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Forums 2.0

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 20 May 2014, 09:52

I like forums, I use them a lot.  I can barely remember when I didn’t know what one was.  I think my first exposure to forums might have been through a dial-up bulletin board system (used in the dark ages before the internet, of course).  This was followed through a brief flirtation with usenet news groups.

When trying to solve some programming problems, I more often than not would search for a couple of keywords and then stumble across a multitude of different forums where tips, tricks and techniques might be debated and explored.  A couple of years ago I was then introduced to the world of FirstClass forums (wikipedia) and then, more recently, to Moodle forums.  Discussions with colleagues has since led me towards the notion of e-tivities.

I have a confession to make: I use my email account for a whole manner of different things.  One of the things that I incidentally use my email account for is sending and receiving email!  I occasionally use email as a glorified ‘todo’ list (albeit one that has around a thousand items!)  If something comes in that is interesting and needs attention, I might sometimes use click on an ‘urgent’ tick box so that I remember to look at the message again at a totally unspecified time in the future.  If it is something that must be bounded by time, I might drag the item into my calendar and ask my e-mail client to remind me about it at a specified time in the future (I usually ponder over this for around half a minute before choosing one of two options: remind me in a weeks time, or remind me in a fortnight).

I have created a number of folders within my email client where I can store interesting stuff (which I very often subsequently totally forget about).  Sometimes, when working on a task, I might draft out some notes using my email editor and them store them to a vaguely titled folder.

The ‘saving of draft’ email doesn’t only become something that is useful to have when the door knocks or the telephone rings – email, to me, has gradually become an idea and file storage (and categorisation) tool that has become an integral part of how I work and communicate.  I think I have heard it said that e-mail is the internet’s killer application (wikipedia).  For me, it is a combined word processor, associative filing cabined, ideas processor and general communications utility.

Returning to the topic of forums… Forums are great, but they are very often nothing like email.  I can’t often click and drag forum messages from one location into folder or to a different part of the screen.  I can’t add my own comments to other people’s posts that only I can see (using my mail client I can save copies of email that other people send me).  On some forum systems I can’t sort the messages using different criteria, or even search for keywords or phrases that I know were used at some point.

My forum related gripes continue: I cannot delete (or at least) hide the forum message that I don’t want to see any more.  On occasions I want to change the ‘read status’ from ‘read’ to ‘unread’ if I think that a particular subject that is being discussed might be useful to remember when I later turn to an assessment that I have to submit.  I might also like to take fragments of different threads and group them together in a ‘quotation set’, building a mini forum centric e-portfolio of interesting ideas (this said, I can always copy and paste to email!)If a forum were like a piece of paper where you could draw things at any point I might want to put some threads on the left of the page (those points that I was interested in) and others on the right of the page (or visa-versa).

I might want to organise the threads spatially, so that the really interesting points might be at the top, or the not so interesting points at the bottom – you might call this ‘reader generated threading!’  When one of my colleagues makes a post, there might be an icon change that indicates that a contribution has been made against a particular point.

I might also be able to save thread (or posting) layout, depending on the assignment or topic that I am currently performing research.  It might be possible to create a ‘thread timeline’ (I have heard rumours that Plurk might do something like this), where you see your own structured representation of one or more forums change over time.  Of course, you might even be able to share your own customised forumscape with other forum users.

An on-line forum is undoubtedly a space where learning can occur.  When we think about how we might further develop the notion of a forum we soon uncover the dimension of control.

Currently, the layout and format of a forum (and what you can ultimately do with it) is ultimately constrained by the design of the forum software and a combination of settings assigned by an administrator.  Allowing forum users to create their own customised view of a forum communication space may allow learners tools to make sense of different threads of communication.  Technology can be then used to enable an end user to formulate a display that most effectively connects new and emerging discussions with existing knowledge.

This display (or forumscape) might also be considered as a mask.  Since many different discussions can occur on a single forum at the same time choosing the right mask may help salient information become visible.

The FirstClass system, with its multiple discussion areas and the ability to allow the end user to change the locations of forum icons on a ‘First Class’ desktop begins to step toward some of these ideas.

Essentially, I would like discussion forums to become more like my email client: I would like them to do different things for me.  I would like forum software to not only allow users to share messages.  I would like forum software to become richer and permit the information they display to the users be more malleable (and manageable).  I know this would certainly be something that would help me to learn!

Acknowlegements: Picture from Flickr taken by stuckincustoms, licenced under creative commons.

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Learning Technologies 2009

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 17:49

Conference logo

Yesterday I went to the Learning Technologies exhibition held at Kensington Olympia, London.  This is the third time I have been to this event.  The first time I went (back in 2004) was because I also attended a related exhibition called BETT which is hosted a couple of weeks earlier.

The two shows have different audiences: BETT is more focussed towards the schools and government funded education sector whereas the Learning Technologies exhibition focuses more on education (or training) software, services and systems for private sector companies (but there is much cross over, of course).  Every year there seems to be a conference that is linked to the exhibition but I have so far never been able to attend.

Last year

Last year I came away from the exhibition learning a few new things.  I learnt that there was a range of products called competency management systems which enables corporations to learn about what their employees know about (and how these map to individual training courses).  I also learnt about the release of new mobile learning systems.  The prevailing theme of last year’s exhibition seemed to be the concept of Rapid E-learning (more of this later).

My objective for this visit was to determine whether there were any new themes (or innovations) in learning technologies that are emerging from the commercial sectors.  I also had one eye on the subject of accessibility and the extent to which Moodle was beginning to feature in the commercial e-learning sphere.

Themes

Whilst walking around the exhibition I asked a number of exhibitors whether they thought there were any differences between this years exhibition and the previous years exhibition.  Two main seemed to dominate.  The first is the application of web 2.0 ideas into learning systems.  The second is the idea of informal learning.  Both of these themes were, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflected in articles that were provided in the free magazine that came with admission.  I also picked up on a number of other themes too.  These are listed below.

Web 2.0

The notion of web 2.0 (or the 'participatory web'), seemed to feature quite heavily.  Given the amount of discussion this label has generated this perhaps isn’t surprising.  It was interesting to see that an article written by the current Open University vice-chancellor was given a mention in the exhbition and conference magazine.

One comment that I heard from the exhibitors is that there is a more wider acceptance of the use of blogs and wikis.  One vendor who I spoke to was called Infinity Learning.  Infinity were presenting something called their 'learning portal' product which provided some functionality to allow learners to rate and review courses.  It was interesting since it featured a recommendation system akin to something that Amazon does when it offers you products that other people have bought.  I presume this will expose the learning pathways that other employees or learners have followed, allowing water cooler discussions about what learning activities were helpful to become more explicit.

Informal learning

I have to confess, I do struggle with understanding the concept of formal learning, but the exhibition magazine points me in the direction of a related blog post.  There are a couple of links within this link that might be useful.

One vendor connected e-learning and informal learning by describing an approach where large quantities of digital resources are placed on-line allowing employees to gain access to useful information as and when they are required, allowing gaps of knowledge about procedure or practice to be filled.

Informal learning, in this sense, can be connected to some of the other themes that could be found within the exhibition, specifically ‘bite sized’ or on-demand learning (which may or may not incorporate product simulations).

Gaming

There seemed to be a bit of a buzz about gaming, but I didn’t get a sense that this was one of the big topics of the show.  When speaking to one exhibitor, gaming was mentioned in the same sentence as virtual worlds.

Rapid e-learning

The idea of rapid e-learning initially puzzled me when I first came across it last year.  I soon realised that  rapid e-learning is facilitated by tools that allow e-learning designers to create their own in-house courses without having to go outside to professional e-learning content development companies (of which there are many).

Last year, the word at the exhibition was that rapid e-learning tools were causing the decline in the price of bespoke e-learning contracts.  Every exhibitor that had a rapid e-learning tool seemed to have their own learning management system of some kind.  When it comes to industry standards (in the e-learning world), the one that is most often mentioned is SCORM (wikipedia).

Bite sized e-learning

Bite sized e-learning seems to relate primarily to e-learning objects that are quite small.  You might use informal learning and bite sized learning in the same sentence.  These might be small 'mini courses' that give you instruction about how to carry out a particular task or operation within your institution.  This is also related to the next theme: simulations.  (As an aside, I'm assuming that a bite sized piece of e-learning doesn't last more than ten or twenty minutes, but this wasn't a question that I really asked).

Simulations

A number of vendors were selling tools that enable you to build simulations of any IT system that your organisation might have deployed.  Simulations can be used to either train up new employees, or to offer 'bite sized' reminder courses that can help to guide employees through the features of a large system that might not be used very often.

The presence of these products did make me wonder about how the provision of simulation recording (and development) systems might stack up against quick and easy to use open source tools such as Wink (but this exposes a dimension of simulation systems that has illustration at one end and involvement at the other).

Competency Management

I love this term!  It has such a positive feel to it!

Like last year there were some vendors who were selling systems that attempted to bridge the gap between human-resources systems and training delivery systems.  I know very little about human resource management systems but I can see that the link between LMS systems that deliver different kinds of learning might be useful.  When asking about the different personnel management systems that were on the market, Oracle seemed to be the one that was mentioned most frequently, having acquired Peoplesoft (wikipedia).

Content Development

I stumbled across the term 'workflow management' a couple of times.  I can see the purpose of using an e-learning material workflow management system: a company needs to draw upon the skills and abilities of different people within an organisation, some of whom might be external contractors.  I find the area of workflow management systems interesting since they can really take advantage of the fact that IT systems are exceptionally good at remembering stuff about who did what and when.

Moodle

Moodle cropped up a couple of times.  Kineo, a company based in Brighton in the UK was offering a cut-price hosted solution for a period of twelve months.  As a part of the package they appeared to be offering customising (or branding) of the Moodle instance to match the identity of your institution, and some training.  Sadly, all the guys at Kineo were way too busy to have a chat with me!

The second big Moodle related find was a product called Moomis marketed by Aardpress.  Moomis is apparently a Moodle 'plug-in'  that can add Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and competency management functionality (my favourite term) to make Moodle more flavoursome for the more commercially inclined.

Accessibility

Since e-learning materials appear to be often created using rapid e-learning tools, the accessibility of the resulting material is likely to partially dependent upon the structure of the digital resources that are generated.  I didn't have much of a chance to quiz vendors about this issue, but well known UK companies such as Epic and Brightwave are known to appreciate the importance of accessibility.

On another note, I was interested to discover the presence of Texthelp, a company who produce a tool called ReadWrite&Gold (they also produce the BrowseAloud system which can be used in conjunction with the main Open University website).  They kindly gave me quick demo and said that they had just release a new version which incorporates new synthetic voices and updated dictionaries.

I also discovered the presence of the UK Council for Access and Equality, a not for profit organisation.

The downturn

The Learning Technologies exhibition seemed to be as busy as it was last year – it was certainly buzzing with visitors.  I asked a couple of people about their opinions about the current concerns about 'the downturn' and received a mixed set of responses.  Some companies, it was reasoned, were choosing to bring their training spend 'in-house', choosing to use rapid e-learning tools (but this was in line with some of the trends I felt were at the exhibition last year).

Other companies seemed to state that they had been affected, whereas others had a deliberate strategy of going after public sector projects.  In one of the presentations that I briefly attended contained the argument that organisations should make use of learning technologies to ensure that employees are able to perform as efficiently as possible.  On-demand 'bite sized' e-learning will certainly help when it comes to carrying out complex infrequent tasks.

And finally

I also discovered the presence of a project called Next Generation Learning , a campaign sponsored by Becta.

As well as noticing the presence of organisations like the British Computer Society, I also noticed an organisation called the e-Learning Network (which appears to be a partner with the Association of Learning Technology), and was duly informed that associate membership was free.  Might be worth a look.

Summary

I quite like the Learning Technologies exhibition (I might even be able to attend the conference one day).  It's a good way to find out (very roughly and quickly) what's happening in the wider e-learning industry. 

Its interesting to see that vendors offer a portfolio of different services which often includes content creation, tool development, managed learning environment provision and system hosting.  The concept of 'web 2.0' (whatever that means) seems to be a salient theme this year.  It was interesting to see the substantial use of the term informal learning.  It'll be interesting to see how the exhibition looks next year.

Acknowlegements: thanks to all those exhibitors who I spoke to!

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