The skills to pay the bills: Learning Technologies Digital Days (March 2022)

I blogged a few weeks back that the Learning Technologies (LT) conference and exhibition had been delayed. Since then, three days of online talks were announced and run to somewhat plug the LT gap, under the branding of “Digital Days” (DD) – #LTUK22.

I have tried to summarise how I was feeling during these DD sessions via the power of gif:

Say skills one more time.

“Skills” was the buzzword. No doubt about it.

Thoughts on the sessions (skills)

Now I perhaps have to jump straight to the final day and Don Taylor‘s session to say that he did set out clear warnings about the “skills” bandwagon. This was timely and I particularly liked a section where Don had gone through the archives to try and find the genesis of this current buzz/focus. Interestingly it seems the initial focus was on “knowledge and skills” (i.e. that knowledge workers need ongoing development) but “knowledge” has been dropped through the news, consultancy, white paper, WEF, etc. hype cycles (LinkedIn have been at it since the DD). As Don explained, what we are now seeing is, amongst other things, lots of tools promising AI-powered solutions to the supposed skill crises. However, his call was to remind us all that skills alone do not lead to performance. As always, L&D needs to push back on the latest trends and concentrate on what we know, for example that knowledge alone does not help either (see, for example, this recent argument about needing more than knowledge for real transformation). In a few of the sessions, including Don’s, there was mention of what we really mean by skills, how/if the word is being used to encompass knowledge, if it is just rebranding of competency/capability, etc. Personally I revert to KISME (knowledge, information, skills, motivation and environment) as pretty much encompassing what we need to consider (with a doff of my cap to performance consulting accreditation with Nigel Harrison way back when). If anything, KS and the M/behaviour combine as the competency. Ultimately every org talks about this stuff differently but as Don and others suggested in the DD we are really just talking about people’s ability to ‘do the work’.

RedThread Research’s excellent recent podcast series has shown how business leaders have identified changes and implications around the ‘skills agenda’ [if I can call it that] (for example Deloitte being clear on the importance of skills, not least in ensuring their agility to create project teams). However, you presume this goes beyond the tech skills (which are obviously the bit that does change quickly as argued on the pod) into other things like engagement/project management (activities which also require a lot of behavioural competency). Indeed Deloitte’s model of development paths (as explained on the pod) sounded less than revolutionary – basically a formalisation of 70/20/10 concepts for ongoing development of competency.

The Fosway Group’s DD session mentioned the growth in skills platforms but also (just has been in the case in the past) the issue of what needs to be in the learning platform versus a HRIS or other location. Personally it feels like you really need to take a big picture view of your ecosystem and link things together as appropriate. The session called this something like ‘out of the box ecosystem-ness’ which is probably more suggestive of aspiration than the market’s reality(?).

RedThread did have a slot in the Digital Days too, with a focus on learning content. This session had various messages but I did like the idea of moving “from control…to facilitate”, this has always been part of my mindset to some extent (probably due to my learning experience growing from libraries rather than teaching). The growth in content however, of course, means a greater need for personalisation and RedThread did argue that if you are embracing a skills focus then you also need to think about content from that perspective. They argued for a 4 category approach to learning content:

  • specific and durable
  • specific and perishable
  • generic and durable
  • generic and perishable

The suggestions on what to do with the above was fairly straight forward but I guess makes sense for those who feel overwhelmed with content. Ultimately the most useful bit, for me, was a quote that asked a key set of questions:

“What’s the strategic change that’s happening? Is your learning content relevant to get to those organizational outcomes?”

Roundtable participant quoted on RT’s slides

The event finished with Nigel Paine, I recently blogged agreeing with some of Nigel’s arguments in an article and I similarly found myself agreeing with much of his DD presentation. Learning was pitched as needing to help with transformation by moving from “safe spaces to brave spaces”. This is fair, enough and to some extent an acknowledgment of the need for ‘stretch‘. However, I would say the humane requirement for having safe spaces at work remains, it is not to say that a team building day can not have a safe (culture) but also be very challenging in terms of team aspirations, agility and development. There was mention of Communities of Practice (CoP) as argued for by Wenger, this always get my support as CoP theory was one of the areas that hooked me in learning design in my MA and got me into my career in learning. Nigel correctly tackled the focus on skills, arguing that deep understanding of problems will lead to learning offerings made up of multiple components (people, content, data, technology) under the auspice of appropriate governance. There was a call to reframe, rebuild and redefine learning to grab organisational development, make knowledge management organic and more. All-in-all, a wide ranging call to action that I have probably not done a great job of summarising. There was also a bit on indicators of success.

Indicators of success

Nigel correctly suggested the organisation’s strategic plan has to be the basis of learning’s work. Learning should make promises that developing self-learning groups and other solutions will positively impact on the plan’s goals. Ultimately I think this is the challenge – we might know that learning needs to be reframed when the “classroom assumption” and “training ghetto” are not good for our organisations but how to prove this works for an organisation with very fixed views on “training” and divisions of labour based on that.

As well as the Digital Days, I also recently watched an excellent session in the Content Wrangler series, entitled “Rewinding the Web: The Internet Archive and Its Wayback Machine“. This session reminded me to look again at archive.org and the excellent Wayback Machine. These are tools I have used a lot in the past but not so much in the last couple of years. Anyways… I thought I would have look to see which of my “to read” wish list of books are available to borrow via the archive.org loan system. One such book was an early edition of “Learning and Development” (by Rosemary Harrison). This book’s editions are nice snapshots of L&D status (the online edition being from 2003). According to the book (which reads like it is essentially exam prep for CIPD qualifications) there are a number of L&D “indicators”:

  1. Integration of L&D activity and organisational needs
  2. Provision of value-adding L&D function
  3. Contribution to the recruitment and performance management processes
  4. Contribution to the retention of employees
  5. Contribution to building organisational capacity and facilitating change
  6. Stimulation of strategic awareness and development of knowledge
  7. Design and delivery of learning processes and activity
  8. Evaluation and assessment of L&D outcomes and investment
  9. Role and tasks of the ethical practitioner
  10. Continuing professional self-development

Ultimately if we consider such a list as what an L&D professional can be assessed on (see also the English Apprenticeship standard) then clearly skills (be it upskilling, reskilling or right-skilling) are very much only part of the puzzle (I also quite like this list as too much focus historically has probably just been on point 7) both as a professional and in what we (can) help with (if empowered to do so by management). Therefore, as Don argued on day 3, lets remember skills but not forget everything else L&D teams can/should be doing.

Thoughts on sessions (Case studies)

There were a couple of good case studies showing how we do have to go beyond skills to really impact our organisations. The British Red Cross and Girlguiding both simplified and aggregated learning for their stakeholders on new platforms. Both took plenty of time to analyse issues, the stakeholder experience, etc. Both found their improved online learning platforms have led to retention, recognising stakeholder’s past experience and building on that (not mass sheep dipping). I liked the Red Cross simplification of message by their presenter, their Chief Learning Officer:

There were some other aspects that sounded similar to models I have used in the past, including Red Cross having a buddy relationship between central learning and those with those responsibilities at site level and the Girl Guides retraining their classroom trainers to run virtual classrooms/webinars. Overall, good examples of being strategic, holistic and delivering modernisation of stakeholder experiences.

[I probably attended a couple of other DD sessions but I’ll leave this post as it is already long enough !]

“Learning Transformation” : January ’22 edition

January and February have historically been important periods of reflection for the learning industry (at least in the UK) due to the Learning Technologies conference and exhibition (with its adult/workplace learning focus) and BETT (with its <21 education/school focus). This year the decision has been made to push the Learning Tech show back from February to May but I thought I would still take some time now to just reflect on where we are in terms of the evolution/transformation of learning in early 2022.

The language of learning transformation

Firstly it is difficult to ignore that “transformation” is a word being thrown around a lot online and in the media in relation to learning. What people are generally speaking about is the result of the Covid period and that, in terms of transformation, what people are really talking about is the response to the loss of the physical classroom as an option to facilitate/deliver education. Whilst the need to work without a classroom may be revolutionary for some, for example compulsory aged schooling teachers who had never facilitated much/any online learning before, for those of us who (at least in part) self-identify as learning technologists this has been a period that is actually largely evolutionary, not transformative nor revolutionary.

If we think less about schools and universities for the rest of the post and try to just focus on the transformation of workplace learning then too much of the conversation around “transformation” in the last couple of years is, obviously just in my opinion, about laggards catching up. Therefore, what we might be seeing in 2020-22 is those L&D departments who were stuck in the “Training Ghetto” either being transformed into virtual ghettos by Covid or finally waking up to doing things they probably should have always been doing. The “ghetto” idea is of course Don Taylor’s (the chair and organiser of the Learning Technologies show). Don has recently suggested there is a bigger change happening (“all change in L&D” blog post) that goes beyond the quite narrow lack-of-classroom focus of much of the discussion. I’ll come back to Don’s argument from that blog post later.

For those of us who have focused on eLearning (online learning, digital learning or whatever else we want to call it) the last couple of years is far less transformative, at least of the surface of things. That said, simply turning out SCORM modules or LMS courses is obviously not the way forward either – transformation will mean different things to different people. The Google Trends data (I had embedded it below but for some reason it keeps breaking in WordPress) would suggest a “start of the pandemic” spike in interest in what some of us have been doing for a long time. It would be wonderful if we could break this spike down between parents, school teachers, universities, L&D and other groups.

For workplace/organisational/membership/employee learning we could also see this as (instead of being specifically Covid initiated) being learning departments getting hit by the previous buzz around Digital Transformation of work and the preceding but related developments such as Big Data, Web 2.0, etc etc. Personally I would say continued evolution of practice was coming no matter what and Covid has accelerated some good and bad practice. One thing that I can agree with from a recent protocol Source Code podcast is that the panic and rush resulting from Covid led to a “disservice” for online learning.

A recent L&D Disrupt podcast (link to YouTube version) on launching an L&D department from scratch really reinforced for me that there is a pretty standard approach to what many of us do, have done or would do in that situation. However, the language on Disrupt was interesting. No two L&D departments are likely to be equal in terms of the quality of their needs analysis, their exact approach to design, etc. The Disrupt pod also made points about moving from a previous over-reliance on classroom training – is this still, really, what people are talking about by learning transformation, even in workplace environments?

Scope of learning departments

Arguably little has changed in regard to learning department scope. L(&D) departments are expected to maintain stakeholder relationships to develop and deliver appropriate learning strategies for their organisation(s). These learning strategies should reflect how performance improvement is being supported, to help colleagues deliver organisational strategies, behave appropriately and meet their goals. This needs to be aligned with (or part of) talent management – for example having apprenticeships or other ways to replace lost talent, deal with succession, develop managerial confidence/competency, etc.

I love Guy Wallace’s historical perspectives via Twitter and elsewhere. His recent WOINA Syndrome (What’s Old Is New Again.) blog post is great on how we rehash so much stuff. I seriously doubt WOINA is unique to learning within organisations (after all leadership theory, mindfulness and other areas go as far as to rehash ancient philosophy) but you do have to wonder if “transformation” as marketed by consultants, vendors, etc. is really transformational. New lipstick on a pig perhaps? The recent protocol Source Code uses the argument that more lifelong learning is needed due to the pace of change (a debatable argument) and that tech can enable this (less debatable). I tend to think this need and the demand from many employees has always been there – L&D can be the facilitator of upskilling in this model where previously the load was too often put on the individual.

Any organisational learning should be using personal, team and business targets to change knowledge, skills and/or behaviours. Simples. However, Don’s all change argument is that valid in that L&D is no longer “focusing on building and delivering content”. Indeed my first L&D role, rather than more learning/education focused, was initially about managing content. We have clearly moved on from that space with social learning. Where L&D teams continue to struggle is perhaps when the personal, team and business measures are still hidden from them? We hear a lot about data being abundant in organisations but I do wonder how many orgs really have clarity over performance and how many companies still promote based on simple measures (e.g. sales/revenue) or popularity (often risking negative DEI implications). Proper use of data could well be transformational for many on their practice within a scope that is less transformational.

Learning/instructional design

Call it what you will, the scope of L&D work is still likely to need something resembling analysis, design and delivery of learning and change solutions. Usually these will still come from something resembling an ADDIE project, even if the design/delivery is not about authoring content but instead curation or another solution.

I know there is justified hate out there for the use of “instruction” and ADDIE but, personally, these are semantic arguments we can live without as ultimately organisations divide labour between teams based on skill and experience. Therefore, learning and change projects should reach the L&D team as the experts in learning and change.

Ideally this should not be simply the “throw over the fence” approach to perceived requirements that jumps straight to DDIE. Proper task analysis should mean solutions tailored to stakeholder needs, ideally with those stakeholders and the target audience involved throughout. Of course, as always, what the audience’s needs are might have been misinterpreted, misunderstood, misrepresented, etc, etc. None of this is new or transformational.

Masters of our own destiny

Mastering the balance between latest market trends and WOINA has to be part of the solution of what the future of learning will look like.

I have written before about how some terminology has been usurped in work/corporate climates – for example information professionals/scientists losing the “information” moniker to the technologists. Similarly information work around curation often died out, for example information teams in law firms lost staff in the face of internet tools, yet curation has been a buzz word in L&D circles, in part thanks to further tech changes. What we perhaps need to finally acknowledge is that a training team can not “own” or “manage” organisational learning – we can lead, facilitate, curate, communicate, etc. We need to demonstrate the behaviours and show the value in personal development, knowledge sharing and related activities. Nigel Paine’s transformation plans for ’22 mentions L&D’s role should be in that it “encourages the whole organisation to take responsibility for working and learning together”. This is in part about the skills gap that Don focuses on as the change – i.e. organisations face skills shortages, not knowledge/content per se.

L&D’s focus can include offering strategic recommendations on the use of tools to enhance the employee (or other stakeholder/customer) experience. However, I would say we need to be careful on silos – simply having marketing select marketing tools, L&D select learning tools, etc. reinforces old paradigms. Purchasing projects need to recognise the power of digital tools to do things differently – not just replacing old ways of doing things. Don’s impression of Cornerstone Xplor seem to suggest they are taking something of a leap from old paradigms but much of it sounds familiar in ways too. Meanwhile the Source Code pod suggests AR/VR and some other metaverse like applications are the real change. However, the tech will enable new ways of doing things but many of the solutions will still, in my mind, be based on traditional ID/L&D logic – as Guy suggests with his WOINA. For example, the Novartis VR example at Unleash’18 showed how there can be value in moving scenario/location based learning into VR. As Guys says in his post: “technology advances have enabled us to do better” and I would say the iterative improvement (rather than transformation) for many in L&D will be to continue to identify when the time is right for investment in new tech for their use cases. No doubt we will see lots of bad metaverse usage as it becomes more mainstream – just as we saw bad use of other things such as Second Life – but there will be opportunities too.

Skills for success

Anyone who is unfortunate enough to come across me in person will have probably heard me referring back to my MA and MSc in how I go about my work. This might be surprising considering I recently “liked” a tweet supporting experience over qualifications:

My issue with the above tweet is really the “10+ years…experience” part, not the qualification or need for a combination of qualification and experience. Skills, knowledge and behaviours are important – mandatory recruitment requirements, like in the above tweet, ignores this. Is this because recruiting/HR are too often separate from L&D/talent management (theory at least if not practice in a particular org)?

Years of experience, for many roles, is total BS as a measure. Instead, ask someone about their evidence based practice, the theory behind their practice, their achievements, etc. No year, in no other role, is made equal to what you think a year’s experience is – even in theoretically comparable roles like, say, nursing across different hospitals. This is one area where hopefully Covid will make people realise how things have changed, e.g. a year of work experience in a 2021 Covid-impacted hospital would be very different to, say, working there in 2001. This applies in knowledge work too – consulting or sales are very different now too when you can’t travel to conferences, meet clients for coffee, etc.

In many ways the need for a combination of theory and experience is particularly important in L&D given many L&D pros do not come through an L&D education. The problem to tackle, as is hinted at in that L&D Disrupt podcast, is that people come into the learning profession through classroom experiences and we have a rinse and repeat cycle (albeit that there are good things about face-to-face learning too). Actually having some learning theory, learning tech or other related academic/professional qualifications should mean you have at least been exposed to other ways of doing things. Personally doing my MSc fully online has always been a big help in reflecting on my own practice of building such experiences, both in education and workplace learning. Do not get me wrong – 10 years of classroom teaching has value on a CV, however, rather than length of time we are really talking about a skillset as described in the LPI Capability Map or other model. It sounds like Xplor’s value is in automating skill mapping, learning resource mapping, etc – for those of us who have managed competency frameworks and related tools this sounds great but I would also hold quite a lot of scepticism over how well this will work.

Work is learning/learning is work

Difficult to disagree with the Nigel Paine in his wish for 22: “I want 2022 to be the year when learning becomes integrated with work…I want 2022 to be the time when the notion of a learning organisation, with a powerful learning culture, is not deemed an irrelevancy but is an essential part of the modern work environment.” However, this is obviously not a new concept – perhaps what we can hope for is a kinder workplace, one with an acknowledgment of long-term health issues as with live not just with Covid but long Covid and all the other health and personal issues that are too often ‘hidden’ in the workplace. Learning to encourage improvement, career development and more can be part of this more humane workplace.

However, when it comes to the wider move of learning in the flow of work I do fear this part of an automation of more and more roles, as mentioned in a tweet spurred by the Learning Technologies digital event that happened in place of the usual smaller version of the event that takes place as the “Summer Forum“:

End

This post has gone on long enough but, in summary, I think it is fair to say that whilst innovation for one organisation/professional will mean something different to another org/pro I can see transformation as being about a potential further split in the learning tech market between:

(1) LMS platforms that will continue to exist for organisations focused on “products” – this still makes sense for training providers, organisations offering CPD to members, content vendors, universities and more even if their marketplace continues to face real pressure.

(2) Xplor and other tools expand into career guidance (Don mentions acting as a career service an increasingly important role for L&D as I mentioned here) for the organisation, tying up/reskilling to roles/vacancies and acting as a reimagination of L&D into proper talent transformation.

How much other functionality makes sense in the above situations (such as social learning, collaboration, etc) will depend on the ecosystem beyond these tools. In other words an organisation may be happy with an LMS, HRIS and Microsoft Teams. Others may try and do all of this via a new talent platform. Ultimately it reminds me of a quote from 5 (!?!) years ago about whatever L&D’s focus and scope is it should behave in a way to act as “oil in the engine, not a spanner in the works”.

Should learning pros shift from sector specific tools? #1 : Visual novels for branched activities and storytelling

This will likely not develop into a series but I am being brave and adding a #1 to this post.

Trying out some visual novels

I recently played a couple of ‘visual novel’ games and they immediately made me think about branching eLearning scenarios. From a little bit of research online, it is clear that there is an identified gap here between current visual novel markets and their potential use. A 2020 paper describing this thus “there are genres with untapped potential for teaching, such as narratively driven…visual novel games” (Oygardslia et al, 2020).

The games I played noticeably achieved a few things, including:

(1) Strong character development through storytelling.

(2) Narrative choices for the player that really impact on the story and resulting scenes (albeit that this is not always obvious until you play through multiple times, look online for the different options, etc.).

(3) Motivation for the player to continue due to cliff-hangers and other drama devices, managing to create a desire to find out “what is going to happen next”.

These attributes are of course not unique to visual novels (aka ‘narrative games’). For example, I am currently playing Assassins Creed Valhalla (as mentioned in a previous post) and this game has strong character development and a compelling story to keep you playing – it even specifically separates the game into “story arcs” (effectively chapters in traditional written storytelling). Where traditional games, and particularly rich 3D open worlds like Valhalla, struggle is how much narrative choices can impact the game. Valhalla, for example, gives you choices for the conversations of your character but few actually impact outcomes or the game’s story. It is not obvious to the player of Valhalla which conversations impact things either, hence a number of explainer articles online such as this one.

An example Assassins Creed Valhalla narrative choice from a EuroGamer article.

If a quick Google is anything to go by, there has been relatively limited interest in visual novels (specifically) within the wider interest of gamification and how games may, or may not, educate.

Gamification has, of course, been a bit of a buzz term but I would agree with quite a lot of this post regarding explaining that the real reason that gamification has become a focus is because of concerns around motivation. The other half of the puzzle here really is the storytelling element which has also had a lot of interest in L&D (see here for an example article). This is of course nothing new in so much as video based and drama based learning have long played on the benefits of storytelling and emotional response.

There are though a few articles discussing the attempts to use visual novels, for example this one on an example use case in education.

Scale of visual novels as a medium

As with most categorisations in gaming, what makes a ‘visual novel’ is debatable. However, games categorised as such amount to 4,588 items on the hugely popular Steam Store. Perhaps inevitably a large subsection of these are tagged as “dating” sims or even “adult”. There are also the usual visual gaming splits between anime style graphics, more western style cartoon, more realistic 3D models, etc. The quality of these graphics of course impact the experience but at the same time it was nice for me to play a few things with real character development – rather than the stock Microsoft, Articulate and other cut out “characters” we see in so many webinars, eLearning modules, etc.

Reading this, you might presume these games, often free-to-play or low cost, are terrible. However, reviews on Steam are an interesting read for learning professionals – for example people fearing “click-fest type” games are instead “genuinely surprised” thanks, again, to the storytelling. How often have ‘click next’ eLearning courses ever really surprised you?

One authoring tool, Ren.Py, has a seperate directory of free games you can try. Interestingly, this directory does give you the word count of the game (something I have previously suggested would be possible for the wider gaming industry).

But branching is hard

Such games are, of course, complex – at least with regards to the branching and storytelling. In the past I have worked for organisations that have outsourced such storytelling into bespoke eLearning. However, today, the basics of branching is relatively straightforward in many eLearning tools.

However, if you play a few visual novels it soon becomes clear how shallow some eLearning branching is. And I include some of what I have worked on in the past in that statement.

If we want to avoid branching due to the complexity then what we are working towards is a different categorisation: “A kinetic novel is a linear type of visual novel where there is a linear storyline with no player choice or gameplay.”.

Authoring tools

There are numerous options in this space, here are a few I have looked at…

A few years back I had a bit of a play with Twine. Twine is primarily text based so might not be appropriate for all situations.

There are some tools marketed for education including ones which shift to a 3D model, like this from CoSpaces, rather than the more scene style of other visual novel tools.

PCGamer considers some of the options in this article. In addition, there are some useful threads on Reddit, both in instructional design and gaming channels [warning not all are safe for work if you go looking]. For example it was here that I realised that many tools are combining RenPy with 3D model assets from DAZ. RenPy’s tutorial, built within the tool, is actually very good and shows how well it can work:

Screenshot from RenPy tutorial.

Challenges

A big problem for those working in corporate environments has always been the restrictions in place with regards to technology. This is why the more recent publishing tools tend to be helpful in being browser based, gone are the days where companies have needed to keep supporting old tech (including Flash) or insisting on everything being in a SCORM package.

Renpy.org requires local .exe files so is likely a non-starter for many corporate environments. Indeed the open source authoring tool but is sponsored by companies that will help you get published elsewhere, such as on games stores. Other options such as TyranoBuilder offer export to browser functionality (although Tyrano is an example with an upfront software cost so I haven’t tried it) which might be more suitable for corporates.

Therefore getting the tool installed and the games out to users to install will be a blocker for some organisations. The mobile app publication option might be a solution for some though.

Nothing new?

In many ways the learning that could be designed in RenPy and other tools is similar to narrative based eLearning in other tools and just as reliant on the quality of writing and story based learning.

This is of course nothing new, indeed conferences for eLearning and games based learning are long running:

What should we use?

With time to learn them, these authoring tools become very powerful. However, the challenges of installation and publication would likely block many corporates/organisations from using them.

Personally, I am going to try and go deeper into Ren.Py in part as it is basically teaching you some Python language through a simple interface which I suspect might be of help in the future. In addition the option to publish to Android and iOS might offer some solutions to the desktop publication problems.

For now, the ease at which Articulate and other tools have made branching become something anyone can do (rather than expensive bespoke eLearning like it used to be) is probably the way that makes sense. However, the cost of developing on a free tool like Ren.Py is likely much lower than a fully blown interactive video experience. Therefore, there are no doubt use cases out there.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same” MoodleMoot Ireland and UK Online 2021

Last week I attended the IE&UK MoodleMoot which was, of course, held online this year.

My feelings about the presentations will sound something like a follow-up to my “not all innovation is created equal” post which itself was triggered by the global MoodleMoot last year. Why? Well, while Covid loomed large over this year’s event the ‘transformation’ taking place all sounded very familiar.

The change

The opening keynote pointed out the scale of change in the last year, and the scale of global challenges beyond Covid too. The growth in online learning in the last year set out via a particularly striking metric:

Whilst this might be expected given the Covid situation it is perhaps still impressive that that many people have launched Moodle sites during the period. Whilst Moodle offers a low cost solution there are, of course, plenty of other options out there so that growth is still impressive IMO. It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the growth will be across multiple types of organisations whilst this MoodleMoot was primarily university focused in terms of the presentations (and I would imagine the audience too).

I did have to agree with some of the keynote points, for example Martin Dougiamas stressed that too much of the pivot/transformation has simply been video based learning sessions, webinars, etc. He also, I think, agreed with me that it has really been a time of reinvention, not a revolution, for him and others who have been in the industry a while. Overall, the lessons learned in the last 20-odd years are clearly inconsistently applied in the world of online learning.

The same

As with the global MoodleMoot much of what was being discussed has not really changed in the last 10+ years. This might be a sign that digital learning is now mature in further and higher education (and elsewhere), or it might just be that the agenda for the event did not really get beyond the basics as many presentations were by people being pushed online by Covid. In fact, away from those ‘this is how we responded to Covid’ type sessions, the agenda was quite sponsor heavy – it is perhaps difficult to sell presenting at user conferences if it doesn’t involve a day out of the office?

In no particular order here are some items I took away from the event, as always accuracy is reliant on my memory and note taking, and (as I have said) a lot of these points are far from ‘new new’:

  1. Moodle is only part of the solution. The opening keynote stressed Moodle’s role is to build a learning system, it is not a learning system in itself. This is probably not the way Moodle has been sold to many educators but should be remembered. The great desire in education institutions has always been to have ‘a size fits all’ solution but Moodle has 200+ plugins and, of course, most people will be reliant on various other tools (from Microsoft to Articulate and beyond). I have grouped some of the other related content/conversations to this as #12 below, not to mention different learning/teaching approaches (see #2).
  2. Social construction. The keynote also reinforced the point that Moodle was designed for social learning. We heard some presentations where the transformation has been little more than moving from Moodle as a file store to Moodle as it was intended to be used (i.e. as a platform with active discussions, activities, etc). Better late than never I guess but it also really depends on what else you are using this matters or not (see #12).
  3. Moodle 4.0’s promise of improved visuals and UX could probably have been from any point in the system’s version history. Obviously these changes are continuous, and needed, but 4.0 probably shouldn’t be oversold given this conversation is certainly a ‘deja vu’ topic. Fingers crossed 4.0 is a big leap forward though.
  4. Brickfield’s accessibility checker. This tool sounds really useful but long overdue given Blackboard, for example, has had Ally for a while (this could be seen as a comment on commercial vs OS development – however, Brickfield’s full offer is still commercial as a plugin/partner). Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering that meets modern accessibility requirements.
  5. eAssessment. Whilst I would have thought most universities had an online LMS/VLE pre-covid they may not have ‘pushed the button’ on online assessment before being forced to in the last year. Catalyst did a good presentation on the need to consider various things before launching eAssessment, including making sure the load on servers is not a problem – something I suffered the pain of with Blackboard hosting back in about 2010. Obviously we often rely on trial and error in tech but in high stakes assessments this is not really an option. Catalyst were selling their hosting and load testing services but you can argue for a move away from this simultaneous style assessment to other models.
    • Gradescope, now part of the TurnItIn group, looked good as a way of getting written exams and non essay exams into a digital tool – this in part tackles some age old questions such as how to deal with diagrams and maths in eAssessment. However, at the same time, a lot of what was being talked about (rubrics, etc) is, again, not really new. Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering if you are in an assessment heavy sector.
    • Poodll also showed some nice functionality in this area, although they advertise as focused on language learning I would say their tools could be used wider – for example, with the rise of voice operation over typing you could author questions in different ways.
  6. Plugin evaluation. UCL presented a few sessions, including one on their new-ish plugin evaluation process. This was all fairly straightforward and I would imagine many orgs have something similar, either for Moodle, Blackboard building blocks, etc. etc.
    • Of other plugins and themes mentioned, the Moove theme sounded great for simplifying the user interface – it was mentioned by Hibernia College (interestingly they have 17[!] in their Digital Development team).
    • Hibernia also mentioned the MyFeedback [?] plugin which sounded good for one of the problems I have with Moodle – namely the need to better aggregate, for the student, a view of their gradebook across modules/courses.
  7. Studygroup pre-arrival course and course development processes. This is a course that can be licenced for institutions to help international students know more about their new location pre-arrival, including some of the cultural differences they might want to be aware. As with pre-start date induction materials in workplace learning this looked a good idea.
    • In terms of the design process discussed (Aims > Pedagogy > Limitations > Content Development > Content Transfer > Test Systems > Amendments) it all made sense and not a bad model for others to use.
    • Bolton Uni did a session later on developing a Masters course during lockdown, the most interesting bit for me, again, was their approach (Pedagogy > Design and Structure > Validate > Upskill Staff > Deliver, Support and Track > Enhance). Bolton admitted they were “new kids on the block” for online learning development but this seemed to be working for them (I presented on something similar in 2011).
    • I liked an example from Nottingham of a different type of learning activity, namely an attempt to create an escape room type experience made up of video, puzzle quizzes and other Moodle elements. Overall, this was a nice example of thinking ‘outside the box’ when faced with the Covid challenge.
  8. Global search engine. Another UCL session, this showed their results in comparing three global search tools (Azure, Elastic and Solr?). The presentation was good in showing the different findings in terms of the indexing impact and the search results across the three tools. Content management and discovery have long been problems in learning platforms and a solution to this really should be in the core code. Indeed I have found such a search tool useful within Totara in the past, not least as the logs are illuminating in what your users are looking for.
  9. Upgrades. UCL also presented on a move to continuous release upgrades. This was an interesting one given the problems VLE upgrades have long caused. Higher Ed having long relied on the ‘big’ summer upgrade. However, this also goes against the desire for permanent online learning and avoiding downtime. The UCL session got into some of the management of code and cloud vs local data integration. Overall, one for hosting teams but also highlights the issues for teams like UCL to be managing this versus using external hosting services.
  10. Moodleboard development from DCU. More the kind of thing I like from user conferences – how to do something new. In this case it was ‘boards’ via a tool developed as a new plugin that does some of what popular external tools (like Padlet) can do but all internal to Moodle and keeping the data your own.
  11. Tile format for courses. A lot of the presentations either mentioned this specifically or were clearly using it. Very interesting from a “the same” perspective as, in many ways, it goes back to the same logic as the old WebCT UI just with a more modern look. Some of the examples looked good – for example the Royal College of Midwives managing to move their 3 day residential programme to an online course looked like a real achievement.
  12. What data where in the ecosystem. An OU session looked at the new options related to user profile fields in release 3.11. Overall this really felt like it came back to the age old question of what systems you have, where the data needs to be, etc. There are clear use cases here, for example creating additional fields that could then be used in different ways – for example the old Blackboard community system allowed you to filter what users of that system saw. Examples of what this would allow included employer sponsored students being able to see their company content. Other use cases include changing what a fully online student sees in their dashboard versus a blended or campus-based student, etc. by their profile fields. As someone who has completed an online MSc this is the kind of functionality universities could get a lot better at to personalise and filter out the noise.
    • Dundalk presented about moving their student support hub online, I would imagine many institutions would have offered this for a while but how they do it, and what is on Moodle versus other parts of an ecosystem, no doubt varies. Indeed having to navigate a university student record system, VLE/LMS, intranet, website, library and elsewhere for information (rather a simple single Google-style interface) is a well documented challenge for online education providers and a great example of service providers often carving customer experience up by their departments rather than what a customer needs. Indeed Dundalk mentioned a major drive for the move was student feedback that their Moodle was a logical place for more than just modules and programmes.
    • For many, a key part of their ecosystem will now be webinar and virtual classroom tools so it was good to see BigBlueButton still being plugged in the face of Teams and Zoom becoming so dominate (at least in my experience).
  13. Academic staff upskilling and PD. Most of the sessions touched on this and no matter how many learning technologists, templates and other aides are in place most academic institutions presenting still seemed to have the model of tutors being the end user and that they ‘own’ the digital space. There are, of course, debates to be had over the rights and wrongs of this.
    • It was interesting to see Birkbeck deciding to go back to the drawing board for how to go fully online (decisions > policy [including adopting basic standards for Moodle and ABC Learning Design] > roles).
    • Gallway showed some nice use of using H5P to teach academics how to use H5P – there seemed to be some clever setup tricks in their approach that would be good to see shared in a way that others could use. However, it seemed like it would need quite a lot of setup – indeed the presenter mentioned it was being used for small groups (of 5) as would be in a face-to-face workshop, rather than something that could be used more widely at a larger scale[?].
  14. Data analytics was considered in a few presentations, including with regards to search (#8) and in terms of the wider ecosystem (#12).
    • Intelliboard presented on how to use data for early intervention, proactive advising and more. Much of this sounded very familiar to what I got excited about with Starfish’s solution at BBWorld in 2009.
    • Chicester showed some interesting work in rationalising module evaluation to cut the number of templates to allow comparison across departments/schools and how they have used templates and question banks to do this. There were some nice displays of data with the chart.js plugin [?] but overall it was a little mind blowing that a university would have, until recently, been doing this on paper and not in a consistent way.
    • There was also some data analysis and consideration of machine learning models from a Hungarian institution that looked interesting for what it might mean for the metrics being used.
    • Another session from Intelliboard was good in showing the research and data related to online learning and how there are many things we do know, for example the correlation between perceived instructor competence and if the instructor is seen as caring about the student [i.e. we give a perception of competence to people we like!]. Homophily, the perception of time (i.e. you need to answer student queries quickly), etc. were also considered in this.
  15. Video sharing from OneDrive. This was a practical and super simple presentation – I would hope no one who would attend this event actually uploads directly to Moodle and would imagine most organisations will have a video platform to use (which is probably preferable to the OneDrive examples shared).

The future

I am well aware that we all take our own things from such events – for example, there were more developer/technical focused sessions during the conference which are not related to my area of expertise but would have been of use for others and I did not get to attend everything due to other events, emails, etc.

Therefore, I appreciate me complaining about basic Moodle operations is unfair given this is new to many. What is more worrying is that the beginners and basic stuff in some of the sessions originate from higher education institutions that are really behind the sector overall and will be continuing to waste tuition fees and government money in various areas.

The real change going forward might be with Moodle’s model itself. The creation of Moodle US alongside the monetization via Moodle Workplace and Mobile are interesting changes for what is theoretically still an OS project. Of course it is also a fair point to say one shouldn’t criticise the project if not contributing financially or via time (such as in testing or development).

My main takeaways

  1. We need to challenge ourselves to not just learn from the last 20-odd years but also apply those lessons.
  2. There were a few plugins and themes for me to look into (those I have taken time to highlight above).
  3. Moodle 4.0 is a huge opportunity but probably one not to get too excited about.

Some reflections on week one of the #LTDX21 event (with a bit on the latest The Learning Hack podcast)

Learning Technologies, of course, is normally a big, physical, conference and exhibition and I had hoped to attend this year (amazingly I don’t think I have been since 2016 – where did that time go?). However, with travel and event restrictions there has been the inevitable move to a “digital experience” this year. The free sessions I have attended for this year’s LTDX21 have really reminded me about three things from Learning Tech as an event:

(1) The “free” sessions, normally on the exhibition floor of the physical event, vary enormously and it is a lot better to attend the “paid for” conference event if you can.

(2) The major benefit of the event, for me, is bumping into people you normally see once a year (or less) for a quick catch-up.

(3) There is value in just browsing the exhibition for trends, new entrants, etc. – I am yet to attend a virtual event which does this kind of thing well in getting the balance between viewing “exhibitor information” and having sales people harangue you via LinkedIn and email.

With regards to the first point above and specifically the sessions, the ones I have attended in the first three days have varied between the incredibly introductory and the very thought provoking. Kudos to Omniplex for the thought provoking session – one that really picked at the shared learning industry conscious over our role in organisations (and impact on wider society) with calls for improving practice. A good example of bringing emotion in – by highlighting real world examples (from big stories like Grenfell through to smaller scale examples).

One problem with the less interesting sessions was that product demos, which would normally be restricted to exhibition booths, and presentations (with a product focus) that normally appear in the “theatres” seem to have blurred together in this format. The answer here is probably to look beyond the titles and descriptions to try and second guess the nature of presentation – this isn’t really an issue if you commit a day or two to an event and can walk away from less interesting sessions. It is more annoying when you are blocking out calendar time for virtual events.

From the sessions I have attended, I could see some of the ongoing challenges for online learning – for example, discussions in session chat showed a drive towards wanting to display learning in Microsoft Teams (in part due to Viva?) but at the same time we had presentations around old concepts rebranded as new. I would really advocate everyone in the industry listen to the below podcast. A lot of people are still very blinkered to the companies they have experience in and I really don’t think people realise what is actually “new”. As Dr Chen points out, for example, doing more than SCORM is not new. There also seems to be a growing trend of huge content libraries and aggregators (perhaps because of LinkedIn Learning’s success) which I personally feel has a role but is just part of the puzzle. Anyway, listen to the pod if you haven’t the latest Learning Hack podcast was timely given all of this:

Regarding point 3. Attending only a few sessions you also miss the general feel. Today, I am going to try and follow the event’s hashtag more closely to try and pick up some of the more general trends. Thanks, as always, to all the tweeters out there on #LTDX21.