Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ziff-Davis Content Finder

More than ten years ago I had a dream about an intelligent WWW search engine/agent for learning. I called it SAGE for Search AGEnt. Others have now taken that name. I didn't have the vision or resources to see it through.

My idea was that you ask a question and get a reply with a number of questions narrowing the scope of what you wanted to learn and finding out how much you already knew (like a pretest). The agent would then go out to the World Wide Web to find the information. It would not just present you with the results, it would build a sequence (call it instruction if you must) which would lead you through the information like a highly skilled instructor. Such a tool would have to be based not only on search technology but context tools, learning theory and principles and artificial intelligence.

Today, it can be argued that Google is the biggest eLearning tool of all. Most of us use Google several times a day to find sources of information. We often call this research. It is also learning.

The problem with many Learning Management Systems is that they only work within the context of a company or educational institutions. All of us from students to professors to workers to CEO's use the entire World Wide Web world for our learning. With Web 2.0, we are also contributing daily through blogs and wikis and other tools.

The challenge now is that we need tools for managing all of this. RSS is one of the first tools. Ziff-Davis has just partnered with Intellext to release Content Finder which is also Intellext Watson. It is a context sensitive search tool that links to information on the web instantly as you work in a browser or tools like Word and PowerPoint. Check it out at This is a step in the right direction.

Cisco purchases Webex

Another example of the consolidation of the eLearning industry became evident last week with the announcement that Cisco is buying Webex for $2.9 billion.

Cisco has long been considered a leader in its use of eLearning. In 1999, the CEO of Cisco, John Chambers, declared, "The next big killer application on the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error." While it hasn't had that much impact yet, it is true that more and more major companies now have eLearning as a significant component of its training programs (estimated by some to represent about 30% of the market).

In spite of this leadership, I had always considered Cisco's role in the eLearning industry more as a user rather than an active participant. For many years Cisco has heavily relied on video as an eLearning tool - simply videotaping presentations and making them available on their intranet - not exactly innovative but it seems to work well for them.

Cisco's main business has been building and selling networking hardware and the software to support it. Now it seems that they are extending into human as well as technical networking.

Up to now, they have offered an authoring tool called the Cisco Learning Institute (CLI) Virtuoso Authoring System and a virtual classroom/web conferencing tool called Cisco Unified MeetingPlace. I haven't used either of them so I don't know much about them and I don't know if there is a connection between Unified MeetingPlace and Webex. It is clear that they will now be playing a more active role in the eLearning industry. The question remains if they will extend their reach even further.

Clearly Webex has been very successful in spite of substantial competition from virtual classroom/web conferencing software like iLinc, Elluminate, Microsoft Live Meeting, Interwise, Citrix GoToMeeting, and 70 more which are on my list ( Many of these others use superior technologies. Webex' success seems to be based more on marketing which made them the choice for many large companies than it is about product quality.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Video for eLearning

Lately there has been an interesting discussion about video in eLearning on the eLearningDev discussion group. Here are my thoughts.

The most effective use of video is as a feedback tool - you record someone performing an action and play it back for them so they can see what they are doing right and wrong. This can be making a presentation, a sports activity (like golf) or any physical skill. Add some coaching and this can be very powerful. This is tough to do on the web but we many not be far from it.

The second most effective use of video is to demonstrate those skills - as in the golf example and in the development of human interaction skills.

The third most effective use of video is for entertainment as on YouTube but there can also be some benefits here for affective learning - video can be useful for changing attitudes.

The least effective use of video is for talking-head lectures - in addition to being very inefficient instruction, it is a poor use of internet bandwidth. Such use of video may be cheap or quick but unless it actually results in some learning, it isn't effective. There are, however, even exceptions to this. In a company, for example, a video presentation by the CEO can be a very powerful way to communicate the importance of an issue. And I believe that there are learners out there who like to think that they are relating to a person and find some connection through a talking head video. It seems to work to get their attention - one of the necessary conditions for learning.

I have long been somewhat amused by the fact that Cisco who is considered a world leader in eLearning has such a heavy reliance on video. I will give them that it is a quick and easy (other than network bandwidth and learning efficiency) way to get information out to people. Sometimes fast is more important than good.

Video segments should be kept short - 10 minutes as an absolute maximum - shorter is better. If you expect a learner to actually perform a task following the video it should be less than two minutes long.

If video is going to be used, it should be done as professionally as possible with good lighting, actors (if any) and scripting. Otherwise it won't be good learning.

If, like any element in the design of instruction, video is used intelligently to help a learner achieve an objective, it can be effective. But it often isn't.