Tag: moodle LMS

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Demystifying Applications, Themes, and Content for Moodle, etc.

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Last week I used a hotel as an analogy to explain the concepts of account creation, authentication, enrollments, payments, roles, and permissions in Moodle.  In this post, we’ll stick with the hotel (a really nice place, in a location you love) to talk about applications, themes, and content of a website.  They are the major pieces of any website, overlapping and interacting to create what you see on your browser.  If you are not 100% sure of the definitions of a website, a webpage, and a domain name, read this first.

The Main Structure

The application that runs a website is much the same thing as the hotel building.  This includes the walls, the roof, the frame that holds them together, the plumbing, the wiring…things that are not easily modified and that take some specialized knowledge to maintain.  Examples of Internet software applications include WordPress, Drupal, QuickBooks Online, Zen Cart, and of course, Moodle.  This site is run by the application, WordPress.  Desktop applications include Word, Photoshop, and Quicken. 

Applications govern the functionality of the website: financial, learning, writing, shopping, etc.

Major applications that control the website have their own set of rules, so a plug-in that works in WordPress is not going to work in Moodle.  Plug-ins and modules are similar to electric appliance cords.  What plugs into and outlet in  the UK won’t fit in a Canadian outlet.  Many applications, such as PayPal, MailChimp, and Facebook, are offering new plug-ins every day that will work with various other applications, such as Moodle and WordPress, but each plug-in is specific to website application.

Desktop applications are not displayed through your Internet browser, so the user must have a device (computer, iPad, etc.) that has that application (or its viewer) installed on it. This can be a nightmare because of the different versions and formats that exist.  Also, it prohibits many types of device-users from accessing the document, such as from a public computer.  This is why I don’t build e-Learning where the content resides in linked files.

The Style

The theme of a website, much like that of a hotel, is the presentation…the style…the tone of the site.  It includes the carpets, paint colors, styles of furniture and fixtures. A theme controls the look and feel of every page on the website such as background image, bullet styles and colors, fonts, and much more.  In a hotel, a theme is intended to provide visual continuity and appeal to a targeted group of guests.  In a website, this is also true, but the theme has an additional benefit:  It tells the browser how to present (display) each page on the website, without having to repeat those instructions for each page.  This saves a lot of space and redundant programming.

WordPress has more flexible themes than does Moodle, in that the layout of a page (number and position of columns, footers and headers) is somewhat controlled by the theme.  WordPress is like a building where some walls are movable.  Moodle is more like a building that would require complete renovations to change the floor plan, but where rooms can be closed off to the public.

Back in the Stone Age (early 1990s), or maybe as late as Medieval Times (circa 2000), each page on the Internet had a full set of code:  every color, position, image, and font style for displaying the content plus the content itself was in the code for that page. 

Nowadays, themes are written in CSS.  The theme of this website is Blossom.  The content is separate from the theme.

Modifying the theme requires some knowledge of programming script, some artistic ability, and some courage.  It is very much like revamping the look of your house; it isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than building a new one (modifying the application).  More and more themes are being written by developers to include easy ways to modify them.  I expect that in a very short while, this will be the standard and no one will need to modify style sheets.

The Interior Decorations

The words and images displayed in all of the pages and posts are collectively known as the content.  These are the decorations and guests’ personal belongings scattered throughout the hotel.  It is easy to remove these and change them.  In a website application, there are some content items that regardless of what they looked like going in, they are presented by the theme in a particular manner.  The pink hyperlinks and bullets on this site are an example of that.  The theme tells the application what styles to apply for all of the content.

Adding, deleting, and changing content has been generally available to website owners and users for several years.  Every time you add a comment to a blog or a product review, you are adding content.  WYSIWIG editors are better and more prevalent with each passing day and can be highly effective for those who are less than comfortable “using a computer”.

The Final Product:  The Best Combination of Application, Theme, and Content

My words of advice to all small business owners to produce the best final product, especially when it’s a Moodle eLearning site:

  1. Concentrate on your content.  Make it the very best you can, whether it’s a course in table setting, a certification for nurses, or a blog on fun things to do with the kids. 
  2. Find a theme that can be easily modified to represent your business; make it your own.  If needed, spend a little money on a graphic artist.
  3. Choose a course designer, Moodle Partner, and/or a web designer who knows the application inside and out and is able to find the right plug-ins that meet your functional requirements without modification of the application.

 Good luck!  If you would like additional clarification, please contact me.

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Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Where in the world is the Internet? Can a small business with global clients still use Moodle?

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Last week I was asked if I could burn a CD with a Moodle course on it, because there was concern that people in Asia-Pacific wouldn’t have reliable internet access.  

Uh, no”, I said.  

For a brief time, I was speechless, which is a rare condition for me.  There are two huge misconceptions embedded in this question, which I absolutely must write about! 

  1. Anything online can be copied onto a CD or DVD because “electronic is electronic”.
  2. Internet access is available only in the US and Canada; maybe England.   

Electronic media is a broad category, not a single characteristic.  The “power of the Internet” requires the Internet.

No, you can not burn a CD of Moodle! The explanation will have to wait for another day.  But even if you could, here’s why you would not want to: 

  • A CD can not be updated, edited, or controlled.  Once it is delivered into the hands of the user, it is what it is.  If an error is discovered, a change in policy or technology occurs, or any other reason to change the content comes along, the content of that CD can not be changed.
  • You can’t track the usage.  A CD running on a device isn’t traceable.  As the teacher or administrator, you have no idea if the content was viewed, where it was viewed from, or by whom.  You have at least some ability to obtain this information within an LMS.
  • There is no feedback.  Even if you have a fancy CD that is “interactive”, only the program interacts with the user.  The teacher (consultant or trainer) does not interact with anyone.  There are no chats or forums.  Students do not interact, and therefore, don’t learn from each other.
  • There is no other advantage that an LMS has to offer. There’s no “My Moodle” or other customization at the user’s end.   

In my opinion, a printed book is better than a CD.  It’s a little bit larger, but doesn’t require a computer to run, and I can sit under a tree with it. 

OK, so those are just a few of the advantages of online learning.  Not only is online better, there’s no excuse not to have it.  Internet access is ubiquitous. Perhaps we need to revamp Where In the World is Carmen Dandiego to… 

…Where in the world is the Internet?  

When I was an employee at Time Warner Communications in the mid 1990s, all the buzz was about broadband, a wild, new concept.  The vision of our company was to bundle cable TV, phone, and Internet access into one service. There was even talk of a “library of movies that a user could just watch whenever desired”.  Revolutionary!  Almost as far-fetched as indoor plumbing!  Of course, these ideas are very much reality 15 years later.  

What was also reality then – and still plagues us today – is the very difficult  task of dealing with legacy systems – not just computer programs, but with the infrastructure itself.  In parts of the world where reliable phone networks had never been put in place, it was easier to install fiber optics and cell phone towers than it was to replace the old for the new in many parts of the US.  Cell towers are often a source of community disdain because they ruin the view.  Back then, cellular phones were as common in parts of Africa as in Colorado.  

That was a lifetime ago (in technology years), so I did some quick Googling and came up with some interesting statistics on 2010 Internet usage: 

  • Three-quarters of a billion people use the Internet in Asia, according to Internet World Stats.  I don’t know how fast their service is, but it doesn’t take much bandwidth to run Moodle.   
  • Chinese is the second most spoken language on the internet, according to this Wikipedia article.  
  • Another Wikipedia article states: Singapore, as a small densely populated island nation and a pioneer, continues to be one of the few countries in the World in which broadband Internet access is readily available to just about any would-be user anywhere in the country, with connectivity of over 99%.  
  • The Agoda hotel in Thailand has an internet café. I’m willing to bet that there at least as many hotels in Thailand with internet access as in many North American locales.   
  • With XMGlobal, you can host your own hot spot just about anywhere in the world. So if you’re not lucky enough to be in Singapore, you can still Moodle! 
  • Registered Moodle sites exist all over the world.  Presumably, those places have Internet access reliable enough to use their Moodle sites. 
  • My favorite myth-dispeller from WebsiteOptimization.com:  Japan and Korea are way ahead of the pack in percentage of subscribers who have fiber (faster and more reliable than the wire that hangs in the air along my street).  The US is 11th in fiber penetration and 22nd in broadband speed.  

In my post about how small businesses (including authors, consultants, trainers, and other entrepreneurs) can expand their client base by using eLearning, it was implicit that this expansion was limited only by the size of your imagination and the value of your services to people worldwide.  A lack of access to the Internet should not be a concern!   

Last year, I built and hosted a Moodle course for a cruise line.  We trained 2000 employees, while they were onboard ships that were sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the open Atlantic.  Not one person had an issue with the accessibility of the Moodle site.  Not one.  

So, if you are being held back by the notion that Moodle won’t work for your business because your clients are “around the world”, let go of that idea.  Moodle is available everywhere…

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Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Demystifying Moodle Authentications, Enrollments, and Payments: How a small business can sell Moodle courses…

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…without hours of tedious labor, undo hardship on the client, or risking exposure to spammers.

There seems to be a lot of confusion over enrollment, authentication, accounts, payments, roles, and permissions in Moodle.  Sometimes it’s best not to think too hard on things like this…and once you have a basic grasp of the concepts, employ the methods that make it easiest on both you and your students (paying clients). 

Authentication ≈ Account Creation

User accounts are authenticated before being allowed to log in to a Moodle site.  Each account is associated with a single user (not a company or department), with one username, one email address, a password, and other defining characteristics, which are all contained in the profile

One Person = One Account = One Profile

A Moodle site has one place where users are listed and maintained.  Let’s call it the guest list.  On second thought, let’s not, since “guest” has a different meaning in Moodle.  Let’s call it the membership list at a health club or resort.  This list applies to the entire site

User accounts can be created using any number of authentication methods.  They include email-based self-registration (totally automated), manually (where the administrator creates the accounts, either one at a time or by uploading a file), or by external databases that feed information to the Moodle site.  Any one Moodle site can have multiple methods active at the same time. These methods are very good at keeping fake people (spammers) from flooding your site with junk.

Bigger companies often have internal authentication methods (on their non-Moodle servers) which work very smoothly with existing Moodle authentication methods.  If you run a small business, you aren’t likely to have such a ready-to-use feature. There is a recent release for a WordPress integration with Moodle for just this purpose.  I haven’t tried it (yet) but it sounds like it would be awesome for small business users.  

No one can do anything (like take a quiz or post to a forum) without an account.  Guests are sometimes allowed to do some things.

Roles and Permissions

A Moodle site has several sections that reside in two general areas: the front page and the courses.  Think of your Moodle site as a hotel, an exclusive resort, or even a health club.  You could even imagine it as a university campus!  When a user shows up at the “Moodle front door”, the door man (which is the user database) checks to see what permissions this person has.  Some people are allowed to go everywhere…into the kitchen, behind the front desk, into the offices, into the storage room, and into all classrooms.  They are allowed to move the furniture, close off room, let people in, and turn other people away.  These people are typically called administrators

Others who show up are allowed to view the facilities from a distance; maybe they never make it onto the grounds.  They might be given a guided tour of the main lobby area; maybe they are allowed to take one free class.  Their access is very limited, and they are known as guests

There are several other types of users, with more privileges than a guest, but less access than an administrator. 

The thing that controls who gets to do what in Moodle is known as permissions, which are associated with roles.  There are standard Moodle roles (admin, teacher, non-editing teacher, etc.) and default permissions for those roles.  These defaults are so logical that I rarely change them; actually, I never do.  Once in a blue moon, I add a new role, with custom permissions. 

Where I control access is through the content itself.  I set courses to allow guests, allow users to enroll themselves, be free, cost money, or not be visible at all to anyone but me.  I usually leave all the rest of the content (associated with the front page) open to everyone, but on occasion, I allow only authenticated (logged in) users to see it.  The one example where I do this all the time is with the Theme Switcher block.  I let people who are logged in play with the theme, but not just anyone who walks in from Google. 

Enrollments and Payments 

Once a user is authenticated, it gets him in the front door.  He doesn’t necessarily have a space in a class or a room at the resort.  With the exception of administrator, users’ roles don’t allow them access to courses.  That is where enrollments come in. 

While authentication (log in) is on a site-wide basis, enrollment is by course.  (Roles can be site-wide or by course because nothing is ever simple). Enrollments can be accomplished by the user himself or by an automated method using one of the aforementioned external database integrations. 

For a user to enroll in a course himself, he needs to make a payment (via PayPal, Authorize.net, Course Merchant, etc.), or enter an enrollment key, but not both.  Either will work, depending upon how the course is set up.  (Users may also be enrolled by the administrator in much the same manner as manually creating accounts).  

As Yogi Berra might say: Enrollment Keys are as Good as Money

Enrollment in one course does not enroll the person in other courses.  (Except for meta courses, which we’ll talk about another time!). 

Enrollment in a course gives a user the role of student in that one course.

Additional roles (such as “teacher”) may be assigned to a user within the course, using the assign roles function.

How all these come together so you can make money selling your awesome Moodle courses

Authentication and Enrollments work together in a number of ways to provide access to your Moodle course content.  Following are some common scenarios that might apply to a small business offering Moodle courses for sale: 

  1. Sally pays you (the Moodle site owner) directly.  She does this with a check, PayPal, cash, or this nifty WordPress/PayPal button.  You manually create an account for her (authenticate her as a user) and manually enroll her in the course(s) that she paid for.
  2. Sally pays you.  You tell her to create her own account (email-based authentication) and give her an enrollment key for the course(s).  She logs in, enters the key, and is enrolled into the course.
  3. Sally pays you.  You tell her to create her own account (email-based authentication) and you manually enroll her in the course.
  4. Joe goes to your Moodle site, creates his own account (email-based authentication), and enrolls himself in the course by clicking on the PayPal button (or other payment method you have installed) associated with the course at the Moodle site.  You never even talk to Joe.
  5. You create an account for Joe and tell him to go shopping!  He buys as many courses as he desires by paying for each one directly through Moodle.  This might be the situation when you have a members only Moodle site, allowing users who belong to some organization and/or have paid a membership fee.
  6. Your client wants to enroll 30 people.  You have a purchase order for the entire amount.  You invoice your client and upload a CSV file with all 30 names into your Moodle installation.  In one fell-swoop, you create 30 accounts and enroll all 30 people into one or more courses.  

To offer discounts, varying course charges, or multiple course enrollment with one payment, you will need to employ a service such as Course Merchant, discussed in a previous post.  Whew!  Did you get all that?

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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

In the News: Moodle 2.0

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From the June 2010 issue of Penny For Your Thoughts newsletter…

in the news

Moodle 2.0 (scheduled for release next month) is a big change from version 1.9x. I’ve had a chance to play around with it for a couple of weeks now, and the one thing that strikes me hardest is this: a lot of what I thought would be easier, isn’t. I thought it would be more “intuitive” or easier for a novice to create content. It isn’t. I think this is a good thing. Over the past 30 years I’ve seen some really great software applications die because some easier (albeit mediocre) version came out. Easy is usually at odds with powerful; it might be easier to create charts in that oh-so-popular spreadsheet program, but most of what comes out is junk. What we want is an LMS application that is powerful in its ability to produce high quality output, yet easy for the student to use. So far it seems that Moodle is more powerful… on the creation side and easier on the student side.

One of the best new features of 2.0 is the ability to create conditions for every page or activity created. It is possible to build a complex relationship amongst pages and activities within a course, such that each appears only when other conditions (grades) have been achieved. While this is a very cool thing to do, and truly an enhancement to the instructional design capabilities of Moodle, it is certainly not easier. To use this feature effectively will require even more planning and an even deeper understanding of how people learn.

A new block, Private Files, promises to make the students’ lives a lot easier. It provides a place for storage and retrieval of one’s own personal files within any Moodle course (or site). I can see this as being huge for on-the-go learning, especially for mobile devices without the storage capacity of laptops and desktops. The students will be able to access their work from anywhere and have a super reliable storage medium.

I am continuing to work through the “new Moodle” with a fine tooth comb and will be regularly posting reviews of each feature (new and lost) over the next few weeks. I had been waiting for the new release to do some long-overdue upgrading of my existing courses (first written in 1.6). That was really just an excuse to procrastinate because I never upgrade to anything new when it first comes out! It will be awhile before we know which modules and plug-ins will work with 2.0, what new ones will be released, and just how to use them all to our advantage. Keep up to date on my Moodle 2.0 reviews by following me.

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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

A Few Words About: Formatting Your Content

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From the May 2010 issue of Penny For Your Thoughts newsletter…

When preparing materials to give to your newly hired course designer, ask her (or him!) what format is best. You may not realize it, but building a course in an LMS application such as Moodle can not be accomplished by simple “copy/paste” or “upload” of an entire file. Each page is actually a web page, written in HTML just like this newsletter, a WordPress site, and any number of other web applications that you may have seen or even used.

HTML doesn’t like special characters (like the apostrophe I just typed) or formatting symbols used by Word. They may look ok when you paste them in, but on the user’s screen, they’ll show up as little rectangles instead of punctuation; you’ve seen them before, I’m sure. Or, maybe you thought someone went wild with the ampersand. That’s what happens when you copy directly into an HTML editor from another application with its own formatting. PowerPoint has another whole set of problematic formatting and PDF isn’t without quirks.

So, before you go through the effort of nicely formatting something, ask your designer what will work best for her. Most of the formatting I receive has to be completely scrubbed out and redone.

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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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Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Web Considerations for Small Businesses Marketing and Selling eLearning Content

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Is it the packaging or the suds inside? This was a question raised in one of my marketing classes last century. I assume that it is still a topic of discussion today. My experience tells me that packaging sells a product for awhile, but if the soap doesn’t clean the laundry, it won’t be on the market for long.

So, what’s more important to you as you launch your eLearning site? Is it the website look? Is it the functionality (how many bells and whistles it has)? Or, is it your content, which is the product you’re really selling?

The answer to this dilemma is no different than any other consumer product or service: focus on what your customer wants and you’ll be fine. Generically, customers of eLearning want, in no particular order:

  • Easy access to the content
  • A reliable platform that won’t crash or eat work
  • Engaging content
  • Useful content
  • Validation of knowledge in the form of feedback (grades) and proof for others (a certificate for instance)
  • Interaction with others

Of all of the inquiries I receive from small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to put their content online, 9 out of 10 confuse the marketing of the product (eLearning) with the product itself. The best web solution for delivering an eLearning product is probably not the same as the best web solution for marketing that product. It is simply coincidence that they are both -along with selling of the product – hugely dependent on Internet applications. The distinction was more obvious 30 years ago when laundry soap was in a box, marketed on TV, and sold in a store.

I have two Moodle sites, one WordPress blog, and one Drupal site with 14 sub-domains (powered by WordPress). To set up all 18 URLs cost a fraction of what custom PHP coding to make Moodle work “seamlessly” with WordPress would’ve cost. My annual costs are minimal and each site can be upgraded without breaking any interfaces. I have the extra flexibility of having vastly different themes and copy on each one, different plug-ins installed, and targeting each one specifically to a market segment rather than having everyone search for what she needs on one “integrated” site. I don’t sell “products”, so I don’t need a shopping cart, but if I did, I would have a separate site with a shopping cart plug-in, or I’d have a sub-domain with something like Zen Cart installed. For the few products I have sold, I have used Amazon.com and eBay.

In future posts, I’ll discuss in more detail…

  • Platforms
  • Functionality
  • Content

…as they apply to teaching (eLearning), selling (shopping carts), and marketing.

My advice to all of you trying to “design” your eLearning and marketing sites:

Go the easiest route to please your customers. Avoid custom coding for anything except your theme (as long as it is upgradeable). Make the best “laundry soap” you can and package it in a convenient, pleasant, “paper box”. Concentrate on what you do best and you’ll do well!

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Thursday, March 25th, 2010

eLearning Tests and Surveys – What Tools Do You Need?

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Sometimes, you just get lucky.  I could not figure out how to write this post in fewer than 5000 words, many of which would be red, bold, and in uppercase letters.  Then I came across this post by Connie Malamed at  The eLearning Coach.  So, now I don’t have to write about how to write a good question!  Everyone should heed her advice before even considering what tool to build the questions in.  All the beautiful technology in the world won’t matter if the questions suck.  And, unlike an ugly graphic or a boring video, a bad test question can harm the learner.  A poor test that is used to judge an employee’s job-worthiness is never going to be a good thing.

So, I’ll assume you have some great assessment questions – for quizzes, tests, and surveys – that are reliable and valid and that you want to use them in your elearning courses.  Let’s look at them in terms of the Five Basic Things to consider about authoring tools:

Will assessments add value to my training design? Yes. Every eLearning course needs some assessment method.  At a minimum, you’ll want to know if your students perceived that they got something out of it.  That’s a feedback survey, not a test, but the question development and delivery are the same.  You’ll also probably want to know if the students learned anything and/or demonstrate some level of competency.  This tells you not only just that – what they learned – but also how good your course was at teaching them. 

Do I have the skill? This is a two-parter.  The skill to write questions is one thing.  It’s the main thing. The skill to build questions in an online application is another.  Luckily, the latter is remarkably simple because of some of the fantastic options available. 

 What are the options?  I build all of my tests in Moodle so I don’t use many of the available tools.  But, I also use Engage as a “pop-quiz” maker. If I don’t care what the answers are and I just want to reinforce a concept, I think this is a better option than a “flat test”.  Moodle has a Choice activity that captures the data but doesn’t look as snazzy.  Articulate also offers QuizMaker, which is about twice the price of Engage and does quite a bit more.  Joomla QuizForce is similar to QuizMaker and comes with the LMS.  At a hefty $800, Adobe Captivate does many things, including flash-based quizzes. If you don’t have a good assessment feature in your LMS or you want something customized that is in HTML and not flash, try Drupal Webform.  I have an example here.  Or, you can code one from scratch! (Yeah, right). Be creative.  You can use a quiz as a survey and vice versa. 

How much functionality do you need from this tool? The answer to this depends on what your objective is.  If you want to wake up your students with a flash presentation in full color and sound, you’ll want to opt for one of the flash applications.  If you want some serious data collection that dumps to a file that you can do statistical analysis on, pay more attention to the results than the delivery methods.  That usually means not using flash.  If you need to prove competency or that the student took the test herself, you’ll need to make sure that you can verify log in and track time spent, as well as grades.

Will this tool work within my LMS? To be assured that it will work, use the one that is built into your LMS (Moodle, Joomla, Blackboard, etc.)  That will ensure that you can track all the vital student statistics.  Check to make sure that your LMS will accept flash applications and/or allow you to open external websites before using those tools.

I believe that all instructors should want feedback on their courses and use tests to judge themselves as well as students in a constant effort to improve.  But, it if you own a business that offers eLearning to clients or employees, there is a financial reason to have good test and survey questions.  Knowing what level of competency your employees have, which training works and which doesn’t, and having the ability to get feedback on the experience is critical to long term success.  Remember, what matters most is that you start with good questions.  Good information, good questions, lots of variety…GREAT eLearning.

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Monday, March 15th, 2010

eLearning Audio, Video, and Screencasts: What Tools Do You Need?

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As I write this post, I realize that it’s hard – as a viewer – to draw clear distinctions amongst these eLearning features: audio, video, and screen casts (depicting mouse movement, with or without audio).  For the sake of brevity (which is not one of my strengths), I’ll refer to them collectively as “moving media”.   Some will involve using graphics (including screen prints), which are covered in a previous post, and many will output to a variety of formats, including flash. 

Five Things to consider when choosing tools to create or edit “moving media” for your eLearning courses:

Will “moving media” add value to my training design? Yes, if it reinforces the lesson and isn’t used simply to showcase the technology.  Most of the time, some simple versions will add a lot of value; in some cases, studio quality versions are called for.  To make eLearning GREAT, many types of media should be used to present the same message.  For each major learning point, I write the message (plain old text) and depict it graphically, I paraphrase what I wrote in an audio recording, and I combine all three in an Articulate Engage animation. Sometimes, I add a video or screencast. This provides something for both auditory and visual learners, for slow and fast connections, new and older technology, and reinforces the lesson. 

Do I have the skill? For “moving media”, I do not.  I have a tiny microphone that came with a computer – three computers ago.  I don’t even have audio recording software (that I know of) and I don’t have a video camera!  I use the Engage audio editor, which has features I am not talented enough to use.  The biggest issue with most novice-recording is that it sounds s-l-o-w.  To make a good recording, you almost need to talk too fast.  If the audio or video is of an actual event, careful editing is probably required, which also takes skills I don’t have.  Creating screencasts is a whole lot harder than one would think. You’ve watched them: “Uhm”…”Ahh”, [typing that goes on forever]… If you think you have the skill and want to learn more, check out Lynda.com for tutorials.

What are the options? The options range from desktop audio recording and cell phone videos to productions with actors and a script.  The biggest source of videos for me is YouTube (which I always embed so that my students aren’t bombarded with the rest of it).  If your training material warrants it, such as safety training for an electrical worker, you can hire a video production company like Creative Works at quite reasonable rates.  A short, well-produced video could add a lot more value than several amateur ones.  For high end screencasts and audio try Captivate, Camtasia, or Screenflow.  I tried several, but I found Articulate Screenr to be all that I could handle. When I wanted something special to promote eLearning, I hired Flexigroup to create an eWheel flash. You could use this in an eLearning course, too.  If you don’t have the time or the money to spend on any of these, you might try using PowerPoint if you already have it. You can save your presentation (with or without audio and animation) as a PowerPoint Show and upload it to your LMS/VLE like any other file. 

How much functionality do I need from this tool?  Most of the time, I get by with my simple mic, graphics, and SPX Instant Screen Capture, which I combine in Engage as alternatives to screencast tutorials.   Because I don’t have the skill to edit audio or piece together video, I don’t need much functionality.  If you do have the skill or need to produce really professional screencasts with studio-quality audio, you’ll need the high-end applications and good equipment as well.  If you’re like me and have dogs that bark at all the wrong times, you’ll need a sound room, too.  Again, the amount of functionality you need depends on what your training calls for and what you are capable of doing.  For most small businesses, the authoring tools should be simple and inexpensive unless media is your business; otherwise, your good information will go a long way in the simpler formats.  If you’re teaching how to use a software application, you must have good quality screencasts.  If your course is on good public speaking you must have high quality video.  If your course is in statistics, low tech cartoons might be better to ease the pain.

Will this tool work within my LMS? This is a good question to ask before spending any time or money on the authoring tool or the media itself.  Matt Bury just released a media player module for Moodle that adds both form and function to audio and video in a course.  I embed or link to most of this type of media; rarely do I upload it to a Moodle course.  If your LMS will allow you to open external links, but has strict limitations on what can be uploaded to your servers, this is probably your best option.  If you have restrictions on opening external sites, you’ll have to make sure the specific application is supported by your LMS.

For giggles, check out the history of sound recording at Wikipedia.  Until next time, Penny

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