Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mix and match technologies... here to stay.

This post is about something I've been watching, experiencing, that I believe is true, but for which I have no real data. But because I think it's worthy of note, I'm going to take the blogger's prerogative and write about it anyway.

The subject is the opportunity at hand right now to mix and match technologies for learning, and the trend toward creating unique environments for unique audiences rather than choosing an existing platform and going with it. My belief is that this is happening a lot, a lot more than it ever has before. It may even be the standard starting point for new initiatives. And it's a big change.

My own experience is that I started doing "distance learning" with a stable platform in the late 80's and early 90's. That platform was satellite television. The trick was to use this platform to create engaging learning experiences, and we did. But technology moved on, and when the Internet began to bloom, my focus shifted to building platforms. In the mid to late 90's, I was a key player in building two different platforms, one a hybrid and one fully online. We were all over this, because there was nothing out there that everyone could use for learning in any environment for any purpose. Those efforts had all the allure and excitement of the dot-com boom. And most of the pain of the dot-com bust.

By the early 2000's, though, a handful of platforms had survived, maybe not the best ones, but they were there and relatively stable. So I moved back to a product focus. I created scads of programs and courses on Blackboard and eCollege. Then the Web 2.0 technologies rolled in. Time for the pendulum to swing back to building new platforms, right?

Well, sort of. What I see happening is a fragmentation of platforms, and a combining of platforms, resulting in a plethora of new mini-platforms. A lot of organizations seem to be taking a mix-and-match approach by combining existing stable technologies with new technologies, or existing new technologies with newer ones.

You know how they say one story is an anecdote, two are data? By that standard, I'm golden. Let me run through a handful of my own consulting gigs over the last 10 months from a purely platform point of view. I've worked with and for companies and entities who want to... 1) Design and build a social network with YouTube capabilities for continuing professional ed, 2) Combine an LMS with a private 3D environment for training, 3) Create new software for a live, synchronous learning experience using existing hand-held devices, 4) Design a learning portal that combines a personal start page and custom content widgets, 5) Use existing web social networks for low-cost course delivery...

You can see why I think that the era of one ubiquitous learning platform, an LMS with a CMS attached, or even one platform for a single industry like higher education, is nearing an end. Unless that platform is designed to plug anything in... and I mean anything anyone wants to code, without paying extra or jumping through the vendor's hoops... it just can't outperform the results of a focused effort for a particular purpose.

Why is this happening? Because software development in the learning arena is no longer mysterious or expensive. Lots of companies do it, and do it well. Open source code and APIs are abundant. Audiences know what they like. In this new way, the focus has shifted back to platform. And this time its hallmark is what it really should have been all along... understanding the learning needs and habits of the target population.

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