Thursday, June 18, 2009

Learning Environments

I read a thought provoking post written by Eric Shepherd, CEO of Questionmark, on his blog yesterday and had to share it with you. It really makes you evaluate your learning system and where you are headed. Are you ready for the revolution?

Eric Shepherd
June 16, 2009

This year I have been witnessing a change in thinking and common practices around learning environments. I’d like to share my point of view with you because I’m convinced that a significant shift is starting to occur. Let me start by giving a contextual overview in the form of a few tables:

Learning Delivery Systems

Assessment Systems

Tracking Systems

Marketing Hyper vs. IT’s Point of View

The stock market’s exuberance in the late ‘90s generated venture capital funding of learning environments and management systems start ups.This resulted in marketing hype that led to unrealistic expectations. Although vendors tried hard to meet these unrealistic expectations, customers were frustrated and the market was altogether unhappy and unhealthy. This became obvious to me when customers would explain that they were on their third LMS. Clearly things had to change.
One strong benefit that came from the late ‘90s early ‘00s era was the clear separation that was drawn between “management systems” and “content”. SCORM and AICC helped provide us with these clear distinctions, however, we didn’t manage to achieve sufficient distinctions between the key modules of a learning environment as web-services had not matured quickly enough. Consequently, large monolithic systems tended to capture buyers’ imaginations as being the big pill to swallow to solve the learning problem.

From my point of view, IT departments initially pandered to users’ requirements and assisted with the deployment of customized and dedicated learning systems. However, as costs of tightly integrated systems increased and the number of dissatisfied users increased, IT departments started to look at alternative systems and architectures that could both meet the users’ requirements and align with organizations’ overall IT infrastructure. IT started to look at learning from a users and performance perspective and started to apply IT methodologies to the issue.

Users’ requirements varied on one side from structured learning (course based), mostly used in schools, colleges and on-boarding new employees, through to self-service, where a motivated learner sought out the information that they needed in order to perform their tasks or gain qualifications. Deploying only one learning methodology (course based vs. self-service) does not fit all requirements. Knowing the context of the user is key to providing a great user experience!

So what are we seeing now?

Authentication and Single Sign On (“SSO”) Portals

Learning materials, documents and content live in many systems. The issue is access control to these systems for the right person at the right time. This motivates a need for federated searches of multiple content repositories and to mashed up user interfaces that allow users to view multiple systems.

As I have illustrated above, you can now provide access to multiple applications with a common look and feel using a portal such Microsoft’s SharePoint. Each application is “skinned” by the portal’s feel and is presented in a “portlet”. Depending on the user’s privileges they can add, change, delete, and move around portlets to suit their working style and job role.
Behind the portal sits a number of systems that a user will use to perform their tasks.

The portal looks after two important functions:

Authentication of the User
This is usually performed by way of user names and passwords but could also be achieved via biometrics.

Access Control (Privileges)
To limit access to the portlets that a user can actually see and use.

We have to be careful that we don’t return to dispersed SSO portals with one portal for learning, one for accounting, etc.; that would give us Multiple Sign On Portals which would be a retrograde step.

True Single Sign On Portals provide IT departments with a single but centralized access control system and allow the user to define their portal to accommodate their style of working.


Each application has its own unique set of privileges that would become difficult for a centralized IT team to control. For instance, in the context of testing, we might only allow users to take a test between certain hours and maybe require a proctor/invigilator. Whilst it would be possible for all of these user privileges to be stored more centrally and associated with the portal, this becomes impractical and slows the upgrade process. However, it is common for application systems to receive data from the portal and then derive privileges based on the user’s associations.

Islands of Data

The challenge with this architecture is that each application maintains its own databases for its operational needs such as storing course evaluation data and tests results.

We are seeing leading edge employers look at employee life cycle data in order to improve their talent management systems and processes. From recruiting to on-boarding, appraisals, formal/structured learning, informal learning, career progression, and exit interviews we see present and future requirements for viewing and correlating data from multiple courses to help people understand the dynamics of their talent.

So learning environments are now being built in such a way that their data is consumable by web-services and a data warehouse.

Data Warehouses

Organizations maintain Data Warehouses (DWs) for several reasons:
* DWs can be structured to quickly access data for reporting applications to consume rather than focus on efficiently collecting and maintaining data.
* DWs allow for data to be connected and correlated despite the fact that they are generated by different systems potentially using different types of databases.
* DWs can insulate reporting systems from application upgrades which would otherwise necessitate reporting systems to be updated at the same time that the application upgrade is performed.

Wikis and Blogs

Wikis and blogs have become very important and popular tools for harvesting knowledge from subject matter experts (SMEs). With succession planning being important for many organizations that have aging work forces, harvesting knowledge from SMEs is a key initiative.


When we combine IT department support for standardization on portals, wikis, blogs, data warehouses and reporting systems we can see that the time is right for a revolution within our learning environments.

The data and anecdotal evidence that I have access to makes me believe that learning environments will change and become more aligned with standard and supported IT systems.

We are now in an era where resonating with IT, their requirements, and their systems, will assist us in rapidly deploying powerful, integrated, and scalable environments for our learners, and performers.

Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)
A case for the training portal
MLE to PLE – A Framework For Considering Systems
Consolidate & Centralize Your Learning Technologies
The first rule of Windows Marketplace for Mobile is that you don’t subvert

About Eric Shepherd
Eric Shepherd is the CEO of Questionmark and has dedicated over twenty years to studying and understanding the use of tests and assessments. He is also an active member of the Association of Test Publishers, and serves as chair of that organization’s European division.

Eric has been very involved in the IMS Learning Consortium’s Question and Test Interoperability standard, the Association of Test Publishers (ATP), TechLearn, the eLearning Guild, the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), the UK Computer Aided Assessment Conference, (CAA), TechLearn, eLearning Brasil, Online Educa Berlin, and many other activities.

He is passionate about establishing effective deployment of online assessments. Through workshops around the world, white papers and dialogue he constantly challenges himself and those around him to push boundaries on secure assessment technology and on the role assessments play in the learning process.

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