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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

eLearning Portal Integration

I've had a similar discussion several times over the past few months.  These discussions center on what requirements should go into an LMS RFP and more broadly how the LMS should really be integrated into the organization.

Initially, the conversation was about having learning content appear on the enterprise portal.  Many LMS vendors provide portlets, gadgets or widgets that allow for access of learning content (most often meaning courses and courseware) through the corporate portal.  Assuming that your learning audience regularly visits the enterprise portal, then its great to be able to show employees upcoming learning events, training requirements, content that might be of interest, or other similar things.

This has been a common requirement for a number of years.  And it's definitely a nice thing to have done.  It's certainly better than putting a static link to your LMS somewhere on the corporate portal / intranet.

But this only scratches the surface of what it means to integrate the Learning Management System (LMS) into the systems that people use day-to-day in an enterprise.  And this whole question is becoming more complicated as we look at the integration of the LMS and Social Learning.  There's a question of whether social tools will be part of the LMS or outside the LMS.  My gut says these tools are going to be separate from the LMS, e.g., SharePoint.  So, this naturally brings up how you integrate the LMS with social tools as well.

So, when I'm thinking about eLearning Portal Integration, I'm now thinking about:

  • Exposing links to learning content in the enterprise portal
  • Searchable learning content integrated with enterprise search
  • Integrating social tools with learning content
  • Integration learning management with other day-to-day tools

Links and Searching Content

The first two items are a bit more common today and it really starts with the question: Is there content and knowledge in the LMS that would be useful day-to-day?  In the post What Goes in the LMS? the general conclusion was that the LMS was really about housing finished course materials that need close tracking.  But generally some of that content would be useful in a day-to-day context.

The first stage of integrating this content is to simply provide links to individual content items that are housed in the LMS.  This requires the simplest kind of deep links.  You can refer to a SCO from outside the LMS and launch directly to that SCO without the user needing to do anything else.  FYI - deep linking is the ability for learning content to be linked to and launched from outside the LMS.  Many LMS vendors provide this capability.  And it can be really important if you want to create web sites outside the LMS that might provide context to a set of courses in the LMS. 

For example, a Plateau case study (PDF) talks about:

The biggest benefit Reuters has seen from its Plateau LMS to date is from deep linking functionality. Previously it took users up to 15 clicks to go from system access to content launch. With deep links in Plateau, users can launch content in two or three clicks. Deep linking also enables Reuters to have a centralized, single point for all content.

Which also addresses why we don't really want to plan to send the user directly to the LMS for day-to-day access.  See also:  Tools for On-Demand Information - An LMS? 

But the next level of content access from outside the LMS is search.  The idea is that the course content should be integrated into enterprise search so that it can be found and used when the person needs help with something.

This is a more complex requirement as it means requirements for enterprise search, the LMS and most often the content as well.  The content must  content must be indexable, in other words, the search engine must be able to run through the content to see what's in there.  For web pages, wiki pages, PDFs, Word Docs and other standard content that's easy.  For courseware it can be hard.  First the search engine may not be able to index the content because it'd buried in a proprietary format.  Second, even if the search engine can find it, it may not know how to get a user to that piece of content.  Launching a user to the beginning of a one-hour course because there is something in the middle that relates to the search is not a great result.

I would definitely like to hear from people who've made this level of integration happen – search level.

There are some off-the-shelf content vendors that have done a pretty good job around search integration.  For example, Skillsoft along with its Books 24x7 provide good hooks for search and deep linking. 

And what's interesting about both of these requirements is that we really are talking to exactly the issue that David points out in Who wants to see the LMS anyway:

Afterall, with the exception of the LMS vendor and the team who put it in, who really wants to see an LMS anyway....?

Integration with Social Tools or Other Day-to-Day Tools

A couple years ago, in New Kind of LMS?, I raised the question of whether we are headed to a new kind of LMS that will be much more integrated with day-to-day activities.  What seems to be happening in the market is that LMS vendors are integrating social capabilities, but I'm not sure that gets us where we need to go.  It somewhat relates with the issue above around search.  Is the LMS only aimed at big pieces of content that will be used separate from the job?  Or will it try to integrate into day-to-day. If it's separate from the job, then having embedded social tools might not make a lot of sense.

Other vendors are looking at taking things a different way.  For example, SumTotal Systems recently announced SumTotal Stream that provides integration with particular tools:

  • Microsoft Outlook: SumTotal's integration allows access to Talent Development tasks within the widely adopted Microsoft Outlook email client.  Not only will employees be able to react directly to Application alerts, they will be able to view Profile Information and provide real-time feedback to other employees with the SumTotal profile launch button that is available next to each User within the email view screens.
  • Facebook: With SumTotal's new Facebook Application, employees who typically use this Social Network will be able to receive Talent Development alerts and connect with colleagues all while in the Facebook site.
  • LinkedIn: SumTotal's LinkedIn API integration will allow employees to maintain their Portable Career Profile in LinkedIn, and then make this information available through SumTotal's ResultsOnDemand Performance application. 

I applaud SumTotal for recognizing that these tools exist in a network of other systems.  The interface is not really even the enterprise Portal.  The interface is all of the places where that user goes and does things.  Great move SumTotal!

This is really all about the issue I raised 3 years ago in terms of strategic choices for LMS Vendors in a few different posts such as: Moving from One to Many - LMS Products are Two Generations Behind and Point Solutions vs. Suites and Composition.

Of course, the challenge is deciding what you really want from your LMS today. The reality for today in most cases is to try to keep solutions relatively simple and hence keeping these requirements to a minimum.  However, I am very curious what other people are doing around all of this today.  Please chime in.


Phil Antonelli said...

I think you are on target with these ideas for LMS RFPs. My thoughts for the big buckets you presented—

Links and Searching Content
What would really be nice for links would be a scrolling RSS-type feed of new offerings as well as based on topic. It would even be better if the learner could subscribe to course feed links based on job (these could be handled by the LMS) and learner subscriptions based on interest.

There is a huge amount of valuable content locked up in LMSs. To get at it users typically have to wade through course libraries on the LMS. A semantic search feature that is accessible from the enterprise portal would be wonderful. If it could deliver direct links to the courses it would be a huge improvement. If this feature were capable of launching content at the topic level it could make the LMS a true performance support tool. I am not a programmer but I have been wondering if a tool like Calais ( might be employed to do something to that effect.

Integration with Social Tools
Recently I have had success experimenting with embed and iframe tags using our legacy LCMS/LMS. The result is a hybrid that is, for lack of a better term, a SCORM mashup. I think this turns the “one to many” model on its head to become “many to one.” In effect the content lies outside of the LMS (Youtube, Polldaddy RSS feeds, blogs, wikis, and corporate web applications). The LMS is used to provide content and guidance for the use of these tools while tracking the user at the page level. The data gathered by the LMS as well as from the social sites and web applications can help to form a 360 view of performance. Another benefit is rapid authoring by linking to content that exists and doesn’t need to be created. For example, why create a “try it” simulation of a web application in Captivate when you can link directly to the tool in an iframe?

Unknown said...

I think its smart to be where your students and certainly the Facebook environment can help remind people of upcoming/ongoing training opportunities.

This probably isn't unique to Facebook--but the unique environment of Facebook may inspire ADD in ways that other web interfaces would not (ie all your friends and apps are one click away). At the end of the day, if you can provide an interactive content--this learning environment could work. I think I would put my money on Moodle, Ning, or another interface over Facebook.

At least this gives the company the ability to test my assumptions based on various feedback loops.

Unknown said...

# Facebook: With SumTotal's new Facebook Application, employees who typically use this Social Network will be able to receive Talent Development alerts and connect with colleagues all while in the Facebook site.

# LinkedIn: SumTotal's LinkedIn API integration will allow employees to maintain their Portable Career Profile in LinkedIn, and then make this information available through SumTotal's ResultsOnDemand Performance application.

After reading this again it appears to just be alerts which makes sense and the Linked In app seems ridiculously smart. Sorry for the pre-emptive post...

Tony Karrer said...

@Phil - thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. "wade through course libraries" is exactly how it feels in a lot of LMS systems.

good question on Calais - but in terms of open source, there's Lucene out there. We use it a lot for other types of searches. But it's more than the search technology that's a barrier.

I'm not quite sure I get your integration description. I get mashing up other content items inside a course - see Authoring in eLearning 2.0 - Add-ins and Mash-ups. But I don't get how embedding a live app would really work in practice. The sim restricts choices in a way that's normally impossible in a live app.

Tony Karrer said...

@Nate - you are right that it appears to be mostly alerts right now, but the concept of extending the portal to be outside of the intranet portal - but into places where the students are is smart to me. Sounds like it is to you as well.

Norman Lamont said...

Re making elearning content searchable. We have a way of doing it which has emerged from making the best of our situation rather than an original intention. Our elearning courses are written in HTML/ASP. Our server platform for them was set up before we had an LMS. The LMS was brought in for reasons other than tracking elearning, so the elearning remained on its server and the LMS just launched a link to the course on the elearning server, not the LMS server. This limited the amount of tracking - we didn't use SCORM - but was enough for most MI purposes. Assessments were fully native to the LMS and fully tracked. We installed Google Mini on the elearning server so now users can do a Google search and pages from the elearning come up. Of course anyone venturing into an elearning course from such a link isn't being tracked. There's an ongoing debate about whether this is a 'good thing' - for my money it is, as it's one click to the information you need rather than 7 clunky ones in the LMS. Next year's work includes deep linking which may change it all.

Tony Karrer said...

@Norman - you must have authored your courses in a way that allows each page to function correctly on its own. Some course authoring solutions don't do well when you try to index and then launch to that particular URL.

Norman Lamont said...

Yes, the pages all function on their own. The linear tutorials are within a frameset for navigation and each page, if called from teh search results, will load its parent frameset so the rest of the tutorial is available. I guess it's an advantage of using simple HTML/ASP rather than an authoring system.

Tony Karrer said...

Norman - to your credit, the implementation includes specific support for search. I.e., the search engine will find the individual URL that does not on its own work, but you've coded so that search will work correctly. I would suspect that this will be more common, especially with what I believe we are more commonly recognizing as the need:

The Standalone LMS is Dead

tristan said...

So who is doing this apart from SumTotal? What I'd like to achieve is something like what does for it's language lessons. They're not SCORM but I like they way they sit surrounded by other resources and the community. Most LMSs I'm seeing are just big catalogues, inertia from the compliance and employee development background that most LMSs have.