Learning Technology Conference 2013

Expo’s can be tricky places for optimists, because they can very easily inspire cynicism. Regardless of the particular field of expertise they are dedicated to, you will generally find that innovations come along only so often, and for every new idea from a few years back, fifty companies have sprung up, or refashioned themselves so that their entire business model revolves around selling it to the masses. The trick for non-cynics, like myself, is to politely avoid those aspects and dig diligently to find the genuinely new. The innovative. The ideas with real utility.

Almost every stall at the exhibition espoused the notion that the future of learning technology lay in: 1) Mobile, 2) Social, 3) HTML5, or some combination thereof. And every one of them were absolutely correct. The learning systems of tomorrow will interact with social networks, will be accessible on mobile platforms and will be developed in HTML5 rather than Flash. However, many stalls didn’t have much to offer beyond those surface insights. What is most interesting to me is the form that these innovations will take. How we go about applying them, day-to-day. With that in mind, here are my top 5 finds of the conference.

1. Assima Vimago
The most impressive system I saw at the conference was Assima Vimago, which could render Captivate obsolete for system simulations. The way that Captivate creates system simulations is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. It takes a sequence of screen grabs which you navigate through using some buttons placed where the buttons appear in the real system. It’s essentially just a glorified slide show. Vimago, on the other hand, is a complete clone of the original system, which brings a whole range of additional benefits.

The file size is much smaller, and the system can have full interactivity rather than just a selection of pre-prescribed buttons working which follow a specific path, but the benefits are far more powerful than that. Sanitization of customer data can be fully automated, since it can automatically recognize customer data and replace it with dummy data, saving hours or even days from development times. More impressively still, since you can still edit any detail of a simulation after it has been captured, it is also possible to capture a system which hasn’t even been fully built yet, and make changes, or, if a system updates 6 months down the line, you can edit the existing capture rather than have to make a new one.

2. Flash to HTML5
It’s not only in the world of System simulations that Adobe are being attacked though. Far more high profile is their battle to keep flash relevant in a world of HTML5. Adobe are aware that HTML5 has already replaced Flash on mobile devices. But most offices still use older, non-HTML5-compatible browsers, meaning both HTML5 and Flash need to be used for now.

In a Captivate 6 presentation at the Adobe stand, they demonstrated how it allows course material to be published in both Flash and HTML5 versions. When a learner accesses the material, the server would present whichever version was appropriate to the platform accessing it.

They gave the example of a learner accessing a course on their work computer and viewing the Flash version, but then, on the commute home, pulling up their phone to do a bit of further reading and seeing the HTML5 version of the same course. Since both versions talk to each other, the learner would seamlessly pick up the material where they had left off.

3. Responsive Design
In an earlier talk by Mike Byrne of Netex, he acknowledged that HTML5 isn’t quite there yet in terms of having the complexity or sophistication of Flash, but that his company had decided to ditch Flash entirely, in favour of HTML5, for their Learning Management and Development systems (learning Coffee and Netex Studio)

Learning courses are developed in Netex Studio, and the published HTML5 files would be accessed by the learner via Learning Coffee. Through responsive design, the course will dynamically rescale and rearrange how the page is laid out to match the screen it is being viewed on, from a 1080p display in the classroom, down to the pocket sized screen of a smartphone. Exactly the same content, but displayed appropriately.

Learning Coffee’s mobile app allows learning content to be downloaded and accessed offline. The learner can then study whilst away from a data signal. Any progress will then seamlessly update back onto the main server once a connection is re-established.

He also demonstrated a novel idea for the potential of podcasts. Often, podcasts will be used a complimentary, additional material. But Netex go further and produce both elearning and audio versions of every course. This means learners can access the material in any way which suits their own circumstances, for example, listen to the audio version on the drive home from work. Since understanding is measured via final assessments, it should make no difference how the media is consumed by the learner.

4. Tin Can API
Like many systems on display at the conference, Netex’s systems were compatible with the Tin Can API. API stands for Application Programming Interface and is a toolbox built into most modern platforms, such as Facebook or Google Maps, to allow others to use their data in interesting, innovative ways.

For example, there are a handful of smartphone jogging apps which combine the GPS data from your phone with Google maps to plot a map of your routes along with timings and personal bests. Or think how you can share music you are listening to on Spotify with your Facebook friends. Mash-ups of services like these are only possible through API’s and are the potential of the web unleashed.

Which is to say that The Tincan API will almost certainly turn out to be something of a big deal in the learning industry over the next few years. It’s been designed as a replacement for the aging SCORM standard and should be both easier to develop for and drastically more powerful in scope, allowing learners to, for example, compare their progress with their colleagues via Facebook, Twitter or Chatter. Due to it’s open nature, however, there is no limit to the innovative ways it can be used

5. Social Networks
Many companies still prevent their staff from accessing these social networks from work, preferring to build their own, ‘safe’ internal network. However, Lars Morch of SuccessFactors presented the statistic that, of workers who’s company have a proprietary Social Network, 77% will never use it, and only 3% will access it more than once a day.

By refusing to go to the platforms the learners are already using, a huge potential is being missed. The idea of BYOD (bring your own device) has been around for a few years now. Whereby, workers are encouraged to use their own computers or mobile devices at work, on the logical understanding that, in most cases, they will be significantly higher tech than whatever the company can provide.

Similarly, company security departments should embrace the social networks staff are already using and accept that the risks they fear so greatly are minimal at worst, rather than continue to build digital graveyards which no one, staff or the business, benefits from.

Communication in workplaces is disjointed at present. The aim of any workplace social network is to replace email, IM and phone as a single point of communication, and therefore any solution must be compelling enough that staff will want to use it first. The key, said Lars, is to build a workplace social network (such as Chatter) which works with the existing popular networks to get user buy-in from the start.

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