Tag: small business

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, 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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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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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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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

My Moodle site is up and running. Now What?

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OK, so let’s say you have followed all of my advice:

  1. Registered a domain name exclusively for your Moodle installation
  2. Hosted it with a certified Moodle Partner
  3. Hired a course designer to build it
  4. Launched a GREAT Moodle eLearning site

Now, it’s six months later (or next week or next year) and you want to make some minor changes.  Perhaps you want to update a quiz or edit some text.  Maybe you want to embed a really cool video you just found on YouTube.  You might even find that some of your external links and RSS feeds are broken.  (This will happen eventually, as the owners of those sites move things around). 

Who is going to do this?

If you’re anything like me, your first thought is to contact your course designer.  And, if your experience is anything like mine (with other such professionals, not course designers specifically), you’ll find that because she is in the middle of another large project, your request seems like a buzzing fly in her ear.  Not only does she find you annoying, but you feel like you’ve been swatted away.

So (again, if you’re anything like me), you decide to try it yourself.  Of course, if you knew how to do these things, you probably would’ve done them yourself in the first place!  But you try.  Maybe it takes you less than a day to do a 10-minute task and if you’re lucky, you didn’t break anything.  Maybe you took all day and maybe you broke a lot.  Now maybe someone will think your job is big enough to care about…

How can you avoid being a pest, wasting a lot of your time, and/or damaging your content? Some choices:

  • When you are choosing a course designer, make sure you ask about “going forward”.  Will she help you with that?  If so, what are the terms?  Get a Service Level Agreement (SLA) as part of your initial contract.  This document should define what it will cost you and what you will get in return.  One option  might be a flat monthly rate to check your entire Moodle site for broken links and incoming RSS feeds, as well as applications that are no longer optimal or viewable (because of upgrades to flash, Adobe Reader, etc.), and a stated amount of time making changes to your content.  (Remember, your Moodle host will do the back-ups and upgrades to Moodle so this should not be included in this SLA).  Another option would be an hourly rate, with a fast turnaround time, for changes to your content.  You would then be responsible for periodic checking of links and applications.

Or…

  • Find someone else whose business it is to do just these things.  Maybe your course designer can recommend someone.  There are many online “classifieds” where just such people post their skills and rates.  Search “Moodle”.  You can hire this person by the hour or on retainer.  If your business grows enough, you can hire a full time person to do this!

Or…

  • Take a course or two from a Moodle Partner.  Learn the basics.  Now that you have a working, revenue-generating site, you should have time to do this.  I’m not saying you will ever be a great Moodler, or that you even want to be, but you’ll be able to fix yourself a sandwich or heat up a can of soup (metaphorically speaking).

It’s easy to forget the need for ongoing maintenance of content when you’re all caught up in the initial phases of the project.  You don’t have to have all the details ironed out before you launch, but you should be thinking about it right from the start.  Good luck!

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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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Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Greening your business with eLearning

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Green Your Business with eLearningOne of my lifelong passions has been the sustainability of the planet.  Yes, LIFELONG, and I was born in 1959!  My parents subscribed to the Rodale Press publication Organic Gardening when I was a toddler.  We read food labels in the 1960s, we grew most of our own food (vegetable and animal); none of it had systemic pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, or artificial coloring.  (The one exception to this was the small jar of Maraschino cherries my mother let me hide at the back of a shelf in the pantry.  So far, I have no apparent side effects from the Red Dye #40.)  There was quite a long period of time where the dirtiest four-letter word I knew was S-A-L-T.

Luckily, I grew up in a very small and rural town, where everyone was odd and there was no “normal” to be compared against.  Sure, we may have been the only family around that didn’t eat Hamburger Helper or Cool Whip, but there weren’t enough of those who did to poke fun of us.  We intentionally composted our kitchen scraps, but I imagine a lot of folks threw their garbage out in the back field for the sake of convenience.  Maybe they knew way back then that landfills would become a problem…

I’ve walked the fine line between re-using and hoarding my whole life.  My mother and I still do battle over just how many cardboard boxes she should keep on hand.  She can’t stand to throw out perfectly good cardboard!  (She doesn’t actually throw it away; she burns it in the furnace that heats her house each winter).  About two years ago, we had an epiphany about our 50 years of reduce-reuse-recycle behavior:  We’re almost  mainstream! In fact, we’re cutting edge “cool”.  (Thanks to another Rodale Press publication, An Inconvenient Truth.)  We already have reusable grocery bags (for about 20 years now), we already turn off the lights (obsessively), we could go for days and weeks without driving, and we delight in catching rain water to save for a drier day.

The one thing I have done for the environment that Mom hasn’t had a chance to do is what I get more and more excited about each day: e-Learning.  In 2005 I began promoting it as “Green Learning”.  I was met with vacuous stares from my friends and colleagues.  In 2007 I created this super cool eWheel; it represents the footprint (mostly carbon) savings of eLearning over the corporate training I did for 20 years.  Now, I’m developing a website dedicated to this very topic.  It will show how I derived the values, what I learned in the process, and things that you might want to consider when implementing “green” training and travel policies for your businesses.

eLearning is not a way to reduce personal interaction or teach on the cheap.  It’s about making the world a better, cleaner, and more knowledgeable place for everyone to live.  Come on, jump on the bandwagon with me!

Earth Day 2011 update: My site dedicated to Green Training is LeaveALegacyNotAFootprint is up and running, if not totally complete.  Currently, there are several WordPress plugins dedicated to sustainable living and business practices, links to sites that will help you with your own business, and steps for calculating your own footprint.  Check it out!

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Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Client Spotlight: Charity Uses Moodle to Reach More People

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

spotlightSmall businesses are not the only entities that can benefit from eLearning.  In this post, our spotlight is on how Moodle has enabled a charitable organization to continue to offer their grief counseling workshop, even in tough economic times.  The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) was founded in 1997 by Dr. Wallace Sife, author of The Loss of a Pet.  For many years, he had delivered his 10-hour workshop, Pet Loss Counselor Training, in the New York City area.  As travel became more difficult and budgets were cut, Dr. Sife began to search for an online alternative. Reliant on volunteers and donations, APLB could not afford an expensive IT solution.

In 2009 he selected Moodle as his delivery platform; Albany Analytical created the course and managed enrollments.  The first two sessions (summer and winter) have seen participants from more than a dozen states/provinces and three continents; such diversity would likely not have been possible without the online solution. 

Relying more on solid content than whiz-bang bells and whistles, the APLB course successfully graduated 33 in its first year.  With Dr. Sife’s commitment to excellence, each participant’s competency was assessed on an individual and thorough level.  Because of the nature of the material, all testing was accomplished through submitted essays, designed to measure understanding and ability to perform pet loss counseling.  The Moodle features of a participant forum, live links to relevant sites (such as the APLB newsletter archive), downloadable documents, and a calendar to remind participants of impending due dates, all supported the learning experience.

Dr. Sife plans to conduct these online workshops twice a year, as well as his traditional face to face session every other year (the next one is May 21). Many more people were able to participate in this workshop this past year as would have without the online version.  Moodle eLearning has allowed the APLB to continue to offer this important training even though a tough global economy prohibited travel by most potential participants.  We look forward to the continued success of this program.

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