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Learning Technologists Look on the Bright Side of Budget Cuts
Adobe studies how to be paranoid
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2009-02-03 11:23 (KST)   
At Learning Technologies, a conference and exhibition in London last week, there was recogniton that training budgets were under pressure in the credit crunch. However there was also confidence that a strong case can be made for e-learning and increased use of the Web as a means to deliver more results for less cost. Adobe promoted Connect and demonstrated a fundamental switch from Postscript origins to a Flash future, behaviour consistent with the Andrew S. Grove theory that "Only the paranoid survive."

Laura Overton
©2009 William Pollard
A major report was released by Towards Maturity, based on survey replies from over 300 UK organisations, including education as well as finance and communications. There is some self-selection involved. Only the people slightly interested in e-learning will find time for the survey in the first place. However as there have been previous surveys, published by e-skills in 2007 and the University for Industry (UfI) in 2004, the comparisons show significant trends over time. Previously the major barriers to change were identified as IT infrastructure and the cost of setting up technology resources. Currently the issues are around the attitude, skills and knowledge of people at all levels, including management.

Driving Business Benefits
©2009 Towards Maturity
Discussion at the launch of the report suggested that available budgets were now more likely to be reduced than was though when the survey was done late last year. However there was still likely that e-learning could prosper and that more administrative tasks would move online.

Laura Overton, Managing Director of Towards Maturity, said that:
2009 is a critical year for learning and development professionals to demonstrate that they can add bottom line value to their organisations. As in any other profession, a downturn provides an ideal opportunity to innovate with new approaches and tools. The report provides the whole learning community with collective insights on how to step up to the challenge of delivering more with less this year.
Clive Shepherd wrote in his blog after the conference that 2009 was "by far the busiest and buzziest" event in the 10-year history. What would this be the case in a recession?
There clearly is a heightened interest in e-learning as organisations look to cut budgets and speed up training delivery - in this way e-learning seems counter-recessionary.

E-learning seems to be at the tipping point; as an industry we are no longer racked by self-doubt, because we're hearing so many great case studies. We know there's a lot of poor use of technology still, but by and large organisations are learning the lessons and beginning to get it right.
Ed Arnett from Premier IT was also an optimist.
Many organisations are now familiar with the benefits of using e-Learning, especially when it is used to complement more traditional Instructor-led training as part of a blended learning programme. We have noted, particularly in the current economic climate, that more forward thinking HR/training departments are also turning to the use of other online technologies to help manage their responsibilities for the professional competency, career development and lifelong learning of employees and members.
A summary report and slides from the Towards Maturity launch are available for download. A full version will be published later in February.

The tendency to "look on the bright side of life" was made famous by Monty Python in the film "Life of Brian". It may just be an attractive idea for people trying to promote technology to training departments at a trade show when the newspapers are full of stories about closures and redundancies. There was not much connection with academic approaches to e-learning where the tendency is often to look for "the dark side". In a paper for a Networked Learning conference, Debra Ferreday and Vivien Hodgson wrote:
The importance assumed for collaboration based forms of participation ....has almost become ubiquitous and is frequently seen as an unquestionable good aspect -- a utopian view of participation which does not acknowledge the 'dark side' of participation in learning.... the darker sides of collaborative participation ... in its extreme manifestations can be experienced as normative and as a form of tyranny of the dominant and which instead of having a liberating effect, reinforces a form of oppression and control.
It would be interesting to know more about how the Networked Learning discussion would compare at an event such as Learning Technologies. There appears to be nothing that can be found online to show how these concerns relate to Web design.

Meanwhile approaches to collaboration and social networking are still being launched. Fiona Hudson-Kelly claims that "the current economic climate will force companies of all sizes to review their training expenditure and many will turn to the web to find better value and more innovative solutions." She is launching a website - the Training Pod - that will encourage a network for new training ideas.

There were stands for Ashridge Online Insight, based at a business school, and for Emerald Group Publishing with a small selection of printed journals but in general I thought there was less academic interest than I would have expected. The event shows evidence of actual developments in areas that have been previously discussed as theory.

The Towards Maturity survey suggested that use of mobile devices has declined since the previous survey and also that use of virtual worlds is the least likely are to be developed. This may only be true for formal training. Howard Hills explained when presenting this that Netbooks may confuse the definition of "mobile devices" so this area may be interpreted differently on a future occasion. The Learning Technologies event tends to concentrate on relatively expensive technology with corporate control rather than the commodity level that most people learn from incidentally. However the role of "informal learning" was recognised in a conference session as reported by Jane Knight on her "pick of the day" blog. Seb Schmoller stated that learners will use open content "whether we like it or not". Links from his presentation are on his own blog.

British Army training course
©2009 Caspian Learning / William Pollard
There was some interest in virtual worlds. Maid Marion game uses similar software and show the multi-user features that will soon be available for learning.

However, there were very few examples of video-conferencing compared to previous years. Adobe emphasised this aspect of Acrobat Connect when first launched but now it seems to be only used occasionally. WebEx explained that they only offer a small corner of the screen for a talking head, partly because of the expense of cameras for full screen resolution. See video on YouTube. Prerecorded video is an option. In the discussion after the Towards Maturity report launch it was suggested that senior management could be asked to record a statement about e-learning. This could be more convincing than a printed vision statement. Also involving management in the technology had often helped to get attention for learning potential.

The impression I got from the report and surveys is that there is still very little pressure from senior management to prompt technology adoption. The initiative seems to come from somewhere in the middle of the organisation, IT or Human Resources for example. A diagram in the report shows both "defining need" and "demonstarting value" as part of a flow but it seems the value needs to be demonstrated before the need is fully recognised.

So the management situation around e-learning appears to be in contrast to the emphasis on "leadership". Pedlar, Burgoyne and Boydell for example introduced their 2004 guide to Leadership following earlier books on Learning Organisations.
Whether you work in a hospital or a large company, in a school or a local business, you have probably noticed this new concern with leadership. Your boss is talking about it, the Government says how important it is, the newspapers deplore the lack of it - you may even be on the end of initiatives to improve it. What people are saying is that organisations are massively challenged by change and need more leadership.
They then discuss leadership 'at all levels' but some of the discussion on leadership considered the inspiring effect of charisma. There is now more interest in "distributed leadership" as described in this video from MIT. My impression is that the capabilities of leadership are now seen as so distributed they overlap with the earlier ideas about learning organisations.

This is a continuing discussion and could be assisted if Learning Technologies happened at the same time as BETT, the technology show for schools and Further Education. Although BECTA support the Towards Maturity project there was nobody from BECTA on the stand. BECTA area government agency concerned with broadband access for all students, how to benefit from open source software given existing contracts, and other issues that are of general interest. The Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) were also at BETT but not at Learning Technologies. LSIS combines the Centre for Excellence in Leadership and the Quality Improvement Agency so future research may combine leadership with systems and organisation. This could be relevant to how the Towards Maturity model is implemented.

BETT would also contribute a higher level of energy. There is a less corporate atmosphere and more readiness to experiment. There is still interest in video conferencing for example. See video on YouTube

Adobe concentrated on Connect and the eLearning Suite. Connect is for web conferencing using Flash as a base. The eLearning Suite includes Acrobat but the emphasis at Learning Technologies was on Flash and Captivate for creating video from a screen. Last year Connect was branded as Acrobat Connect but this has changed so that Adobe Connect has more emphasis. I find this less confusing as I associate Acrobat with PDF and Connect is about something else. Since Adobe bought Macromedia there have been various representations of an "Adobe Engagement Platform" as if PDF and Flash could be integrated. Recently the presentations for financial analysts have just mentioned Flash, which seems to be the direction.

Adobe agenda
©2009 William Pollard
Adobe is an example of a learning organisation or at least there are some fundamental changes that might be explained by some sort of theory. It seems possible that they have lost confidence in the Postscript / PDF line of products and will soon become essentially Macromedia. I think about this as Adobe Classic and Adobe (FLSH). There is clearly enthusiasm for Flash from Shantanu Narayan and Kevin Lynch, recently appointed Chief Technology Officer. The previous Chief Technology Officer, John Warnock, is still joint Chair with Charles Geschke so an interesting question is how they think about Flash given the scope of research since Xerox Parc.

I may be wrong to think that Postscript was a priority or that PDF was intended for the printing industry. On occasions it has seemed more likely that PDF was intended just to be viewed on screen. The move towards Flash still has further to go so there will probably be revised versions of the Adobe story. It seems clear enough from the priorities in what is promoted that something is changing so this is a topic to return to and the following material may relate.

An interesting quote is from a Geschke interview with Knowledge at Wharton:
[running a company] can feel pretty lonely. Who do you talk to? That's one thing John and I have always tried to do for Bruce and Shantanu. We don't keep an office at Adobe. I don't want to be perceived as looking over their shoulders. [But] we make ourselves available anytime that they want to sit down. We usually have breakfast once a month with Shantanu to chat and see how things are going. If he wants to call, we'll be there immediately.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think is the biggest challenge Adobe is facing going forward?

Geschke: Inventing the future. We'll never succeed unless we continue to open up new vistas.

I honestly believe that our technology and what's happening in the market -- where essentially all visual communication is going to the web -- is the sweetheart point in our whole envelope of products and technologies. Shame on us if we can't figure out a way to take advantage of that shift in the way the world is moving with the distribution of information.

A lot of what are there today -- the limitations of browsers and of the web imaging standards -- are things that we think we have a solution for. As they become the primary delivery mechanism, that value is going to differentiate.
So "all visual communication is moving to the web". Is print just part of visual communication? Will newspapers include more video on their websites? There is a YouTube video of John Warnock talking about newspapers in 2007. This seems to suggest that news on paper is going to be much reduced.

So there could be a major shift that will also have an effect on organisations using print such as libraries and universities. l find it is now difficult to find out much about print aspects of Adobe as they usually want to talk about something else. The description "paranoid" sometimes comes to mind, in a formal technical sense as described by Andrew S. Grove in his book - Only the Paranoid Survive. T

Grove considers the history of technology companies and advocates the study of inflection points. He suggests that companies move out of declining products as fast as possible.

Adobe may be right about a move to the Web but on balance there are still some unanswered questions. What will happen with academic journals for example -- There is still a lot of text there but maybe future students will just not be very interested. I spoke to someone on the Emerald stand at Learning Technologies. Journals have almost completely moved to digital but he considered that a text culture will continue with only limited use of video.

Shoji Shiba [PDF], writing about Breakthrough Management, follows a section on Grove and being paranoid with this suggestion:
If need be, one has to kill the current source of income to jump to the next level. And that needs a strong mind.
This sort of thinking may explain why there is comparatively less promotion for the MARS project, now also known as PDFXML, to rewrite PDF as XML friendly and for the ePUB format as used in the Digital Editions Reader. PDF is probably still associated with a significant part of Adobe current income. Many developers are interested in XML. But there is almost no promotion for MARS other than a blog that is updated infrequently.

At the Adobe stand during Learning Technologies I asked about the Digital Editions Reader and was told that there was no information available though I could check the Adobe website. This is surprising as the software uses Flash to display PDF and is also capable of managing digital rights. It also supports the ePUB format, very XML friendly and capable of reflow for display on mobile devices.

There is information avilable online and through email. In response to previous drafts for this story about the reasons for using PDF, PDFXML, or ePUB Bill McCoy, General Manager of the Adobe Digital Publishing Business wrote:
While EPUB is fast on its way to becoming the standard for reflow-centric eBooks, I think it's a bit mixing apples and oranges (ok, chalk and cheese to you) to compare with PDFXML (Mars) or XML Paper. EPUB is designed to represent in a single file the structure of a publication, but not a particular final-form paginated appearance. Speaking only for myself, I think the reason that these other formats are not taking off (in the case of Mars, I will add "yet") is that PDF has ably occupied the fixed-format document standard, and now is a fully open ISO-level standard, which does not leave a compelling reason for another format standard to be broadly adopted to do the same job. While there's some advantages to XML-friendiness over the binary PDF format, and a more modular approach to packaging (ZIP vs. COS), on the flip side there's 1000s of software programs and libraries that grok today's PDF. EPUB is not a competitor since it is at a different level of abstraction (with with the addition of page-templates over time there will be EPUB publications with a reasonably polished preferred presentation, the intention is that different devices may still render quite differently, and I doubt that print/prepress workflows will ever work with EPUB, other than as an input format a la MS Word, RTF, etc.).
Some more explanation on this would be welcome. There may be more on the Digital Publishing blog.The British Library recently announced that because of digital rights management they will only supply PDF journal articles through Digital Editions Reader, not through Acrobat. There is a reason for this but it is not well known.

I may have exaggerated the rate of change at Adobe. In another email response to a draft, Jim King wrote that the Creative Suite is still intended to cover the range of creative options:
I do not think that Adobe views the business of communicating information broken into two distinct camps as you have portrayed. I think we view it as a spectrum with "old" printing at one end and "new" rich internet applications at the other.

Most of our Creative Suite (CS) component products are used throughout the information communication industry. We estimate that 85 percent of all web pages have had some of the content processed in Photoshop. And Photoshop, well even the complete CS, is the primary tool for traditional publishing/printing.

Although in enterprise there was a split at first between the web team and the traditional print marketing materials team, nearly all companies have realized that there is so much in common that they have brought those teams back into one management structure. Companies are interested in getting their message out using whatever means is the most effective. And the most effective way for them to do that is to have people responsible for the objective and free to use whatever technology and tools work the best. Adobe serves that more general audience.
Whatever happens around Flash, technology and learning will continue to be of interest so discussion will continue between conferences. The e-Learning Network offers free membership through their website and will next meet later in February.
Updates will be on the learn9 blog: http://learn9log.blogspot.com
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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