Tag: elearning

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Oh, No! Not Another Slide Presentation!

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When I was a child, slides were what your father used to bore the socks off family and visitors alike.  They were tiny little transparencies of the family vacation, which he presented with a slide projector (a carousel that held the little devils and frequently jammed), using a sheet hung on the wall as a screen.  He topped off the experience with an equally boring narrative of each not-so-captivating picture.

No, you’re not reading into things.  I chose my words carefully in the preceding paragraph and if you’re clever enough, you’ll get my hidden meaning.  Whether you do or not, I am begging you:

Stop thinking of training design in terms of slides!

Surely, at least some readers still remember “chalkboards” and “blackboards”.  How about “whiteboards” and “flip charts”?  In my youth, slides had nothing to do with teaching; Freelance and PowerPoint were not even ideas in someone’s brilliant mind at that time.  In my professional training career, I have used them as props, not the centerpiece of my courses.  I never, ever read the bullet points from a slide to my class.  I always paraphrased, adding my stories, my examples, my own words.  I moved around the room, I made funny faces, I waved my hands and stomped my feet.  I used other props, including toy airplanes and Styrofoam packing peanuts.

The idea of the unlimited potential of eLearning being reduced to online slides, with a one-sided narrative makes me very sad.  This was a boring and ineffective way to teach in person; it is even more so electronically.

I know it’s easy.  I know it’s rapid.  But easy and rapid are rarely used to describe something that is also great.

It seems I’m not alone in this thinking:

What?  You can’t afford to choreograph and video a dance troupe?  Even if you could, it wouldn’t be the best way to teach your subject?  That’s fine, but please don’t go running back to the slide presentation!

Now, I don’t mean to be disparaging of PowerPoint.  It’s a great program.  I’ve seen some fantastically animated presentations that I could barely tell were made with PowerPoint. Unfortunately, most of us are not terribly creative or even all that good with a computer. PowerPoint provides a “blank slate” which is great for people who know what to do with a blank sheet of paper.  For everyone else, it gives the false illusion that they’ve done something “professional”.  (Seriously, I saw that claim in a recent training course!) I have a copy of Photoshop but that does not make me a graphic designer.  Trust me, it doesn’t.

Please think in 3-D!

None of the authoring tools for eLearning content – or for business presentations, family vacation videos, or any other content you might want to share – can turn you into George Lucas.  But, they can make your presentation of any content more interesting, more compelling, and less “flat”.

Take this Prezi on Moodle by Tomaz Lasic, for instance:

Take advantage of all the options. Don’t pigeon-hole your content.

Prezi, like PowerPoint and Photoshop, is a great tool but it doesn’t magically turn a person into a creative genius.  What it does do is to provide a different blank slate, a new “dimension”, and a limitless screen similar to the physical classrooms of my youth. No matter what subject you teach, who your students are, or how “non-creative” you might feel, there are so many more options than slides sized to print on letter-paper. Prezi is just one option.  Dancing graduate students are another.  If you provide your instructional designer with good content and say “Go make this GREAT“, she’ll be able to do a lot more than if you say “Convert this to SCORM”. If you can’t afford an instructional designer, you can probably afford a starving art-school student.  Or, perhaps a starving music-school student can sing some of your audio.  Don’t just think outside the box.

Think outside the slide!

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Thursday, September 15th, 2011

A Few Words About: Getting Help in Moodle

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Last month I asked my Moodle host to upgrade BeeLearn.com to 2.1.  I’m getting antsy to overhaul my curriculum using the new features of Moodle.  It took him about two hours to complete the entire site upgrade, including the back-ups of the old site. Everything works swell, except for a couple of third-party modules that we knew wouldn’t work beyond Moodle 1.9x (not yet, anyway).

A few days earlier, I had set up my new desktop PC, with the latest of every version of software for every application you can imagine.  As of today, I am still trying to get to the same level of functionality I had before the upgrade.  Since I had the same computer, with the same version of the operating system and application software for five years, I had many customized settings.  I had grown accustomed to the location of tools and options.  Now, I can barely delete an email.

The thing is, when I have a question such as “how do I enable conditional activities in Moodle” I have four choices:

  1. Poke around until I figure it out myself
  2. Read through the online documentation (always easy to locate)
  3. Post a question at a forum and wait for a response from another user
  4. Ask a Moodle expert, such as my host (if I have engaged him for a support contract)

All of these options are reasonable, by my standards.  I typically receive helpful answers in a short period of time.  Option # 4 is the only one that costs anything and it is also the most reliable.

In the six years that I’ve been using Moodle, I’ve heard some folks express concern that since it is open source there’s really no one to respond to questions; no one is responsible to provide explanation of a feature or help troubleshoot a problem.  That seemed like a valid concern, if options 1-3 above were not feasible for certain people.  I get it. Not everyone has my curiosity or tenacity; maybe they are more interested in rock climbing than learning Moodle.  That’s cool, too.

Now I’m wondering how those people are coping.  When I clicked on the Help icon in my brand-spanking new desktop software (it doesn’t matter which application; they’re all the same), I was stunned, horrified, mortified (you get my point) to be taken to an online community forum and presented with literally hundreds of posts that were somewhat related to my keyword.

What happened to the help index?  Where is the comprehensive list of how to do whatever?  I’m fine with that process when the software is open source and I didn’t pay to download it.  But when the application costs $1000 and I have to accept legal terms to use it, I do not expect to receive support from some other user who happened to figure something out!

What this tells me is that open source software (such as Moodle) just took one more giant leap toward “the business model of the future”.  That one advantage of proprietary software – paying more for the product to ensure technical support – just went down the drain.

If you had any reservations about Moodle – or any other open source application – because of the “lack of support” – you can rest assured that you will get at least – and probably better – support from the enthusiastic Moodle community than you will from the reluctant and desperate users of those “other products”. Most Moodle Partners offer on-going support contracts (essentially, personal help forums) that are less money than the purchase price of my desktop suite that has no such support.

Note:  When you’re building your business case and determining your budget, be sure to include the costs of training and support for Moodle if you plan to do most of the build yourself. If you don’t have the time or desire to learn Moodle to that extent, include the costs of a course developer in your budget.  Actually, these costs are added on to any project, regardless of whether you use Moodle, other open source, or proprietary software.  None of them come out of the box with your content in them!

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Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Emotional Pitfalls of eLearning as a New Business

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Falling into a deep hole

In Using Moodle for Business, I put “lack of objectivity” at the top of Common Mistakes.  As with any new venture, deciding to launch an eLearning site has its risks.  There will be costs, there will need to be a great deal of time invested to make it work, and the revenue stream is never guaranteed.

No matter how excited you are about the unlimited potential of having your content online, you must harness that excitement and write a business case.  This business case must be based on facts and data from market research, financial considerations, and your own self-assessment. It should not be an emotionally-driven document.

This doesn’t mean that you should be dispassionate in the implementation of your plan.  Passion is what makes most businesses succeed.  Even the largest corporations today began as ideas of passionate people, undaunted by potential risks.

Be passionate in the work.  Be objective and calculating in the decision-making.

Another Common Mistake is the lack of a budget – a realistic budget.  I really did have one client tell me her budget was “angel’s wings”.  I’m not really sure how many dollars or euros that is, but I’m pretty sure it meant that she had no budget at all.  For a rare few, that can mean they have unlimited resources.  For most of us, it means that we will need to make some choices, based on what we can afford.  Failure to make those choices in the beginning almost always leads to overall project failure.

Even if you have narrowed your search and have decided on Moodle, it can cost from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars to construct a site.  Know what you must have and know what you can afford!

It is intuitive to most people that a building – factory, store-front, warehouse – will be a large expense for any business moving in.  There will be lease or mortgage payments, utilities, the cost of moving in and setting up.  Equipment and supplies will be needed.

Rarely do I see a sign that reads “FREE WAREHOUSE SPACE.  MOVE IN TODAY!”

But when it comes to eLearning (not just Moodle), we are teased and lured in by the promise of “free hosting”, “free downloads”, “free domains”.  This has led many people to believe that a web presence – unlike a physical presence – is free.  There is nothing to pay for; it’s all free!

As my client Kyle* says, “It doesn’t take much to do it poorly.  It is, in fact, effortless”.

Quality of Your ELearning Site =

Money You Put Into It + Time You Put Into It + Planning You Put Into It

Even if you don’t have much money, you can have a great site.  The better you plan and the more time you put in yourself, the less it will cost.  But again, don’t let your passion drive your budget.  Be realistic about your financial resources and passionate with the time you put into the planning and the building of the content.

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Friday, August 26th, 2011

A Few Words About: Online Applications, Free or Not

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A Few Words AboutAs I was writing the two previous posts on online applications, I discovered that one I just learned about was no longer available.  Earlier this summer, I was about to back up my life’s work to an online storage service, when I realized that their pricing had gone from $10/month to $49/month.  Last winter, the Moodle community was stunned by the sudden shut-down of the web meeting service, DimDim.

How can this be?  Why is this happening?

Well, you see, these online applications are typically in business to make money, just like you.  They offer free services as a sort of “free sample”.  If you like it, you’ll buy more.  What happens is that not enough people buy to justify giving away any more samples.  Perhaps the free-sample people take up more time and support resources than the people who pay for their accounts.  Or, maybe the application is so awesome that some bigger company decides it would be a competitive advantage to own that code.  They buy out CoolOnlineEditor.com.  This is great for the college kid who wrote the code, but not so great for those of us who were using his online services.  In some instances, a big, evil company comes along and buys out the really good application just so the rest of us cannot use it. Sad, but true.

For online services such as quick image editing, PDF printing, and screen casts, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to find another service. That shouldn’t slow you down too much.

If you use a social media service to aggregate your Twitter, Facebook, email, IM, etc…and that’s the only place you store your usernames and passwords, you’ll spend a lot of time recovering that information.  Then you’ll have to spend some time finding and learning another application.  This is annoying, but not too serious.

If the free (or inexpensive) photo gallery (or other document storage) system you use shuts down, this is just a pain in the neck if you have a copy of everything.  If you don’t have a back-up, well, that’s catastrophic. Of course, big name sites (like Kodak and Google) are not as likely to shut down and leave you hanging as WeRCheap4Storage.com, but they do have a right to change their policies.

What is the risk?

Anything and everything online is at risk (although some risks are so low you might as well worry about a meteor strike). With downloaded software (resident on your computer), the worst thing that can happen is that it is no longer supported. Online, any service can:

  • Stop taking registrations
  • Discontinue features
  • Start charging for features that were free or raise prices
  • Disappear altogether (shut down the site) for any number of reasons.  This is the worst because it can be without warning.

The more effort you put into building the content or customizing the online application, the more you stand to lose.  A blog with 100 posts is far more difficult to rebuild than an online gallery of the photos you have duplicates of on your hard drive.  The more you stand to lose, the more you should do to prevent any negative impacts on you.

What can you do?

For any and all of it, back up anything you can.  Keep it stored where you can easily recover it and restore functionality as quickly as possible.

For the more content-rich applications, the ones you depend on heavily, and/or those that will take you a lot of time to set up or customize to your needs, do your homework before investing that time.  Read reviews at CNET, PC Magazine, PCWorld, SourceForge, industry-specific publications, and of course, online searches for specific functionality.  Choose a stable application (one that has good reviews from users and IT experts alike and has been around “a while”) and back up your content regardless of how good they are!

Platforms such as Moodle, Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal are probably here to stay, but is your host?  Even though I know my sites are backed up and protected as much as humanely possible, I still back up the content, copies of which I keep copies on my local drives.  I would never risk a free hosting service unless it was associated with an organization I had plenty of confidence in.

We live in a rapidly changing world, which is both good and bad.  Nowadays, there is such a thing as a “free lunch” – for a time anyway.

The lesson is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  The more dependent you are on an application, the more important it is that you a) make sure you have a recovery plan if that application shuts down and b) investigate the options so that your choice of application is based on something other than “it’s free”.

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Friday, March 25th, 2011

Web Accessibility Issues and Options for eLearning Text and Images

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image of a laptop with a megaphone speakerIn response to my post on why web accessibility for elearning is important and how even small businesses can achieve it, I received an email from ReadSpeaker, informing me of their free WordPress plugin.  They tell me they’re working on a plugin for Moodle.  If it works as well as the WordPress version, I can’t wait!

This post addresses how to make text and images accessible to the vision impaired by use of a screen reader such as ReadSpeaker.  Since I’m going to talk about web accessibility as it applies to elearning content only – not any particular LMS – what I learned with the WordPress installation will also apply to Moodle and other LMS content. Obviously, other eLearning elements (such as forms, games, and flash) will be more or less accessible than text and images, depending upon the specific disability. These will be covered in future posts (as I have a chance to check out the options.)

ReadSpeaker was the only screen reader I tested and I tested only their free version.  It took me about five minutes to install on my other blog, Bee-Learn.com.  I was both pleased and surprised at what I found.

What I found with ReadSpeaker, which gives me a really good idea of how my content would be read by any screen reader:

How it treats text

  • In a post on the Lean 5S, the speaker read “fives”; it never occurred to me that it could be interpreted as a plural term.  I will make a point of putting a space in terms like that so that they will be read as “five ess”, which is how it is intended.
  • Slashes are read, which is ok because we would often say it.
  • It pauses at commas, periods, and line breaks.
  • Ellipses are not read, but do result in a pause.  I suppose that’s good because I wouldn’t want it to read “dot dot dot”, but a little meaning is lost… I am not sure how to compensate for this but at least I’m aware of it now.
  • “Cool” is read Coool. Cool!
  • mmmm… is read as Em Em Em Em Not good, but ReadSpeaker has a process for submitting mispronounced words.  Although eLearning is typically more formal than emails, blogs, and text messages, I can see enormous value in adding colloquialisms and acronyms to the screen reader’s vocabulary.
  • I know that acronyms and sounds can be added to the vocabulary because it correctly reads WYSIWYG.  That’s awesome!
  • The title of the page was never spoken.  Presumably this is because it is a different element of the page, although to a sighted person, it appears as part of the same page (by design).

How it treats images

  • The title of the image is read by the screen reader.  This is the stuff that pops up when you run your mouse over the image.  (Note: In WordPress this is typically the name/title of the image file; in Moodle it is the alternate text.  Most articles on this refer to the alternate text.  Test it out on your site, just to make sure you’ve got your description in the right place to be read.)  Because the screen reader can detect it, you can improve the experience for the vision impaired by creating alternate text that is descriptive of the photo.  For example:
    • In this post on the new Moodle navigation button, I originally had titled the image “beelearncoursehome”.  I changed it to “This image represents the original home navigation button on BeeLearn.com, from 2006”, which is read by ReadSpeaker.
    • In this post on Lean 5 S, I changed the title of the image of the desk to read “shown here is an antique roll top desk, piled high with a number of unrelated items.  There are flooring samples, shorts, shirts, books, baskets… It is a mess!”
  • Image captions are also read, so make sure they say something useful – and different – than the alternate text. In the above desk example, the title is read, then the caption; this is a huge improvement over my original version which had titled the image “desk5s”.
  • Since the screen reader doesn’t distinguish image alternate text from the rest of the text, I will make it a point to begin each title with something like “this photo shows…”

Writing carefully and appropriately describing images are things we should all do anyway.  They are also not the only things we can do to make our content richer for the vision impaired.  The good news is that for the most part, good instructional design principles are also good web accessibility design principles. Some advice to improve your content for everyone:

Avoid:

  • Content embedded in images, such as those produced by saving a PowerPoint file as jpegs and simply uploading them.  The individual elements (text, for instance) are not linkable and difficult to edit.  As far as a screen reader is concerned, an image is an image; there is no text on it.
  • Content residing in desktop applications (non-HTML) such as PowerPoint, Word, or PDF.  These documents have many drawbacks as online content ; they also have their own set of accessibility issues.  This will be covered in much more detail in a future post.
  • Long, scrolling pages of nothing but text.  This makes it difficult to follow, even for the most focused student without disabilities.
  • Low content to background junk ratio.  I’ve recently seen some examples of courses written in various LMS, where less than 25% of the screen was dedicated to learning content.  The rest was for navigation, warnings, frames, and even ads!  This sends a message to everyone that your content takes a backseat and it can make it difficult for a disabled student to focus on the real content.
  • Overriding CSS formatting.  Read this post on how theme and content are two separate elements.  Then read this Moodle tip on how simple copy/paste from a web page or a file can mess up your HTML formatting and override your CSS formats.

Do:

  • Build each course with all learning styles and disabilities in mind.  Even a person without a hearing disability may prefer to read about a concept than to listen to you talk about it.
  • Lay out each course and each page with those outlining skills you learned in school.  Headings make your content more sensible for everyone.  (Note: I always add a page title to the top of each Moodle page.  Moodle 2.0 will have this as an option, eliminating the need to retype the page name.)
  • Go ahead and use pictures, graphs, and even cartoons.  Keep your content rich.  Sure, there will be some elements that someone won’t be able to access.  But if you provide that content in more than one format, you’ll reach everyone.  For instance, use the alternate text option in photos to describe the photo, rather than just giving it a name.
  • Go ahead and use color.  But don’t rely on color to get your point across.  Color is highly effective for those who can see it; it is worthless for those who can’t.  Use color and at least one other distinguishing characteristic.

For more detail on designing for web accessibility, view this page at WebAIM.org.  On their site you will also find updated information on screen readers, research on web accessibility, discussions of various disabilities and how they are affected by technology.

Another great resource I found is this page from the University of Wisconsin.

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Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Five Things to Consider When Choosing Game Creation Applications

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Using games to enhance learning has been a widely-accepted tool for many years and has gained ground in this past decade*.  Most business training workshops include at least a few team activities and “simulations”.  They serve to get people up and moving about andworking together as a team, in addition to applying concepts in a “real world” scenario.

Accepting games as a necessary part of GREAT eLearning, let’s look at them in terms of the Five Basic Things:

Will games add value to the students’ learning experience? Pilots have long been taught to fly using flight simulators. Video and computer games allow more people to “experience” more than they could in real-life or even in a mocked up scenario.

Studies have consistently shown that games can improve both memory and retention of concepts taught. As you decide the type and number of games to include in your eLearning, focus on games that teach your concept.  I have been involved in workshops (not online) where the games were more like recess than lessons. Don’t just add games; add serious games with a learning objective.

Do I have the skill? This is the million dollar question.  I have been playing around with programs to build or customize games.  If your game is based on an already designed concept, such as Tic Tac Toe, find your way out of the maze, or Jeopardy, it will be a little easier.  To design a new concept would take imagination way beyond anything I possess.  Then there’s the skill to find or build the graphical elements.  Putting the concept and the elements together will, in most cases, require some very good computer skills.

What are the options? The options are much fewer in number than in other eLearning features I have written about. For a review of just a few of the current applications available to build or customize games, check out this post.  For the elements to put into them, you can start with the options I suggested in Five Things…Graphics.  One option is to find a student programmer (at a local university) who will put your ideas into motion.

Don’t despair if you can’t find just the right game to teach your concept.  In 1984 I played with a software flight simulator on a Compaq Portable; I didn’t learn to fly but I did internalize the difference between altitude and distance above the ground.  Perhaps you can find existing games that you can use to meet your learning objectives even if they weren’t designed for that purpose.

How much functionality do you need from this tool? This really depends on your audience.  A stand-alone TicTacToe game may wow your audience; or, you may have a technically sophisticated group of students who expect Wii type games even in their training.  As the options for creating and customizing games increase, so will the expectations.  What is acceptable today is likely to be “lame” in a year or two.

Will this tool work within my LMS? As always, you have to consider whether the application you choose will run on the web, how much bandwidth it requires, and if your students will be able to access it from anywhere.  As far as I know, no LMS has built-in game blocks, so all options will have to be tested for compatibility.  Most importantly, you’ll need to work with your IT department or web hosts to make sure that your server can handle users playing games.  If you use applications such as the Engage, this isn’t going to be a problem.  But if you go all out and have sound effects, videos, complex algorithms, and students playing simultaneously in an online game, you could experience problems.

*There is so much material on this topic that it is impossible to list everything here.  These are a good place to start for both background and ideas for using games in your eLearning courses:

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Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Game Building Applications for Business eLearning

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Last year my husband started a new job.  As part of his orientation, he took several hours of online training.  He had a large bruise on his forehead from hitting it on the desk when he passed out from boredom.  There was one course, however, that really held his interest.  He said it was more like a video game than a course.

I’ve been on the hunt ever since for open source and/or other affordable applications that smaller business (non-programmers) can use to create game-like content for eLearning courses. Despite the plethora of sites that offer ready-made games for grammar, math, and other subjects for school children, I am not finding many options that allow me to create or customize (with my own content) a game, especially one that runs on a web browser.

Below are a few options that you can start using today to add variety to your eLearning content. Before choosing, read my post on Five Things to Consider When Choosing Game Creation Applications.

Tic Tac Toe built in Engage

Tic Tac Toe community interaction for Articulate Engage.  This is a real game, it runs on a web browser, it is very easy to create, and it is very professional in appearance.  It is limited, though, to concepts that lend themselves to True/False, nine at a time.  Click here for an example. There are other Engage formats that, while not really games, they might fill your needs.  Articulate offers an SDK (software developer kit) to encourage more community developed interactions like this one.  My 2011 Wish List includes more game-like Engage interactions.

PowerPoint game templates.  A web search produces a number of these for grade school children.  I have seen them in business training and they were fun for the group, but I don’t think they are up to par for online courses.  I saved one as a show (instead of a presentation), uploaded it to Moodle and played it.  One potential issue is that it downloads to the local computer’s temp folder; security settings on many computers won’t allow that.  Leaving it as a presentation won’t do for a number of reasons, which I detailed in this post.  If you want to go this route, Internet4Classrooms has a nice selection.

My first game!

Game Magic by YoYoGames.  This was recommended by a friend.  The free version works great and comes with one of the best tutorials I’ve ever seen.  I created a silly little game with apples and bananas flying around the screen reminiscent of the WPIX call-in game, circa 1980.  I uploaded it to both Moodle and WordPress.  I played it on both a desktop with DSL and an old netbook with a wireless connection.  It works in all cases, but it takes a few seconds to load.  This also requires a download to the local computer’s temp file, which might not be allowed. The biggest drawback is that while Game Magic doesn’t require any programming, the creator must have a library of objects for his topic and a talent for putting them together, both for logic flow and aesthetic appeal.

Alice.  I was all tickled about this until I realized it was for the purposes of teaching programming to college students.  (According to the site, enrollment in such coursework is down as much as 80%.  No wonder I can’t find any programs that do exactly what I want! If you have kids, tell them to major in computer science…or become baseball catchers.  Both are in short supply.)  I did not give this a test drive because the download is 281 MB.  I don’t think this will work for your average small business, but if you have a computer geek in your midst, you should definitely give this a try. It is free.

A search of SourceForge.net yields a dizzying number (~20,000) of results, most of which have descriptions that tell me I couldn’t use it if I tried. I will save a review of those options for a future post…

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Thursday, December 30th, 2010

The Year in Review – Using eLearning and Moodle in a Small Business

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The needs of a small business are different from that of a big business, and different still from those of a university.  Unlike accounting and human resources, eLearning functionality has not been used in small business applications for very long.  Consequently, service providers, advice, and options are much harder to come by.  Even understanding how eLearning can work in your business might be difficult to envision.  

These posts from 2010 offer some ideas on how to use eLearning in general and Moodle specifically, in your small business.  They also provide some guidance on what to look for and what to avoid. 

My picks for best small business advice:

Here’s hoping for a safe and happy 2011. Happy New Year!

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Thursday, December 30th, 2010

The Year in Review – eLearning and Instructional Design for Business Training

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I have spent two and a half decades designing and delivering training in a corporate environment.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the best in the field.  (Thanks to all of you, wherever life has taken you). The following posts from 2010 are my thoughts on how a small business can accomplish big business training goals, without a big business staff or budget. 

My favorite blog on eLearning and Instructional Design:

Here’s hoping for a safe and happy 2011. Happy New Year!

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Thursday, December 30th, 2010

The Year in Review – Moodle Tips for Everyone, especially Small Businesses

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In the first year of Penny For Your Thoughts, I shared many of my “ah hah!” moments about Moodle.  The following posts share tips and advice on using some of Moodle’s many features.  Hopefully, they clear up some common points of head-scratching with Moodle.  Watch for more in 2011! 

My favorite source for Moodle happenings:

Here’s hoping for a safe and happy 2011. Happy New Year!

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