Monday, September 14, 2009

Welcome to the era of the "Interchange Environment"

So where does one begin when one wants to to pilot some high quality, high powered learning experiences and products using the wide array of new technologies now at our fingertips? eLearning as an industry (and here I mean to encompass formal education, informal learning, and training), has in the past used a strategy that I would call 'run and gun.' Grab something new, try it, then if it doesn't work, drop it like a rock. And if it does work, use it until it wears out. And maybe beyond. We have not been very inventive, when it comes down to it. But the times they are a' changin.'

Let me explain how. When online learning first made its debut in the late 80's and early 90's, it was confined to the corporate training space, and it was all self-paced. We just moved CD's online. But what we were really doing was taking one portion of the learning process, the absorption of new knowledge, pulling it out of context, and putting it on the web for learners to consume. It worked pretty well for some concrete subjects, notably IT training. But sadly, many thought it was the whole answer, and a lot of complex soft skills went that way, too. I remember even Harvard launched an MBA in a box, full of high-dollar video-based simulations for complex business situations. (It failed, though multimedia cases and simulations continue.)

In the mid to late 1990's, Blackboard, eCollege, and other CMS's roiled through the higher education space like a tsunami. They had a very different model, all about communication. There wasn't a self-paced "next" button to be found. But again, we pulled one aspect of the learning process out, this time dialog and discussion, and assumed it was the whole thing. This model also worked very well for some subjects (business, psychology), but suffered greatly when applied to education (that is, teaching teachers to teach), and nursing, and other areas that required high-touch, highly visual content.

So where are we now, one tenth of the way through a new century? The technology landscape is literally littered with cheap, easy technologies that provide both communication and content. Some examples in communication: social networks, blogs, micro-blogs, virtual worlds, wikis, chat, video chat. Some examples of self-paced content: podcasts (audio and video), user-generated media, high-def video, streaming audio and video, downloading almost anything, screen-capture with audio, serious games, personal homepages, and all the associated information widgets and gadgets.

And now the edges are becoming seriously blurred. Is video chat a communication tool or a content generation tool? Is it one thing when it's happening, and another when it's recorded and played back? Is an online textbook still content when it connects learners to other learners in a social network? Is a 3D virtual classroom a communication option, or is it another way to house content? Or is it something new entirely?

Personally, I think it's something new. In fact, I think it's new enough that I'm going to coin a term for it (because there has been a noticeable dearth of obscure new terms in our field lately): the "Interchange Environment," defined as an online space that allows both free exchange of content and high levels of communication, and is controlled by individual users and leaders of groups. The typical LMS or CMS, like Blackboard or Moodle, is an Interchange Environment. But so are a lot of other spaces. We need this term because when a technology fits that definition... you can teach a class there.

Second Life is an Interchange Environment. So is Facebook, and so is any private social network built on So is PageFlakes, by virtue of its PageCast function. So is Google Groups. If a group leader can limit access, if members can exchange content (think assignments and papers as well as lectures or articles or videos), and if all members can communicate with all group members while limiting access so non-members can be kept out, then you have everything you need to conduct a class.

What don't you have with one of these web 2.0 Interchange Environments that you do have with a typical CMS? You don't have all the back-end authentication and security functions that can integrate with an SIS or HR system, for scale, and for ease of use (don't laugh). You don't have a gradebook, or a quiz function. But some of these technologies are so API-friendly that you can use your own security, or a third party single-sign-on service. And gradebooks? Those are easy and cheap, sometimes free, online.

What else is missing from these non-LMS Interchange Environments? Hosting and maintenance costs. Oh yes, and license fees. You don't have those.

It's almost 2010. Come January, we will have put our 10% deposit down on the 21st century. When those of us in elearning actually take possession of it, I believe we'll be moving into one of these highly effective, highly cost-effective Interchange Environments. And I don't think we'll be moving back out again.


  1. FWIW, I call this "Bag of Tools" online education, as in teachers picking a variety of discrete tools to create learing experiences.
    Does BOT work better as a TLA than NIE (non-LMS Interchange Environment)? We need to settle this important question early!

    - Kendrick

  2. Hi Bryan,

    I found your blog entry via LinkedIn, which I now see as another potential interchange environment, though with perhaps less exclusivity in its current iteration.

  3. Kendrick, I like the term BOT. The amazing thing is how big the bag is getting... and that's before you start looking at the Interchange Environments, which add a whole lot.
    Charlie, I hadn't thought of LinkedIn as an Interchange environment but with the groups capability, it probably could be!
    Thanks for the comments.