I’ve ranted repeatedly (here, here, and here) about the horribly-designed Request for Proposals (RFPs) that cross my desk. Invariably, these so-called learning management system selection tools suffer from one or more of the following design flaws:
- They ask vendors to provide information they won’t ever disclose and/or is not relevant to the acquisition of a learning management system. Example:
“Describe in detail all of your company’s marketing activities including the percentage of leads generated by each.”
- They ask for textual descriptions of features that really should be demonstrated. Example:
“Describe the steps required to create a certification-based course containing a video, a quiz, a presentation, and a final exam.”
- They contain a list of every possible LMS feature ever invented (of which the organizing acquiring the LMS will use a tiny fraction).
- They fail to differentiate high priority `must-have’ features from low priority `nice-to-have’ features. I’m pretty certain that within every organization, the ability of the LMS to track whether a classroom has a projector isn’t as important whether the system can serve learning content on mobile devices such as iPads.
The smartest organizations I’ve worked with keep their requirement lists short and prioritize must-have features over nice-to-have functionalities. Prioritized lists of requirements help these organizations quickly weed out systems that don’t meet their needs, allowing them to spend their time doing a deeper dive into the systems that might be a good fit.
Here’s a fun tool you can use to quickly identify and prioritize your LMS requirements. Mind mapping tools are immensely effective ways to make sense of anything complex. Rather than attempting to describe what a mind map is, here’s a mind map that explains itself:
To help get your creative juices flowing, here’s a basic mind map that identifies and organizes some learning management system features. (Click the image to see a full-size version.)
It seems like just yesterday that business analysts were wondering whether this newfangled e-commerce fad would catch on.
- Would anxiety over credit card theft deter customers from trusting on-line retailers?
- Would people feel confident in buying stuff sight unseen or would they instead stick to going to brick-and-mortar stores to paw and sniff the merchandise?
Fast forward a few years and we now find Web retail giant Amazon, fueled by our insatiable urge to buy stuff on the Internet, with 2013 sales of more than $17 billion U.S. and a market capitalization of $153 billion.
We choose to buy from sites such as Amazon because of convenience, pricing, breadth of offerings, product reviews, and a simple and pleasant shopping experience.
One of the things these sites excel at is the ability to recommend products based on our browsing or purchasing history. Search for, say, a bicycle helmet and Amazon will tell you that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” cycling shorts, cycling shoes, cycling gloves, and every other cycling-related item including chamois cream (don’t ask).
Amazon’s recommendation engine encourages us to increase the number of items added to our shopping cart. Rather than feeling like these items were forced upon us, we are instead grateful to the site for making shopping so easy. Gone are the crowded parking lots, endurance of inclement weather, and eternal waits in checkout lines, replaced with anticipation for delivery which may soon come within minutes via a flying drone.
With millions of customers, Amazon has the big data to support a powerful recommendation engine. But really, it isn’t rocket science to suggest to someone shopping for a kitchen knife that they may also want to purchase a cutting board and maybe some adhesive bandages for potential sliced fingers.
Adopting an Amazon-like recommendation system in learning and development doesn’t require big data and teams of programmers. This can be done within any learning management system (LMS) that contains two simple features:
- The ability to have course-specific communication templates
- The ability to link directly to one or more courses
Here’s a typical course completion e-mail:
Here’s a variation that contains a couple of recommendations:
Adding recommendations to your communications with learners can provide measurable benefits:
- Increased enrolment, course completion, and certifications obtained
- Better learner engagement through a more pleasant experience
- For commercial learning content providers, increased sales
Successful on-line retailers such as Amazon would never let you buy a pen without also suggesting you take a look at notebooks. Consider using the same simple logic in your learning initiatives.
How Branding Your Learning Management System Can Influence Culture (and Create a Fun Place to Learn)
The best companies I’ve worked with have had great workplace cultures. Management in these companies understand that happy team members are more productive and less likely to jump ship the next time an opportunity arises elsewhere.
Whenever I speak to anyone about workplace culture, I often end up pointing them to a great Harvard Business Review Blog post by Nilofer Merchant titled “Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time.” Compare an organization with happy, motivated people to a similar-size organization filled with demoralized walking dead, and it immediately becomes clear why a positive workplace culture drives success.
If you’re a budding entrepreneur hoping to start the next billion dollar company, you should read the Merchant post and other resources about workplace culture before you even have your first business card designed. If you’re a manager, you need to be aware that you are a key driver in defining the culture within your organization. Speak to anyone who’s worked for a few years and they’ll have stories about managers from hell who were the impetus behind staff calling in sick and eventual mass exoduses.
In a previous Blog post titled “How to Use a Learning Management System to Support Your Workplace Culture,” we looked at how changing the wording of system prompts and interface labels can create learning environments that more closely reflect the culture you are attempting to create and promote. Textual communication, however, is only one tool to support culture; the visual design of the learning environment is equally important.
In branding visually your learning management system (LMS), you should think beyond simply being faithful to corporate colors and placing a logo at the top left-hand corner. Imagery including illustrations, photos, and icons can enhance the environment and help eliminate the preconception that your learning management system is just another boring piece of business software. Most importantly, these visual elements can create a more pleasant place to learn.
Need some inspiration? The following video presents some of the ways the Absorb LMS user interface has been branded for various clients.
There are two ways to get a young child to school on time in the morning:
Method 1: Every minute or so, repeat the words `HURRY UP!’ at increasing levels of volume. After about ten minutes, and upon reaching a decibel level similar to a low flying jet, your goal will be achieved. Mind you, you and the child will be a little stressed, and regrettably, some life-long resentment generated but these are worth the price of having this child succeed in school.
Method 2: Alternately you could say, quietly and in a relaxed tone of voice, “first one out of the house is the winner.” For your own safety, it’s best not to block the exit when uttering this phrase.
Deeply rooted in our brains is a desire to compete and win. The reward centers in our brains love the chemical jolts that stem from victory.
Even when we aren’t the participants, we experience competition vicariously by watching professional sports. When our team or favorite athlete wins, we raise our arms in the air as if we were the one who crossed the finish line before others or scored the winning point. When our team loses, we feel despair and wonder where we went wrong. Perhaps if we had not traded a player or hired the current coach, the outcome would have been different.
The ability to increase learner engagement through competition is a common requirement encountered when speaking with effective learning leaders who are currently evaluating learning management systems (LMS). This requirement usually falls into two different categories and approaches:
- The ability to hold contests
- The ability to rank learners, departments, or teams and share the results with learners
For contests, an easy approach is to issue points, educational units, or credits for the successful completion of a learning event. Individuals with the most points in a given time frame win. Another approach is to reward learners who score the highest on an exam with a reward.
For ranking of learners, teams, or departments, you can simply generate the rankings from your LMS’s reporting engine. As was the case with contests, rankings can be based on a wide range of criteria:
- Points, educational units, or credits earned
- Courses completed
- Exam scores
Once you’ve created the report showing ranking, you can make it available to learners on their dashboard.
In conclusion, contests and rankings can be helpful in identifying achievement-driven individuals within your organization. But, we shouldn’t just focus on the top performers. Rankings based on exam scores may also be helpful in identifying people who need extra help in specific learning areas. Supplementing their current learning with coaching may help them better perform their responsibilities.
In many organizations, workplace learning consists of getting people into a room to listen to an instructor. If the workforce is distributed, the room used may be virtual instead of physical, and the donuts served may be imaginary instead of real.
When these organizations become fed up with the effort of trying to manage their learning initiatives using pen and paper, spreadsheets, and various stone-age tools, they acquire a learning management system. The smartest of these organizations don’t then abandon instructor-led learning, but rather aim to provide learners with quality content in many different formats and learning modalities:
In evaluating learning management systems, you should consider the ability of the LMS to support instructor-led events even if you presently think you’ll only be serving self-paced courses to your learners. Your needs over time may change. (Just ask anyone who’s ever paid to have a tattoo removed.)
Here’s a list of LMS features required to manage instructor-led events:
- Instructor-led courses can take place in a physical or virtual classroom
- Instructor-led courses can issue certificates as well as educational units, credits, or points
- Instructor-led courses can be configured to have prerequisites
- Instructor-led courses can be part of a blended learning curriculum
- Instructor-led courses can have multiple sessions
- Instructor-led courses can have sessions that automatically repeat daily, weekly, etc.
- Instructor-led courses can have sessions that start and end on specific dates
- Enrolment into instructor-led sessions can be restricted to specific groups of learners based on any criteria (location, business function, role, etc.)
- Instructor-led course sessions can be configured to require approval from an administrator or instructor before a learner is fully enrolled
- The system manages venues, including maximum seating for each room
- The system manages wait lists
- Learners on a wait list are automatically notified if a seat becomes available
- The system is smart enough to uncover conflicts, where an instructor or venue is booked for two different events at the same time
- The system provides a way for learners and instructors to add course sessions to their personal calendars (Outlook, etc.)
- The system provides a calendar-view of sessions to learners, instructors, and administrators
- Resources such as study guides and other supporting materials can be attached to instructor-led courses
- The system can provide instructors with teaching materials associated with their classes
- The system provides an easy way for instructors to take attendance, ideally using a mobile device such as a phone or tablet
- Learner performance in an instructor-led course can be graded by an instructor
- Students are automatically notified if a change is made to the scheduling of an instructor-led courses
- The system provides learners with clear e-mail communication regarding enrolment, session reminders, and course completion
- Instructor-led courses can be branded with images so that they appear distinct from other learning content in the system
- The system has an easy way to provide learners with course evaluation surveys (Kirkpatrick level 1) once they’ve completed an instructor-led course
Have I missed anything? Please add them to the comments section of this post.
Remember reflection? That’s something we used to do occasionally before we all became addicted to checking our Web-enabled devices every few minutes for our much-needed digital data fixes. Prior to the mobile revolution, people could at times be seen staring off into space, just thinking. If you were to spot someone doing that today, you’d think “So sad. That person lost his phone.”
According to the American Library Association, by 2020, information on the Internet will be doubling every 15 minutes. Consuming information without taking the time to reflect is bad for the development of critical thinking skills. Without reflection, we become locked in a pattern of remembering and communicating information without taking the time to assess whether the information is true, utter garbage, or a valuable missing piece in a puzzle.
Keeping and contributing regularly to a personal learning journal can be an effective way to encourage reflection and develop critical thinking skills. Mark Smith’s article in the encyclopaedia of informal education titled ‘Keeping a learning journal‘ describes the following benefits:
- The first and obvious use of writing a journal is that it helps us to remember something later.
- Second, the act of putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) engages our brains. To write we have to think.
- Third, it isn’t just that writing a journal stimulates thought — it allows us to look at ourselves, our feelings, and our actions in a different way.
- Fourth, writing things down in a journal also allows us to ‘clear our minds.’ Having made a note of something we can put them on one side for consideration or action at a later point.
- Last, and certainly not least, making journal writing part of our routine means that we do actually take time out to reflect on what might be happening in our practice and in our lives generally
Learning journals can be made a part of a learning plan through the support of a learning management system. Here’s an example of how this learning strategy might be implemented for a management skills curriculum:
1. Create a journal template in MS Word or your preferred text editor to distribute to your learners. This template should contain questions or comments to encourage critical thinking.
2. Upload the journal template and make it available to learners.
3. Create a task as part of the curriculum that enables learners to upload their journal.
Learners will then be prompted to upload the file at the appropriate point in the curriculum.
4. In the event that you would like an instructor, coach, or mentor to review the learners’ journals, provide them with access to the files through the administrative control panel of your LMS:
Satisfaction surveys of learning management system administrators invariably identify reporting as the most reviled feature in their platform. Administrators complain about reporting being unintuitive, cumbersome, lacking customizability, not being powerful enough, and just generally being bad at displaying the data administrators want.
So, why aren’t LMS solution providers fixing the problem? The short answer is that it’s really tough to please all system administrators:
- Some administrators want the reporting features to be super easy. They want templates with one button to push.
- For other administrators, one-button-to-push templates with few options are a living hell. They want infinite power and customizability in their LMS reporting capabilities.
For LMS vendors, coming up with reporting features everyone likes is like trying to open a restaurant that serves only one dish. Your cheese lasagna with buffalo mozzarella flown in daily from Italy might be a hit with some customers but the carnivores will complain on Urbanspoon that the recipe should have had meat and the lactose- and gluten-free crowd will tell their friends they were up all night with cramps after eating at your lousy joint.
So, the bottom line is that in designing their platforms, LMS solution providers are constantly walking the fine line between ease-of-use and how powerful and customizable to make their reporting features.
If you’re looking to acquire your first learning management system, or if your needs have changed and you are considering switching systems, here are some things to look for in evaluating the reporting features of LMS.
- Report templates—Your LMS administrator may be a geek with a capital G who likes to create all reports from scratch by typing SQL commands into fields. That’s great! …until that person leaves your organization and someone else needs to step in and take over the work. You want a system that contains basic templates that can be customized to quickly display the information you need.
- Consistent user experience across all report templates—You shouldn’t have to learn to create a report, and then need to learn how to create a different report. You should be able to learn how to use one report and then apply those skills to all other reports. Whether you are creating a report showing the progress of a group of learners in a curriculum, or a report showing a list of learners on a waiting list for a classroom-based course, getting to the data using similar features will significantly reduce the learning curve for administrators.
- The ability to show, hide, and rearrange the order of columns in reports—Sometimes, you want to show more, or less, of the information contained in your system’s databases in a way that’s clear and easily understood.
- The ability to query the fields in a report—Whether you want a listing of learners in a specific city, a list of people who scored less than 70 per cent on a recent exam, people who have completed a course within a given time period, etc., you want to be able to search for—and display—the data you need.
- The ability to automatically e-mail reports—I guarantee you, there will be at some point in your learning initiative, a need for a manager or team leader to monitor the progress of a group of learners. Sure, you can give that individual access to the LMS’s admin features and ask her to get her own darn report and leave you alone, but a simpler and more politically astute approach is simply to have a report automatically e-mailed to the individual. She’ll love the fact that the report is sitting in her inbox when she gets to work on Mondays. She’ll say nice things about you to others. You’ll be a rock star.
- The ability to export data—Sometimes, you just want to play around with data outside of the LMS. Or, perhaps you’ll want to archive some information you feel you no longer need.
- The ability to save and retrieve a report you’ve created—It’s a major waste of time to have to recreate the same report over and over again. If it’s been saved, it will take one second to call up the information you want.
In closing, the best way to assess the reporting features of a learning management system is to decide what reports you might need and ask the vendor to demonstrate the creation of those reports. If the person demonstrating the platform can’t create the reports you require within a few minutes, chances are your satisfaction with the platform will be low once the initial honeymoon phase has passed. Save yourself some heartache and be disciplined about evaluating this critical component of LMS technology.
Somewhere among the hundreds or perhaps thousands of e-mails in your inbox, somewhere in the skyscraper-high piles of paper on the corner of your desk, is something really really important. This might be an urgent policy or procedural change. If you work in emergency response, healthcare, security, transportation, among many other industries, people’s safety may be compromised if you don’t get and act on this information.
E-mail has been and continues to be the primary communication media in the workplace. Consequently, many organizations turn to e-mail for such updates. They’ll send out an e-mail blast with the words `IMPORTANT‘ or `URGENT‘ in the title to the people who need to be informed. Perhaps the sender will click the little checkboxes in their mail client for delivery and read notifications to be returned, but, if you’ve sent the notice to more than just a few recipients, manually tracking who has opened the e-mail is a headache.
A learning management system (LMS) can provide an effective way to monitor who has viewed such important information and who may need a follow-up telephone call. Here’s how:
1. Create a `course’ that contains the critical information embedded as a PDF document. PDF is a nice file format for something like this because it will display on many different devices, including iPads and other tablets, phones, etc.
2. Create the e-mail that will be sent when people are enrolled in the course as well as the reminder e-mail. Make sure these e-mails communicate the urgency of this information. If you can set the frequency of the reminder e-mails, don’t be shy about nagging the individual daily.
3. Enroll the individuals who should get this important update into this `course.’ The system will send out the enrolment e-mail and depending on your LMS, a message to the learner’s LMS dashboard.
Learning management systems typically provide feedback to learners on their progress. For the learner, this is like crossing an item off their TO-DO list, which provides happy feelings of accomplishment.
4. Track who has accessed the document using your LMS’s reporting features. In the example below, British singer/songwriter Laura Marling and ex Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page have accessed the important update. The others have not.
The purpose of tracking who has accessed such important information isn’t to lay blame. There are many extremely valid reasons why people may not have read important updates: spam filters, off the Internet grid due to travel or meetings, illness, etc. The real purpose of tracking access is to identify who may require a secondary attempt through means other than e-mail, perhaps a phone call.
I’m concerned about Stanley. He has developed an unusual growth between his left thumb and index finger. The growth is the size of an average hardcover book, yet thinner. One side is silver and emblazoned with the image of an apple. The other glows with an iridescent light.
Stanley does not appear to be in any pain. Nevertheless, I know he’s concerned since he stares and taps at the growth constantly.
Please rest assured that we in the medical community are keeping close watch of this condition, which is reaching global epidemic proportions. So far, it appears to be benign and may in fact result in heightened curiosity, increased knowledge, and new skills.
—Your caring doctor”
Computer tablet sales are in 2013 predicted to outpace sales of traditional computers. There are currently almost as many mobile phones on the planet as there are people. These devices are becoming extensions of ourselves, rarely leaving our hands.
Futurists say we’re on the cusp of becoming cyborgs. We laugh and think this is crazy… until we misplace our mobile device and have to deal with the resulting separation anxiety.
The fact that people increasingly use mobile devices to communicate, collaborate, and access Web content is having a huge impact on the design of user interfaces for enterprise software applications. Here are some examples.
- Rather than shrinking down a traditional computer user interface to fit the smaller screens of mobile devices, smart designers create interfaces that adapt or `respond’ to different screen sizes as well as vertical and horizontal orientations. In the example below, interface elements are resized and rearranged to best display on an Apple iPhone and iPad.
- Prior to the mobile revolution, many web sites were designed with a navigation menu that runs along the top of the screen. That works fine using conventional computers but is a poor choice for devices such as tablets which you typically cradle in both hands. Having a thumb touch the top middle of the screen is awkward on larger touch screens. Smart mobile interface design places navigation elements within comfortable range of human thumbs.
- Attempting to click tiny hyperlinks on small touch screens using human fingers is frustrating. Below is a screen capture from a popular garden supply company. This site looks really nice on my iPad. Unfortunately, whenever I attempt to add eggplant to my shopping cart, I get cucumber. The links are simply too close together for my fingers to select what I need without zooming in. (I wonder if my family would notice if I substituted cucumber for eggplant in my famous eggplant parmigiana recipe?)
Smart designers create user interfaces where all clickable elements such as hyperlinks and buttons are large enough to be selected with fingertips.
Tablets and phones are now ubiquitous so software designers and content providers need to assume that people will be accessing their content on a mobile device. What might look great on a traditional computer monitor may be completely unusable on a phone or tablet.