Data science: the new skillset for learning technologists

Coloured_GraphFor all the talk of big data being the next big thing in learning technology, few people mention that in workplace learning there just aren’t any examples of big data to speak of. The data collected just isn’t at the same scale. However, big data has led to an explosion in data analysis tools and techniques that learning technologists can use in their work. Throughout 2014 I’ve been dipping into data science MOOCs, learning the basics of R programming, and thinking about how to apply this within learning and development. These are some of my initial thoughts and notes.

Can understanding big data techniques help us to improve learning outcomes and performance?

Big Data as a term started appearing following the success of online services such as Facebook, Google Search and Twitter which gather data on hundreds of millions of people. Data including their likes and dislikes, online behaviours, website usage patterns, shopping patterns; it all has value and can be sold to the highest bidder. Now that users can also register for other online services using their Facebook, Twitter or Google logins, they literally leave a trail of ‘digital exhaust’ behind them. This data is all collected and analysed on the assumption that it is valuable to someone, somewhere, or at least may be one day. The data gathered by just one service like Facebook amounts to over 500 terabytes per day! This is the scale that big data operates at, and the harvesting of personal data is BIG business. Jaron Lanier is not wrong in suggesting that next time you post a status update, they really should be paying YOU!

Edtech and learning technology entrepreneurs clearly want a slice of this action, hence the buzz. However, even the largest organisations only have relatively small amounts of learning related data. Even an organisation with half a million employees will only have learning related data measured in little old Gigabytes. That’s not big data at all.

However, if there is one big takeaway from the big data world then it is the renewed focus on data analysis and data driven insights. Take a look at any MOOC catalogue to see the popularity of data science courses. Continue reading

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What we can learn from the ephemeral web

Learning Platforms have flourished in the past decade, and as they have scaled with the rise of MOOCs, the data inside them has also become increasingly valuable. Different people see different value in this data. Some want to analyse data to predict outcomes and trigger early interventions when needed. Others want to analyse large datasets to advance machine learning techniques. Many more just see dollar signs in anything related to ‘big data’ so, in true startup fashion, they start collecting huge quantities of learner data now in anticipation of monetising it later.

But the learning technologies world needs to be mindful of the increasing unease among consumers about the storage of personal data by software providers and organisations, particularly among Millenials. Common concerns centre around data privacy issues, the ethics of amassing huge volumes of personal data, the exploitation of users by those collecting data, excessive government monitoring of citizens and the permanence of stored data.

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Virtual College trademarks the term VOOC

A few times in recent months I’ve had a new MOOC term pass through my Twitter feed.  We haven’t had a new MOOC spin-off acronym for a good 6 months. I don’t know what’s happened to the edtech marketers, maybe they’ve been off on holiday on their new yachts spending all those edtech venture capital billions. Anyway, after a quiet start to 2014, we finally have a new buzzword to get excited about: VOOCs. Yay!

VOOC_Batman

As the term started gracing my news feeds more often, I even clicked it once, and saw my old boss Donald Clark staring back at me. But it was only today that I really sat up and took notice, accompanied as it was by a curious little symbol.

VOOC®

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Moodling around in Edinburgh

It was great to be at the UK MoodleMoot in Edinburgh this week. It has become an annual highlight for me as a place to meet old and new friends alike, to share some of the things we’ve been working on and to learn from the vast experiences of the Moodle community around the UK and wider afield. The event ran over four days but myself and Andrew Downes went up for the two conference days, along with a whopping 400 delegates from 29 countries.

Epic sponsors the Moot for the first time

epic-stand-mootuk14

After presenting for the past two years, Epic was a sponsor of the Moot for the first time this year. As a Silver sponsor this meant we paid a fee which went towards the running of the event, in return for a stand in the exhibition area and exposure in the event publicity material and banners. MoodleMoot is an important fixture in the UK learning technologies calendar and we have gained so much in the past from the knowledge sharing and networking, so it was a great opportunity to give something back financially, rather than just limiting our involvement to one or two presentations, important as that is. Andrew and I tried to balance a mix of stand duties during breaks and lunch with attending as many sessions as possible, so if you chanced upon an empty stand at some point then apologies, but judging by the number of business cards taken away we are sure to be speaking to many of you soon!

Talking about mobile learning with Moodle

I submitted two presentations ahead of the event and both were accepted. The Moot Gods were kind to me and scheduled both sessions for the morning of Day 1, which meant I didn’t have to spend valuable Moot time worrying or preparing, or have to present with a thumping hangover on day two (which has been known).

My first presentation was Using mobiles to support active learning with Moodle. Active learning was one of the conference themes, and I focused on using native mobile device features like taking photos, audio and video and submitting or sharing these into Moodle using assignment, forum and database activities.

Epic_Slidepack1
Click the image to open the presentation on Slideshare.

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Is Google Glass failing our children?

Following on from my initial exploration of Google Glass, I was keen to see what my kids would make of this device. As anyone who has seen a toddler using an iPad will know, some technology is just so intuitive that kids take to it like a duck to water. So I wondered what challenges Glass would throw up for a child, whether they would reflect my own challenges and frustrations in getting familiar with this device. After all, I had to undo decades of engrained user interface practice, whereas my daughter only had a few years of computing under her belt. Sharing Google Glass with my daughter turned out to be just as exciting and eye opening as I had hoped, but what really surprised me was the rather sobering reflection it led to, about just what kind of future we are leading our children towards.

Firstly, a word of warning. Officially Google Glass is not supposed to be used by children under 13 years of age, whose eyes are still developing. This was disappointing to find out, as I was looking forward to what my kids might make of it. I actually stumbled across the age guidance on the Google Glass Help site, there was nothing on the Glass box to indicate a danger to children, although I later found an FAQ card inside the box, in tiny print, with the age guidance on. Like many people who buy a gadget, I tend to try the device first and read the booklets later. I blame Apple for shipping mobile devices that ‘just work’! Google really need to stick a “13+ years” on the box. Smallprint just doesn’t cut it, this is kids’ eyesight we’re talking about. Otherwise we will end up with lots more uninformed parents posting  videos like this one I found on YouTube, once Google Glass hits the retail stores.

Google do not give any background to their age restriction, however the Children’s BBC site CBBC has interviewed a professor from the Royal College of Opthalmologists, who suggested that the reason for the restriction would be due to the unknown effects of Glass on developing eyes, and that the age of 13 was likely used just because no research has taken place yet. He stated that children’s eyes are actually fully developed by 7-8 years, and that children basically have their adult eyes by then.

Based on this advice and after a discussion with my wife, we decided to let our daughter, who is nearly nine years of age, have a go on Google Glass, but only after her younger brothers had gone to bed, otherwise there would be hell to pay!

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Getting to know Google Glass

A colleague at Epic is part of the Glass Explorer programme, and this weekend I was pleased to be able to take a Google Glass home to learn and experiment with. We took the device up to the LT14 show last week and it was a bit of a draw on the stand and was great to introduce people to this new world of wearable technology.

GoogleGlass_MarkAMy first impressions were that this is absolutely not intuitive to set up! It’s not like getting a new iPhone that ‘just works’. This thing takes a bit of time to get to know and understand. That’s fine I guess, as most of our interactions with computers to date have been limited to using mouse or touchscreen as input devices, so you do need to learn the basic user interactions needed for this thing.

Unfortunately though, there is no on-screen tutorial when it’s fired up (bearing in mind that I’m not the first user of the device, but there is no obvious tutorial in the menu system that I could view either). So I had to go to the Google Glass Help site and watch a few videos on my tablet first. This is a bit of a drag to be honest, I really dislike the trend for 5-10 minute instructional videos, I just want to get going.

People who are used to voice input for their computers will probably feel quite at home with Glass, such as Sat Nav and Siri users. I’ve not got any voice input devices myself, although my Android phone has Google voice search, but that’s not really been of interest to me until now. So I had to get over that initial self consciousness of using voice input for the first time. Frankly, saying “OK, Glass” out loud in a social context makes you feel like a complete dick. Extroverts and show-offs may like that, but not me. I can’t really see my opinion changing the more I use it, maybe I’m just not a fan of voice input devices, especially in social situations where they put up significant barriers. A new name has even been coined for these folks: Glassholes.

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Building bridges between Higher Education and Corporate L&D

I came across this nice line from my old boss Donald Clark’s blog recently: “Much as Higher Education would like to think it has a monopoly on learning, it is merely one in many, many layers in the learning cake.”

True words and they got me thinking about some experiences good and bad, past and present, that I have had as a learning and development professional interacting with the Higher Education world from the ‘outside’.

An undercurrent of mistrust towards the corporate world?

One standout memory involves being invited to and attending a regional JISC meeting about mobile learning with some colleagues, to share what we were doing with mobile learning in corporates. While the delegates were perfectly nice, the organisers warned us in no uncertain terms upon arrival that we were “not on a sales pitch now”. We were put on a stern warning and made to feel like naughty pupils before we’d even sat down. It was quite a shocking welcome and not the collaborative, friendly approach we were expecting.

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Top ten learning platform trends from 2013

The end of the calendar year is a great opportunity to reflect and take stock of some of the key trends in the learning platforms market that have stood out for me and the team at Epic over the past 12 months. Do these reflect your own views of the market? What was big for you last year? Let me know in the comments, it would be great to share thoughts and notes on what was a fast moving year!

Customers aren’t afraid to switch suppliers

It’s all about the customer, stupid. Everyone knows that, right? Well, I’ve learned a big lesson this year about customer service through the mistakes of others. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve picked up new customers who said their last supplier a) didn’t care about them, b) had poor quality of service, c) over-promised and could not deliver or d) behaved like lawyers and charged just to pick up a pen. I even had a new customer reveal that they threw one of our competitors out of an LMS procurement on ethical grounds because they were having a go at us! While it’s kind of nice knowing a competitor is so preoccupied with Epic that they focus on us in their sales presentations instead of on themselves, what is genuinely worrying is what appears to be a trend of falling standards in the industry. Of course, we sometimes make mistakes too, but I do think that our relentless focus on our customers keeps us ahead of the competition.

The drive to good user experience

LMS vendors are continuing to improve usability following years of negative feedback from customers and analysts. Customers are increasingly taking the lead on this, insisting on good user experience in their solutions. This is easier with bespoke platforms which we design from the ground up; however when using an off-the-shelf LMS you are always a bit constrained by the product’s capabilities. But there’s no doubt that Open Source gives you extra flexibility here. Moodle HQ have formed a dedicated front-end team and we have seen a renewed focus on usability in M2.5 and 2.6 which is warmly welcomed. Some of my favourite moments this year have been getting involved in design workshops with students and stakeholders. This is basic stuff, but so often forgotten in technology projects.

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MoodleBrighton December 2013 – Exploring Moodle 2.6

After a lapse of several months we finally had a MoodleBrighton meetup last week. It was good to see everyone again and to catch up on what’s been going on, and we had a couple of new faces too. It was a good session, loosely based around an exploration of Moodle 2.6 with attendees coming from Sussex Uni, Brighton Uni, Moodlerooms and Epic.

Using the Moodle 2.6 release notes as a guide, we picked out the most interesting looking items and headed over to the Moodle Demo site to check them out. So, what did we learn?

The category and course management interface has been reworked. It looks much tidier now and the rework makes it significantly quicker to perform common tasks.

moodledemo_managecoursesImage: Category and course management

There is a bulk course creation tool now too. We get asked about this from time to time at Epic so it’s a useful new feature, especially when migrating to a new Moodle site if you are unable to automated the migration of courses into the new system.

Standardised plugin installation and management was a hot topic. There is a lot of interest in this feature, drawing the inevitable WordPress comparisons and discussions around just how wise it is to allow site admins to automatically install and update plugins that could be of dubious quality, directly into a live site. This feature has been around a few versions now and continues to improve though in M2.6 with multiple improvements and fixes.

The ability to backup and restore very large courses of over 4GB caused a bit of a stir from the Brighton University attendee where they struggle to perform this task using Blackboard. The cause of this is a PHP limitation which is apparently being fixed in PHP5.6, but in the meantime Moodle 2.6 includes a workaround for the issue.

There are apparently improved course resource and activity edit icons which improve usability on all screens. I say apparently because they actually look pretty poor (see below) in that icons are various different sizes, are not in vertical alignment with each other and move to all sorts of bizarre positions when you resize your browser. It’s so bad, I raised a bug. A work in progress this one, for sure.

moodledemo_editiconsImage: Above showing viewport width of 1030px  – icons of all sizes and alignments

moodledemo_editicons_narrowImage: Above showing viewport width of 820px – weird wrapping behaviour

There are BIG improvements to Tiny MCE, or the HTML Editor, as most of us know it. It looks miles better now, see below. But it still needs a lot of work on mobile devices, especially the file picker, which I am sure a developer would tell me is not part of Tiny MCE. However to an end user it is an integral part of the content editing experience and it remains difficult to use on a mobile. But the editor itself looks a treat now, a huge improvement.

moodledemo_tinymceImage: TinyMCE toolbar improvements

Email notification for new users added manually is very useful for us at Epic, as this is a common requirement in workplace learning Moodles. When a user is created manually, the user can now be sent a welcome email with their login information. Simple, and very useful.

There is a minor improvement to the Open Badges implementation with badges now being awarded more quickly. This is a very minor fix in this release but it prompted quite a long discussion among the group about Open Badges in general, their impact on gamifying courses and how the Open Badges  implementation in Moodle is a bit all over the place, with settings and display pages here there and everywhere. Well, at least four different places that we could see. A really popular feature this one though, and I’m sure Moodle’s Open Badges  implementation will only get better with time.

The next feature we stumbled across caused a bit of a storm: “PDF submissions can now be directly annotated by teachers“.  The Sussex Uni attendee commented that document uploads tend to be in Word format rather than PDF at their institution, but hey, this one still rocks! A great new feature.

So that’s pretty much the stuff we looked at over about 90 minutes. It was really the tip of the iceberg to be honest, as this release is absolutely jam packed full of new features. There were lots of things that we didn’t get round to having a proper look at including:

  • Simplified forgotten username and password reset process
  • New Single Activity Course Format
  • Grade-based conditional availability now updated immediately after grading
  • Ability to change forum digest settings on a per-forum basis
  • Lots of SCORM player and SCORM report improvements
  • Support for Microsoft Skydrive repository

There are also bags of improvements for developers including LOADS of performance improvements and  API/Web Service improvements.

One thing that was very apparent is that a lot of effort is being put into improving usability which was warmly received by all attendees, with a recognition that it’s very much a journey that Moodle is starting out on and with lots still to do. It’s all heading in the right direction and that can only be a good thing.

To finish up we took a look at the Essential theme that has been the talk of the town in recent months. It looks pretty cool too. All that, plus the usual quantities of salacious Moodle gossip and a few pints of beer afterwards, all made for a cracking xmas MoodleBrighton!

See you there in 2014. Updates at MoodleBrighton on Google+

moodledemo_essentialEssential theme demo site at http://2013.imoot.org/

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The art of writing LMS requirements

I saw a really well constructed Request for Proposal this week. It was about 10 pages long and listed a set of business requirements and a set of technical requirements for an LMS, without being overly prescriptive about the specifics of how the system should operate. I work on responses to a lot of these and was nice to see one that was so well written.

It got me thinking about how difficult it is to create a good requirements list. Every so often at Epic we see Requests for Proposals that include almightly Excel spreadsheets listing sometimes hundreds of requirements that vendors must meet, usually to be marked as either a) as standard, b) with configuration, c) with development or d) not at all.

These monster spreadsheets are hugely problematic, not just for the agencies that answer them but for the clients who distribute them too. For the agency, it’s a fairly simple calculation as to whether the cost of the effort involved in filling it in is worth the value of the final contract. But for the customer, the problems may be less obvious.
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