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Online Learning Conference

Hey…remember me??? Yup, it’s been a while since I jotted down a few thoughts in this column. I guess there are a number of reasons for my absence. My summer session course wore me out – there was so much writing involved, I couldn’t face the thought of writing for pleasure for quite a while. As well, the new format of this newsletter has kind of thrown me for a loop. It used to be that George and I would gather up links once or twice a week and publish them. In this kind of environment, I would find interesting articles, group them together according to related topics, and then write some comments . Now with the daily publishing of links, by the time I actually get to looking at potentially interesting content, George has already listed the link and has moved on to other areas. Up until now, I’ve been reluctant to re-publish links, but I think that I will resume doing so, with the hope that the topical grouping and some of my comments will add a different dimension to what has already been said. At any rate, I’m willing to give it a try…oh well, onto the e-learning content!

I had the privilege of experiencing this year’s Online Learning Conference in Anaheim. I thought I would share some thoughts and experiences, while they are fresh in my mind…

I’ve found this conference is an interesting reflection of the e-learning world. When I first attended four years ago, there were 5000 attendees and the event had an “in your face” type of energy – interestingly enough, the delegates were overwhelmingly American business people and trainers…not a lot of academics or Canadians. The next year, attendance ballooned to 8000 participants, which included a few more academics, and more non-Americans…I remember hearing a lot of German being spoken at that conference, as e-learning was beginning to wash up on the shores of Europe. Confident predictions that e-learning would continue to expand at a frantic pace for the next 3 to 5 years were heard everywhere. Last year’s conference took place a couple of weeks after the tragic events of September 11 – attendance tanked! I heard there were 4000 attendees that year, but the exhuberance of the past couple of years had disappeared. This year’s conference was also much lower-key, more so because of the economy than anything else. The official figure that I heard was 5000 attendees, but others have speculated that it was far lower than that.

The vendor expo was much smaller than the last few years as well. Given the economics of e-learning, that would not be much of a surprise since you would expect that a number of smaller players had been bought out or gone out of business. However, some of the missing players included Lotus, Blackboard, and Web CT! There were also definite rumblings against Blackboard and Web CT’s new price structures, and the LMS vendors present were definitely trying to make some hay out of these developments.

One of the really great things about this year’s conference was the HUGE Canadian presence. I don’t know the exact number of Canadian participants, but it was mentioned that one out of every five participants was from outside the U.S. Vendor exhibits from New Brunswick, Quebec and British Columbia were very visible, and a significant percentage of companies were also Canadian. For a more detailed accounting, check out Canadian Companies Rock at Online Learning 2002.

The Online Learning Conference site contains a number of interesting resources, including pictures from the conference, a brief video collage of the opening keynote session, as well as handouts from a number of the sessions presented at the conference. Check out Online Learning 2002 for these options. Organizers have also promised to put up video from some of the other keynote sessions. You just might be able to listen to John Seely Brown (Growing Up Digital is an article that has been featured in here a couple of times in past issues) or Seth Godin (author of The Idea Virus – which you can download for free from this link!). I’ll let you know if and when these resources start to appear on the site.

Of all the sessions that I attended, I enjoyed the two presented by Dr. Michael Allen the most. Dr. Allen is the inventor of Authorware – yes, THE Authorware software package that is sold by software giant MacroMedia. When he sold the software, he was poised for a comfortable life of retirement, but according to him, once he saw what people were creating using (misusing?) the software, he came out of retirement to show people what innovative and memorable resources could be made using this program. His demonstrations of how resources and activities could be structured to prevent “boring e-learning” were amazing to watch. To get an idea of the kinds of activities his company has created, check out Allen Interactions. Dr. Allen has also just written a book called Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning. You can get more details and order the book on this site as well.

Another great learning activity to check out is Frog Guts. This was featured during the Usability Wrestlemania keynote by Vincent Flanders of Web Pages That Suck fame. This site uses Flash to allow students to virtually dissect a frog…it looks incredibly engaging (and I hear that 98% of the world’s frog population endorses its use… :-) ).

Last, but not least, I have to share the following with you. Every time I’ve listened to people extol the virtues of reuseable learning objects, I’ve wondered about the extent of their actual usability. I think the following excerpt provides an interesting take on the whole idea of reusability and some of its pitfalls. I don’t know how accurate this really is, but I found it quite amusing…

The reuse of some object-oriented code has caused tactical headaches for Australia’s armed forces. As virtual reality simulators assume larger roles in helicopter combat training, programmers have gone to great lengths to increase the realism of their scenarios, including detailed landscapes and, in the case of the Northern Territory’s Operation Phoenix, herds of kangaroos (since disturbed animals might well give away a helicopter’s position).

The head of the Defense Science & Technology Organization’s Land Operations/Simulation division reportedly instructed developers to model the local marsupials’ movements and reactions to helicopters.

Being efficient programmers, they just re-appropriated some code originally used to model infantry detachment reactions under the same stimuli, changed the mapped icon from a soldier to a kangaroo, and increased the figures’ speed of movement.

Eager to demonstrate their flying skills for some visiting American pilots, the hotshot Aussies “buzzed” the virtual kangaroos in low flight during a simulation. The kangaroos scattered, as predicted, and the visiting Americans nodded appreciatively… then did a double-take as the kangaroos reappeared from behind a hill and launched a barrage of Stinger missiles at the hapless helicopter. Apparently the programmers had forgotten to remove that part of the infantry coding.)

The lesson? Objects are defined with certain attributes, and any new object defined in terms of an old one inherits all the attributes. The embarrassed programmers had learned to be careful when reusing object-oriented code, and the Yanks left with a newfound respect for Australian wildlife.

Simulator supervisors report that pilots from that point onward have strictly avoided kangaroos, just as they were meant to.

From June 15, 1999 Defense Science and Technology Organization – Lecture Series, Melbourne, Australia, and staff reports