2015: Personal Technology Review

How did my use of technology change during 2015? The short answer is that it increased. For example, I just deposited a check using my phone, and that’s something I never did in previous years.

That phone is a Droid Maxx, made by Motorola for Verizon. My iPhone turned in to a brick earlier this year. From among the phones available from or for Verizon Wireless, the Maxx seemed to me the best deal. This may be due to the particular wireless plan I was already in. The iPhones were by comparison overpriced.

I was happy with my new phone until, after a few months, it went into spiral of frantic uselessness, in which it would do nothing but restart until it ran out of power. Staff at the Verizon store agreed that it should be replaced, and replaced it was.

My second Maxx is behaving well so far. I like multiple things about it, especially the size of the screen. I’m not missing my iPhone. But I haven’t abandoned Apple: the two iPads in the house are in frequent use by the kids and by me. Continue reading “2015: Personal Technology Review”

Exit Blackboard, Followed By Scholar

Virginia Tech currently uses the Scholar Learning Management System (LMS). I summarize my opinion of Scholar as follows: less annoying than Blackboard.

Scholar replaced Blackboard at Virginia Tech, and will soon itself be replaced, according to Collegiate Times editor Maura Mazurowski. Scholar is based on an LMS platform called Sakai, which was developed by a consortium including Virgina Tech. Other consortium members are ceasing development and use of the platform.

The most popular post-Scholar LMS, and most likely next LMS for Virginia Tech, seems to be Canvas. I posted about Canvas around the time of its launch. The Canvas website is impressive, and includes a comparison of features between Canvas, Blackboard, and other LMSs. The Canvas mobile apps may well make a difference, both in adoption of Canvas, and in use after adoption.

Personally, I find CoursePress the most interesting LMS, but that’s because I also had the idea of building an LMS on the WordPress platform. But Virginia Tech won’t and shouldn’t adopt that young LMS simply because someone who teaches there finds it interesting.

I welcome your comments on LMSs in general, specific LMSs, LMS transition, or anything related.

CoursePress: An LMS Plugin For WordPress

“WordPress is web software you can use to create a beautiful website or blog”: this according to WordPress.org, a site that surely ought to know. WordPress was originally for blogs. Then it was for blogs and, if you wanted, other websites. Now it is for websites, including, but certainly not limited to, blogs.

When WordPress 3.0 came out, back in 2010, I realized that a Learning Management System (LMS) could be built on the WordPress platform. I thought about building one myself, but decided against it: the LMS market was crowded; it contained a huge competitor in the form of Blackboard; I didn’t see how I could get a first foothold in the market; and so on.

2014 saw the release, not only of WordPress 4.0, but also of CoursePress: a WordPress-based LMS from Edublogs. While it didn’t make sense for me to build a WPLMS in 2010, it makes a lot of sense for Edublogs to do so now. The LMS market is still crowded, but Blackboard is less dominant. More important, Edublogs already has a foothold in many educational organizations: those for which it manages blogs.

So how is CoursePress implemented? In WordPress terms, it is a plugin. You can download it at no charge. So what is it in business terms, and how does it make money for Edublogs? There are two answers: it is a feature of the CampusPress service; and it has a Pro version, for which there is a charge.

I consider CoursePress interesting, and in with a chance. How about you?

Teaching and the Tools Thereof

I’m teaching in a strategic management class, starting next Monday. It’s the capstone strategy class in the MBA program at University of Maryland University College (UMUC). I’ll be teaching a “hybrid” section, which mean that it’ll be mostly e-learning, but with a few in-class meetings.

The learning management system (LMS) is WebTycho, which is well-established at UMUC, used at a few other institutions, but isn’t a generally-available or widely-used LMS. Having just completed an orientation course in WebTycho, I can give an opinion: it’s solid, and not often annoying.

Teaching at UMUC also involves using Microsoft Outlook, which is both widely-used and annoying.

That said, I’m excited about the 10-week strategy course that’s about to start.

Yet Another LMS: Canvas, From Instructure

The Learning Management System (LMS) market is a crowded one, but that isn’t deterring entry. Michael Arrington considers the launch of Canvas to be post-worthy. Its worthiness seems to stem from two aspects of Canvas: the founder, Josh Coates; and the video, which features a flamethrower.

Canvas is in some ways similar to Totara, which I covered about a month ago. The code is free/open source, and the intention is make profit from services, including hosting and support. In the case of Canvas, the for-profit organization is Instructure.

Canvas differs from Totara in that it’s for the academy, while Totara is for the enterprise. As you’ll know if you watched the video, Canvas has a very specific target. That would be (as Mike puts it) “the entrenched player in the University LMS space, Blackboard, and… its $377 million or so in revenue.”

As an entrant to the academic segment of the LMS market, Canvas resembles Schoology. So I’ll examine Canvas in terms of the challenges I identified in an earlier post about Schoology.

One set of challenges arises from the difficulty of being an entrant into a segment that includes a large gorilla, as well as other incumbents. Canvas/Instructure has certainly made a bold, aggressive, and well-funded entry.

Another set of challenges relates to that fact of student life, social media. A quick look at Canvas suggests that it provides integration with Facebook (to name a social gorilla) rather than building social networking into the Canvas LMS itself. If so, I think that’s the way to go.

I tried to start using the Canvas in the early hours of this (Tuesday) morning. I submitted a support request shortly after signing up. I’ll post again, or update this post, when I’ve received a response to my support ticket and/or signup.

Totara: Another Interesting LMS

Interesting LMS sounds like an oxymoron. A Learning Management System (LMS) is often a teaching administration system, used to keep track of courses, students, and class assignments. That might be necessary, but it doesn’t excite many of us.

So what might make an LMS interesting? How about social media? Schoology launched its LMS plus social net last year. I’ve posted about Schoology previously, although the most recent post identifies a set of challenges I think it will be hard for Schoology to overcome.

Now there’s Totara: “designed to meet the learning management needs of busy enterprises and to deliver the benefits of open source software.” Totara is a distribution of the free/open source LMS Moodle.

Here are some questions about Totara, most of them with answers. I hope to be able to fill in the missing answers soon. The first question may well be the most critical, in terms of providing the kind of credibility and supporting services that enterprise clients will look for in a provider.

Who is behind Totara? Kineo and Catalyst, the former specializing in e-learning and the latter in open source. That said, neither firm is a stranger to the intersection of learning and open source: each had previously worked with Moodle. Totara was founded as a joint venture between Kineo, Catalyst, and Flexible Learning Network. FLN has since become Kineo Pacific.

What’s the difference between Moodle and Totara in terms of software features? There’s a handy (PDF) comparison table. Not surprisingly, most of the differences take are extensions of Moodle for the enterprise. For example, Totara seems to allow far richer individual development plans than does Moodle 2.0.

Do I download Totara, or is it a hosted service? Up to you, the client.

So can I get started right now? It doesn’t look like it, but it shouldn’t be long (January 2011 – hey, that’s this month), and there are demo webinars and recordings thereof.

Does Totara have social networking features? Now this I’m not sure of. Moodle, and hence Totara, does have some social media features, in that it includes blogs and wikis.

Anyone care to comment on Totara and social networks, or about any other aspect of Totara?

Schoology: Challenges for the New LMS

I’ve posted before on Schoology, a Learning Management System (LMS) with social networking features. This post follows up by identifying some of the challenges facing the new LMS, and the startup behind it. I focus on Schoology as an LMS for educational clients (as opposed to enterprise clients) on the basis of its current testimonials.

The first challenge is awareness. Decision-makers, such as university information technology officers, need to be aware that there is an LMS called Schoology and that it offers social networking features. The LMS market is crowded enough that achieving awareness may not be easy.

The second challenge is articulating the importance of social media in an LMS. Students already have access to social media, in the form of Facebook, Twitter, etc. Is the LMS enhanced by including another set of social media tools?

The third is making the case that a new LMS is required in order to integrate learning management and social media. If those making the LMS purchase decision consider social media important, they are likely to communicate this to Blackboard and other incumbents. Schoology already includes social features, and hence has a head start, but the lead may not be insurmountable.

A fourth challenge relates to Schoology’s credibility. There are two aspects to this. Is Schoology, a new LMS, as well-developed in terms of features and robustness as established solutions such as Blackboard? Does it execute the basics, such as setting up courses and enrolling students, as smoothly as systems that have been used for these basics for many years at many institutions?

The other aspect of Schoology’s credibility challenge relates to Schoology, the startup, rather than to the LMS it offers. It is a fact of entrepreneurial life that many startups fail. Even startups that succeed often do so by being acquired, thus making their founders and investors money. But will the firm that did the acquiring continue to support the product, or did it make the acquisition in order to reduce competition or redeploy the talent of the acquired company? This is a concern often raised in the LMS market, especially in the light of acquisitions by Blackboard.

The above is rather unbalanced, as a list of challenges without discussion of how Schoology intends to overcome them. Rather than make this post longer by adding what I think Schoology is doing, or should do, in the light of these challenges, I’ll contact the Schoology folks to see what they have to say.

Social Learning Management Systems

What are we talking about here? Well, according to Wikipedia:

A learning management system (commonly abbreviated as LMS) is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of training programs, classroom and online events, e-learning programs, and training content.

The word social seems to crop up in connection with learning a lot these days. Maybe we add it to the stock term LMS to create a couple of new alphabet soups. I think that each of the terms is significantly different from regular LMS, and from the other, that the new abbreviations may be useful.

That the two terms mean different things is important. They differ with respect to the units of learning they emphasize. A SLMS emphasizes traditional units of learning: courses. It adds a social component, which may change the way in which learners engage with the content and with each other.

A NSLMS needs to encompass the units of learning content made possible by social media. This includes, to use an example from Bingham and Conner, short videos. It is interesting to note that their primary example of an organization using short videos, TELUS, did away with its existing LMS. It is also interesting to search the index of the book for LMS (or learning management system); there is no such entry.

SLMSs do not typically address the new social learning, any more than traditional LMSs do. SLMSs are more social because they add a social layer to the system for managing learning.

NSLMS, in contrast, are “new social” because they enable management of the new social learning. This means that they recognize smaller and less formal units of learning. To mix one of Bingham and Conner’s terms with one of my own, NSLMSs recognize microsharing as a means of learning.

To state all this is to raise questions about NSLMS. Can they enable the management of microsharing without becoming cumbersome? There are more units of learning, and many more combinations of those units, when microsharing starts to provide some of the learning formerly provided by more traditional learning. (Yes, I do mean “some of,” rather than “all of.”)

Then there are the more fundamental questions about NSLMSs. Who is working on them? How much do organizations need them? Which organizations have already developed in-house NSLMSs?

Perhaps the most fundamental question of all is: do NSLMSs exist?

A Course on Schoology

Schoology is a learning management system (LMS) with social media features. My wish to kick the tires was quickly granted, in the form of the verification of my signing up as a teacher.

I created a course on Schoology. I should clarify that. Do I mean I created a course about Schoology, or that I created a course at schoology.com? Yes, to both. What I created is very much a first version.

You can check out Schoology and the course by going to schoology.com and using access code GT24N-XBSBF. Hope to see some of you there. Since I need to approve registrations using that code, feel free to email me (andrew at changingway dot org) so that I can respond to your registration request promptly.

37signals, One Suite

I’ve long been an admirer of 37signals. Today, Jason Fried announced the 37signals suite. The suite comprises 4 web apps: Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, and Campfire. The last of these is for online chatting, the first three for managing, respectively, projects, contacts, and stuff.

There are three pricing options, starting at $99/month. It’ll be interesting to see how and if that changes. 37signals like to keep things simple, while some of their clients will have “but I want more of this and less of that with price more like that” comments.

It’s interesting to see that this is not a freemium offering. There is no $0 small-scale or trial version of the suite.

37signals is the best example I know of a firm with a strategy. By strategy, I mean propensity to respond to requests with: No, that’s not what we do. In particular:

  • 37s takes a hard line against feature creep. To make it into a product, a new feature has to add a lot more in terms of useful function than it does in terms of clutter.
  • 37s does not believe in losing money to gain clients. It has always priced for profit. There are $0 versions of the apps, but they are intended for trial, not for extended free-of-charge use.

In terms of my own use, I like the first of these things a lot more than I like the second. One of the reasons I stopped using Backpack was because my use outgrew the $0, but my inclination to pay didn’t. I do currently use Highrise.

What should 37s do next? Well, what I’d like them to do is a Learning Management System (LMS). A ruthlessly uncluttered LMS would allow focus on learning from the course, without wasting cycles navigating the LMS. But I don’t think that an LMS is on the 37s radar, and so I’ll keep on writing about other LMSs.