Usability - Productivity - Business - The web - Singapore & Twins

By Date: February 2011

The future of (e)Learning

For a very long time teachers and text books have been the single or at least major source of educational knowledge. Until today textbooks are very much subject to political bickering believing in the power of trust students have into the printed word there.
With the arrival of the internet things started to change and slowly we realise that we do live in exponential times where the internet is displacing books as primary source. As early as 1999 Sugata Mitra showed how kids teach themselves and based on further studies makes his case for The child driven education (on a related note my firstborn Anthony remarked: " Couldn't learning be like Fruit Ninja? I just play and learn at the same time"). Mitra's core insight is that learning is a self-organising system. His vision is: " An educational technology and pedagogy that is digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimal invasive, connected and self-organised." Short of Summerhill that reads like the anti-theses of how schools run today.
eLearning hasn't been a stellar success in the past. E.g out of 47 large players in the market in 1999 only 6 are still around (IBM/Lotus is not one of them). Or is it the sign of a highly dynamic market? The tendency however seems to be clear: there is a loggerhead fight between OpenSource / OpenAccess and commercial content providers. It looks very much that OpenSource is winning and the money is to be made by running and maintaining these systems rather than selling software licences.
The larger market is in educational content, where the lines between general applications and eLearning applications are blurring. Today one can organise and conduct complete learning experiences using Wikipedia, a bookmarking service (delicious, digg, Lotus Connections), a collaborative platform (Google groups, Lotus Live) and Chat. Only the task assignment and skill verification seem to warrant specialised systems. (Someone has yet to explain the difference between enterprise content management and learning content management. One of the most successful (in terms of impact and attention) learning content providers, The Khan Academy uses youTube to manage their content. Universities like Standford use standard CMS to make their lectures available online. Textbooks are now available under Creative Commons licences from multiple sources: Open Educational Resources, Wikibooks , OpenTextbook.org, Textbook Revolution and many more
So LMS seems to be an endangered species. There are however promising developments under way: self organising, socially connected, mobile learning experiences.
Tools I would watch (in no particular order): Canvas LMS, Moodle, JotterLab, BigBlueButton, JamBok, SpaceED or Rypple. Keep updated on eLearning Learning.
The biggest inhibitor for progress here might be a large frightened body of educators who need to reinvent themselves. The late Arthur C. Clarke told Mitra in an interview:" If a teacher can be replaced by a machine, he should" (Would that be a task for Watson? #tongue -in-cheek). I would translate his remarks like: " Human educators should work in the area beyond the mechanics of learning, they can be guides, counsellors, encourage the struggling and help the bright to excel".
Education IMHO is the key to most of the problems (short of greed, but moral education could fix that too) our planet is facing, so we see a struggle between the inertia of the current system and the nascent possibilities of progress for the better. Of course one question stings: if less and less people are needed, what do do with them? We might not like a possible answer for that (It does have a happy end, go read it). We live in interesting times.

Posted by on 19 February 2011 | Comments (0) | categories: After hours eLearning

Software Rollout Worst Practises

Rolling out client software can be fun or a nightmare. One of my early IT experiences was to roll-out software on new computers ( IBM AT to be precise) in universities in the state of Hesse. There was no network, no central software management and no IT manager with an (ill-conceived) plan. As student I got to visit all these universities on a corporate dime which was a cool intern project. And it was a green field deployment, so we had 100% control of the environment. That time I learned a great deal about batch/shell programming and how to succeed or screw-up a large scale roll-out. (They hired me back, so my ratio success/screw-up was acceptable)
Interestingly a lot of the lessons learned there hold true today. So before sharing my best practises for roll-out, let me introduce the worst (in no specific order):
  • Don't have a plan! Planning is for wimps. You could get an idea what really is involved and get clarity what is needed. Avoid at any cost software that both helps in brain storming and project planning like iMindMap (the "prettiest" one, nice organic lines), Mindplan (a native Notes application) or MindManager (my former favourite, before I switched to Linux)
  • Stick to the original plan! You ignored the first advice and created a plan, now at least stick to it and never adjust or revise it. Worked for the Soviet Union, will work for you
  • Don't ask, don't tell! Communicating update plans is sooooo uncool. You business users love the surprise of having their workstations blocked and be confronted with unfamiliar UIs and moved functions. Don't negotiate for a time frame, they never will let you do that roll-out
  • Trust your vendor blindly! Your vendor probably has exactly the same environment like you, so the install/update routines will work without you checking them, don't waste time to understand the process. In the same category: you won't find any side-effects since you don't test if the new software runs with existing files / data
  • Shoot blindly! There are two important steps: first don't gather intelligence about your targets. Information about CPU, RAM, disk size, available disk space, existing software and configurations only make you uneasy and dent your confidence in the roll-out. If you have to collect these information, at least let the users do that and send it in an eMail or individual text or spreadsheet documents, so you can avoid analysing them because it is "too much work". Secondly make sure your roll-out is one-size-fits-all. Base the roll-out on assumptions rather than fact. Bare minimum assumptions need to be: all machines have enough space, the same version of software is installed and the locations are fixed for software and data
  • Don't customise! The default installer/updater will do just fine, any adjustments can be done by the users or helpdesk later on
  • Don't automate! Best is to have just a little printed cheat sheet with steps to repeat. If you would automate you would remove our beloved "failure by typo" (OK, the very best: only have an oral history of steps). Also don't use software to push things out, your kids and their friends need that intern job after all. Sneaker network is king. Never ever look at BigFix
  • Don't backup! It only takes time, storage space and shows your lack of adventure readiness
  • Presume the workstations are alright! Messed up configurations, highly fragmented disks, space constrains or screwed up registries are things that only happen in other companies. And previous patches are for sure properly installed and all software is the latest version. Did I mention: Never ever look at BigFix IBM Tivoli Endpoint Manager
  • Don't have a plan B! Don't plan for rollback, restoring of computers or re-imaging of workstations. Users simply need to understand the perils of IT
  • Broad daylight is best! Why waste nights or weekends in rolling out software? Do it during office hours. Plan creatively. Sales and accounting love a month or quarter-end roll-out. Engineering prefers their rol-lout shortly before a project deadline. It removed the burden of doing their job when it is busiest
  • Data migration? What data migration? Do not account for the fact that files or databases need to be converted. That is the users responsibility. They need to schedule that out of their time
  • Big bang is best! Never ever try to do a pilot. Waste of time. Also make sure all installation happens at the same time. After all you need to see how your network and servers behave under extreme load. Big bang removes the need to test transition and co-existence scenarios.
  • Most important: Never ever train your users! You want IT to be the talk of town in your organisation. All that angry faces are just misled signs of affection. And your helpdesk wants something to do after all - make sure they are caught by surprise too
I've seen all of the above happening, what did you see?

Posted by on 15 February 2011 | Comments (1) | categories: Show-N-Tell Thursday

Productivity @ Work

Singapore's productivity is lacking and according to sources cited in the link actual shrank in 2009 by 14.2 percent. Throwing in more hours (while being at the top of the world already) won't fix it, since productivity is (also) measured by "output per hour" and an increased output due to more hours worked won't change that. Our prime minister thinks that Singapore's productivity level is only 60%-70% of its potential. So in the typical hands-on-the-government-will-do Singaporean way a Productivity Portal has been created by the Singapore Government.
The site start with the introduction What is productivity: " Technically, productivity is the ratio of output to input. It is a measure of how efficiently and effectively a business or an economy uses inputs such as labour and capital to produce outputs such as goods and services" (emphasis from original source). Looking at the definition of productivity we meet two familiar terms: efficiency and effectiveness. Remember ISO 9241-11: " extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use." (emphasis mine).
So productivity and usability share their core properties. Making applications work well thus is not just a "nice-to-have" but an essential component of productivity improvements to accelerate value creation. Interestingly when calculating "value created" labour cost don't reduce the value, but are part of it, a refreshing departure from seeing workers as cost factors only. The website puts " Value Added = Sales of Output ($) - Total Cost ($) of Purchased Material and Services" (so your subcontractor _is_ a cost only). My friend Eric Mack states:
" Value created = Knowledge _ Methodology _ Tools". In IT we tend to focus on the tools, think to have some good grasp of knowledge but we are lacking in methodology. Sometime I wonder if we are caught in the The Knowing-Doing Gap . GTD is one method and there is no such thing as "no methodology" (at least if you count "I ignore tasks until someone screams" as methodology). Later this year there will be a conference focusing on productivity in Singapore.

Posted by on 14 February 2011 | Comments (5) | categories: Business