Chasing the buzz at Learning Technologies 2009

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QuestionTechnology editor John Stokdyk put on his trail shoes and hit the exhibition floor at Learning Technologies last week to track down the trends that would shape the world of training this year. Here's what he found.

Traditional LMS suppliers face challenges from all sides

The Learning Technologies exhibition was very territorial. As you came in the door and followed the designated path to the left, you passed a series of big stands representing traditional learning management system developers such as Atlantic Link (not an LMS supplier - see below, Ed), Saffron and E2Train.

The TrainingZone.co.uk stand was tucked away towards the back. It initially felt like an isolated outpost, but since it was on the main path to the toilets, we entertained a steady stream of visitors.

Photo of David Booker" Moodle, the open source learning management system (LMS), is growing rapidly and putting further pressure on the established LMS suppliers."

Jay Cross's Thursday morning keynote speech had galvanised attention on Web 2.0 tools, and social networking was the theme of the day. This was something David Wilson picked up on in his talk on Learning Management Systems 2.0 during the afternoon (see below). But as I trawled around the far side of the hall, I started bumping into a different kind of LMS supplier - ones that relied entirely on the web for hosting, managing and delivering their learning environments. Since we recently launched BusinessCloud9.com, a website dedicated to applications that run in the internet 'Cloud', this movement was of particular interest.

Meanwhile Moodle, the open source learning management system (LMS), is growing rapidly and putting further pressure on the established LMS suppliers. If these undercurrents continue to grow stronger, Learning Technologies 2009 could come to be seen as the high water mark before LMS suppliers find themselves overtaken by waves of consolidation like those that have hit HR and business intelligence software companies.

One passing IT trainer sighed as he passed the stand. "I'm disappointed with this industry," he said. "It's falling behind with Web 2.0. LMSs are falling so far behind what people want - most companies are four years behind the web. My old company only just got its first LMS and it's a white elephant."

It was time to head out into the exhibition hall to test these theories.

Everbody's going social - or are they?

Elearnity managing director David Wilson's talk on LMS 2.0 was a good point to start. In his definition, new generation systems needed to have collaboration tools and discussion forums, social networking facilities such as profile pages and interpersonal messaging and 'contextualised' content and search tools that delivered information where and when people needed to learn it.

LMS vendors are wrapping everything they do around Web 2.0 with a rash of creative redesign and rebranding going on, Wilson explained. The tell-tale sign was when the words 'social' and 'connect' appeared next to LMS modules. "If your LMS doesn't have [social networking] yet, it will within 12 months," Wilson said.

"I'm not saying learning 2.0 is the best thing since sliced bread, but it's inevitable that we need to adopt more of that in learning provision and across the enterprise. That requires a shift in thinking and a shift in technologies."

One of the key trends among all this 2.0 stuff was the reappearance of informal learning, he added. Cornerstone on Demand and SABA were mentioned as examples where companies had successfully wrapped social networking tools around the structure of a traditional LMS, but evidence from other participants indicated that a few more steps were needed before LMS 2.0 took a step away from the early adopter phase.

" Learning Technologies 2009 could come to be seen as the high water mark before LMS suppliers find themselves overtaken by waves of consolidation like those that have hit HR and business intelligence software companies."

HML learning architect Gary Evans was already using Cornerstone On Demand as part of the organisation's talent programme and intended to use its social networking tools - but was not already doing so. "We've put groups together on the company intranet, but they have not been that active in practice," he admitted.

eLearning Network committee member and Edvantage Group executive Carol Bower agreed that social networking was an excellent way of delivering learning, but in tough economic conditions, funding such projects was not a very high corporate priority.

Say hello to the web generation

Back in the hall, among some of the smaller, less lavish exhibition stands were several web-based providers who claimed to be giving the big name on-premise LMS suppliers a run for their money.

While US exhibitors NetDimensions and Cornerstone on Demand catered for larger corporate customers, smaller UK companies such as Course-Source, Premier IT and Aardpress had all staked out prosperous niches with totally web-based content delivery and management systems.

Course-Source sales director Paul Higgins claimed to be "beating people like Epic" among organisations that were looking for quick, easy access to learning materials and included learndirect and the NHS among his list of clients. The web-based Course-Source system can pull in and track materials from external suppliers such as Video Arts; modules are purchased as subscription packs, for example, in batches of 10.

Higgins commented: "The feedback we get from clients is: 'We're not buying into technology, we're buying into knowledge.'"

Edward Arnett, group sales & marketing director of Premier IT Group said that web-based developers brought a new perspective to the market. "LMSs are often bought by organisations for their workforces, our system is designed more for a community of members." Like Course-Source, Premier's approach is to provide a simple, web-based content management system.

The most prominent web-based LMS developer at the event was probably Cornerstone, a California-based organisation that combines learning management and talent management within a single, integrated online system. NetDimensions, meanwhile, boasted 600 global clients and 8m end users. With 50 banks and 12 airlines among its client base, NetDimensions was well able to cope with very demanding learning scenarios, said UK representative Liam Butler.

"Pilots are regularly trained and assessed by aviation bodies, so the commercial argument comes down to compliance and liability. There's a detailed audit trail on who raised questions, who answered them and who changed them," he said.

Mark Thonrton, a director with Moodle specialist Aardpress, dismissed some of the web-based discussions at Learning Technologies as "mutually generated hype". In terms of content creation, the on-premise LMS suppliers could still lookforward to a healthy life span, but in terms of delivery, the web would win out due to its better accessiblity, flexibility, cost effectieness and functionality, he said.

Getting definitive figures on current market trends is notoriously difficult, but Aardpress was launching new web and Moodle-based sites every two weeks, Thornton said.

" Mature LMS developer with good technology, professional reputation and strong north American presence seeks well-connected European organisation for long-term transatlantic learning relationship. References available. "

Content creators want a piece of the action too

All the different exhibition zones and types of exhibitor reinforced the sense that the suppliers in this industry were a diffuse, fragmented bunch. Adobe WebEx and Camtasia developer TechSmith were also on hand as representatives the industry's creative tools fraternity.

Adobe, known as the company behind Acrobat and Flash, was showing its Captivate content creation program alongside the Connect delivery/tracking module. WebEx is an online meeting environment that, like its remote access companion GoToMeeting is now owned by networking infrastructure company Citrix.

TechSmith is the company behind the Camtasia screen capture program. Its latest product is a server-based recording module, Camtasia Relay which companies could use to build a digital archive of presentations and training videos, creating a sharable knowledge base for employees.

The content-tracking capabilities within both Camtasia Relay and Adobe Connect suggest that these developers, too, are eyeing up the territory occupied by LMS suppliers.

Adobe's elearning specialist John Bedford was reluctant to go too far down this route, but did see the industry's dynamics changing. "We're focused on rapid training, where people need to output a piece in 30 minutes," he said. The current economic conditions meant there was a growing need for compliance training that was being answered with cost-effective virtual classroom deployments. "There are some massive expense budgets that can be negated."

WLTM: Meridian seeks well-groomed European partner

Mature LMS developer with good technology, professional reputation and strong north American presence seeks well-connected European organisation for long-term transatlantic learning relationship. References available.

One of the characters who passed by the TrainingZone.co.uk stand was Meridian vice president Roy Haythorn, who had flown over from Virginia for the event.

Asked what brought him to Learning Technologies, Haythorn explained: "We have nothing in Europe at the moment and I'm trying to decide whether to go direct or if there's an adequate local organisation with the right reputation that I could partner."

Claiming that with 300+ customers Meridian was one of the leading suppliers in the US, he backed his argument with an assessment sheet from the eLearning Guild that rated Meridian above 10 other LMS developers including SABA, Plateau, SAP and SumTotal.

"All the major players have the same collaboration tools," explained Haythorn, "but we do it better than most because ours are more seamlessly integrated."

By the end of the second day, Haythorn was still seeking his ideal partner and set out his wishlist: "If you know of a western European partner who can provide turnkey support with a professional services team, developers and technical support specialists, plus appropriate sales resources to market the product, tell them to get in touch."

Another option might be to buy a local organisation, he hinted. "If you have cash and use it wisely, times like these can be outstanding," Haythorn said. "The LMS space - at least in the US - is as active as its ever been. Decisions may have been slower and some funding may have been pulled, but there has been a surge factor. Tough times force people to look at their cost base and blended learning is a means of reducing cost."

Video Arts - The oldies are still the goodies

The Video Arts stand was positioned at a prominent crossing near the TrainingZone.co.uk stand, and was notable for a gallery of famous faces such as Dawn French, Jamie Oliver and Rob Brydon from its training videos.

Video Arts is one of the great pioneers in bringing high production values and witty scripts to training videos, which is no surprise given that it was founded by Monty Python's John Cleese and Yes, Minister script writer Anthony Jay. Jay himself only recently retired from writing Video Arts scripts, according to one of the team.

While they still like to use A-list celebrities for current productions, he also revealed that the old original films featuring Cleese himself still feature in the Video Arts top 10.

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