Should learning pros shift from sector specific tools? #3 : “creator” all-in-one platforms (over an LMS)

A bit of background on the learning side

This bit is an attempt to think where we (i.e. the learning industry/industries) currently are with ‘platforms’…

Learning management systems (LMSs), love them or hate them, remain the core component of many learning environments – be that workplace learning and development (L&D) or in education (where virtual learning environment, or VLE, may be the preferred term dependent on geography). Many LMS/VLE are built, at least initially, from the point that a common product, a ‘course’, is at their heart.

Even the rise of the Learning Experience Platform (LxP/LXP) has not shifted the need, for many, of an LMS. Indeed the lines that separate an LMS and an LXP are blurred at best – “there is no hard and fast distinction“. Continuing use cases for an LMS include that they often remain the single source of truth for compliance records, the ‘one stop shop’ for organisational learning opportunities, a walled garden for education and much more. Whilst LMS/LXP/VLEs come in many shapes and sizes they have, in many ways, replaced or reinforced the ‘learning by location’ model – i.e. you used to learn in a classroom now you learn in/via this technology or simply register for in-person events via it.

Coaching, mentoring and other less formal and location defined learning experiences are supported to differing degrees by the wide range of LMS/VLE/LXP that are out there in the market. The learning sector in the last c.20 years has arguably fluctuated somewhat in how much an LMS should be an ‘all-in-one’ tool with, at times, it being simply a launch pad for SCORM and other content whilst at other times there has been a push for talent management, discussion, social learning, knowledge management and much more (that have separate specialist tools/markets) to be included in core LMS functionality. Today we tend to see platforms that may not offer all this functionality but will integrate with other tools, for example via integrations, APIs, etc. These integrations often developed via acquisitions by the tech vendors themselves.

Creator platforms

So on to the point of this blog – some reflection on another market segment I am new to, having only just realised in the last couple of weeks that such things exist.

Previously I presumed most people monetize their ‘creator’ work through the relevant platform (YouTube, a photo site, WordPress or whatever) in combination with services such as Patreon. However, there appears to be another model that has developed via ‘creator platforms’.

Podia is one of the tools that clearly see themselves in this space. They split their own functionality “sell your work” and “market your work” functionality, interesting the sell aspects include online courses, webinars and other functionality that will be familiar to many learning pros. The below video is seemingly a pretty honest self-assessment on their part, comparing themselves to another major player in this space (do let me know if there are other tools worth looking at):

So is Podia an option for learning pros?

As is often the case, it really depends on what you already have and use. However, if you were looking to break from, say, a Moodle with sales plugins, with separate CRM, video hosting, etc to move into a (potentially) simpler all-in-one solution this seems like a realistic option.

Your online course, your way.

Choose from a variety of online courses that fit your business and customers’ needs; we support every file type, host all of the content, and never place limits on how much content you can upload and sell to your students.

https://www.podia.com/features/sell-online-courses

Is Podia really a learning platform?

In many ways Podia is quite a traditional solution for learning pros in that a “course” remains a unit of transaction, i.e. you buy access to a course. The platform lets you sell these via one of a number of temporal-based formats such as standalone, timed release, cohort based, etc.

In terms of content you are effectively talking about adding links to content and uploading media. This is clearly not SCORM focused like a traditional LMS but is no different to how many LMS are used, for example the traditional complaint that university online learning platforms are used as “file stores”. That said, Podia as a file store approach is quite appealing considering there are “zero limits on content…as much as you want to as many people as you can.” Many of us will have horror stories about eLearning systems falling over in the past when used at scale so Podia seems to have a lot of potential here.

There are other functionality options beyond static content, including borrowing from the traditional approaches of the learning space:

Ensure your course students are truly understanding your material with a multiple-choice quiz at the end of your lessons.

https://www.podia.com/features/sell-online-courses

Obviously a MCQ is far from ensuring ‘true understanding’ but I guess it at least separates a tool like Podia from something like, say, WordPress for hosting your content (yes, I know there are lots of WordPress plugins!).

Beyond the content and MCQs the more interesting element may well be that more social learning is possible via community elements and webinar integration. It is perhaps worth noting here though that Podia’s “all-in-one” would still need to connect external accounts for the webinar functionality itself:

Podia integrates with both YouTube Live (all plans) and Zoom (Shaker/Earthquaker) to let you offer webinars to your audience.

https://www.podia.com/features/sell-webinars

Conclusions

Overall, these platforms seem to offer another option for those who work in learning. By creating a ‘community’ around our work there is a different model here than the traditional LMS – be it if these were used internally to an org or for the sales-based models they are clearly intended. One market that clearly could look in this direction would be Membership based organisations who effectively have existing communities and are, in some ways, the traditional “creator” organisations due to their model of sharing useful resources, links, courses, encouraging knowledge sharing, etc for bodies interested in a topic. If the costs are worthwhile for such an organisation will clearly depend on the alternatives and existing IT setup, resources, platforms in use, etc.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#8): The office as a tool for workers, not a stick to hit them with

The future of work and the hybrid nature of future organisations continues to be of news. I would first caveat the rest of this post by saying it is really about office workers (not those in other workplaces):

My view on what workplaces now need to look like is that the nature of what the office is has to shift.

We have seen some of this already, for example the office as a recruitment and culture tool in being “cool” with pool tables and the like in the pre-Covid world to attract talent. This will continue to some extent, especially for young people who appreciate social experiences as well as the informal learning offices can provide.

Where we are now is in a position where an office can be seen as an enabler. Gone are the days, for those organisations who made the shift to more remote work, of enforced drudgery. Instead we can see the office as being something ‘to be used’ rather than using us.

The office can be an enabler for relationships, interaction, etc but we should now use it in more specific ways than in the past. Many of us will be used to this – for example visiting other offices to meet people, for specific meetings, etc. This now needs to be extended to everyone, including those who traditionally worked 100% at a set location. In the past I have worked in both quiet and noisy open plan offices, office layouts where small teams sit together as well as environments where most people have their own room. None of these are ideal. Indeed the backlash to open plan continues:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/open-plan-office-noise-stress-mental-health-mood-work-employment-employees-welfare

Personally I have struggled with enforced home working more than I perhaps expected. However, I think this is due to the lack on in person interaction and social events. As we shift back to being able to choose where to work (fingers crossed for the Covid situation), a clever talent strategy will enable workers to choose where (not just office/home but anywhere) and when to work but with the benefits of collegiate experiences centred to that.

Indeed if I think about past experience much of this is long running, for example having meetings with suppliers at a coffee shop rather than the office as a break from screentime and the environment. The real challenge for orgs, is time tracking and productivity. Here talent management needs to be smarter in terms of goals and outcomes rather than screen time and time on task. Using the office for two hours of productivity in a meeting may well be more valuable than a 9:5 day of dealing with emails or other task.

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.

To time or not to time

Expected duration. Time on task. Lock stepped vs open. Start and end dates. Peer pressure motivation. Collaborative vs independent.

All of the above are all too well known for online learning developers. Does your design measure progress? Is it via time on task, do you lock access based on progress, do you enforce weekly or other spacing, use pre and post testing to adapt the experience or some other method? These issues are often tied to if you are allowing people to access content versus undertaking more collaborative activities.

This week I have had chance to pick up a few “courses” (well resources really in some cases) and this has got me thinking again about the temporal aspect of online learning. For example, is there value in Coursera basically unenrolling you from their courses to fit in their schedule, with the option to reenrol on the next session. This is partly as there are discussion activities but, in reality, the timing adds nothing to the learning experience for those wanting to pass through the course at their own pace.

Google, for example, advertise that they have opportunities via Coursera yet the company known for “organiz[ing] the world’s information and mak[ing] it universally accessible and useful” lock these “job-training solutions” to their/Coursera’s timelines rather than those of the interested party.

This expectation of working through at someone else’s pace is poor instructional practice when, in reality, many such courses are combinations of async activities such as videos, reflections, quizzes, etc. The defence for the model is probably facilitator support (i.e. being able to have someone online to help with questions). However, this seems contradictory to the idea of flat rate charging ($39 a month* as in the below image) without the traditional Coursera “audit” (i.e. FREE) access option. If the intention is to increase completion rates through forcing a time-based fear/scarcity mode of motivation this similarly is poor given there is not the personal support you would have in, say, a traditional university course to give you a hand and nudge you along to the final deadline.

Ultimately it feels that if this is the model then these courses need to be designed to allow any time joining with, say, monthly cohorts for discussion boards. Indeed we were designing similarly to this for rolling start degrees back in c.2010.

Ultimately it feels like MOOCs continue to fail at their stated objectives time and time again.

* also Google obviously have enough money to support skills development without charging for such items as CSR activity.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#7): It is the little things that count (in the office)

Having returned to an office environment for the first time in a while I have realised that a number of things I used to be quite dismissive of actually matter quite a lot, this might be my “reality” rather than a wider set of rules but here goes:

  1. Fresh air – it makes a huge difference if you can get it, i.e. if your windows actually open rather than being in a glass box.
  2. Open plan vs smaller offices – I have often been critical of open plan in the past but starting in a new environment of (nearly) one-to-one offices (many people having their own and others sharing in small groups) has made me think again. It is very tricky to know how best to interact in a small office environment if you are used to open plan. What is too much noise? Is it okay just to interrupt people to say hi? These are “organisational culture” type issues I have been generally dismissive of in the past but my experience has made it clear – you need to be clear to new joiners what the expectations are. I would say my best past experiences are of small office (approx. 6-8) layouts where an immediate team can be based together, discuss as appropriate, avoid bothering others too much and be a clear “unit” for those coming from elsewhere.
  3. Screen glare is really bad – sun onto screens does not work. I used to involuntary cry when leaving the office at one of my old jobs and I am now wondering if it was artificial light glare on the screens.
  4. Intranets, Office 365 profiles and social tools – okay so I am an advocate for these anyway but if your organisation has them then you should HAVE to use them, to be transparent and help with working out loud yes but simply so newbies know who people are.

There are other things I have noticed too from shifting from a work from home routine:

  • Shoes hurt.
  • I talk to myself. A LOT.
  • Daily faff of commute, desk setup, etc. really is a waste of time and money.
  • Face-to-face meetings are useful but Zoom is fine. Face-to-face social activities are far more useful.
  • I am very very unfit and really need to do something about it! 🙂