I spent two days last week at the Learning Technologies 2017 exhibition, working on the LEO stand (below). This annual event is split over two floors, with a paid conference upstairs and free exhibition downstairs. The stand was really busy for both days and the whole team came away absolutely exhausted, but I did manage to wander around the exhibition looking to see what the trends were this year and seeking out interesting new products.
There has been lots in the news this past year about social media bias and echo chambers, which started gaining prominence when algorithms started meddling in your news feed. The major web companies collect a huge amount of data about you and in doing so are building a detailed profile comprising demographic data, likes and purchases and other data that has been captured and purchased. As you ‘like’ posts and pages, so the algorithm delivers similar content back to you. Your friends like certain things, or ‘people like you’ like certain things, and the algorithm delivers more of that content to you too. You search for and purchase certain things, and you get delivered content related to that. Maybe you even give away valuable data via an innocuous-looking Facebook quiz, which is then sold to highest bidder and fed into yet more algorithms to target you with stuff you might ‘like’.
The resulting and widely-discussed ‘echo chamber’ means people seeing content that mostly just panders to their existing world view, whatever that may be. With increasing numbers of people now consuming news through social media alone, this results in people being less challenged, less exposed to other opinions and events, with their views becoming ever more polarised and entrenched.
MoodleMoot UK and Ireland 2016 showed yet again that the Moodle ecosystem is in good health, with lots of new community members attending for the first time, plenty of old timers coming back, major institutions reaffirming their faith and Moodle HQ showing how the product itself is adapting to the future with new features and new sectors in its sights.
There was far too much going on for a detailed write-up, but for me personally there were a few clear themes from the event this year:
- Moodle Mobile native app is coming of age
- Moodle ecosystem is as strong as ever
- Major institutions are reaffirming their support for Moodle
- Moodle is strengthening its position as a workplace LMS
As learning analytics continues to rise up the agenda in the corporate learning & development (L&D) sector, one thing is becoming glaringly apparent: we should not expect a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf approach to learning analytics. This is a specialist discipline that cannot be bottled up into a single product. Sure, there are products such as Knewton, a Product as a Service platform used to power other peoples’ tools. There are also LMS bolt-ons like Desire2Learn Insights or Blackboard Analytics but even they are not sold as off-the-shelf products, for example the Blackboard team “tailors each solution to your unique institutional profile”. There are just far too many organisational factors at play for an L&D practitioner to be able to implement a learning analytics programme using an off-the-shelf tool.
What a learning analytics platform looks like
An example of one platform (not a commercially available product but probably the most advanced learning analytics platform I’ve yet seen) is the Open University’s OU Analyse platform. They demonstrated this at MoodleMoot UK and Ireland recently. The product is very geared to the OU’s own Moodle-based VLE and as such is built to answer their own questions. This predictive analytics platform analyses demographic and course data from their own VLE with a view to predicting which students are likely to fail. Tutors have a login to the system and can use the dashboard tools to determine which learning interventions to recommend to a student in order to get them back on a path to success.
The xAPI Barcamp at the end of the first day of the Learning Technologies conference attracted around fifty people, eager to talk xAPI over a few free drinks at the local pub! I was one of five invited experts alongside Andrew Downes from Rustici (@mrdownes), Mark Berthelemy from Wyver Solutions(@berthelemy), Ben Betts from Learning Locker (@bbetts) and Jonathan Archibald from Tesello (@jonarchibald). Moving around five tables in turn, each expert began by talking for a few minutes about what they were doing with xAPI, then the table held an open discussion.
— Aaron E. Silvers (@aaronesilvers) January 30, 2015
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsI found the event fascinating. Having worked on a few xAPI projects for clients I had some solid work to discuss, however I personally still have more questions than answers about xAPI so this event was the perfect forum to pose some of those questions and find out what other practitioners were doing and thinking.
For 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.
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
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.
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.
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.