Tag: WordPress

Friday, August 26th, 2011

A Few Words About: Online Applications, Free or Not

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

How can this be?  Why is this happening?

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

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

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

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

What is the risk?

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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