Monday, February 28, 2011

FAQs related to e-learning


1) What challenges due you think you would face if educating rural India is implemented through e-learning?
The students in rural India aren't very much exposed to computers, web and technologies related to that. So, that would be the major challenge. But there have been initiatives to make them educated and exposed to the same. Also, course contents are being delivered through DVDs to them which they are familiar to at a better extent.

2) How can the e-learning process be made more interactive?Thanks to the WEB 2.0 architecture, there are a lot of ways by which knowledge sharing on the web has become interctive. Collaborative Learning has been growing in stature and this popularity is due to interactive networking, blogging, bookmarking & chat features that come up with e-learning platforms.

3) What can be the role of outsourcing in the e-learning industry?
The content developers of the e-learning system can focus on both the backend (content) and the frontend (the rendition of content online) or on the backend alone. In the latter case, the frontend technology that renders the e-learning content available for users can be outsourced and a majority of firms are adopting this practice. When enquired why, Balaraju, from btechguru says "We earlier used student volunteers to help us with frontend development; But due to non-adherance of deadlines, carelessness etc. it didn't happen the way we wanted it to happen; Resorting to outsourcing has helped things get more professional"

4) Give some examples of successful e-learning platforms?There are abundant platforms that support e-learning. To list a few,
Moodle.org: Moodle is a Course Management System (CMS), also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It is a Free web application that educators can use to create effective online learning sites.
thelearningmanager.com: The Learning Manager (TLM) provides tools for development, delivery, reporting, and management of training and learning materials. It uses a central object repository to facilitate the creation, storage, and reuse of learning content. Based on a modular approach, TLM allows clients to expand and tailor functionality based on their current and changing needs. The Learning Manager users can build the application that matches their organization's requirements.
Other such popular platforms for e-learning are:
btechguru.com, webct.com, ecollege.com. Most of these adopt the LMS as the basic e-learning model.
A popular video-based platform that offers lectures online is the KHAN ACADEMY video channel.
A link to the video channel of Khan Academy is as follows:
http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy?blend=1&ob=4

A sample video on a matrix course in linear algebra:
http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy?blend=1&ob=4#p/c/FD0EB975BA0CC1E0/0/xyAuNHPsq-g

5) Should e-learning be used only as a supplement to traditional classroom learning or should it replace completely?It can either supplement/complement class room training or it can replace classroom training. For example, in the Infosys case we had presented, the e-learning model was supported a traditional classroom atmosphere by adding robustness and efficiency to the way classes are handled; There are also ways by which instructor led training can be offered through virtual classrooms Eg: NPTEL lectures offered by IIT faculty.

6) In a physical classroom, doubts can be cleared instantly. In e-learning, how is this possible?This seemed to be a bottleneck during the initial days but no longer remains one. There are chat-enabled training, conference-initiated training programmes where doubts can be clarified instantaneously and interactive coursewares are also available with FAQs at the end of each module.

7) Are there any technical roadblocks to the healthy growth of e-learning?
Data theft, initial cost of investment of creating an enterprise-ready content delivery platform, limited availability of foolproof methods of evaluation etc. are some of the technical challenges faced by a majority of e-learning service providers. Data theft can be reduced to a considerable extent through technologies such as 'print2flash' etc. The methods of evaluation are now getting better with the support of camera based monitoring in test centres etc.

8) Is online the only way of evaluation in e-learning?As stated earlier, e-learning can supplement classroom based learning and in such cases, the evaluation based on the learning offered can be made online/offline through the paper-pen based test format. For tests that have gone online, different modes of evaluation are available. These include MCQ tests, interactive cases/quizzes on concepts learnt, evaluation of projects through Blogs & sites dedicated for such projects etc.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lots to 'learn' from Bodhbridge/Btechguru!

Bodhbridge / Btechguru - An entrepreuneurial setup

This post would look at Bodhbridge, an e-learning service provider incubated in DoMS, IIT Madras as part of the C-TIDES entrepreneurial nurture initiative. The post will focus on some of the highlighting features they have been able to provide in the short span they have been functional, their Business model, core competencies, etc.


Highlighting features:
Their focus right now is on providing technical learning material for engineering courses and 240 courses from various streams of engineering are on offer.

They have even made it possible to extend e-learning to rural centres with their free DVDs initiative through which they have been able to render 20,000+ DVDs. When enquired about the success of the initiative, the founder says that it has been quite successful and they are looking forward to extending the same to many more potential pockets.

They have even made it possible to create a 'Technical social networking' site with users having private pages where they can share their learning materials & show their areas of interest. There are about 28,000+ registered users on the site.

Within just about 3 years since its inception, the enterprise has been able to get a Google Page Index of 50,000 with apeak time page rank of 7 which have been achieved only by the likes of the more famous rediff.com and other such popular Indian sites.

Core competencies & content model

They focus on three methods through which they leverage the learning through web. These are:

Static Model: Here, the content is static. They have researched on relevant courses that are on demand and have published content and links to authorised content in other sites on to these static pages which registered users have access to.

Collaborative Model: It is here that the maximum potential of 'e' in 'e-learning' gets utilised. The collaborative model relies on the sharing of knowledge among the users and this is enabled through a robust IT infrastructure they have thanks to WEB 2.0 technology. There are platforms of sharing such as Blogs, Bookmarks, interactive courseware etc that would help people share knowledge.

Video based Model: With the increasing network bandwidths, the focus is slowly shifting to video lectures and Bodhbridge isn't too late to capture that. They have a tie-up with NPTEL of IITs and share the NPTEL lectures through their website.

Business Model

As they basically cater to the under-graduate junta, the access of its user base to internet is a big advantage and they use that for promoting their presence through tie-ups with events of colleges.
The IT & website design have been outsourced; The behemoth of the databases is handled by Oracle & their front end is managed through PHP scripted webpages. Their revenue model has three branches to it:
1) Subscription model: Users subscribe at the site for a given price to gain access to some of the online courses and tests.
2) Transaction model: The transferrable courseware (in the form of DVDs) can be bought through online transactions. They employ the popular shipping-cart transaction model
3) Advertisements model: They are not much into it but with the amount of following that they have garnered , it wouldn't be long before a chunk of their revenues are yielded by advertisements.

Future Plans:
Their future plans focus on bringing interactive and online material based training and tests for a hugely demanded competitive exam CAT. They are also focussing on the adoption of 'Print2Flash' to avoid miscreants from involving in data stealing & theft which is a common problem with e-learning course materials.

With the giant strides that they have been able to make & the potential scope they seem to have, it looks like the academy is a shining elucidation to the fact that e-learning is an excellent entrepreneurial idea!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quantifying e-Learning with relevant parameters

The advantages of using technology to create a shared learning environment in the field of e-learning have been presented in a few posts in this blog. Adopting technology for learning through the use of online discussion forums, which as reported has beneficial impact on the teaching and learning process, has also been discussed in a previous post. But, quantification or evaluation of such a process has not been presented and that will be the premise of this post.

Online discussion forum is a form of learning through networking which provide opportunities for students to seek, obtain, and share information. Therefore, students’ participation and interaction in the forum can provide some insight into how they learn about a course in a virtual environment. In addition, it is also essential to consider how online discussion forums may promote knowledge constructions in students.We make use of a study involved in a research paper that examines preliminary data of an online discussion forum in a course at Masters level (MA) in order to investigate if there is evidence of shared construction of knowledge among students through collaborative learning behaviours.

The paper presents two models, namely the Interaction Analysis Model and Collaborative Behavior which are used to examine the online discourses. The Interaction Analysis Model examines constructivist knowledge creation phases, while categories of Collaborative Behaviour display collaborative learning situations.

The various sub-categories of these two models and their description are as follows:
IAS Model:
Phases
Sub Categories
Sharing/comparing of information
(A), statement of observation or opinion, (B)
corroborating examples provided by one or more participants, (C) statement of agreement from one or more other participants, (D) asking and answering questions, to clarify details of statements (E) definition, description, or identification of a problem.
Discovery, exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements
(A) identifying and stating areas of
disagreement, (B) asking and answering questions to clarify source of extent of disagreement (C) restating the participants’ position and possibly advancing arguments or considerations.
Negotiation of meaning/co-construction
of knowledge-4
(A) Negotiation or clarification of the meaning of terms, (B) Negotiation of the relative weight to be assigned by types of argument, (C) Identification of areas of agreement or overlap among conflicting concepts (D) Proposals and negotiation of new statements embodying compromise, co-construction.
Testing and modification of proposed
synthesis or co-construction
(A) Testing the proposed synthesis against ‘received fact’, (B) testing against existing cognitive schema, (C) testing against personal knowledge.
Agreement statements/applications of
newly constructed meaning
(A) summarization of agreements,(B) applications of new knowledge (C) metacognitive statements of
participants illustrating their understanding that their knowledge or ways of thinking have changed as a result of the conference interaction experience, (D) testing against formal data collected (E) testing against contradictory testimony in literature.


Collaborative Behaviour categories:

Category
Description
Contributing
Help giving: responding to questions & requests from others
Feedback giving:
providing feedback on proposals from others.
Exchanging resources & information to assist other group members
Sharing existing knowledge and information with others
Challenging others: challenging the contributions of other members & seeking to engage in debate
Explaining or elaborating: supporting one’s own position
(possibly following a challenge)
Seeking Input
Help seeking: seeking assistance from others
Feedback seeking: seeking feedback to a
position advanced
Advocating effort: urging others to contribute to the group effort
Monitoring
Monitoring group effort: Comments about the group’s process & achievements

Participants & Questions:
The researchers of the paper chose a sample population of 15 people and got asnwers to the following 6 levels of questions from them:

1. Basic constructivist question – questions that encourage students to create meaning out of the course content.
2. Literature-based question – questions whereby students are instructed to find existing, discipline specific literature to prove or disprove, agree or disagree, or expand upon the concept under discussion.
3. Experiential question – questions which are designed around a concept or theory that is taught but is aimed directly for students to bring in their personal experiences.
4. Post building – questions which are built on questions which were asked earlier in the course.
5. Evaluative/reflections question – questions whereby students are asked to reflect on the course so far or the current lesson.
6. Final question with instructions – questions that have some form of assessment and instruction build into it, e.g., asking students to show their depth of understanding or to synthesize and to evaluate the topic discussed

Analysis of the results:

After analyzing in detail the content of the replies posted by the students, several patterns of interactions emerged which revealed the various phases of interaction based on the Interaction Analysis Model. The students’ discourses represented reflective discourses through collaborative learning behavior that lead to construction of knowledge.

The data collected on the two topics posted in the online forum at the beginning of the course revealed that there were instances of agreement, disagreement, explanation and negotiation of meaning, help giving, sharing of knowledge and illustration of understanding as a result of participation in online discussion. This implies that the students were engaged in some fairly deep and thorough review of the topics. Based on the content analysis of the students’ discourses, longer postings tended to include support such as personal experiences, references from readings and links to relevant websites.
In addition, the students handled the discussion and participated actively throughout the discussion. The
lecturer only contributed four times on both topics. Thus, there is clear evidence that the students were involved in collaborative learning as they worked together to develop responses to the topic delivered and discussed in class. Much bridging and triggering occurred in the asynchronous collaboration, through
participation and taking responsibility in learning.

Some Inferences:

In the IAM model stats shown below, Phase I, which is about sharing and comparing information has the highest score because students need to share and compare information in order to develop anunderstanding of the topic before they moved on to the other phases. As the results revealed, the phase with thenext highest score is phase II on discovery and exploration of ideas, concepts and statements. This is expected because after the students have compared and shared information, they are ready and confident to discuss and explore ideas, concepts and statements posted by members of the discussion board. Both phases III and IV have similar results. Only 12.5% of replies fell in phase IV (applications of newly constructed meaning) because this is the beginning of the semester and the students may have not done a lot of reading yet.


The content analysis of collaborative behaviour as in the right side of the fig above, show that giving feedback and explaining have helped the students in the process of sharing
knowledge. In addition, their initiative of seeking input in order to seek assistance from their friends is also
indicative of collaborative learning behavior. Therefore, this suggests that the collaborative behavior contributed to the five phases of interaction (IAM model), which enabled students to arrive at knowledge construction through participation in the online forum discussion.
The findings also indicate that the students actively processed and reviewed the postings in the online
discussion forums. They also relate their postings to what they have learned in the lectures, besides providing links to relevant websites for further reading. Therefore, there is evidence that the students worked collaboratively in order to respond to the postings based on the topics presented during the lecture and tutorial. Also an analysis of the students' learning indicate various phases of knowledge construction (based on the IAM model), which reflects their levels of cognition.

Web References:
[1] Jamaluddin Aziz, Norizan Abdul Razak, Jalaluddin Abdul Malek, Nor Fariza Mohd Nor, Zaini Amir. Community Broadband: Education for All. Proceedings of the 8th. WSEAS Conference on
Education and Educational Technology, 2009, pp. 248-252.

[2] Saadé, R.G. & Huang, Qiong. Meaningful Learning in Discussion Forums: Towards Discourse Analysis. Issues In Informing Science and Technology, Vol. 6, 2009, pp. 87-98.

[3] Nor Fariza Mohd. Nor, Norizan Abdul Razak, Jamaluddin Aziz. E-learning: Analysis of online discussion forums in promoting knowledge construction through collaborative learning. WSEAS Transactions on Communications. 2010.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

e-Learning & Web forums - The diabolic duo!

Innovators or immediate users of a product are identified by software developing firms and they are offered to work on the beta versions of the softwares developed. This creates a win-win situation where the organiation uses technical skills of enthusiastic learners free of cost and the learners get the experience of using the tool before it is out in the market. The OPEN SOURCE revolution that has been making waves in the past decade with the success of LINUX must owe its success to the e-learning approach. Without that, continuous work & improvements on open source technologies would have remained only a dream.

In addition to this, the online technical forums serve as a medium where employees across organizations share their views and issues related to a technology and this enables a seamless interaction among technologists paving the way for a technically better equipped software world.

For example, consider the following scenario which almost everyday happens in every other IT organization:
  • An employee working at Microsoft might have some difficulties in learning the usage of a particular software he is not familiar with.
  • He might post his problem in an online forum like eggheadcafe.com, sqlcentral.com or other such sites/ technical blogs.
  • An employee of an organization that serves Microsoft, say Infosys , might have had years of expertise on the software and might provide a solution to the microsoft employee and might even suggest a change to the software that might help everyone in the long run.
  • The suggestion might reach the developing team at Microsoft and they might come up with a new software update on that product with the suggestion incorporated into it.
As another elucidation to this point, we bring out an experience of one of the bloggers of our team:

When the Internet Explorer 8 was launched, the beta version of it was required to be tested. Training on testing techniques were offered online and the Microsoft technical forum got around 30 'high pri' bugs which they rectified before launching the product. This is a classic example of how electronic learning can transcend boundaries to give way for e-support too. Imagine how bad the reputation of IE would have suffered had they launched without this user feedback initiative.


The various forums that Microsoft make use of to train and then tap the potential of the very many techies are:
  • Microsoft e-Learning forum
  • Tech Support Forums
  • Partner Support Forums
  • Social MSDN Forums (MSDN is an earlybird  success story of managing e-learning effectively in the IT domain)
  • MS Newsgroups
  • MS Blogs
In this way, e-learning has been quietly demonstrating its prowess through online forums in not only leveraging technology but also improvising and altering it for the world's good.

E learning through Social Networking –#2(Twitter)

In this age of micro blogging and social networking, we wanted to look at the usage of twitter in e-learning. “E learning in 140 characters-You must be kidding.”
This is exactly what we thought when we started to explore this possibility. But it showed us a vast ocean of opportunity through which we can leverage Twitter in e learning.

Twitter provides us with a unique communication platform where both synchronous as well as asynchronous communication can take place. This is important because it allows a teacher the best of both forms of communication and the ability to utilize the power of them using just one application. So we could request information the night before and then return to those responses after some time. On the other hand we could help on the spot or current time frame when it is needed. When we are planning to use Twitter as part of a lesson or to support learning the asynchronous facet of Twitter communication is perhaps the most useful. We can gather responses to a tweet over a short period of time and return to explore them with the class.

Some of the other ways in which twitter has been used in e learning are:
  • Twitter can be used as a teaching as well as a learning tool. Like minded professionals can get together and share their learnings and how they go about e learning.
  • Most of the people compare twitter with the river that is flowing In the case of learning also, people prefer flow learning rather than directed learning. If you are one of them, then Twitter is the place to be in. Here you can start a topic and just #tag it and spread it among your peers. If the topic is interesting, it just catches on and in a week or so, you can see the topic trending.
  • Twitter provides with such a vast amount of content and information that you are spoiled for choices when you want to execute a particular task.
  • It can be used as a market research tool to get feedback from various teachers and students from all over the world. This will provide us with best practices from around the world.
  • In a conference, people can tweet their questions with the same # (hash) Tag. Through this, we can get immediate feedback to the questions
Though the above things might sound a little too geeky for beginners, some of the things that any one new to social media and twitter can do is:

Follow the Experts in the respective fields: Search for experts in a particular field and follow them. You could learn a lot from their tweets. If you have any doubts, you can even ask them in twitter.

Follow the Subject itself: We can follow a particular subject, especially if it’s a popular one, by just adding a hash tag (#) to the subject and searching for it. We will get a lot of information and content through which we can do our learning.

Build a network of learners: There’s no reason why we couldn’t use Twitter to help facilitate a community of practice.The real value in social media is the ability to connect people who share similar interests and get them to exchange ideas. If you are a teacher, ask the learners to use Twitter to share their thoughts. For example, instead of giving them an assignment, make the assignment their Twitter stream. They need to reflect on what they’re learning in the course and then share that with others. Another way to get them involved is to have them share links and other information relevant to what they’ve learned. Even if the course content is proprietary, there’s no reason why they couldn’t go out and look for other thought leaders or groups in the same industry to build on what they’re learning in your course.

So what are you guys waiting for? Go and start tweeting about e learning!!

Note: The e learning Hash tag (#elearning) is very much a popular one among regular users of twitter. It helps them to keep track of all the latest happenings in e learning field. So when you tweet, try to tweet with that Hash Tag to get a wider range of audience.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

“Cost effective e-learning for public schools!!!!”

So far in the blog we have spoken about the advantages of e-learning to the young working middle class, about how we can leverage the use of social networking sites in e –learning and most important of all the role of content management systems and interface in an e-learning system. So a person needs to be able to afford atleast an internet connection and a computer to learn through the internet. E-learning service providers are thriving and currently are picked up like hot cakes by Venture capitalists. This is large evidence that e-learning has been a success among the upper middle class and the upper class.

In this context let’s analyse the Indian market
·         Estimated population in 2011 is 1 billion
·         72.2% are in villages
·         37% of the population is under the poverty line
·         Unemployment rate is 9.4%(2009-10)

This huge pool of underprivileged people needs education and e-learning can make this possible. From the company’s point of view this is a huge untapped market, from the government’s point of view this is the easiest way to rejuvenate the defunct and degraded public school system. C.K Prahalad’s vision of starting at the bottom of the pyramid and serving the rural and underprivileged as a business model can really come true and be a win win situation for all of us. So how can we do this? Do we have a model in place? Has any country that has done it before?

The one advantage of being a laggard is we can learn from other’s mistakes. Luckily as Indians we have Singapore which has converted its public schools to a teacher assisted e-learning model. The model seems simple and the knowledge of the experts from industry and other organisations is transferred to the students in villages by computers provided at their schools. Sounds simple, but it took them 12 years to perfect this model. Let’s get an overview of how this works
· The emphasis was on “Quality and effectiveness” of e –learning initiatives rather than content and LMSs. This makes perfect sense as the government’s aim is to improve literacy and do it in a fail-safe effective manner at first rather than creating perfect interfaces
· They formulated Key competencies that the student must be equipped with at the end of the e-learning course.
· They defined quality as “quality relates to obtaining the best learning achievements (50%).  Together with 'something that is excellent in performance' (19%), this primarily pedagogical understanding was more widespread than options related to best value for money or marketing[1]
· Effectiveness, rather than technology, is the key, and defining this is perhaps both the most difficult and important step in deciding how to invest in e-learning

So they came up with the following master plan to lay the foundation and build on the base for e-learning it had the following baby steps

·         Build the strong foundation for schools to harness ICT
·         Provide basic ICT infrastructure
·         Equip teachers with a basic level of ICT integration &  competency
·         363 schools had fundamental building blocks in place to use ICT in the curriculum
·         30% of ICT usage in curriculum 

People argue that Singapore is smaller than India’s smallest state, if with their tough laws and innovative policies took 12 years, for India it will take hundred. On a lighter note we may be slow and corrupt but with the latest exposes of the 2G scam, Radia Tapes, Devas deal, Commonwealth games, RIL’s insider trading and many more(the blog is just not to talk about scams) the politicians won’t be willing to take any more risk in a matter as serious as education this soonJ. The actual truth though is we have the technology in place and the ability to analyse and perfect the whole process of Singapore’s online education system. The very first issue to address in India though is to create content in various languages. E-learning firms and government can work hand in hand and make this initiative a success. A literate India is another thing that we could all be proud of as Indians.

References:
[1] Quality in e-Learning – use and dissemination of quality approaches in European e-Learning
[2] Report of 7th International E-Learning Conference for a Knowledge-Based Society Srisakdi Charmonman IT Center

e-Learning through Social Networking - #1 (Facebook)

The tremendous potential that e-Learning offers is now being efficiently tapped through sharing of knowledge online thanks to the fame and attention that the term 'social networking' has grabbed.
Online web forums are another technical networking outlets where geeks from all round the globe rendezvous and discuss related topics creating breakthrough in terms of technological innovations.

This post would take a sneak peek into the ways by which the online networking communities have paved the way for the sharing of knowledge through e-learning.

If this was not one of his motives, Zuckerberg has unknowingly unleashed a, what could be a powerful educational tool, if used properly.Everyone knows how to use Facebook to find old friends or connect with family, but how can educators use it as a learning tool?
Teachers can utilize Facebook for class projects, for enhancing communication, and for engaging students in a manner that might not be entirely possible in traditional classroom settings. Listed below are some of the most effective ways by which, we feel, e-learning can be done over facebook:

1. Book Reviews:
The online scholastic community is one that has been ever growing and with e-books replacing paper bound books, it is only appropriate that people share information and knowledge on the various genres of books online and learn about them with just a click.
2. Writer's Workshops:
There has been a sudden upsurge in the number of budding writers thanks to the kind of online learning and training packages & tools that enable aspiring script writers to develop their views in the suitable format. What once was a rare commodity, workshops on specific skills are now just a touch of the mouse away!
3. Journal Entries/Blogs:
Students can use the Notes section to post book reviews for other students to read or teachers to
grade, access each other's papers for peer reviews, or simply maintain online journal entries or
blogs allowing other students to respond and react.
4. Literature Responses:
Students can create facebook representation of works of literature or any unit of knowledge they
are learning about.
5. Follow News Feeds and Current Events:
Students may follow news feeds relevant to the course material in order to keep current
information flowing through the class.
6. Create a News Source for the Classroom or School:
Students can keep up with news like World News Webcast that provides video clips of world
news, share their favorite stories to their wall, and respond to classmates' news of interest.
Students can also use their status update feed as a breaking news source for sports results,
academic competition results, school news and events.

In terms of the break-up of the number of applications related to various fields on facebook, Education stands at a good 5th but it won't be long before it breaks into the top 3! What holds good for facebook holds good for almost all the other social networking sites. Another post on how the combination of e-learning with another micro-revolution named Twitter will soon be out. Check that out too.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Content Development for e-Learning systems - A microscopic view

E-learning provides a platform where a person can interact with teachers, students and even take exams online. This sure is fun. The whole interaction in the absence of a physical environment provides e-learning the edge in a generation to whom 24 hours is just not enough. All these factors surely make e-learning the choice but developing content, platform, and a user interface can be tricky. In the recent years many e-learning companies have grown to great heights but some companies have failed too. Effective managing of content and the user interface is what defines success in case of an e-learning firm.
Content development holds the key to this puzzle.


The biggest and the most time consuming process is content development. The course content must be
1. Easy to understand
2. Up-to date
3. Authentic &
4. Interactive

Developing such content may not be possible by employing full time professors in all the subjects. Thus in case of an e-learning system the authors of the content may not be working for the company. They might be teachers or enthusiasts about the subject who want to share it with others. In such a case the authenticity of the content comes into question. Wikipedia-a knowledge source, allows a user to edit or remove content. Its content management system allows a user to provide citations and authenticate data. They have a dedicated team of employees who check the content and also respond to any breach of contracts and patent violations.

Traditionally all e-learning companies have a data warehouse where they collect and store data for future use. They call this learning management system. Where the content is developed and stored in a warehouse by the company and students retrieve the data via the user interface. This method was not efficient because
1. Past content was not used to develop the new content
2. Extensive storage space
3. Extensive man-power to correct the data and verify authenticity
4. Time consuming process

Learning content management systems or LCMS for short is a tool used by many companies to manage their content assets. This is a data mining or warehousing system where all the content is stored for ease of retrieval and use. Re-using or re-purposing of the existing content is the strength of LCMS. To understand how this works let us consider the following flow chart:

The system provides a lot of advantages:
1. Multi-user environment
2. Developers may create, store, reuse, manage, and deliver digital learning content
3. Virtual spaces for student interaction (such as discussion forums, live chat rooms and live web-conferences)
The whole content along with the images the graphics etc are called as “Learning objects”. The re-use of learning objects is the one that gives a company using LCMS a competitive edge. In case of companies using training modules as a part of induction programs the LCMS provides a perfect way to train every group of employees by modifying content to their preference without having to create a new content for every audience.

From a business perspective LCMS provides the following advantages
  • Centralized management of an organization's learning content for efficient searching and retrieval,
  • Productivity gains around rapid and condensed development timelines,
  • Productivity gains around assembly, maintenance and publishing / branding / delivery of learning content.
Rather than developing entire courses and adapting them to multiple audiences, an LCMS provides the ability for single course instances to be modified and republished for various audiences maintaining versions and history. The objects stored in the centralized repository can be made available to course developers and content experts throughout an organization for potential reuse and repurpose. This eliminates duplicate development efforts and allows for the rapid assembly of customized content.

So with content being developed and managed efficiently the next big step is creating the user interface. Follow the blog for further updates.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

e-Learning as a Business tool

When we choose our area of study as “E-Learning”, the first thing people told was, “It looks like a viable business option for budding entrepreneurs”. Any business must get its basics right before commercialising it. The basic product of any e-learning venture is the e-learning module. In this post, we discuss some of the necessary things that a company has to decide before setting up an e-learning module.

1. Technology Support
The e-learning market has over the years had made huge technological advances. As there have been rapid leapfrogs in the information technology sector off late, e-learning has evolved tremendously in meaning, with new features rapidly emerging on the e-learning horizon. Some of them are discussed below:

LMS(Learning Management System)
A learning management system is a software application for the administration of the training programs, and training content in an organisation. LMS systems are web based ones developed using application programming languages.
Some of the functions of LMS are:
  • Systems for managing training records
  • Distribution of courses over the internet
  • Corporate Trainings
Managed learning Environment (MLE)
While LMS deals with the administration side of e-learning, MLE deals with the management side of it. MLE is the one which looks after the way in which the module is developed to the way in which it is delivered. In a way, MLE creates the relationships between learners, teachers and organisers of learning, through integrated support for communications and activities. For example, the managed learning environment allows the facilitator to indicate when chat sessions are available, determine the time periods for actively taking an exam, and how long lessons and materials for a given section of the course are available for viewing.

Virtual Learning Environment (VLE):
We can view VLE as a component or subsystem of the broader application of the managed learning environment. Virtual learning environment focuses on the tools used in the process of teaching in an online setting. The tools can be used for
  • Content management
  • Conducting Assessments
  • Organization and distribution of student grades
The diagrammatic representation of a sample MLE as given by Moira Bent,University of Newcastle is given below:


2. Content Development
Content Development is one of the vital aspects for any e-learning module. The first and foremost thing that people should avoid is exactly replicating the same contents as in the textbook. A development of appropriate e-learning model is important before we design the curriculum. This follows the normal life cycle that any product development undergoes. We will discuss a couple of models that are most commonly used:

ADDIE Model
It gives a 5 step approach for content development for e-learning
Assess – Design – Develop – Implement – Evaluate
Though the model in itself is very generic, it’s one of the successful and widely used models.
User-Centred design Model:
The user-centred process places the user as an active participant in the design of the product. After the need, target audience, and a basic e-learning solution have been determined the design process begins. Here, the end-user of the learning is actively involved.

Rapid E-Learning Model:
Nearly 90% of organizations need to develop e-learning in three weeks or less. With time being such an important factor, Rapid E-Learning begins to answer the needs of these people and their organizations. It borrows heavily the valuable aspects of the above two models and comes up with its own new model. Subject Matter Expects sit together and develop the curriculum. It is updated regularly keeping in mind the current trends in the particular area of study.

3. Instructional Design Strategy

The most important aspect of e-learning is how the teaching and learning takes place. Instructional strategies determine the approach a teacher may take to achieve the learning objectives. The strategies are usually tied to the needs and interests of students to enhance learning and are based on many types of learning styles. Strategies used in the traditional classroom setting can be used to create effective and a dynamic learning environment online. There are many types of instructional strategies that can be used in an online environment. The single ground rule that must be kept in mind is that the student should be an active participant rather than a passive recipient. We will discuss some of them over here

Collaborative Learning
This creates a dynamic online learning environment which involves interaction between students. The most effective way to implement collaborative learning is to create groups of students with different skill set levels. This helps the students to work well in a group environment, and enhance their communication and critical-thinking skills. Collaboration involves interaction, but not all online learning interaction is two-way. Online tutorials, for instance, are a method of collaboration that involves a one way information flow, where an instructor explains it, but the learner cannot interact with the instructor. But he will be given a certain time slot where he can clarify his doubts.

Self-Directed Learning
Self-directed learning is learning initiated and directed by the learner which can include self-paced, independent, and individualized learning. This strategy can be very effective, as it forces the learner to take the initiative, resulting in a more active learning process, thereby facilitating a deeper understanding of the material. Students can work independently, visiting virtual libraries, forums whenever they find time. This is especially useful for working professionals who could take classes according to their own time availability. Most of the e-learning courses are self-directed though sometimes virtual classrooms take place during a particular timeslot.
Some of the common techniques used for effective e-learning include discussion through online forums, Simulation of the therotical concepts, creation of online focus groups.
At the end of the day, though there may be many instructional strategies that can be utilized in an online classroom, it is the instructor who must decide the most appropriate method of delivery. That decision must be based upon the information to be imparted, the learners themselves, and the availability of technology.

4. Mode of Delivery
After the development of the e-learning module and choosing the instructional design strategy, we will now look into how this can reach our end user- the student. The type of delivery essentially depends upon our target audience. Let us look at a couple of examples and see how the entire module and mode of delivery differs for the two:

E-learning module for schools (Primary education):
It is important that we develop a module which is more visual in nature. It should also come with an instructor manual as there are usually teachers in the classroom who walk through the e-learning module. Usually, the modules are packaged in a disc and send to the schools. The other mode is the usage of virtual classrooms where the classes are broadcasted through web to the students.

E-learning module for corporate:
The e-learning module must not only include theoretical concepts but also simulations which will help the trainees to understand the concepts better. Most of the time, these are online modules which needs to be accessed from websites. While developing this e-learning module, we must keep in mind that there will be very little instructor help for these modules. Online forums must be opened so that the trainees are given a chance to discuss the concepts with their peer group. The assessment is also done online for these kinds of modules.

What we have discussed here are the basic aspects that must be kept in mind while developing the e-learning module. The implementation and the commercial aspects of e-learning as a business will be continued to be discussed in further posts.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Leveraging e-Learning the Infosys way! - A case study

An attempt at tying up what we have learnt in the course with the topic of our project – ‘e-Learning’ is what constitutes this blog post. We take up the e-Learning solution adopted by the giant software firm Infosys Technologies Ltd in its Mysore development centre to train the behemoth of fresh graduates who come off varied backgrounds and levels in terms of their familiarity with Computers & IT.
We look at the Infrastructure management adopted by Infosys for its extensive & highly reputed freshers training programme. It is to be noted that the position of various facets of e-Learning in the IT Infrastructure Pyramid is alone presented here. The presence of other constituents of Infosys in this pyramid is not covered. So, this could be considered as the Infrastructure pyramid for e-Learning alone.
Off to the topic now!
The five prominent elements in the design and implementation of the e-learning IT infrastructure are:
  • Corporate Strategy
  • IT Architecture
  • IT Infrastructure
  • Systems
  • Processes
We will look at how Infosys’s e-learning training programme has successfully scoped these.

Corporate Strategy:
This deals with the organization’s key competencies and how it wants them delivered to the clients.
The strategy of Infosys is to provide turnkey IT solutions to its clients by managing their data, converting the data into information which could help the client in improving their own customer related strategies. So, the e-learning programme’s strategy focuses on training the fresh recruits and making them industry ready. As the clientele of Infosys is diverse, the strategy is to leverage training on diverse technologies to the trainees.

IT Architecture:
The strategy is just a specification. The all important IT architecture is what takes care of transforming the strategy into a plan that could be worked on. Infosys understands this and the key words in the corporate strategy that the Architecture exploits are ‘diverse technologies’ and ‘industry ready’. So, the architecture of the e-learning plan focuses on quenching these two aspects.

‘Diverse technologies’ is handled by segregating the programme into four distinct streams:
  • MAINFRAMES
  • .NET
  • Open Systems
  • JAVA/J2EE
Such a plan also ensures that the number of trainees put under these distinct programmes is in sync with the demands for these technology streams in the client projects.

‘Industry ready’ is handled by a generic training programme which deals with Organization related training on:
  • Soft Skills
  • Project Management
  • Quality Control
This unblemished architecture plan has been highly efficient and is now being adopted by many other IT organizations as well.

IT Infrastructure:
This is the focal area of the blog. The maximum utilization of e-learning is done in this area of the pyramid. Infosys Mysore has two dedicated training centres in its sprawling campus named the Global Education Centres 1 & 2.
In combination, the two centres trains around 50,000 employees an year and approximately a staggering 5000 candidates at a time. Let us look where e-Learning scores in this area:
  • Class rooms that can accommodate 200-250 trainees are part of the GECs– Imagine achieving this with unbelievable efficiency with a traditional classroom setup! Next to impossible.
  • It is India’s single largest investment on Education – a strong testimony to the prowess of e-Learning!
  • As another example of how e-learning scores over traditional learning, let me present the following:
The training offered to one of the batches undergoing .NET training had to be changed from .NET 2.0 to .NET 3.5. Consider the changes that must have been required in a class-room setup:
As there were around 8 batches being trained in .NET in parallel, at least 15 staffers need to have been trained ahead in .NET 3.5
Courseware need to have been printed and provided to the 1000 odd trainees.
This would have taken its own time!
With the e-Learning infrastructure in existence, all they had to do was:
Update the online .NET 2.0 courseware to .NET 3.5
Install the latest version of Microsoft Visual Studio in the systems.
An evening was all they took to do it!!

Systems Applications:
This is the backbone of the e-learning programme. An universal course design package is created which is subject to updations time and again based on the technological evolutions surrounding the topics.
The applications can be classified and explained in the following categories:
1. Dedicated department for course design
Education & Research – This is a dedicated unit comprising senior technical employees of Infosys who rigorously work on designing and packaging courseware for the various modules of the training programme.

Infosys Leadership Institute – This unit focuses on honing the communication, presentation and soft skills of employees to help them better interact with clients and score distinctly above the employees of competing organizations who work with the same clients!

K-Shop - This is an innovative e-learning idea that best describes the idea of sharing knowledge. Employees can post documents related to technological challenges faced in their projects and solutions to overcome them. Another employee working elsewhere working on the same technology can face the same problem and it would be easy for him to reuse this solution.

2. Online tests
The trainees are tested on the different modules in which they get trained in form of online tests. These online tests are based on a huge question bank on different modules with random questions for different sets of trainees. The package dubbed as ’Perception’ provides a quick and effective testing means and the marks of trainees are fed into a database as soon as they end their tests.

3. Online reports generation for trainees
The trainees also get a consolidated report of their test performances & the application that does this is christened ‘i-Lite’.

Organizational Processes:
To ensure that the IT infrastructure & Systems applied into the training programme pay dividends, the organization adopts the process of tying the performance of trainees in the programme with the compensations they receive. It is a startling fact that the linking of these two systems is also done electronically. i.e., the performance are learnt electronically (e-learning again!) from the online reports that reside in the employee’s database and these are tied-up with the pay-slip system online through which the task is made very easy.

This is how Infosys has adopted the amazing discovery called ‘e-learning ‘ and used it as its crux to create a cream of technically efficient workforce. It is unsurprising that its competitors are already adopting the Infosys model in training their workforce. Gone are the days of marker pens writing ‘OOPS’,’inheritance’ & ’Polymorphism’ on white boards.

The following is a quote by Infosys founder Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy on the e-learning training programme of Infosys,Mysore:
“The education center’s training programme is a testimony of Infosys’ commitment to building the competency of our employees. Special programmes are being conducted at the GEC for students from Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, UK, USA and various other countries”.

Doesn’t the second sentence of the quote state yet another benefit of e-learning over its classroom counterpart?! Even technology cynics & laggards would agree that in the game between traditional and e-learning, the scoreline is ADVANTAGE e-Learning; Break Point. It won’t be long before e-Learning wins Game,Set & Match. Happy e-learning!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Challenges to e-learning & possible avenues to overcome them

Even though e-Learning is one of the most startling utilizations of the developments in electronic & web world, it has its share of constraints. We have thus far written only about the pros of the trends in e-learning.

This post would focus on the challenges associated with the implementation of e-learning solutions in institutional and organizational training spaces and also a glimpse on the opportunities to overcome these challenges.

1.Investment: Not unlike other technology-based solutions, the realization of a typical e-learning package is not a cake-walk as it requires a good amount of investment in terms of money and time. One of the universal problems with e-learning courses is that its development and maintenance take a major chunk of the time. So, in terms of the initial time required to be invested, e-learning is quite far (takes more time) from traditional learning courses. But the good news is that, once the initial investment is made, the pattern that gets followed to train batches of pupils would be the same. So overcoming the initial hurdle would help in making e-learning a better alternative to class room training if the set of individuals to be trained come in many number of batches. Investment in terms of money is another aspect. There are a lot of e-learning solution and software providers these days but they are as expensive as they are tech-savvy.

Avenues for solution: On a closer look, the initial investment on the package and infrastructure is more. But the variable costs associated with staffers in traditional learning courses are negated here. So in terms of money and time, e-learning might lose the short-term battle to traditional learning but it would win the long-term war. So, analysing the longevity requirement of the training, a choice between traditional and e-learning can be made - with e-learning befitting long-term programmes.

2.Transition to e-learning: Instructors are in the need to restructure their book-based courses to suit online learning mode as much of their works in the original version would have been designed to be effective for a traditional classroom setup. Extensive research and regular reviews of the courses is expected of them to ensure compliance with technology-enabled learning standards. The challenges balloon if the instructor is not an expert /tech savvy; i.e., it requires more time to acquire the essential understanding to carry out the restructuring successfully.

Avenues for solution: e-learning instructors are to be provided effective training courses on how to create e-learning courses effectively so that they can work more efficiently. Also an increased interaction with students in terms of feedback, demands through emails can be encouraged. An increased correspondence with students makes things more difficult. Placing a limit on the number of students in an online class is a measure that could be looked at to resolve this problem.

3.Changes to Content : As much of the e-learning based trainings focus on subjects of technology, the frequent updates in technology calls for a frequent revamp of the courses too.

Avenues for solution: But, e-learning is a blessing in disguise as updating it online one time in a server and rendering it to different client systems is an easy process compared to the cumbersome process of changing the content in a new versioned book and distributing it across the learners. So, in this area too, e-learning scores over its classroom counterpart.

With this note, it is clear that the bottlenecks of e-learning are not huge threats as they come along with avenues that provide solutions. In a future post, we would explain how some of these avenues are being  experimented with in today's world and how successful they are turning out to be.