Category Archives: e-Learning and m-Learning

Posts about e-Learning and m-Learning

The television as a learning and training space


Recent years have seen the world of training embracing  learning on mobile devices, or mlearning, for short. There are many reasons for this:

  1. Client demand as people more and more browse the internet principally through mobile devices
  2. Clients always having their phones with them, allowing lots of little moments during a day when learning could potentially take place.
  3. Phones having lots of sensors and input methods, allowing for innovative interactions
  4. Phones allowing multiple communciation methods

Designers and developers have been working on designs using mobile learning. At its most basic this has taken the form of  using file formats so that videos or presentations will play on a tablet, or even just an iPad. Or to make the training as an iPad app or playable within some container app.

Others, approaching the matter with some semblance of actual seriousness, have gotten more creative, and tailored training more to the unique affordances of smart phones and tablets. They make learning games that use sensors or activities that use sensors as inputs for motion or touch based interactions. Or they use location information. Others use ideas of informal learning and performance support to break training into small, focused little pieces that can be accessed in a spare moment.

eLearning authoring tool providers advertise their tools as enabling responsive eLearning. They hype the promise of being able to publish content to multiple media and device types, for desktop, tablet, and mobile.

This is good for learning and training. However, in this focus on mobile, we may be losing sight of possibly the next key development of web-based learning and training – the television as a learning and training space.

Television as a new window to Internet content and learning

Sitting on a couch with a tablet is a nice way to watch  a video or presentation. The device is light and comfortable. But, still, it’s a 10 inch screen. It is nice for portability, but it’s still a small screen. The small size is a compromise, trading visibility and real estate for portability.

But across from the couch is what? The TV. Big screen – 30, 40, 50, 60 inches. 1080p HD, easy to see, nice to watch, decent speakers. And you don’t have to hold anything.

Television used to be a box on which we watched traditional television programs, whether delivered over the air, or through cable or satellite broadcast. Then, came VHS players, DVD, Blu-ray, video game consoles. The living room TV became instead the screen in the middle of a home entertainment center.

Now, increasingly, televisions are also becoming just another one of the screens,albeit, much bigger ones, through which to access internet content, whether for entertainment, work, or learning. This takes the form of video, audio, text, and apps. The long promised fusing of internet and television has arrived, with several different options available to make this possible.

Many TVs are now “smart TVs,” combining a TV with a computer. These TVs are WiFi enabled, with built in interfaces and platforms with apps capability. Apps allow straightforward connectivity to content sources like Youtube, Netflix, digital music streaming services, and other streaming media.

Modern TV screens also allow for stereoscopic 3D. While no longer a faddish selling point, most newer TVs are by market standard capable of displaying stereoscopic 3D content, whether accessed over the web or on 3D Blu-rays. TVs stand out notably from the other screens through which we consume content in that many of them today readily allow Stereoscopic 3D media. TVs are the one dependable 3D screen that people commonly own.

TVs are also capable of being connected to gaming systems like PS4 and Xbox One, the second of which includes the Xbox Kinect motion and voice sensor. These systems, while meant primarily for gaming, are also intended more generally for home entertainment, with app platforms and apps like Netflix and Youtube to see internet video content.

As well, set top boxes like Apple TV as well as many WiFi enabled Blu-ray players offer a similar bridge between the television and the internet.

Tablets, phones, and laptops can share screens wirelessly to TVs, either through devices like Apple TV, game systems, or via Miracast / WiDi from enabled devices.

It is easy to get content on the TV. As well, the TV will either be setup with sensors, whether in the TV itself or via something like an Xbox, or the person will be screen sharing from something which has sensors and a touch based control interface. It becomes easier to browse, select, and interact with online content shown on the TV.

Designers, both web designers an instructional designers,  need to think about training and learning possibilities in this space.  just as they should be thinking about that OTHER class of displays that will also be more and more in people’s lives – wearables and augmented/virtual reality tech such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift. (More on this in a future post)


There are a few challenges in this area:


One main challenge is that there are so many different sorts of configurations and ways to connect the internet to the TV:

  • Via game consoles such as XBox One or Sony PS4
  • Smart TVs
  • Set top boxes like Apple TV, Wifi Blu-ray player, or Chromecast
  • Computer connected to the TV to share the screen via HDMI cable
  • Wireless screencast from laptop, tablet, or smartphone to the TV, whether through Apple Airplay or up and coming wireless screencasting standards WiDi (wireless direct) and Miracast.

This makes things difficult for developers, as there is no one clear dominant target for development.

The gaming consoles, which have positioned themselves as not only gaming platforms, but home entertainment hubs, may be one promising avenue, as the multi-billion dollar gaming industry already attracts lots of skilled developers to these platforms. Microsoft’s XBox One in particular runs an operating system related to Windows and uses the same development toolkit. Also, these gaming consoles offer innovative ways to interact with the content on the TV through different types of controller devices. These include body movement and voice based controls. The gaming console option offers interesting possibilities in terms of innovative learning interactions.

A more straightforward, elegant solution may be through smart TVs, where everything is in one box. This would especially be the case if in the future the telvision included sensors that could be turned on for Kinect-like interaction with cameras and microphones. One challenge, however, is attracting developers to different platforms from different manufacturers. Possibly only a company like Samsung, which is involved in manufacturing phones, tablets, computers, and TVs would be in a strong position to carry over advances in interfaces and interactivity from other devices to TVs. Or someone like Apple.

The other challenge would be emotional reactions from consumers. When early press about the Xbox One suggested that the system would require the Kinect sensor – which includes stereo cameras and microphones – to always be on, even when the system is not in use, people became very paranoid, and there was a backlash.

It is possible that TVs will evolve in coming years to become a sort of all-in-one computer, with web connection, innovative web browsing methods (the concept of adaptive web design will also have to adapt and evolve to cater to TV as a screen), app platforms, and built in SSD memory space, possibly supplemented by cloud storage.

Quite possibly the next stage of the Apple OS – Android – Windows – Linux battles will be fought on the battlefield of internet connected TVs. Ubuntu, for example (A variant of the Linux operating system) has actually been positioning itself as a flexible multiplatform, including TV – OS for some time.

Wireless screen sharing may be the simplest approach, making the smartphone, tablet, or PC the central point of control of what appears on the TV screen. Desktop and laptop computers would have limits though in terms of enabling learning interactions.

Tablets and smartphones, could potentially allow for interesting learning interactions through the accelerometer, gyroscope, and touch sensors.

The scene is probably going to be messy for a few years with a lot of options making it hard for developers to pick. This will make it hard to form development communities that will drive things explosively forward.

Interface and Interactivity

The possibilities for learning and training will depend somewhat on the options available for interactivity. One of the challenges in making the TV a hub for learning content is how the user can control and navigate content sitting or standing from across the room. Good eLearning and online training especially requires rich interactions.

But how do you interface with the TV? A computer you sit right there and control it via mouse and keyboard, and to a lesser extent, microphone and camera. A tablet or smartphone you tap it, swipe it,  turn it, talk to it, because again, you’re up close to it and it fits in your hands.

TV is different. You sit back from it, or stand back from it. You’re not going to stand at your TV tapping the screen like those big maps on CNN election night.

There are probably four major options:

  1. Some modification of a traditional TV remote, possibly one with a touchscreen and accelerometer/gyroscope sensors
  2. Some camera and microphone based sensor like the MS Kinect that lets you control via voice and body gesture
  3. Controlling through a laptop computer, tablet, or smartphone, which shares the screen wirelessly via WiDi, Miracast, or Apple Airplay and lets you control things via touchscreen and motion sensors. The TV simply becomes a screen to mirror content on the other device.
  4. A smartphone or tablet is paired with the TV via an app, and serves as a WiFi-connected touch- and motion-based controller.

All of these could probably be made to work, though options 2 and 4 are probably the most plausible options going forward in terms of usability and in terms of building on existing platforms.


Learning and Training Possibilities

The matter then becomes how to harness this emerging new portal to the internet for learning an training.

A few possibilities come to mind.

  • Any passive consumption of video content. Particularly content in HD or stereoscopic 3D format. YouTube contet, for example. A TV would be the most natural and comfortable way to watch. Everything becomes bigger and more lifelike
  • Educational gaming activities using a gaming controller
  • Web content browsing with voice and gesture inputs enabled by something like the Kinect. Say, for example, a view of different documents or different levels of detail making use of different focal planes in a 3D field of view. This allows information and screen elements to be arranged not just along dimensions of horizontal and vertical, but by depth as well.
  • Interaction with stereoscopic 3D models using Kinect sensor. Such as chemical structures, architectural structures, geographic feature models of an area, or components of equipment.
  • Live, synschronous, life-like teleconferencing via TVs and Kinect sensors using apps like Skype or something like it embedded in a virtual classroom application. Virtual classroom would work very well on an HD television with connected camera and microphone. For live, face to face communications, for conversational practice in language learning, or a live virtual tutoring session.
  • Using the Kinect, the learner practices some psychomotor skill. At the same time, the Kinect camera lets a remote instructor watch the performance and comment. The Kinect could also capture data to assist in analyzing biomechanics.

These are a few sample ideas. Maybe readers can think of others.


The past six years have seen dramatic changes with the coming into the mainstream of mobile devices as a new space for online learning, with unique affordances for interactivity. The mobile web and mLearning have expanded our horizons for entertainment and learning. The television, connected to the internet offers a new field on which we can ply our craft as designers and developers. It’s a developing field with a lot of options that will take some time to sort out and settle down. But for those of us tasked with helping our clients and students to learn and develop, it’s a field we would do well not to ignore.


Once again, feel free to share your comments, either below, or via social media.

An idea whose time has come? Reusable Learning Objects.

Introduction: A brief history of learning objects

When I was in school in the early 2000s, one of the trendy ideas in the field of educational technology was reusable learning objects (RLOs). Learning objects were a heavily promoted idea in the 1990s and early 2000s. The idea came out of US military-funded training research, focused on two goals:

  • To standardize multiple, mutually incompatible eLearning formats used by vendors to the armed forces so as to improve inter-operability of training content, and
  • To design materials using small, self-contained, meta-tagged modules to enable reuse and thus reduce development time and cost.

The name “learning object” comes from the computer paradigm of object-oriented programming, where small, self-contained code structures model objects and entities in the real world, their properties and their inner structures, and their interaction between objects and entities. This was a paradigm allowing faster development through modular design, re-usable libraries of code, and encapsulation of object data within the objects.

Learning objects try to carry some of this success from software design and development to the design and development of eLearning.

What is a learning object?

A learning object is a short learning piece, usually digital, from a few minutes up to as much as an hour in length, though usually on the shorter side. The learning piece is focused on one learning objective. It will generally include an introduction, explanation and/or demonstration, activities for the learner for practice and / or consolidation, and an assessment. It is an irreducible element of knowledge, an atomic nugget of learning.

It was expected that eLearning objects would use a standard format such as SCORM for metadata attached to the objects. This would enable the learning object to be interoperable with different delivery platforms (LMS).  The idea was for the object to represent instruction for a small nugget of content related to a specific objective.

The purpose of this was to enable re-use of training materials for faster, more efficient development of future content. Usually, when we want to reuse a body of training content as part of a new course, we need to break apart the old course, extract useful bits, and then assemble what you want back together in a cohesive fashion.

The idea with the learning objects is that they represent some small sort of smallest learning objectives. The related objects are already broken down. All that is left when building a new course is to identify what you need to teach, finding out what is already built, evaluate it, and then either re-use or re-purpose the content.

To maximize this re-usability, the learning object is supposed to be as free of specific context (audience, place, type of organization, etc) as possible. For example, if multiple audiences would want to study toward this objective, media or examples used should not be limited to only one audience.

New courses could, in theory, be built by collecting, and sequencing various learning objects, with an overall introduction and conclusion and some linkages to join it all together.

Critiques of the Learning Object concept

While learning objects were a trendy topic in the -90s and -00s, the idea was not without its critics.

There are several critiques of the learning object concept:

  • The idea of learning objects was pushed primarily by the military and for its own concerns of operational efficiency and cost savings rather than any sense that it would produce more better learning. The concerns are quantity of output and efficiency rather than quality of education
  • The idea mainly focuses on eLearning, and specifically eLearning for one solitary self-paced learner. Where social sorts of learning involving cooperation and collaboration fits within this was not clear
  • If context is removed, it is harder for learners to relate to it on a concrete level. Media and graphics and examples are generic, or some wide range. The media and examples don’t speak closely to their particular reality. As such, you risk losing the attention and motivation of the learner, because they may not see the relevance clearly.
  • If context is removed, it is harder for learners to make meaningful connections between the content and other content unless the developer puts in extra effort to put this connective material back in. Statements like, “as you remember from module 1,” or, “you will learn more about this in the coming module,” or “this is related to these other topics” would be mostly removed from learning objects to maximize reusability. Learning these sorts of connections is an important part of learning new material, and is part of what makes new learning stick together cohesively in the learner’s mind.
  • When assembling courses from smaller learning objects, it is not a matter of just sticking together lego blocks or assembling IKEA furniture. Remember that all that context that serves as a connective tissue of sorts for the objects has been stripped away to allow the reuse. To make it most effective, you need to add contextual glue/mortar in between the pieces to improve flow and relevance. This cancels a lot of the time savings that are advertised.


So up through the early and mid 2000s there was a lot of hype about learning objects, When I was in my Educational Technology program at that time, the concept was talked about, and readings were given, including critiques of the concept. Some large companies, schools, and educational networks did a lot of work in this field, with some of these projects still continuing. But the idea never took off broadly as advertised.

eLearning continued to gain broader acceptance in the academy and in industry. SCORM standards for eLearning content metadata and inter-operability went forward and became commonly used standards supported by authoring tools and Learning Management Systems. eLearning authoring tools became increasingly sophisticated, allowing simple eLearning to be developed more and more efficiently.

But the strict learning object idea did not continue to be top of mind for practitioners, who grew disillusioned by the concept as they experienced the limitations and difficulty, witnessed lots of bad eLearning content, and found the time savings and re-usability to be much less in practice than advertised.

The term learning object faded from common conversation.

In the meantime…

Life went on, technology advanced. Broadband internet became more widespread with faster speeds. This allowed easier upload and download of multimedia content, even video content.

The Web 2.0 era of user generated content came about. PHP discussion boards. Wikipedia. Youtube. Social media like Facebook. Question and answer sites like eHow and Quora. A Web where content could easily be generated by users, tagged for search, and uploaded.

This was furthered with the mainstreaming of mobile internet devices. The iPhone 3G appeared in 2008. The explosion of the smartphone market followed. This led to a proliferation of mobile apps on sophisticated pocket computers with cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Tablet computing went mainstream, with the iPad in 2010. With these mobile devices came touch based computing and context aware computing. The widespread rollout and development of high speed mobile networks enabled voice, audio, and video transmission. Smart, small, lightweight connected mobile devices mean that the user almost always has on hand.

In the field of educational technology and training, there is an increasing emphasis on informal learning such as job aids, performance support systems, and just-in-time learning.

Finally, eLearning authoring tools have become much more user friendly, making it easier for experts to build their own content and distribute it. This broadens the development pool and makes it easier to generate content.

All of these developments and change have come over the past ten years. We start to see a very different landscape from what it was when this learning objects concept originally peaked and then faded in the early 2000s.

When you look at all these developments together, and reflect, you start to wonder if maybe that old idea of learning objects might have renewed relevance in today’s environment.


So what’s changed?

So putting it together, what is different today?

Cell phones and inexpensive but powerful recording equipment let us easily record content. Easy to use authoring software lets us easily assemble media into small but meaningful packets of learning material. Ubiquitous network connections and sharing features in apps let us easily upload content from almost anywhere.

Platforms like Youtube, Soundcloud, Facebook, and others give us a place to upload and organize content, share it with others, see what others have shared, and further pass content along to others.

To keep up with the rapid pace of the age, these pieces of content are short and focused. In line with trends in informal learning and continuous learning, a lot of learning materials are posted on these sorts of platforms and on company intranets, so learners can access brief, relevant material as needed on the job rather than taking a formal course. There is also the trend in microlearning, focusing on short learning pieces of a few minutes in length.Short learning pieces also work better with the usage patterns of smartphones

Responsive web design and responsive eLearning design allow content to be developed once, hosted in one location, and accessible from different devices, at any time, wherever the learner may be.

New standards technologies such as TinCan API/xAPI make it easier and more flexible to track learning on materials accessed and hosted in different locations and in a wider variety of different formats.


And so we see a lot of elements of this original vision of learning objects being realized thanks to these many separate factors coming together.

And though it is a concept that has its valid criticisms, learning objects may offer an interesting an useful model to help manage and guide this new world of content production and sharing.

The earlier discussions of 10-15 years ago may give useful insight as to how to design, structure, and build short content. As well, it may guide us as to how to meta-tag, store, and search for these materials. And, finally, these earlier discussions may give us insights into how to repurpose and combine these learning pieces into larger, cohesive learning experiences, both online and blended learning, for both individuals and groups.




Additional Links

Encouraging worker engagement and ongoing professional development with mLearning and Gamification


I have a confession. I fiddle with my phone at work. We all do this from time, throughout the day, when we’re bored, or our brain is mush, when we’re stuck/blocked, or just when we need a change of pace or break. It’s compulsive (damn you variable ratio schedule of reinforcement!)

The companies we work for don’t tend to like this so much (something about productivity), which is why most of us try to keep it to a dull roar. Many companies have de jure HR policies technically prohibiting such a thing. It’s mostly unenforced, though, because most people are responsible, and because, really, who cares so long as objectives are being met. (Also, front line managers are usually just as glued to their phone screens!)

But what if instead of fighting this tendency, companies were smart about it?

I know. Crazy talk, this. But bear with me.

What if companies and their management embraced that workers mostly have smartphones, and simply accepted as a given that they are going to take them out during the day and use them? What if, taking this as a given, they looked at ways to make lemonade out of lemons, and found a way to harness this natural behavior of employees and channel it toward ends useful to the company and to the worker as an employee?

Mobile phones present an excellent opportunity for companies to help encourage engagement at work and ongoing professional development. The concept presented here is a novel idea for encouraging worker engagement and promoting ongoing professional development in an organization through a combination of mLearning and gamification.

Technological component of solution

Informal learning through short mLearning modules

Workers have phones and use them during the day. The company has new policies and procedures it wants the workers to learn, and also wants to have a workforce committed to ongoing personal and professional development. The company wants workers that are always learning and developing their skills. Combine these two elements and make the worker’s smartphone a platform for employee training and development.

Build continuing professional development materials in small mLearning modules, targetting a length of 2-5 minutes. Design these as informal learning pieces. Include both typical didactic learning elements, but also fun, hands-on activities and games.

Design the modules as stand-alone learning moments that don’t depend too much on other learning pieces, sort of like the late 1990s/early 2000s idea of “Learning Objects.” Design the modules with a “mobile-first” approach, such that they are intended to be seen on mobile phones and look good / are easy to use there. Ensure that the modules are meta-tagged according to some logical schema / ontology of tags appropriate to the workplace or industry so that the modules are easily searchable and findable. Make the learning modules available on some TinCan API /xAPI enabled LMS,

Ensure that there is an interface for searching for and browsing modules that is easy and time-efficient for users to use on a smart phone.

Link it to HR

Track the modules taken by learners and their scores on any assessments or pass/fail. Send this data to HR data systems for tracking.

Link back HR systems the other way so that HR systems could recommend specific modules based on learner time available and on defined professional development objectives.

Allow the system to send suggestions based on most viewed content, most uprated content, and the types of content the learner has enjoyed in the past. Enable a rating system, where learners can provide as much evaluation data as they like. Either “smiley face” basic impressions data or more in depth questionnaire/short survey or both.

Within HR systems, take the data on module completion and track this compared to documented development objectives. For mandated training coming from HR, have subscribed modules or module clusters. This content would be suggested or pushed out from HR. Use notifications, either in app notifications or via text/IM/Lync.


Have a gamification layer to encourage and reinforce engagement with the system, though be careful to keep it within reason so that learners don’t feel “gamed.” Keep a tally of hours spent, courses completed, skills learned. Use gamified elements like badges and leader boards. Give the learners incentives to keep engaging with it. Track some of these stats through HR to have data on how much the employee is engaging in learning activities.

Make it social

Allow users to rate content, whether with a simple upvote/downvote or with a five star system. Allow them the opportunity to make comments. When a user is browsing modules, make information on average ratings or upvotes/downvotes visible to learners to help them with their choice. This gives feedback to designers/developers and also helps to identify quality content for other learners. This data gives a good sense of what sort of content the learners want and like, and this can be helpful for training development teams as a guide for how to allocate resources for future development.

Also, allow workers to recommend or share content they like to others. This will allow workers to help you promote good content and will further encourage engagement with the system.

Help learners get access

Make Wifi readily available to employees without restrictions. Employees are not going to really engage with this if you’re going to make them use their own data plan. You provide wired internet access to employees as a tool of work; do the same with in-building Wifi.

Human system component of solution

As with any human systems intervention, however, technology alone will not do the trick.

Workers need to be openly encouraged to use the system at work. As this is rolled out, the teams responsible need to make a concerted effort to promote this training system, both initially and as an ongoing reinforcement. This has to be more than a mass email to “Employees: All.” A nice promitional video will be helpful, but workers need to get introduced to it as well in a face to face meeting involving their front line management and perhaps their director. Give people a chance to ask questions and get answers.

“Bored? Brain-fried? Need a break? Tired? Stuck/writers block? Switch gears for a few minutes, play with your phone, so long as you’re using it to learn something.” Everyone should be actively encouraged to do this, and made to feel comfortable taking advantage of the policy.

Management at all levels, from the top down, needs to sets an example of welcoming this. Both in terms of words and in terms of concrete behavior. Management have to also be encouraged to (within reason) use the system and be seen using the system.

The tracked data that HR collects about how many hours the workers are engaged in learning what they are learning, and their completion stats can add to or supplement performance data for annual/semi-annual review. Workers should have visibility via some dashboard of the same sort of data that HR has summarizing their learning and training activities. That way, the worker can go into performance review meetings armed with data to demonstrate commitment to new learning and skill development. The learner can use this to start conversations about raises or about getting more resources or support for further deeper training or broadening of tasks. Conversely, managers can also look at the data to start their own conversations.


Workers have smartphones. Workers are going to look at them during the work day. If companies are smart and tech savvy, they can encourage ongoing training and development if they put out learning content in a way that is tailored to viewing through the workers’ smart phones. The effectiveness of this is reinforced if the company includes sucessful elements of gamification and social media and backs up the project with support from HR and management.

On MOOCs and Accreditation

Recently Udacity, one of the major MOOC providers, announced that, in a shift in focus, it is eliminating certificates of completion for non-paying students. The free students can still look at materials and take part in activities, but if they want anything to show for it, the only option is to pay $150 a month as a verified student. The basic pdf certificates of completion that used to be made available to anyone, paid or free, that worked through the material and passed, are being phased out.

This is a mistake, a move 180 degrees in the wrong direction in the ongoing development process of a model for MOOCs and accreditation. In reality, not only should the free students be able to keep gaining some sort of certification in recognition of their efforts, but further moves need to be made to start accrediting these online courses with the universities giving the courses. MOOC consortiums actually need to be leaning harder on schools to make meaningful accreditation available to students rather than taking away elements they were already offering.

Now, don’t get me wrong; the new features Udacity is rolling out to those students paying the extra money are great steps in the right direction- added human support, and grading of submitted work by professors and others with subject expertise rather than peer grading with rubrics. This is great stuff, and if it helps the resulting certificates get taken more seriously in the marketplace, that is great. All of this helps to further the legitimacy of the online medium as a way to get university level education and continuing professional development.

But that’s no reason to throw the free students under the bus. Fine, Don’t let the free students be able to get the assignments graded by profs and TAs. This is expensive, and if someone doesn’t pay for it, it’s probably an unsustainable model, given all the other costs of putting on a nice MOOC.

Let the free students stay graded by peers. But offer them the ability to verify their identity with their webcam and a typing sample, as with the Signature Series on Coursera. (Note: the enhanced Signature Series certificates on Coursera are only available to paying customers, but the prices – $50 a course for courses that can take up to a few months, are much more accessible than the Udacity prices of $150 per month)

The technology for this sort of verification is already developed, so it doesn’t really cost the provider anything extra. And then give the free students a certificate for their efforts. Maybe that certificate is going to have a second rate market value compared to the paid certificates based on professor or TA grading. But at least they will have something of value to take away.

Yes, I realize that the paying students are the ones that pay the bills and keep the lights on. But MOOCs are a big deal in the first place because of the mass of free students. That is what is driving the traffic, the buzz. These millions of students are freely choosing to spend their free time in higher studies rather than vegging in front of the TV. Educational institutions should love this, and should want to encourage it.

The fact of the matter is that MOOCs blew up as an idea because of a promise, explicit and implicit, made to people. MOOC consortiums actively sold the idea that people could not only expand their knowledge, but also expand their opportunities through hard work in these online courses. The barriers to access to higher education would be lowered. If these masses of students lose faith in that vision, the whole thing will collapse. The numbers will shrink. With smaller overall enrolment, there will be correspondingly fewer that will stick around to pay for it. Part of that mass of free students eventually takes the plunge to pay for some sort of extras like an enhanced certification or a proctored examination. The free education generates paid education by helping to support a vibrant platform. The numbers also generate buzz and perceived legitimacy of the educational platform as a place to get meaningful education and training. This perceived legitimacy is key to attracting people to spend actual money on a course.

If you let the less well off students get certification and / or credit if they are willing to (1) do the work and (2) verify their identity for exams and assignments, they will be able to use that credit in professionally meaningful ways to help get into fruitful careers. Given a fruitful career path, these students can have the means to later become paying students in the future as they continue their professional development.

This is the sort of social welfare outcome that people in higher education say they want, right? Then make it happen. This should be the sort of thing both Liberal-minded (give to help the less fortunate) and Conservative-minded (remove barriers to let people raise themselves through their own determined effort) academics and administrators should be able to get behind.

Yes, it is the paid students that keep the bills paid, but understand that people are going to pay for it. If there is meaningful, professionally usable certification and credit available, working professionals will pay for it. It’s like with digital file sharing. It still exists, and is booming, but with reasonable and convenient means available to get access online, people pay for the content.

And if you demonstrate social responsibility by making perhaps lesser but still meaningful and usable credentials to those who can’t afford it, then those who can pay will be even more driven to support you. Because you will have proved your worth as an organization to get behind.

The importance of Learner and Context analysis for m-Learning design

I’ve talked before about tips for m-Learning. Mobile devices have become, or are becoming the dominant means through which people access online content, and the need for mobile delivered learning and support materials as part of an overall training solution has become increasingly apparent.

It’s become so much part of the culture now that whether to make materials available in a mobile-friendly format has ceased to be the most challenging question, because it’s no longer a question to puzzle over, but almost a given. Making training content available to mobile becomes a default expectation. It has gone mainstream as a component or means of delivery of training.

Mobile has also gone mainstream in terms of how we think about presenting content and how we structure interactions with e-Learning. The mobile app aesthetic has become a key influence in the design of look and feel of e-Learning presentations. This aspect of the design is becoming almost subliminal, just part of the culture. We start to just think in terms of stripped back, less visually busy screens with less text, and graphics that will look clear on a 5-10 inch screen.

Now the attention, in any training organization should be moving on to a more subtle and nuanced question. Namely, what parts of the training solution should be directed toward which of the multiple screens in the learner’s work environment and life?

A fully thought out and realized training solution designed for the specific combination of performer-job-context will consist of multiple components.

The multiple screens to which the learner has access, including work desktop, home desktop, smart phone, tablet, and connected TVs each have their own particular quirks in terms of portability, resolution, how you use it or interact with it, and where you can look at it. The primitive sort of approach to this in many organizations has often involved very blunt solutions. “Customers have iPads. customers like iPads,” says the upper management. “So put the training on iPads.” So the “mobile strategy” has often consisted of “put it on the iPad.”

Now, I don’t mean to slag this completely; at least it got development teams working on thinking about, and making, mobile friendly content. But a more nuanced solution is needed.

Different aspects of a training solution will fit best or more naturally with particular of these screens, depending on the needs of the worker, the work context, and the strengths and weaknesses of the various screens. As a result, different parts of the training may well need to be targeted toward different of the devices used by the learners. This underlines with renewed vigor the importance of a rigorous needs analysis, particularly learner and context analysis for m-Learning.

There are some questions that the designer needs to answer:

  • Where is the learner doing his job? At a desk with a desktop computer station? In a fixed location in a warehouse or factory floor? Is the person out of the office, for example, a salesforce professional, a sales engineer, or an onsite repair or installation technician? Does the worker spend a large percentage of the time travelling?
  • What sort of computer technology does the user have at his workplace provided by the employer? A desktop computer? A laptop? A tablet? A company cellphone? What sort of technology does the user himself have? Smartphone? Tablet?
  • Are there any data security or regulatory concerns that would preclude users accessing training materials on their own devices?
  • Does the workplace have training on the intranet and are the users openly and consistently encouraged to take training during appropriate moments on the company time?
  • Will the worker’s performance and transfer of learning benefit significantly from having a quick reference on the job?

Let’s highlight this with a few examples.

For example network access level on the job. If a worker has access to high speed wifi, then you can safely have more rich content coming through the mobile devices. If the workers are on their own cellular connections, you should stick to a less rich presentation for any mobile component. You need to be cognizant of bandwidth limitations. In the second case, perhaps the more useful solution for the mobile device is high level notes. Reminders that the worker can look up in a handy and simple fashion on the fly. The user can whip the phone out of the pocket, look up the simplified reference, put the phone away, and get back to work. Bullet lists or simple graphical reminders are ideal in this case.

Or for home tablets, is the worker going to want to watch work related training material on the couch on the iPad at the end of the day? For the average worker, maybe the motivation is not there. But if the person is a highly motivated individual interested in professional development training to improve or accelerate promotion prospects, then he quite likely would find the iPad availability attractive.

If an employer as a matter of policy allows and encourages workers to take professional development training during lulls in the work day, then a delivery through the work desktop would seem to be in order.

Is a person at a desk all day? If so, materials accessible on the desktop could well suffice.

If the person is in a job where he is constantly mobile, like a service or installation technician, mobile is the perfect platform for performance support tools.

Similarly someone in sales that has to travel to meet customers or potential customers. A mobile application can be an ideal way to top up product knowledge before meetings.

Also for employees who travel frequently. A tablet is the ideal size and form factor for use on a train or airplane or in a taxi.

On the other hand, if someone is at a fixed location in a factory setting, there may well be fixed stations with desktop computers, but the technical specs of the computers in that setting will probably be substantially lower than those of the phones in people’s pockets or a tablet. In this case, mobile support aids may be more usable.

So the basic takeaway is that we as designers have to understand the workers and their work flow and environment, look at what devices are available at what times, look at the training solutions we can offer and want to offer to help them learn and perform, and then decide which of these solutions are best delivered through which devices.

Rather than some across the board decision about desktop vs mobile, we need to take a more nuanced, component by component look at what to deliver, and where.

Tin Can API Overview


One of the rising buzzwords in the world of training today is the so-called “Tin Can API.” The purpose of this post is to give a quick and dirty overview of what it’s all about in an easy to follow Q&A format. I’ve also included some links for more detailed follow-up.

What is Tin Can API?


Tin Can API is a new standard for learning activity / resource meta-data that has rolled out recently. Tin Can API comes from Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), the makers of the SCORM standard. It is the intended successor to SCORM. Officially it is known as “Experience API” (xAPI).

What is SCORM?

For those not familiar, SCORM is short for Sharable Content Object Reference Model. It is/was a set of standards specifying how eLearning content is to communicate with a system hosting the content, usually a Learning Management System (LMS). The original standard came out in 2000, and went through numerous revisions, the most recent being SCORM 2004, itself going through four revisions, the most recent in 2009.

Why was SCORM developed?

SCORM was developed by the ADL initiative, which came out of the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, originally in response to a late Clinton-era executive order to the Department of Defense. The US military has long been one of the largest global consumers of training, and, as anyone who’s spent time in an Educational Technology graduate program reading research papers in the field can attest, funds a large percentage of educational technology research.

Part of the motivation behind the push that led to SCORM is that prior to this, as of the late 1990s, there was eLearning going on, but with many incompatible standards in use amongst private industry, between different agencies of the military, and between different civilian agencies of government. The eLearning built by one vendor for one LMS would not necessarily work in the LMS for another. If a client switched vendors, legacy content became potentially unusable, requiring expensive conversion. It was perceived that standardization would play a beneficial role to the eLearning market, allowing better interoperability of content, saving money, increasing efficiency, and encouraging innovation in the market.

Today there are many different products that will produce SCORM compliant eLearning content, and this content is usable in any SCORM compliant LMS. In this sense, SCORM has been a success.

Why go beyond SCORM?

However, the latest edition of SCORM 2004 came out back in 2009. A lot has changed, technologically since then, particularly the massive spread of use of mobile technologies, the rise of focus on informal learning, the refinement of Web services technologies, and the spread of recognition that learning is something that takes place continuously and everywhere, not just when logged into a company LMS. A serious update in approach was needed to keep up with changes.

SCORM compliant eLearning is been delivered using an LMS through a web browser. But learning activities happen outside of this. In reading a book, in playing a serious game, in taking an instructor led class, in using a mobile app, in participating in a simulation, in using an informal learning tool, in real world experience. These are all valid learning experiences for which data is not readily captured by existing systems under the current standard.

The Experience API is geared toward collecting and recording details from any learning experience, wherever they happen, in one central location. In terms of basic philosophy, though not in implemetation it is similar to the idea behind Open Badges and ePortfolios.

How and Where are Experiences Recorded?

Experiences are recorded in a format of actor-verb-object. For example:

  • “Cyril read the ASTD publication ‘Informal Learning Basics'”
  • “Cyril took the online course ‘Teaching With Moodle: an Introduction'”
  • “Cyril watched a YouTube video on configuring WordPress using plugins.”

Note that while this simple actor-verb-object format is core, other properties could also be captured such as:

  • Context
  • Location
  • Starting and ending timestamps
  • Source
  • Content rating, and
  • Results .

The sequence of such recorded experiences forms what is called an Activity Stream. Activity Streams are a concept already used in social networking; familiar examples would be the activity feeds we see in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or Tumblr. They are an ongoing stream of actions done by a person on a timeline.

Activity stream data is stored in a database called a Learning Record Store (LRS). An LRS can either be included in an LMS or may be standalone. A learner’s data could be sent to multiple LRS’s. For example, a learner could have records of learning sent to his own personal LRS in addition to his employer’s LRS.

Different LRSes can also share data amongst themselves.

What is the benefit of this?

There are a few benefits:

  • The learning record data is not stuck in an LMS, and does not require an LMS.
  • You can capture data on all types of learning activities, formal and informal, online and offline, documenting the full spectrum of learning and professional development activities in which a worker / learner takes part
  • You capture a richer, more complete view of a person’s learning path
  • Workers can potentially more easily document and demonstrate their professional development, and through the use of their own LRS and future data management tools, can curate this information for use in “personal branding” and job search activities.
  • Using advanced data processing, this richer data can potentially be more effectively correlated to actual performance

Can Existing SCORM Packages Be Made Compatible With Tin Can API?

Yes. Tools such as SCORM Engine can convert existing SCORM packages into the Tin Can API format for transfer to an LRS. Legacy learning records could be converted to the new format and new data from legacy LMS content can be recorded in the new format. Many commercial LMSes and content authoring tool makers are in the process of becoming compliant with Tin Can API, and plugins have been developed for open source tools like Moodle.

Links for Further Reading

Great site by Rustici software with additional info on Tin Can API:

Good post by another blog:

More technical description of Activity Streams: