Tag: LMS

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Measuring Up – How does Moodle Compare to Other LMS?

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measuring upI would love to do a comparison of several different LMS by features, just like you might do when considering a new refrigerator at Sears.  The problem I’m having – and the problem I’ve had for years – is that it is just about impossible to get an unguided, leave-me-alone and let-me-think demonstration of many of these LMS. 

Some of them have “demos” which are really sales pitch videos.  I want to click on things myself.  How will I ever know how “easy” or “powerful” it is if I can’t put fingers to keyboard?  Others have free trial downloads that work for a short time.  All of them (except Moodle) require me to enter so much information about myself that even my mother would blush.  And as soon as I do that, I am “on the list”.  I get phone calls and endless emails, none of which I want. 

Yesterday I canceled the download of a “free trial” of one LMS authoring tool (because it was 22 GIGAbytes!) and still received three unsolicited emails within two hours.  

So, while I had envisioned an organized comparison chart of features, I’ve settled on something else.  How about a comprehensive list of what you should know about this product before you sink your fortune and reputation into it, and ways to go about gaining that knowledge? 

What to look for: 

  • Number of options that are built in to the application.  These should be easily turned on and off, and not require hours of code modification.  Compile a list that is specific about what features and functions are built in to this LMS and how many require customization.  Then, rate those features according to how important they are to your business.
  • Scalability.  This means that while you have only a dozen students right now, you should be able to easily upgrade to hundreds.  It can also indicate your ability to go from two courses to fifty without having to rewrite the LMS itself.  Ask about upgrades in hosting bandwidth and LMS capacity.
  • Ability to upgrade.  Let’s face it.  In the technology world, “old” is five years.  Could you even imagine the functionality of an iPad 10 years ago?  A decade ago we thought hand-held PDAs were “the future”.  It is folly to assume that a state of the art LMS today will be anything other than a beta-max a few years from now.  Your LMS needs to be robust.  Find out how easy it is to upgrade this LMS, how long it will take, and what it will cost.
  • Integrations with social media.  Every day I see reputable articles on the important role of social media in learning; e-Learning is way more than old training material converted to run on the Internet.  These integrations should be built in to the LMS and be turned on or off with a few clicks.
  • Integrations with common applications such as PayPal, DimDim, and single sign on authentication.  You could add YouTube and many other sites to this list.  These integrations should be built in to the LMS and be turned on or off with a few clicks. 
  • Ease of use.  This isn’t just how easy it is for you to get reports.  It’s how easy it is for teachers or trainers to add content, monitor courses, interact with students, and do what teachers do.  It’s also about how easily the students – adults in business settings – are able to gain access to the content, navigate about, share their experiences, and still do their “regular jobs”.  Will you and your employees be able to add or edit content, change features, and generate reports – or will you be forever in the clutches of the software developer? 

Ways to find the above information and to avoid the sales pitches: 

  • Real demos, where you can see actual examples of content and features that work. Search “[lms name] demo”.
  • Sandboxes and/or trial versions where you can create (and break) things as a student, a teacher, and an administrator.  Search “[lms name] sandbox”.
  • Real user reviews, preferably from a community forum for that LMS application where issues, fixes, bugs, and wish lists are posted.  You can learn a lot by reading these forums.  If you can’t find a direct link to the community forums from the LMS commercial website, try typing a question into your search engine such as “Does Moodle accept credit cards”.
  • Visible Pricing, either bottom line or ballpark (for the more creative stuff).  Obtain quick quotes for the base application, hosting, development, and user support.  Then compare your options based on your total price.  Remember to get pricing for scalability, upgrades, and integrations with other applications. Ask about SDKs and free plug-ins.  What does it cost to install those free applications? 

While custom homes and custom-made suits are usually nice things, in the software world “custom” can be a euphemism for “we don’t actually have anything written; you’re going to pay for all of our trial and error”.  Custom software is not the same thing as software that has many options. Custom software is rarely scalable, rarely upgradeable.  What you want is an LMS with many options that will offer you flexibility and autonomy for a long time to come.

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Friday, August 13th, 2010

Open Source vs. Proprietary: What does it mean to a small business?

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Most conversations I have with potential clients include this question: “If Moodle is free, what am I paying you for”.  I wrote the answer to that in a previous post.  I promised to explain what “free” means, how that applies to Open Source Software, and what difference it makes to a small business owner. 

Open source software is that which has unencrypted code – meaning that anyone can see the source files (where the software program exists), and freely modify it.  Open source software is usually free of charge, and usually comes with no guarantees that it will work as described.  This might sound horrifying to you, but most of us have experienced bugs, poor support, and even fatal errors with software that was proprietary and cost a lot of money.  Proprietary software has encrypted code; if you look at the program files all you’ll see are a bunch of symbols and you are not allowed by law to modify them even if you could figure out how.  The free in open source refers to freedom of use, not cost.  Contrary to popular belief, open source software is still “copyrighted” in most cases, which does more to protect the users than the creators.  That’s a good thing.

Why would you want to use open source vs. something that was “guaranteed”?  Well, here’s a perfect example.  I am so used to going into the source files of Moodle and WordPress (both open source with strong communities of developers and users), to change colors, images, and strings of text that I found myself staring at my Microsoft Outlook the other day, wondering how to do the same thing.  I wanted to use the “out of office assistant” but I didn’t want the subject of the email to read “Out of Office Reply”.  If Outlook was an open source application, I would find that string in the code and change it to something else, such as “Thank you for contacting us”.  This does not take a genius to accomplish.  It’s really simple; but it is impossible to do in a proprietary application such as Outlook.  Moodle and WordPress (as I have them installed with reliable hosts and responsible web companies looking after them) are far less quirky (for me) than Outlook. In my eBook, Moodle e-Learning: Questions and Simple Answers about Online Training, I tell the tale of the proprietary LMS software that promised to do everything but did nothing.  I couldn’t get my $5000 back, even with an attorney! So “guarantees” mean nothing to me.  

Now, you may be thinking “I don’t want to make modifications”, but you probably do want those changes made, even if you’re not the one doing it.  Your web designer, for instance, makes changes to existing code all the time.  When you say “I want that color to be a little brighter” or “Can you change the font to Arial?”, you are asking him to modify the code.  This is relatively easy in Moodle, WordPress, Drupal, and all open source applications…it can not be done in proprietary software unless the creators built in a button to change the color or font.  In order to make those “little” changes that you have probably become accustomed to (if you have a website), you would have to go through a lot bigger effort and spend a lot more money if you are modifying proprietary software.  That is, if it could even be done at all.

Some software companies, like Apple and Articulate, have proprietary software as the core and offer software development kits (SDK) so that the community can create “applications” that integrate perfectly with their software.  This results in some really cool stuff, as most of you know. 

As a business owner, you should investigate all of your options for whatever functionality you desire.  Sometimes, a proprietary application will be the best solution for your needs.  Chances are, unless you are a giant business, you will have to settle for the out-of-the-box applications if you go the proprietary route.  If you want more flexibility, open source will likely be your best solution in the long run. Before deciding on any application, you should obtain actual user reviews, with specific ratings on function, support, scalability, and anything else that matters to you.  You can find very reliable reviews of an exhaustive list of open source software at SourceForge.net.  This is where I was able to find Moodle, the LMS I strongly recommend for small and medium businesses, authors, trainers, consultants, and other entrepreneurs who want to offer online training to clients and employees.

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Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Using Moodle for Business

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Recently, I recommended that smaller businesses forget the custom coding to integrate all their web needs and stick to one site for eLearning, one (or more) site for marketing, and use an existing online merchant (or a simple shopping cart application).  So, what functionality should they be looking for in the eLearning (LMS) application?  

I wrote an entire section in my eBook, explaining why I chose Moodle over other applications even though Moodle wasn’t (and still isn’t) built specifically for businesses.  It doesn’t have some of the features that businesses need.  And it has many that we don’t need.  But it’s so good at the learning (the L in LMS) part, it has been worth it to us to figure out ways to use it for business. 

What does a smaller business need from an LMS?

  • Payment methods.  If we can’t collect money, we can’t keep doing it.  Moodle is great for one course at a time for one stated price. It can’t handle multiple course purchases, discounts coupons, or group pricing.  Moodle Solution:  Use Meta Courses, which will solve some of the problem.  CourseMerchant is a third party application built for Moodle that should solve the rest of it. 
  •  Enrollments.  Most businesses want this to be automatic.  The only way to do this automatically in Moodle is to have the student pay for the course or enter an enrollment key. In an academic environment, students don’t generally take courses they don’t get credit for.  In business applications, it is likely that some will want to review the material just to learn (or steal) it.  Moodle Solution:  You’ll probably need something like Course Merchant as well as another database enrollment method.  I have done it manually with bulk uploads which was not automatic but not too tedious.
  • Privacy/Confidentiality.  I have to laugh at the Moodle 2.0 feature that posts the highest grades of a quiz in course, with or without names.  Can you imagine doing that in a business training course?  Can you spell lawsuit?  Not only are grades rarely published (never with names), often the course titles are kept private.  The Business Uses forums are filled with questions like “How do I keep one client from seeing the course titles of another client on the same site?”  Moodle Solution: Use Groups and Permissions.
  • Branding.  Most businesses have spent some money and thought on corporate branding, marketing, and message.  It is important that the eLearning courses support this branding.  Another common question is “How do I brand the courses for each client?”  Moodle Solution: Course themes are an inexpensive and easy way to “custom brand” each course.
  • Audience.  There are obvious differences between academic students and adults taking business training.  I’m not sure which one is more tolerant of bad content, but I am sure that the business student is less likely to take a course if it’s difficult to access or navigate.  Just because of age, people taking business courses might be less internet savvy than college-age kids; this is becoming less and less of a concern.   Moodle Solution: Moodle is as easy to access and navigate as any website I’ve used.
  • Validation of knowledge and attendance.  In my experience, certificates and some form of credit are far more important to business clients than academic students.  Perhaps in academia, this is taken for granted.   Moodle Solution: Use Certificates linked to course grades and attendance.  
  • Interaction with others.  In a business application, this is called ‘networking” and is more focused on the application of the content in one’s job than on “social networking”.  Moodle Solution: Use Forums, Wikis, and Glossaries focused on project or job applications of the content. 
  • Content.  Content has to be good, accurate, useful, timely, and interesting regardless of the purpose of the training.  It should always have great contentMoodle Solution: Creating content in Moodle requires knowledge of the topic, good instructional design, and some computer skills.  This is true, no matter what authoring tool you use.  A very small business or entrepreneur should probably hire someone to help with this. 

I hope to see you in the Moodle for Business Uses forums soon!

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Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Moodle 2.0: Is it good for business?

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I’ve had the chance to evaluate the “new Moodle” for about two weeks now. I don’t know what I was expecting, but as is so often the case with new stuff (like CDs and Windows®), I’m not sure I like it. My emotional side usually lets my analytical side take over in times like these, so over the next few days I’ll be posting my analysis of each of the new (or changed) Moodle features, as they apply to business uses.

Each feature will be evaluated on how well it:

  • Solves a Moodle for business problem, as defined by various posts, questions, and my own experience.
  • Focuses on the needs of students in a business training curriculum, (which are very different than those of students in an academic institution).
  • Improves the ease with which a small to medium business can create or edit content and administer the site (enrollments, payments, registrations, roles) without a dedicated IT department or Moodle expert.

I also plan to assess what functionality is missing; modules and plug-ins that will not be upgraded, core features that are no longer available, and changes of core features that affect the functionality. I am holding my breath in hopes that those wonderful people who contribute the code for these awesome add-ons have the time and energy to upgrade them for 2.0. Some, I just can’t live without!

Stay tuned and please send me your thoughts, impressions, and questions on Moodle 2.0 for business uses.

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Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Choosing a Course Designer

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I was recently asked how I chose which Moodle Partner to use.  I had to think about that for a minute…presumably, they’re all competent.  They all have state of the art server farms and they all know Moodle inside and out.  The real reason that I chose “my guys” is that I like them.  I can work with them.  They have the same perspective that I have, at least when it comes to what e-Learning should be.  It’s the same reason I chose Moodle.  It suits me.  

Just like when you choose a doctor, an architect, or even a roommate, you want someone who shares your vision and who complements your style.  You want someone who makes you feel at ease.  This is also how you should choose an eLearning course designer.  You want someone who, together with you, will have the full range of skills needed to build great eLearning. The skills and expertise needed to pull together GREAT eLearning include: 

  • Instructional design knowledge and experience
  • Performance measurement creation and analysis
  • Graphic arts and graphic design applications
  • Audio and video use and production
  • Familiarity with web technology (things like FTP, cPanel, PHP, HTML, CSS, database) and hosting
  • Familiarity (deep) with the LMS you’ve chosen (Moodle or another)
  • Familiarity with file types, when they should be used, and how
  • Writing and editing skill
  • Ability to target a message to a particular audience
  • Ability to translate content to another language

I don’t know a single soul who possesses expertise in all of these areas.  Most of us are really good at some things and well, not so good at others. To find someone who can do what you can’t – or don’t want to – do, make a simple list [like this one]:

  1. What am I good at?
  2. What would I like to learn to do or be involved in?
  3. What do I not want to do at all?

Find someone who can take complete control of everything you put in #3, is skilled at all the #2 items but will allow you to meddle with them, and will leave you alone with your items in #1.  Once you find someone whose skills complement your own, make sure that you and that person “click”.  I might even go so far as to say that you should click first, match skills second.  If you can communicate well, you can work through who is going to do what and how much it’s going to cost.  If you don’t click, you’re setting yourself up for tense decisions and uncertainty.  You have to feel like you’re partnered with your course designer, not at odds with her. 

I hope this helps you make this very important decision.  Converting your content to eLearning should be fun and exciting.  Good luck!

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Monday, May 10th, 2010

Six Easy Steps to Convert Your Content to e-Learning

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Dazed and confused by all the choices!

Which way to go?

Recently I wrote a post about how e-Learning can benefit entrepreneurs and small businesses by reaching a larger audience and leaving more time to spend on higher value activities. The biggest barrier to entry for those of us sans-IT department is not the cost or the skill, or even breaking the paradigm of teaching face to face; it is knowing where to start and what steps to take next.

Since I went through this myself, I know how bewildering it can be! I had several training courses developed and a pretty good feeling about myself as a teacher. I thought that was enough. But without a budget or a course designer as my partner, I had no focus and no clearly defined path. I wandered aimlessly, trying to find the right LMS, the right amount of content to start with, and the best way to market it. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done this:

1. Start with a book (published or not), a slide presentation that you can talk to, or an existing training course. If you don’t have something already put together, you can still use e-Learning as your “publishing platform”. But be prepared for a lot of time, money, and effort. You’ll be tackling two huge tasks at once: compiling and organizing your thoughts plus the vastness of e-Learning options. Looking on the bright side, if you don’t already have something put together, you can do so with your e-Learning course in mind. 

2.Determine your budget! I had one client who told me that her budget was “angel’s wings”. This made it very difficult for me to design a plan for her. If I were an architect and you asked me to build a house, I’d need to know how big and how fancy you wanted it. It’s no different for e-Learning design and creation.

3. Find a course designer who will work within your budget to:

  • Determine your audience and their constraints, as well as your learning objectives for this course
  • Create the course and curriculum architecture (even if you start with just one, you’ll probably want to be able to add more)
  • Determine the best blend of teaching methods for your audience
  • Create methods of evaluation for both participant competencies and how your course meets their objectives
  • Determine the best hosting solution (shared, branded site) for your situation
  • Create a course (or courses) to fit all of the above.

No one, not even the best instructional designer in the world, can create a course without knowing these things. Even if you “give them all the materials”, they need to ask these questions. If you find someone who does NOT ask you these questions, move on!

4. Prioritize your efforts and budget to meet the needs of your audience first. Do what you can to reduce the costs and timeline of designing and launching the course, but don’t get in the way. Make sure the course designer you choose is willing to “share the load” with you, if that’s what you want. Remember, she is working for you, not the other way around!

I have a client for whom I’m creating several courses. He does not have “angel’s wings” for a budget, so we discuss what must be included, what should be included, and what we can leave until another time. I give him examples for things such as quiz questions, so that he can write his own. He’s not as good as I am at writing questions, but he simply can’t afford to hire someone to do it all. I don’t see this as cutting into my work; I would rather have some business from him and help him, than to not work with him at all. In return, he trusts me to make instructional design decisions so that he can focus on taking care of his clients.

5. Stay focused and within your original scope. There is a simple tool often referred to as a multi-generation product plan (MGPP). For an e-Learning course, it might look like this [click here]. It allows you to have a lofty goal while still accomplishing important milestones along the way. There are numerous examples of how well this works; start small, earn and learn, improve and grow.

6. Gather and analyze data on participant scores, feedback, and participation so that you can adjust and improve. Short term revenue is not a good measure of long term success! You must understand if the course met your objectives, if the course met the objectives of your audience (and their superiors if they paid for it), and in general, what people thought of it. You’ll know whether to add to or edit the content, or simply change the way you market the course.

If you follow these steps, in order, you’ll find that you’ll have your e-Learning course or site up and running before you know it.  Determine your budget and stick to it! Create an MGPP and stick to it!  Don’t try to do too much because if you do, you won’t be able to do any of it!

Next time I’ll be writing in more detail about the web hosting aspects of e-Learning for small businesses and how to find a course designer.

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