five” is not quite the same, but is similar to another set of predictions issued by IBM. "Five Innovations that Could Change Your Life Over the Next Five Years," http://www.ibm.com/ibm/ideasfromibm/us/five_in_five/010807/index.shtml which came from an IBM-sponsored distributed event, and virtual think tank.

Below are IBM's five predictions. I've added brief commentary as well as a list of possible opportunities that can be developed or expanded now.

1. Green Technologies for Everyday Life
"Smart technologies" will proliferate. According to IBM, the current trend to put timers and sensors on lights and electrical equipment will expand to the point that almost everything will have energy-saving elements, and many will utilize nanotechnology in the sensors and other design.


Business Opportunities Now:
---Sensors to control energy consumption
---Devices that have them (sellers and manufacturers)

2. Driving Patterns and Traffic Management

Yahoo Go! and Google Maps already provide information for handhelds. Numerous mashups can be downloaded that integrate traffic information with maps (such as Google maps). The opportunities exist to provide better coverage. They can also be helpful in reviewing real estate or driving conditions at a distance from one's handheld.


Business Opportunities Now:
---Info systems (web app that integrate with live information)
---Monitor that gather the information and feed them to a central database -- cell phones with GPS? OnStar nav systems?
---Companies that provide the services to install devices and monitoring systems / software

3. You Are What You Eat: Crop / Food tracking and reporting

According to IBM, all our food will be traceable, and we'll be able to find just where it was grown, processed, and warehoused. Honestly, there is nothing new in this -- all food has such information already. If it did not, how would we have been able to determine where the tainted spinach came from in the outbreak that occurred in 2006? However, according to IBM, the tracking information will extend to the types of soil, the nature of the farm environment, and the dates of transit.



Business Opportunities Now:
---Far beyond the barcode information // especially date
---Origin and provenance (soil, country, etc)
---Provenance and transport (processing and packaging)
---Agricultural industry can sell information to users
---Packaging manufacturers would design packaging to facilitate the new need
---Problem -- too much information for competitors?

4. Cell Phones Do Everything

According to the prediction, cell phones will be personal assistants that will do everything from find maps, deliver email, allow you to see ratings for a restaurant, share videos, and post directly to social networking sites.



As we all know, that prediction has come true. In fact, just yesterday, I used my Blackberry Curve (with service provided by T-Mobile) to find the street address of Kyoto's, a restaurant in Reno, Nevada, where I was to meet for lunch. I used Yahoo Go! to enter the name of the restaurant and the town. I obtained the street address, found a map, and also even found some ratings and customer comments regarding their sushi. I was able to avoid a traffic accident on one of the streets on the way to the restaurant, thanks to Based on that information, I found the restaurant, and then ordered the sushi sampler. The ahi sashimi looked good, so I will probably try that next time. I could have filmed a movie of it and posted it directly to my YouTube account or as a video comment on Yahoo Go!, but decided against it. I was afraid I would dribble soy sauce on my white blouse.

Business Opportunities Now:
---Marketing portals that are cell-phone / smartphone friendly
---Packages to help businesses meet the needs of their cell phone-based customers
---Packages to help vendors, businesses, and consumers input information in many fields (rating restaurants, providing maps, etc.)
---Packages to help consumers decode all the information and use it
---Effective ads etc for cell phone display

5. Doctors will use super-scans to analyze patients.

Needless to say, this is also a prediction that has already come true. It is useful to see, though, that IBM expects the trend to continue and the information to become more portable, more user-friendly, and -- well, potentially more dangerous.



Business Opportunities Now:
---Technologies that help enhance imaging
---Computer programs that help display more effective models
---Medical technology companies creating diagnostic tests
---Insurance and pharmaceutical companies (ways to use the info)
---Target market for certain treatments and medicines
---Privacy / encryption devices -- my personal feeling is that if it gets to the point that one can do a scan of a person without one's permission (remote scans at at distance, or even at places such as airports), it might be useful to have an internal device that scrambles the scan -- a kind of portable force-field. It would also be helpful to be able to encrypt the information once it is obtained.

In many ways, the predictions have already come true. The predictions are useful, nevertheless, because it is possible to gauge the nature and direction of trends, as well as their volume and impact. In addition, it's possible to identify where and how one might take advantage of opportunities to develop new products and services.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Interview with Jane Hart (Life in the E-Learning Organization Series)

Welcome to Life in the E-Learning Organization! This week's interview is with Jane Hart, director of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies.

What is your name, and what is your involvement with e-learning?

I am Jane Hart. I run the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies – www.C4LPT.co.uk where I provide a free online information service about e-learning as well as consultancy and advice to businesses and education. Freely available resources at the Centre include: Directory of Tools for Learning, E-Learning Handbook, a Conference Calendar and the Top 100 Tools for Learning activity.

How did you get interested in distance education?

I have been working in the education and training world for nearly 25 years. I spent 14 years teaching in Further and Higher Education where I promoted online learning, but left in 1997 to offer professional e-learning services. This work has been focused on helping organisations understand the full potential of e-learning to address job and business performance problems.

What is your favorite new trend in distance education?

As part of my work at the Centre I keep track of new trends, technologies and tools. My favourite trend is informal learning, by which I mean realising that informational e-learning can be just as powerful and as effective as instructional e-learning – and much easier and less costly to create. The key, however, is understanding which is the most appropriate solution for any given learning or performance challenge or problem.

What is your favorite technology?

I have many favourites; but currently I very enthusiastic about the use of file sharing tools like Slideshare, YouTube, VoiceThread, Scribd, etc, which let authors embed resources into web pages to share them with others.

What kinds of instructional materials do you use in elearning?

I help my clients build a range of materials; and recently have been building screencasts, Flash-based narrated presentations, as well short tutorials.

How do you use textbooks in e-learning?

E-Book technology is a great way of making textbooks available. But more interesting is the ability to use the technology create course readers – and make these available to on-demand online or to print

What are your favorite social networks? How do you view them in e-learning?

Although I am a member of public networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, I prefer the smaller private networks that can be built with tools like Ning to invite members with common interests. For instance I am a member of Jay Cross’ Internet Time Group community where members can share their experiences of working in the e-learning profession.

Do you have a few favorite mashups or web applications that work together in innovative ways? Please describe them.

Following on from my previous response, I do like apps like Study Groups, which makes Facebook a useful tool for education. After all students are probably already members, it’s just about harnessing the technology for educational purposes!

What is your favorite quote? or, what's a book that caught your eye recently?

“Learning is not compulsory ... neither is survival” (W Edwards Denning)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ruby On Rails: New Book Guides New Solutions (Review)

A new book, just released by Packt Publishing, can help make elearning solutions more efficient by using the Ruby on Rails web development framework. The book, which is intended for users who have a basic familiarity with the framework, and who wish to develop their own applications or enterprise solutions, contains valuable guidance and insight. It is not intended for users who want to develop exotic uses, nor does it require users to be familiar with more complex web-based applications. It is most valuable for the ways in which it instructs users in the planning, development, and deployment processes. The book is entitled Ruby on Rails Enterprise Application Development: Plan, Program, Extend.

Ruby on Rails (Rails for short) has become a very popular web development framework for business applications. It is ideal for training solutions because it can enable applications that do not communicate with each other to interface in a productive way. While such a statement may not seem to mean much at first glance, a closer look into the typical corporate training environment or elearning organization yields a situation where test results, certifications, instructional materials, assessments, registrations, records, and payments are just a few of the data repositories that must communicate with each other.

The problem with canned commercial solutions, or even customized solutions by a provider such as Oracle, is that the organization changes, objectives redefine themselves, and needs emerge -- all outside the capabilities of the "off the shelf" product.

Ruby on Rails is open source, and readily available for download. While there are a number of sites that provide help with installation and getting started with Rails, there are few resources for the mid-level user who would like to start using Ruby on Rails to help with both mundane tasks as well as more complex ones.

Rails is a very clear, easy-to-use framework that can be written in a text file (using notepad, for example, in Windows), which makes the creation and modification of templates a very simple task. Rails also lends itself to more complex tasks, such as data mining from several different databases that are housed in different servers and accessed using different protocols. So, in addition to making the elearning organization's life easier with respect to organizing and integrating elearning user and content information, Rails can also help make life easier with respect to marketing, tracking, and auditing information.

One of the main advantages of using Ruby on Rails Enterprise Application Development: Plan, Program, Extend is that it guides the user from installation, deployment, and development (and testing) of applications.

Chapter 2 begins with a typical day at the office, and a computing task which turns out to be much more complicated and time-consuming to do than the boss who wants it yesterday would dare to imagine. The programmer is panicked, until she realizes that Rails will allow her to easily do what the boss wants, which is to gather and organize client information from multiple sales rep accounts. The chapter describes the typical database problem, the nature of the challenges, and different strategies for organizing a solution.

Chapters 3 and 4 show the user how to build a foundation for Rails and then to start to work with the web framework, which includes setting up a new Rails application, connecting Rails to a database, and migrating records to complete a database. The chapters are very detailed and contain specific code and instruction.

Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 deal with the application experience. The Rails programmer must understand the user and how the user is going to need to use an interface in order to obtain the best results. For the daring developers, the chapters also discuss how to integrate AJAX libraries, which constitute ready-made scripts for integrating web applications. I would say that this is not for the faint of heart. AJAX scripts are notoriously finicky -- just look at all the mashups that limp along and do not play nicely with the various applications they are attempting to integrate. This is most definitely the case when it comes to formatting and display. The chapters continue to roll out the most useful and most-sought-out enterprise needs, which include authentication, task tracking, and catching missing records.

Chapters 9 and 10 help refine and improve deployment of the Rails applications, and guide the user in the best way to build on one's initial success in developing a Rails application. The tips and pointers are pragmatic. They urge the programmer to keep it simple, and to try to keep the applications as object-oriented as possible, as well as streamlined and granular.

In addition to encouraging the user of Rails to be pragmatic and to not attempt what is not feasible, the book guides the Rails application developer to a balanced philosophy -- develop what you need to, to it elegantly, and don't develop what you don't need.

While the Ruby on Rails application manual provides specific solutions which not meet the needs of all readers, the overall organization and the discussion of how to analyze a problem and to bring it into development are extremely helpful because the tips and pointers are universal.

Ruby on Rails: Enterprise Application Development is highly recommended for corporations and elearning organizations seeking to improve quality, efficiency, and marketing of their learning solutions.

Ruby on Rails Enterprise Application Development: Plan, Program, Extend


Reference

Smith, E. and Nicols, R. (2007) Ruby on Rails: Enterprise Application Development. Packt Publishing. http://www.packtpub.com/
508 p. $49.99 US

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