Monday, August 31, 2009

Is 3D 1.0 or 2.0?

Is learning in a 3D virtual world a web 1.0 experience, or a web 2.0 experience? Or is it something new and different altogether?

I'll always remember the first time I ventured into one of these environments... it felt like a waking dream. It was a place called, which is still around but has long been overshadowed by Second Life. This was 2005, maybe, and I had no preconceived notions. I found the experience almost mind-altering. I could see, hear, walk, run, travel wherever I wanted in a place where everything was pristine and peaceful and artfully displayed, all very real in an unreal way. Or very unreal in a real way. Very much like a dream. Everyone there looked great. Heck, I looked great. I wasn't pushing 50; I was 28. I could walk without growing weary, run and not faint. It was fun. Exhilarating. Then when I moved to Second Life, I discovered I could also fly. Fly! Now that's a waking dream.

But the rush wore off as I discovered that there are only so many things to do in a manufactured alternate universe. I didn't really know anyone there, and when I did it was sort of embarrassing. Because it wasn't really them, it was their avatar, and it was all a little like playing with puppets. Very cool puppets. And while that's fun, it's not nearly so rich as Real Life (RL), where you know everyone's Real Names, and everything Really Matters.

Then I discovered that IBM was all over Second Life. And so were major, mainstream, prestigious universities. They still are. They want to use this technology for learning. This was a bit of a shock, since I have deep experience in convincing big corporations and high-profile universities that technology is the future of learning. I started struggling on that path in about 1992. I remember the Executive Education Network, EXEN, which delivered Wharton & Harvard to Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. We had to do a lot of selling, and offer a lot of free trials, before they would admit that it worked.

These were the same organizations (some of them) who had barely dipped a toe in the waters of web 1.0 elearning. They put their CD's online, sure. They bought a license to Blackboard and let the more reckless professors fill it up with class schedules and assigned readings, use the grade book feature. And they watched long and hard as the true pioneers ventured out, took the arrows, and somehow didn't fail. And these are organizations (some of them) who have barely felt a breeze from the web 2.0 winds. Facebook? Twitter? There must be a punchline coming. Podcasting? Well, okay, maybe. If it gets my lectures listened to.

But as organizations, they have not wholly embraced any learning technology before, and certainly not the core validity of a whole different learning paradigm. They have not readily accepted the fact that online, all students have equal opportunity. That no one is judged for their looks, or by their physical limitations. That no one gets to dominate class time. Or gets to hide in the back row. Everyone learns. Everyone expresses the truth as they see it, and everyone else comments. Graciously, generously, because there is no 'cool factor' (or the educational equivalent, gravitas) that must be maintained. Community grows... educational community. People of a thousand interests gathered around just one, and sharing it until it gets honed to a passion.

So why the virtual land-grab by the big boys with the big guns? I eventually figured it out. The reason was, it didn't seem like such a big leap to them. It was as though a 3D earthquake somehow reduced the chasm between the traditional classroom and the digital classroom to one little step. One small step, a tiny download, and you're there. Look, there's our administration building! I can walk there. And there's Munger Hall, where my class is meeting in 10 minutes. I can run to it. And look over there, it's a training room with video screens and yes, interactive keypads! I can talk to everyone. It's live. It's what I already know.

And that's a good thing. And yet... does something get lost in this digital dreamland? Or rather, are we in danger of losing ground we've already gained, inch by inch, in web 1.0 elearning? We can talk there, and hear one another, sure. Thats excellent. But how do we ensure that nobody gets to dominate the virtual discussion? That no one can sit in the back and not participate? How do we make sure that when we take that step across the chasm we are not taking an important step backward?

The answer is... we apply what we know. We hang on to what works. We develop the technologies that keep the playing field even. It will take some design work, and some coding, and it will need to be done by those who know what works. But when we get it working, we'll have something more powerful than web 1.0 or 2.0. When we can take all that makes elearning so effective and add to it the color, depth, dimension, sound, and semi-chaos of people side by side, face to face, learning something new together, not puppets but people with real names and histories, people who are themselves (but better looking!) then we won't be dipping our toes into elearning waters any more. We'll be riding the tsunami.

Or rather, we'll be flying.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The right way to do eTextbooks. Partly.

So school's in, almost, and the bi-annual textbook rush is coming to its painful conclusion. If other households are like mine, the primary driver is to avoid buying a full-price textbook by any and all means possible. This is not good news for textbook publishers.

But here's how to do it right, at least partly. One faculty member sent out a two page missive to students about how to buy a textbook (that's not the good part), and how he'd arranged for students to get the best deal "directly from the publisher." The bottom line was, students had no choice but to buy MyEconLab access for $40, and if that's all they could afford that's all they actually needed (that's the good part). $40 is a third or less the price of any textbook these days. MyEconLab is part of Pearson's "MyLab" series, which offers students online homework exercises. (Which, when push comes to shove, actually teach the students the concepts. But more on that some other post.)

The rest of this instructor's document was a smorgasbord of ways to get a hard copy... everything from paying full price for a textbook (well over $100), to paying for a 3-hole punched set of papers that equaled a textbook ($35 with purchase of MyEconLab), to buying their own used textbook any way they could, to buying rights to a PDF file for a few months for way too much.

Pearson is the Goliath of textbook publishers. And Goliath is not only bigger than everyone else, in this case he may be smarter. Pearson is focusing on the one thing that requires 100% sell-through. Everyone has to buy it. An email like the one this instructor sent will pretty much guarantee Pearson as much revenue as they would have gotten by trying to sell new textbooks. Why is that? Because if 1/3 of the class bought the full, new textbook for 3 times the price (questionable it would be that high), it would equal 3/3 of the class buying just the online homework for 1/3 the price. That's my math lab. And there's no printing or shipping costs.

But a lot of publishers are not following this math. Why not? Because the product that's making the money isn't a textbook. And they're textbook publishers. Pearson seems to have figured out that they're actually in the teaching and learning business, not the textbook business. Any competitors unwilling to awaken from their paper-and-cardboard-sandwich dreams will find themselves selling buggy whips and running railroads as the interstates fill with trucks and the skies fill with cargo planes.

Now, Pearson just needs to figure out how to keep the hard copy/PDF options from overwhelming students, and their mothers, who are trying to survive the back-to-school rush.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Video on a printed page?

Not sure where this will go, but it certainly has some interesting possibilities. CBS is putting a paper-thin video player on the printed page of Entertainment Weekly. Patented technology, up to 70 minutes of video played by a battery. Price tag is not disclosed, but since it's a joint venture of CBS and Pepsi, it's not likely cheap. At the moment.

My initial reaction? This will interest textbook publishers. Assuming it's cheap enough and durable enough, they could embed their video elements into the book pages. It feels almost anachronistic, the ancient analog with the latest digital. But it has appeal. When the battery dies? Well, there's another reason to buy new books, not used. Not much of a strategy compared to creating an affordable product that everyone wants, though, and likely most publishers will see that (we hope).

The real value of this kind of player is mobility... getting an important message out uniquely. It definitely makes sense for advertising. May make sense for corporate communications. Just In Time training to the shop floor, the field salesforce... See, but my mind just keeps going back to sales and marketing. The sales guy opening the pamphlet, saying, "Let me show you, Mr. Prospect, how this works..."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The State of eLearning

First post, seems reasonable to address the broad scope of this industry. So here's my assessment...

1. There are more good technologies available to be used for learning than I have ever seen before.
2. Hardly anyone is using them really well.
3. Almost everyone is trying something.
4. The next couple of years are going to be massively exciting.

In the short term, social networks are going to see the most use (and perhaps abuse) as elearning operatives tire of Facebook and start looking at private networks. Use of video is also going to increase, though in spite of what would seem the more obvious lessons of YouTube, I fear we will continue to see lots flapping lips. People want pictures with their stories, but the webcam-as-mirror is just too seductive for those with a narcissistic bent. (There's a modern-day treatment of the ancient mythology just waiting to be posted!). Regardless, the power of video is clearly emerging from a long hibernation, as bandwidth, compression, and "home-made" video capabilities begin to multiply and be fruitful.

In the medium term, look for big moves on the eBook, textbook front. No one is happy with the current hardcopy/PDF dichotomy, including publishers. Kindle may be the best web 1.0 tool ever, but it's still little more than a PDF in a bucket. This is a big industry with a lot of money at stake, and there are a lot of Davids aiming at the Goliaths. The iTunes of the textbook world may well be approaching from within this rowdy crowd, wanting to take textbook publishing down the road music publishing has already trod. Someone will win big.

In the long term, 3D virtual worlds will gain power and prestige. This technology, potentially, really does have the bloodlines to claim the throne. Will there be a lot of web 1.0 pretenders poking around the castle grounds before the true heir can draw the sword (hint: learning objective) from the stone (hint: quest)? Undoubtedly. But the sword is there for the taking.

So there you have the major sources of my ramblings, rantings, and ravings (mostly ramblings). I'll keep you posted!