9 May 2013

Virtual learning is here already

After three days in Northern Ireland to visit South West College, one of the conclusions is that blended learning works very well. Never mind the elegant ways ILT is integrated into their classrooms, in 2012 they held their Virtual Week which was the real eye opener.

The idea was to tutor for five days without any student coming in to class. I wouldn't say that this is the only way to promote blended learning, but it shows to teachers and students alike that any course lends itself to the blended approach.

Teachers in vocational teaching and training often say that electronically enhanced learning cannot be achieved in their field. The SWC example shows just how easily it can be done. In most cases, it will support the learning but it's possible to hold distance learning classes in VET. The thing is, it will demand some extra preparation work of teachers and students alike. this demands a specific motivation.

The most important lesson I take away from this experiment is that if there are enough determined staff, an experience such as this is very rewarding and can be highly succesful. You don't have to wait for heavy snow and disrupted transport systems to find an incentive to use blended learning in vocational training.

And as most people have already experienced, we're seeing ever more severe climate effects from snow to flooding and in Western Europe, we're just not used to the consequences. Yet.

25 Nov 2012

Budget times two

Updating an e-course is always part of the project. I have been working on an on-line course about our new ERP-software. I took parts of the manual and converted them to course pages using Courselab and Moodle. I recorded short videos to demonstrate some of the less obvious workings of the software and built exercises around them to create an interactive course - the way I've done it in courses I collaborated on in the past.

And when I got a nice set of comprehensive topics covering most of the tasks my colleagues had ahead of them - it was an internal course- somebody decided to change the software lay-out. And not just colors, but the position of buttons as well as drop-down fields. So overnight, eighty percent of my work became obsolete.

Because it's one thing to alter a manual - basically a Word-file - and a different thing altogether to change an on-line course. They're just not the same thing. So the team decided to pull the on-line content and remake most of it to the new lay-out. As the live date was approaching fast, there were more urgent jobs that needed to be done.

It will be clear that updating wasn't part of the project scope and as I have now moved to other tasks, it remains to be seen if the on-line course will ever be revived. This is a lesson well learned when working with e-learning projects: planning ahead and making sure any updates are part of the scope of a project are an absolute must. It sounds obvious but unfortunately, it isn't to a lot of people involved in project work.

One last note about budgeting for these kinds of updates: where a typical on-line course will require updating every now and then, a software course is different. For a typical course, 15-25% of the available budget needs to be foreseen for updates. For a software course (which necessarily needs to be produced under a bigger time constraint) this may rise to 40 or 50 percent.

It's a valuable number to take into consideration when devising this sort of course. Development budget times two might keep your project out of trouble in the long run.

1 Dec 2011

A keynote to start things off

The start of another round of hopefully interesting talks about e-learning. I'm going to try to post a bit more about each talk as we go along.

The first talk saw a power broker and a politician but frankly, she couldn't keep me alert until my first dose of coffee. Neelie Kroes undoubtedly is a very powerful person. She will control a lot of money in the IT field, and that is good. The talk, however, wasn't all that engaging. And of course I got up at 4:35 this morning, so it takes a bit of entertaining to keep my attention.

This was very well done by the second speaker, Peter Nowak. It wasn't always clear what his talk had to do with e-learning, but it certainly had to do with learning and teaching. We don't always realize what prosperity does for the opportunities to learn, but he got that point across.

By this time, I was getting ready for a bit of caffeine, but the third speaker made up for my lack of stimulants with his talk about access to on-line knowledge. Especially the part about the increase of a finding-based learning experience as opposed to a push-style learning, is very convincing. Apparently even the globally measured IQ is rising as a consequence of this. We may know less trivia, but we know much better where to find them.

After these provoking thoughts, I was ready for coffee and as it was already 11:15, I rushed for the door and caffeine-induced salvation.

12 Oct 2011

Testing complexity

With eighteen months since going live on our new electronic testing platform, integration is still key.

Our organization has got over 10 years experience with electronic testing. We've spent many tens of thousands of Euros on our platform and content. Out of necessity rather than choice, we looked for and found a new platform to serve our network more effectively. The first project scope was limited, partly because of time restraints, but also due to the need for a quick turn around.

The project start was successful, we delivered within deadline and most of the quirks were solved upon going live, which is a feat in itself. With use and time, new needs became apparent and the project got a follow-up which is going to go live in a couple of weeks.

Most of the new features will be about integration with existing software. The old platform had none of this, requiring a lot of person hours setting up tests and handling results. The new platform is much more seamless but made it much more apparent what we lacked.

Due to the complexity of our training centre network, in the past we never reached agreement on mutual standards for exchanging testing information. Now, however, was the first time this was actually experienced as a problem. So the second generation of the project was used to tackle exactly this drawback.

One of the major elements in this phase, was the choice to appoint a specific project co-ordinator within the agency. When I was made project leader for phase one, this was on top of my already full agenda as advisor. This time, there was the chance to get a part time FTE (full time equivalent) on the project scope. This made the communication with all the partners a lot easier.

Compared with the total project budget, the communications still take up a quite small part. This, combined with the aforementioned complexity of the training network, will make it vital to spend enough time for coaching after going live with phase two. But this is true for every project I've ever been a part of.

In an integration effort, communications are a necessity. Good feedback procedures will determine the success of a project, not only real but also perceived.

25 Feb 2009

Blogs as a measure of quality

An interesting talk I attended treated the use of blogs as an instrument of determining the quality of a public service. This is particularly significant where quality assessment is habitually performed as part of a learning process.

As a public agency, we are not only interested in what the assessment forms tell us. Most of the information is quantitative and does tell us something about the general level of our training. We do not, however, know what we might do more than we do. For this purpose, qualitative analysis may be a good alternative. And to do this with limited resources, blog analysis could be a good tool.

In blog analysis, (semi-)automatic tools are used to check blogs about educational activities. We can determine what exactly they can contribute to continuous improvement of the course quality.

Ideally this could be an automatic process. Among the thousands of blog entries about the Syntra Network, many are probably not useful for this purpose. But equally likely, many are. We can learn from the many blog and comment entries about school teachers to improve our quality, not on the individual level (eg. of the teacher) but on the course level. In general, any shortcomings of teachers are pretty quickly signaled to co-ordinators and remedied.

For the government level, course quality could be better monitored with the blog analysis method to enhance the existing quality monitoring systems. It is a suggestion for any education provider to take to heart.

2 Jan 2009

The age of content

When the century of plenty was announced, people that understood its meaning thought it applied to everything. Plenty of consumer things. Plenty of money. Plenty of choices.

But the only novelty showing through at the beginning of the tenth year of the century isn't that. It's not about tangible things. The only really new and lasting innovation is content. It doesn't matter whether youtube or facebook has the most users or rakes in revenue or investors. The thing they have in common is not the technology, but what it facilitates.

In the first ten years of the twenty-first century by Western reckoning, more content will have been created by the human race than in all the thousands of years before.

And I'm not talking about written content versus the spoken traditions of old, I'm talking content as a whole. All six Billion of us will have created more content in ten years than all of our ancestors joined together. I'll even bet that before the end of the year, someone will have proven this statistically.

The one thing that has made this possible is, by the way, not the internet, but the free market. This is very meaningful for the age of content because in a world where markets could become less free, content creation could dwindle.

I'll try to elaborate a bit on the last two points, and then conclude as to what it all means.

Many people will observe that without the internet, none of the content that is so freely available would be in our homes and offices. This I won't dispute. But the internet has been around for fifty years, and in the present form since the beginning of the 1990's. But we didn't have computers in the fifties. Many don't today, but with a Billion computers in use in 2007, most humans could get access to one.

But internet access and computers isn't all it takes. It's not about text, anyway. We've been producing written words for centuries, although never on a scale as today. About a hundred million people are creating material in text, video or audio form. Never before in human history has this happened. It relies on digital cameras and mp3 recording devices, available software for editing all that's created and so much more. But none of these techological means by themselves explain the current content revolution.

Foremost, the age of content relies on free markets. It doesn't need democracy although free markets don't work as well without it. It doesn't need actual freedom but people in undemocratic countries find themselves continually in peril of censorship. Most cope pretty well with this, though, usually by remaining unseen by authorities and a form of self-sensorship.

But the one force driving all this content creation is the free market. Most people need the confirmation that somewhere, there is a customer for their product. A reader or listener to what they've created. And this is only possible in a free market form. It is the reason why openly accessible platforms are so popular. If this blog article could only be read by people willing to pay for it, I probably wouldn't be writing it. I'm not implying I wouldn't want to see it published commercially, but it's not the main reason for me writing it.

There has to exist a very large incentive to create for closed platforms and it's usually money or another form of monetary reward. This has existed for a long time and it's still - and rightly so - a very important force in society. Many people would love to be professional writers, but will never make a living from that. And in the age of content, that is absolutely all right.

So my concept of the free content market doesn't rely on money and that is also an important observation. It implies the astonishing height of human development and prosperity. There have always been people who were freely creative, in any community. But never before have they been able to share what they create with so many. It's even become a paradigm in its own right, where teachers encourage their students to create their own interpretation of what they learn and then label it e-learning. The debate on the use of web 2.0 within the educational world has never been more fierce.

So if we accept the fact that we are at a peak; how do we preserve this magnificent human creation abundance? This is a question with many possible answers. The first answer is basic: the infrastructure has to remain freely accessible. Already there are some who deem it desirable to split the different forms of creation. A separate scientific internet, for instance. A secure internet. They are the wrong answers to important questions. I'll not try to answer the questions (How to decide what's scientific debate? and How to make our commercial and societal infrastructure less prone to tampering?) here, but creating closed environments is not the answer, as I've hinted at earlier.

The second answer is one where many fights are fought: what's the boundary between free and protected? The old copyrights debate will go on for a while and it's hard to say how it will turn out, if it ever leads anywhere at all. But because so much is at stake, a solution must aventually be found. I just hope it will not be an exclusive one, but will include us all.

The third answer goes right to the core of the matter, and to the nature of creation. What is human creation and can any value be attributed to it? To the latter the answer of course is yes, but it is related to the former and there is much debate on this. Many blogs are reported to be just comments on very minute bits of information, and these bits of information may have had a limited possible audience to begin with. Many Youtube videos are of questionable value so why would we want to preserve this kind of creation? Why should we even allow it to use bandwidth? Because when I answered affirmatively I never implied what the value of creation should exactly be. Nor who should measure it. Everyone knows the example of artists who became famous after their deaths: how long do we have to preserve everything to make sure we're not casting aside an artwork with future worth potential?

This brings me to the last answer to my question. When the economy turns sour, a lot of content could be lost when companies fail. Do we try to preserve this? Do we let people continue their creation? Will not the free market solve this?

Perhaps, instead of spending so much money on banks and car factories, governments could have set aside a little for the true novelty of our time. If Youtube were to fail, who would save our legacy? How can we be remembered for the future, when there might perhaps not be so many fortunate people creating new things and when they want to read or experience some of the things we've left behind? If anything, we should be thinking about how we'll deal with that legacy. It is a role for librarians, for politicians, for scientists, to acquire new and active ways of indexing and preserving, not by fossilization, but by nurturing the creative processes and outcomes of this age of content.

5 Dec 2008

Educa Online 2008 is over

The bar offered some interesting conversation to conclude another very interesting Educa. I will try to post some more about the things I've seen and learned in the next days and on monday, my teacher meeting will no doubt be very interesting indeed.