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Learning Technologies 2009

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

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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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