Buying into Open Source?

Though directed at the K-12 academic market, the Open Options site by the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium is still the best single resource that I’ve found for any organisation wanting a balanced perspective on using open source software. The site covers everything from total cost of ownership to the philosophy of open source. There are other sites that will give you more specific details (click on the "OpenSource" taxonomy link, under the heading of this post, for a number of references and comments).

In a recent evaluation of four systems that I conducted for a client, I was very impressed by the functionality of the open source LMS when compared to established vendors. Many open source systems now offer support services for a fee, providing additional assurance to users. When looking at open source or proprietary systems, you have to "compare apples with apples", and most importantly, understand your own needs before you make comparisons. Marketing experts tell us that most purchases are made for emotional reasons, so it’s best to establish your criteria before you go shopping.

Learning Conference(s)

I’ve been talking to a few people about one of the suggestions that emerged from the industry meetings this Winter, and that was to have a regional conference around learning. As many of you know, CSTD has committed to let the NB chapter organise an elearning conference in May 2005. More details on that should be available after the chapter meeting in Fredericton in June. Date and location will be posted here, as soon as it’s confirmed.

Many of us discussed how to work as a learning industry during LearnTec at NBCC Miramichi last May. This discussion resulted in the RDeL initiative, LearnNB and CSTD-NB. Obviously things get done at conferences!

So the question is – how can we best coordinate our efforts and create a conference that brings in the best learning professionals as well as potential purchasers. This Fall we will have LearnTec in Miramichi as well as NAWEB in Fredericton. NAWEB at the University of New Brunswick is now in its 10th year, with international participation. Why not join the two conferences, or even add a third like Texpo? I’m sure that there are others that I’m missing, particularly in Nova Scotia or on PEI.

What do you think? Should any conference also have a virtual component? Could we set up high speed video conferencing between each conference, so that you can attend a session at a distance, but with a small group and your own moderator? Should we focus on specific themes? Does it make sense to have a conference of conferences?

Universities and Course Management Systems

Steve Epstein responds to an article in Syllabus describing the purchase of a proprietary course management system. Epstein feels that universities should not purchase CMS because they would be provided for free by content providers (read: textbook publishers). Epstein states:

In doing her financial analysis, Pletcher reported that she "considered license fee, plus five years maintenance, plus installation costs." Missing from the analysis are the cost of faculty development and the cost of faculty support. While these costs will continue with any campus based CMS, they are not necessary. Moreover, the cost of the present system, $3.3 million over five years, could be reduced to zero.
The cost of a CMS system is not necessary because publishers will provide them for free. For several years, leading publishers have provided electronic content that can be imported into many leading CMS. If the school paid for a CMS, this content can be used with the college’s system. If the school does not pay for the CMS, the content can still be used.

This potential model, of paying for the content and not the delivery system, shows that once again the medium of the Internet is spawning new business models. Any purchaser of technology systems has to clearly understand what the possible business models are – or wind up spending $3.3M more than was necessary.

Business Blog Consulting

Rick Bruner has created a blog on the business aspects of the medium. This is an excellent site for corporate professionals, especially sales & marketing, wanting to know how to use blogs for more than just personal journals.

Business Blog Consulting is a site devoted to demonstrating how effective weblogs can be for communicating with customers and marketing to new customer prospects.

Via Lee Lefever.

New Word for Your Web Dictionary

Here is one that fellow bloggers will appreciate. Chris Mackay at Tantramar Interactive has introduced me to a word that describes a new kind of worry – "googlanxiety". It’s from Richard Akerman’s Manifesto Multilinko (another Canadian blog!):

Googlanxiety – The worry that if you don’t post daily, Google will stop indexing your site so often and ranking you so highly.

Not that I’m ranked so highly, but I was up to a 5/10 yesterday and now I’ve dropped to a 4/10. But does it really matter? My Google ranking, which was 0/10 last year, hasn’t increased my client base 🙁

Not so subtle effects of technology

One more example that the “medium is the message” is this commentary by James Farmer on a class moving from the FirstClass web course management platform to WebCT Vista. Apparently the structure of the group discussion areas is different – namely that WebCT allows learners to go directly to sub-group areas without passing through the main (instructor-controlled) discussion area. There is now less structural control, as the instructor’s comments in the main discussion area are not being seen as often by students:

Net conclusion – students are showing lower participation rates, groups aren’t following tasks, Elizabeth is having to ramp up her involvement dramatically and shift her pedagogy towards a much more directed one and, without any change in course content, type of cohort, activities or assessment the entire course is changed  all because of the structure of the environment.

As I commented yesterday, the pedagogical methods used by instructors are important, but so is the selection and use of technology. According to McLuhan’s laws of media, every medium (technology) enhances, retrieves, obsolesces and reverses some aspect through use.

Educators have to clearly understand instructional technologies, so that they can use them wisely.

[James has some diagrams on his site, an aspect of this blog that I’m missing, but should soon address with the next version of Drupal]

Innovation and the Learning Industry 3

Dave Pollard completes his piece on A Prescription for Business Innovation in Part 3 of this series. I’ve previously commented on Part 1 and Part 2.

Simply put, we are living in an age when we cannot afford innovation, and cannot afford to be without it. Perhaps the most critical innovation need therefore is for creative mechanisms to finance, price and pay for the costs of innovation itself. Funding, pricing, and cost management are now inseparable parts of the innovation process.

Dave Pollard has created an innovation model that includes eight stages, and comprises three key processes – Analytical, Communicative and Creative processes. The eight stages are: Listen, Understand, Organize, Create, Experiment, Listen Again, Design, and Implement. Note how important "listening" is in this model.

My recent experience in the NB Learning Industry capacity initiative reflects that we are not listening enough. During the industry meetings this Winter, there was much discussion on "our" issues and needs, but very little on "broad ideas" from the market, key ideas from "pathfinder customers & competitors", "stories from the front lines", or an understanding of why customer wants and needs are not met. Maybe all of this information is proprietary, and not willingly shared, but we talked more about our needs, than our customers’ needs.

If we want to innovate, Dave Pollard’s model provides us with a starting point – Listening. We can provide a forum for listening through the Web, especially blogs. Remember that "markets are conversations", and innovation starts by really listening to those conversations. This is why we have to keep our R&D community of practice open to the public. Are there any users of learning products and services who have some advice for this industry? Post it here.

Update for the education community: George Siemens comments on Dave Pollard’s three articles as well:

Much of what he writes is applicable to education, training, and knowledge management. Formal education really needs to explore what innovation means in delivering learning. So much potential…yet so little focus.

First Online Teaching Experiences

In the April issue of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Dianne Conrad of the University of New Brunswick has published her qualitative research on the reflections of novice online instructors. The research covers interviews with five new instructors, all using the WebCT platform in a university setting. The study uses Collins & Berge’s framework for facilitating interaction online.

Conrad notes that most of the instructors’ concerns were content-oriented, trying to ensure that enough content was delivered. There was little mention by the instructors on the student learning process, a hot topic amongst those using blogs in education. Conrad also notes the important role of instructors’ egos in the virtual classroom, and that online environments require a more learner-centred approach. Though not mentioned by Conrad, I find it interesting that all five instructors were men. Would the "content focus" have become more of "learner focus" with a different gender mix? How about with a different cultural mix?

One of the respondents made a comment about the limitations of the platform, in that the discussion fora were not searchable. This reinforces my opinion that any LMS/LCMS should be used in conjunction with a good CMS/Blog so that the conversation is less constrained by the technology [this open source blog is searchable, as are most others]. You need the right tool box, as well as the right pedagogical approaches.

Conrad’s study is a worthwhile read for anyone working with online instructors in an academic setting.

A Bit of History

Here is a review of some industry reports that I had used four years ago as references for an evaluation of TeleEducation NB. I’m putting it up as a reference.

The 1999 Industry Canada research report “Sector Competitiveness Framework – Education and Training Services” listed the following issues to be addressed by government and industry:

* Collaboration, including partnerships and strategic alliances
* Quality Assurance
* Innovation
* Business Skills
* Validation of products and services

The 1996 “Profile of the Commercial Education and Training Industry in Atlantic Canada” conducted for Industry Canada cited issues of importance to the long-term prosperity of the sector:

* Marketing
* Credibility in the Market
* Internal Competition between Private and Public Sector
* Funding
* Quality

The following seven gaps in the ATT sector were identified by the Centre for Learning Technologies in 1999, in a report for the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Culture.

* Marketing and Market Understanding
* Product versus Service Emphasis
* Business and Financial Management
* Research and Development
* Human Resources Issues
* Instructional Design and Project Management Processes
* Industry Support Programs

Is there anything in these reports, from as far back as eight years ago, that could inform the industry today?

Blogging’s Perfect Pitch

Lee leFever has won Judith Meskill’s Perfect Pitch Competition. If you didn’t know about the competition, it was looking for the perfect elevator pitch (e.g. no pictures) explaining the business benefits of blogging to the uninitiated. Here’s a piece of Lee’s pitch:

By making internal websites simple to update, weblogs allow individuals and teams to maintain online journals that chronicle projects inside the company. These professional journals make it easy to produce and access internal news, providing context to the company – context that can profoundly affect decision making.

If I could have referred to this pitch last week, I would have appeared much more erudite in Halifax 😉

Congratulations, Lee!