Sunday, March 30, 2008

Articulate - A quick, lean, rapid elearning content creator

One of things I'd like to change in the future, would be to have more time to work on things that can lower the overall cost of training, while lending more flexibility to the way training can be delivered. My thoughts about this issue have led me to meander down the path of e-learning. I have in the recent past been exploring various tools that let someone with minimal exposure to flash scripting and authoring SCORM files from scratch, create engaging e-learning content.

One of the tools I was trying out recently was Articulate. Articulate Presenter, like Brainvisa'sRapidel Enhance builds on the user's knowledge of Microsoft Office, by integrating with MS Powerpoint as an Add-in. Of course you rely on Presenter to provide you with various layouts and use your skill in creating Powerpoint presentations to convert these into Powerpoint, but when it comes to SCORM quizzes and various interactions, you have to rely on the other parts of the bundle - Articulate Quizmaker and Articulate Engage. Articulate Engage is nowhere near a complete interactivity builder such as Raptivity, but is flexible to be able to use flash interactions from other such tools.

Quiz maker steps in, to be the SCORM quiz generator and also helps you generate SCORM compatible surveys (which is a bit of redundant functionality, considering you can easily do this through Moodle). Its a little bit of a concern for firms though, to think that:
a) each of these tools is so bloody expensive (Articulate Studio costs $ 1398, Rapidel - $1999 and Elicitus+Raptivity - $1250)
b) that none of these tools can satisfy ALL of your elearning content creation needs. If you're looking a rapid elearning, then at some point of time or the other, you'd need to use a combination of two or more such tools

Its also a bit of a concern to me that there arent too many Open Source tools in this space, and exelearning, the only OSS tool is really not mature enough to be able to step up to a medium/ large enterprise's needs. In years to come, it'd be nice to see a high quality rapid content authoring tool that comes up in the OSS space, to be able to couple with an LMS like Moodle or Sakai.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Retrospectives: When safety is regularly high

I've recently been facilitating retros for a team where safety has been exceptionally high. As a learning retrospective facilitator, this situation is interesting for me because it makes me want to explore dynamics other than safety. The Agile Retrospectives book has a few activities that I find quite useful. I recently used Explorers, Sailors, Vacationers, Prisoners (ESVP) as a start up activity and skipped the safety check. Its a nice tool to understand people's attitude to the retro.I run it a little differently from the way its described in the book.

Very simply,I choose to keep the activity anonymous and make it more visual. I usually start off by preparing a flipchart/ board with some pictures drawn on them.

    Explorers (could be represented by a flag on a mountain) - Are ready and eager to discover new ideas and gain as much insight as possible.

    Sailors (Could be represented by a simple boat) Are happy to sail on the navigated path and visit at least one new place. (gain at least one new idea)

    Vacationers (Could be represented by a palm tree and a beachball) are happy to be here as its a break from the daily grind. (or simply have nothing better to do!)

    Prisoners (Could be represented as simple bars) are here simply because they have no option! They'd much rather be outside.

I usually then ask the participants to write an "E"/"S"/"V"/"P" on their stickies, fold it up and give it to me (the facilitator). I like doing this, because it keeps their identities secret and yet gives an indication of the general mood of the group.

Obviously there are possible antipatterns to this activity and the book does mention some mitigation strategies that I wont mention here. The couple of runs we did with this were quite successful and very effectively set the tone for the retros. I do recommend this as a "try".

A week back I also tried an absolute mindless and unconventional activity to start a retro (again with a team demonstrating high safety) and conducted a rather funny quiz to get the energy and enthusiasm flowing. The questions were really odd (taken from a slideshow I found somewhere) - eg "How many years did the 100 year war last"? and "Where do Chinese gooseberries come from?". The intention was to get people into a happy enthusiastic mood, and it helped. I know that this is rather a strange beginning to a retro, but at the same time, in the situation and given the dynamics of the team, perhaps the right way to set the tone for the exercises to follow.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A flat world

The world is getting flatter. At midnight in India (around noon in another part of the world) an Indian receives a call from a lady in America. He helps her get her vacation arranged and sends her a complimentary air ticket, which she receives the next day. It isn't surprising how distances seem to become meaningless and how nationalities and geographies almost obscure. A tourist in London buys a bunch of souvenirs to take back home to India. He realizes only when he is back in his apartment, that each of the keychains he purchased has a "Made in China" imprinted on them.

Something special has been happening to the world over the last few years. The center of gravity is shifting to the east and all of a sudden Asia seems to be the sexiest continent of the world. Is this a significant chapter in the history of the world? Who knows! I'm just happy to be a part of being a part of a really amazing story, that I can tell my grandchildren many years later. I look at ThoughtWorks University as a symptom of the flat world phenomenon. Its amazing how at ThoughtWorks, Bangalore is our global melting pot; with new hires from all over the world joining to create an amazing worldwide network. I am not surprised, that besides learning, one of the key goals of the program is to help create the worldwide network. The current group of students is as small as 18. But lets start outlining the million possibilities. This group of 18 has met a group of 6 trainers. Together, they become a group of 24. As they socialize in Bangalore, with TW'ers from various parts of the world, the group becomes bigger. When its time to split, the group isnt just a group anymore. Its a huge global network of people who can perhaps be ready to work with each other at a minutes notice. To have a friend many miles across the world is fantastic; but to know that you're now part of a fast growing global web, where you have someone you can count on, in every continent is just fascinating... very special... a flat world symptom. I cant help marveling at this with every passing day of TWU.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Using a Learning Matrix

Being a non-coaching trainer at Thoughtworks University has meant that I'm the usual suspect to conduct retrospectives. The coincidence helps me practice my retrospection skills. In my last retro, I tried a Learning Matrix, which is really an "end-of-release" retro, but I felt could be useful as an interim retro to generate useful insights and ideas. It is quite simple to run really and involves the facilitator drawing up a flip chart that looks like the picture on the left. As you might have already guessed, the area on the top left represents things that went well and the area on the top right represent what didn't go so well. The ones at the bottom represent ideas (left) and appreciations (right). I like grouping similar items in a single color and hence I keep stickies of a specific color against each category to provide that hint to the attendees.

Often a retro could end up being a crib session, with not many suggestions for improvement and a lack of appreciation for those who make a useful contribution. This of course depends on the dynamics of the team as well, but could often be mitigated by explicitly empowering attendees to share their ideas for improvement. I found my attempt at trying the learning matrix useful, since in my particular case, students came up with excellent suggestions to improve their learning experience. This in effect made the task of coming up with action items, relatively simple. What this also did for the group was create a "feel good" atmosphere, where useful contributions were appreciated and hard work applauded. In hindsight it was perhaps a good choice for the weekly retro, because it helped recognize positive behaviors and strengthen confidence. The only caution I'd like to exercise in an activity like this, is to not direct the session. This is true of most retrospectives, but especially important in a learning matrix as I can imagine that a manager conducting a retrospective could be tempted to be judgmental of ideas put forward.
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