Interview with Al Bejcek, Rob Lowe at NetDimensions

Key Points:

  • Biggest issue is still interoperability, though we haven’t encountered many problems.
  • Mobile learning is increasingly in demand. Offline use, and the JavaScript API are the main (API) problems to be solved.
  • Currently have a portable LMS, runs off a flash drive.
  • Our portable solution will work well without new standards.
  • Customers are asking for social learning.
    • When having trouble in a section of a course, identify people in your network who did well.
    • LMS could provide access point and tracking for social networks.
  • Learning will become much more individualized.

TinCan: Would you mind briefly describing what each of your roles are, and how you’ve used standards and SCORM?

Al: I’m a product manager for our LMS product and some peripheral products, so I’m managing the enhancements, the things we put into the product, the decisions that we make about where we’re driving the product, and some strategy along with working with engineering and people like Rob here as well.

Rob: I’m on the engineering side of the product development. In our LMS we support SCORM 1.2 and 2004, as well as the AICC specifications, the communications specifications and packaging.

Al: We’re also doing OLSA (SkillSoft) and we were actually the very first LMS to work with SkillSoft to make that connection, and do that integration.

Al: From NetDimensions’ standpoint, I think we would like to stand closer now and be part of the next steps from ADL, as much as we can. That helps us as much as ADL.

TinCan: I think everyone would agree with that. We’re happy to hear that. And quite frankly, it’s one of the things we’re trying to bring to the table as part of this research project. Which is to go out there and kind of re-engage the community. And we’ve developed a lot of relationships with a lot of people over the years, and we’ve been explicitly reaching out to a lot of people, like you guys, and trying to let them know there is something going on again, and let’s come together to put something together to be useful to everyone.

Al: I think my biggest issue has always been that this is a reference model and it’s not truly a standard, you don’t plug this into a wall and everyone works the same way. It’s the one biggest issue I would love to see this whole thing really come together in terms of a definite standard.

TinCan: To parse words a little bit there, and say is increased standardization the goal? And I would say no. Because when you’re using those words, they’re loaded words for us standards geeks, and standardization at a formal level means taking five years to go through processes that at the end of the day don’t necessarily produce better results.

Increased interoperability is absolutely on the radar screen and is something we’ve been hearing a lot from people, is to try to sand off those rough edges and find ways to make things work together a whole lot better.

Al: Yes, interoperability. We have quite a few content vendors that we’ve tested with over the years, and for the most part, I think things have worked pretty well.  But it is something that hasn’t really come back to us where we’ve had a lot of problems with SCORM. I don’t know — Rob, is there little to none?

Rob: On the whole, it’s worked pretty well. There are obviously issues where we need to dig in to what’s important under the hood. But as often as not it turns out to be misunderstandings on our part as to what implementers are about, and how certain things should work. Obviously, the test suite is pretty comprehensive, and catches most issues.

TinCan: What new or innovative things are you or your customers doing in your training or learning, and particularly, things that are really forward-looking and maybe pushing the boundaries of what you can accomplish with SCORM?

Al: The whole mobile learning piece of it, in the industry, is pretty much in our face all the time, and it’s getting more and more so.

TinCan: The issues there that relate to SCORM would be the offline, disconnected sort of support as well as the fact that you’ve got a JavaScript API that forces you to involve a browser, right?

Al: Right, exactly. We also released a product last year, mid-year, called mEKP (our LMS is called EKP, Enterprise Knowledge Platform). It runs on a Flash drive, and it’s actually the entire LMS, as much of it or as little of it as you want it to be. That is really how we are promoting portable LMS.

At the same time now, we also have the mobile strategy, the smartphone strategy for iOS and Android, so being able to push that out. We’re moving from just having this portable LMS into the smartphone side of it.

TinCan: We’re looking at a web service API to resolve a lot of the issues we’ve identified. With such an API, content could detect whether there’s a connection and if it has some means of caching, hold on to this data for a while. Is that something that you would have interest in changing your offline methodology to use? Or it’s not as interesting because you’ve basically already solved it?

Rob: I am not immediately sure how that would help, so to consider a couple cases: On phone platforms, we can use the offline capabilities of HTML 5, the local data storing capabilities, so content can communicate through a JavaScript API and we can cache that offline. So if we use that with our portable LMS product, we can cache that on a laptop PC, or tablet, etc., so I don’t immediately see why we would need a separate or different API to do that. But maybe you’re thinking of something that I’m not.

TinCan: One thing I’m thinking is that you are stuck with a JavaScript API, with needing a web browser somehow, so that’s one thing you could get around. I’m also trying to get at — what problems could be solved that would get you or your customers very interested in the adoption of a new API? Are there things that are missing that if we found a way to standardize there would be a big business case for?

Al: For the most part, I think we came up with a really great solution for the mobile learners. I mean, obviously you need a computer, and then we really covered both sides of the coin. Offline learners, the person who has connectivity anywhere they go. I guess I’m not sure the API could help us from here.

TinCan: So getting off of mobile, is there something else that you do think you potentially need some help in terms of what can be provided by an API or standard that would solve a business problem for you?

Al: One of our offerings is a portal tool kit. We can create a portal, and connect it to our system, to the main server. So there’s a bunch of APIs. That’s potentially our biggest challenge at the moment for the portal. However, it’s more of what we’re using our APIs for, and the availability of those APIs. So those typically aren’t connectivity or interoperability problems.

TinCan: What other sorts of things are your customers asking for?

Al: One of the items that we hear more and more about is the integration with social services.  EKP has some nice things already built in like our wiki which can be used for all kinds of dissemination of content including Forums, chats etc;.  In addition to that we also have integrated the wiki directly with courses.  So if a learner needs additional information it’s just one click away.  With the use of our Portal Toolkit which allows clients to create an external portal it can easily interface with the other social applications such as Buddypress or any other broad social applications that are likely to be adopted by enterprise wide clients.

TinCan: What does social learning mean to you?

Al: To me it’s informal learning. It’s connecting to communities or people that supposedly would have the knowledge or expertise that you’re trying to find, and having connections to that.

TinCan: Does social learning lead to interoperability challenges?

Al: None that I can think of. Other than, if you’re in our LMS, if there was some access to content, if there were any issues around access to that.

Rob: I guess if you wanted to design content that, for whatever reason, was aware of your social connections and people you know who might also involve some kind of interactivity, I guess then it could be an interoperability issue.

TinCan: What are the roles of the LMS? So one of those is keeping track or providing a way to access what your social connections are, are there any other roles you would envision?  People can be on Facebook or Twitter, and get information from each other from various forums, and I’m wondering what is the role the LMS actually plays there? Or do you just want to say: Okay, go out and do it?

Al: The role is providing an access point or just a way for you to get into your Twitter or Facebook or Yammer, or whatever accounts you think you’re going to go to, I think. We’re just providing the mechanism for people to get there. It’s our clients who would have to determine, do they want to allow that kind of access, and do they need to track it, do they want to keep track of things? If I were a training administrator at one of those organizations, I would want to know where my people are going. If we are spending money on buying training and then not using it, then that’s not very effective.

Rob: So it could be something offline too, right? You might be interested if someone in your network has taken the same course you are currently taking. If you’re having trouble with a particular part of a course, and someone you know did particularly well on that part, that might be something you’d want to know. Maybe you want to ask them some questions.

TinCan: A way for the course to reach out and somehow identify who the people in the network are and then also see if they’ve taken the course or not. And I guess that could mean that the LMS has somehow loaded information on your network, or at least, those people in your network who also use that LMS. I guess this is where standardization comes into play, to have a way to even identify if people have taken the same course in another LMS, but they’re in your network somehow?

Sure, yeah. There could be a whole host of privacy issues around that, so there’d have to be some control there.

TinCan: Absolutely, that’s where it gets really complicated.

Within a learning experience, what do you think would be useful, or what do you think customers and users want to know about the learner? You mentioned wanting to know their name, maybe what department they’re in, their preferred language, etc.?

Al: We don’t seem to hear that. However that would be an interesting feature or functionality to either determine that, or the user themselves volunteers their preferences for how they want to learn and then be able to provide the various blended learning offerings or scenarios for them.

TinCan: How do your customers want to access the data they want to track? Part of it is how do they want to see it and also where and in what systems do they want to get at it?

Rob: It’s very hard to generalize. Reporting requirements vary from client to client. We’ve built a reporting tool that allows people to construct customized reports because no two clients are the same in what they want to see. I would say, generally, most of the raw data they want is probably there, provided by the SCORM API, but in terms of how they want to slice and dice it, it varies from pretty much every customer.

TinCan: And do you think they want to see it right within the LMS or do they have other systems they are trying to connect that to, that they want to integrate with, and how does that work for them now?

Rob: Most of them get it from the LMS. Some have feeds that go back to their HR systems.

TinCan: Are there few enough HR systems that people integrate with that it’s just not that hard to do one-off integrations with them?

Rob: I’d guess there are about half a dozen that come up regularly, but having said that, on every implementation, pretty much every one is different. So even if you’re dealing with the same product, in our experience, it’s hard to have a sort of out-of-the-box, one size fits all, kind of connections to systems with no tweaking involved.

TinCan: How do you see e-learning changing in the next five to ten years, or what do you think should change?

Al: Mobile, smartphones. I think it’s just going to continue to get completely blown out and blown away. I don’t think a lot of us will be carrying laptops in five years from now. It might be some other kind or type of device that may give you the things that you need. It’s more personal; I think a lot of things will become more personal. Learning, much more individualized and connected and customized for how learners want to access information and perform, performance support and all of that.

Things are changing so quickly, the tablet, I think, is an extreme game changer. Smartphones crept in but the tablet became a pretty big game changer, I think people will just continue to innovate on those kinds of products.



  • Ali Zaheer

    Great interview. This is great and good to know where the world is heading to!

    Thank you to the Gurus!

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