What I learned at DrupalCon 2013

by Aaron Ingles

Earlier this summer, I traveled to Portland to attend DrupalCon 2013. DrupalCon is a semi-annual conference where thousands of people all over the world get together to learn about Drupal, meet new people in the Drupal community and see what new and innovative things are being done in the Drupal community.

The primary activity at DrupalCon was attending sessions about things that interest you and learning something new. They had several tracks that one can follow, such as Coding and Development, Design and Business and Strategy. I attended several great development focused sessions this year, and there were a few sessions that were very beneficial.

Development, by the Numbers was a session about the importance of reducing the complexity of your code base to increase understanding and maintainability. By using tools such as PHPLOC and PHPMD, you can quickly assess what areas of your code are becoming complexity monsters and need to be considered for refactoring.

For example, you may use PHPMD on your codebase and discover you had a function that was hundreds of lines long and contained several layers of nested logic. Then you could review that function and determine to silo off one or all of those layers into their own separate function that can then be utilized by the main function. This would offload the amount of code and complexity in the main function to the newly created functions.

Reducing the complexity of your code will make it easier to maintain, expand upon, and will also increase the ease of understanding of what the code is trying to do.

In the session, Updating Your Modules to Drupal 8, Alex Bronstein walked us through converting a simple module he had written in Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 and explained how best to go about updating our modules and where to find all of the changes that have been made to date in the Drupal 8 version. This was a particularly exciting session for me because we have a project we’re currently working on that may need to be converted to Drupal 8 and I wanted to get prepared for the task. The biggest changes that he covered were:

  • Changing the way blocks are defined from several API functions to custom PHP classes instead.
  • Adding a new menu routing system allows menu items to be matched by path, HTTP method (GET or POST) and scheme (http vs. https), making it more flexible and easier to integrate with third party software and services.
  • Use of YAML files to store the configuration info for your modules and their variables.

The main focus of DrupalCon 2013 was the upcoming release of Drupal 8 at the end of this year. The main additions in Drupal 8 that were emphasized in Dries Buytaert’s, the founder of Drupal, keynote were improving the experience of users for Drupal on mobile devices, the ability for Drupal to easily communicate with third party services and software, and the user experience for site administrators. These were three areas that Dries felt that Drupal was lacking in previous versions and needed to get right with Drupal 8.

Attending DrupalCon this year was a great chance for me to expand my knowledge of Drupal, which I use everyday here at Iona. I got to learn about the cutting edge changes that are coming to Drupal and I’m excited about getting to work with them later this year.


Upcoming Float Symposium

Iona’s sister company, Float Mobile Learning, will hold its second annual one-day symposium on mobile learning this summer in Chicago.

As you may know, Float developed from The Iona Group in 2010. Iona has been in business since 1984, and one of its core practices throughout that period has been eLearning. Though similar, mobile learning is not just eLearning ported directly to a mobile device. Recognizing this difference, Iona branched out in 2010 to start a new venture called Float. Float, under the guidance of managing director Chad Udell, has worked with Fortune 500 companies and industry-leading companies such as Caterpillar, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Wiley Publishing.

This year’s Float Mobile Learning Symposium will take place at the brand-new startup incubator 1871 inside the Merchandise Mart on Monday, June 25, in conjunction with Techweek, an event attended by thousands of people interested in technology. The Symposium will feature experts from outside organizations such as Groupon’s Shay Howe, mobile experience author Steven Hoober, and Aaron Silvers, the chief learning officer of Problem Solutions. Our speakers have expertise in mobile design, development, and strategy work.

The intent of this Symposium is to bring current and future thinking regarding mobile learning to organizations. Float wants to continue to spark interest in how best to get your organization to think about mobile learning. The Symposium lasts a full day, half of the day focused on business and strategy with the other half focused on design and development.

The price for the Float Mobile Learning Symposium 2012 is just $79 through Friday, May 4. After May 4, the price increases to only $99. The registration fee covers entry into the event, as well as a continental breakfast and lunch.

Click here to view more information about this year’s Float Mobile Learning Symposium.

eLearning Devcon 2011: A recap

I had the chance last week to travel to Salt Lake City to attend, and present at, the 2011 staging of eLearning Devcon. A conference focused on development concepts and practices in eLearning, this was an excellent opportunity to gain insight into the latest trends in eLearning, as well as what the future holds for the eLearning development professional. In this blog post I’m going to recap and give my thoughts on some of the sessions that I attended while at devcon.

First up was “Understanding HTML5 – How it will improve our Learning” by Nick Floro. I found this to be a comprehensive overview of the capabilities of this still evolving “next generation” of the HTML standard and the companion CSS3 standard, and how the new capabilities of both can be leveraged for the purposes of eLearning. One great point that Nick made was that developing with HTML5 allows you to develop content that is “device agnostic”. That is, due to the fact that not only do the latest versions of the standard desktop browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, even IE9) support HTML5, but also the latest and greatest smartphones  (iPhone, Android phones, etc), you can develop your content in such a way that will be deployable across all these different platforms. This has significant advantages for eLearning, especially when considering the rapidly expanding sector of mLearning. While I agree with this point in principle, I don’t think that this should be taken as meaning the same content should be deployed to all platforms – the context of these mobile devices (primarily, smaller screen sizes and the typically different manner that a learner engages with content on a mobile device vs. a traditional browser) dictates that the content should be structured differently for mobile than for desktop. So, while the same development tools (HTML templates, JavaScript libraries, etc) can be re-used, there are still content considerations to be kept in mind.

Next up was “Beyond SCORM: Supporting future learning experiences” by Ben Clark of Rustici Software and Project Tin Can. This session went over why the SCORM specification as it stands now is lacking, and where efforts like Project Tin Can, CMI 5, and others are working to progress the standards to be much more flexible in order to reflect the wide range of eLearning methods that are employed today. The key point that Ben made was that the SCORM specification was state of the art 10 years ago, but the rapid pace of technological development since then has made the specification largely ineffectual today. Chief among these drawbacks is the restrictive nature of the tracking and reporting provided by LMS’es that implement the SCORM specification. The “attempt-centric” nature of this tracking – that is, essentially showing only a basic summary (completion status, time in course and course location) for each course that a learner has attempted – was sufficient for the primarily linear nature of eLearning when the SCORM standard was first created, but is sadly lacking for the richer interactions, such as interactive simulations, that comprise eLearning today. Moreover, simply the fact that learners are locked into the rigid structure of an LMS in order to engage and get credit for eLearning is an inflexible model, given the much more fluid website interactions that learners have become used to with Facebook, Twitter and the like. As a developer frequently frustrated by these limitations of SCORM and traditional LMS’es, I was encouraged by the much more flexible approach that Ben reported Project Tin Can is taking in the data that can be tracked from a given piece of courseware.

Rather than stay with a rigid definition of what can be tracked (completion status, score, etc), the next generation of SCORM will focus instead on the concept of “I DID THIS” when referring to a learners engagement with a learning interaction. Essentially, instead of dictating that a learner must achieve a “score” for a course (that itself must be structured very rigidly according to an xml manifest), what is being tracked (the DID THIS part of a learner’s attempt) and the tracking measurement are sent back to the LMS as part of the tracking information. For example, the activity being tracked could be a sophisticated flash simulation with a very detailed report of competency (ie. not just a numerical “score”) – the relevant details of the simulation would be sent back as part of the tracking information. Furthermore, the flexibility of the specification will be extended to consider learning interactions that are completely outside of what today we think of as an LMS. For example, a learner interaction could be posted on a platform such as Facebook or YouTube in such a manner that the relevant tracking information would be posted directly from the hosting server to the central LMS. Obviously, authentication of the learner is a paramount concern when considering a scenario like this (ie. how to relate the learner’s facebook account with their LMS account in order that they get credit for the learning), but the significantly increased flexibility that an approach like this would give eLearning is really a game changer in my book.

Another thought provoking presentation that was given at devcon was the conference keynote, “Rewiring your brain”, given by Curtis Morley of FranklinCovey. The key topic of the presentation was the vast amount of distraction that exists in today’s society and how it affects behavior, not only in regard to learning, but in general. One key statistic that was given was that as little as 20 years ago, the average person could expect to be on the receiving end of a “distraction” (something that takes their attention away from their task at hand) once every two hours. Today, in the age of text messaging, ever present smart phones, and websites such as Twitter and Facebook, this time span has plummeted to the point that the average person will be distracted once every 2.5 minutes. As an owner of both an iPod touch and a Droid smartphone, I can certainly attest to this statistic, and the adverse effect it can have on concentration and, consequently, the attention span – Curtis phrased it very eloquently when saying we have become used to thinking “6 miles wide and 1 inch deep”. Bringing the effects of this back to an eLearning context, he then went over some ways to structure eLearning content in such a way as to counteract the effect of these drains on concentration. Key among these suggestions were:

  • Set the stage. Telling the learner ahead of time what they will be learning is key in focusing their brain on that subject matter, making them less likely to succumb to a potential distraction.
  • Remove distractions. Don’t be shy – tell learners at the beginning of a course to remove potential distractions from their environment prior to starting their engagement with the content.
  • Engage the brain. Rather than present a traditional page turner (pages of text with next and previous buttons to navigate through in a linear progression), consider ways of presenting your content in the form of more fun and engaging interactions that will more fully engage their attention.
  • Rewards and motivation. Be sure and spell out in very real terms what is in it for the learner by engaging with your learning content. This may be in the form of a real, physical reward, or simply outlining how a learners circumstance will change by taking your eLearning course.

The final presentation that I want to recap is “Using games and simulations in learning”, again by Nick Floro. Gamification is a hot topic in web development these days, and Nick presented a brief overview of the concepts of exactly what gamification is, and how it can be applied effectively to eLearning. One of the key tenets of gamification is making technology more engaging by making it fun – in essence, taking advantage of people’s natural interest in playing games (no plainer evidence of this interest can be found than in the huge popularity of today’s gaming systems – Wii, XBox, Playstation and the like). In an eLearning context, this involves taking your learning material and determining how the key concepts and objectives can be presented in the form of a game. Obviously, there are a vast array of gaming mechanics and designs available, so a large part of effectively utilizing gamification in your eLearning is simply playing games and getting familiar with the various types of games and, consequently, what mechanic “fits best” to your content. One key point that Nick kept coming back to was that, no matter how sophisticated your game engine and design, the underlying content of the game is what will really keep the gamer (or learner) engaged and interested. As an illustration of this, he related how the “classic” text based adventure games from years gone by are just as, if not more, engaging as todays’ visually dazzling first person shooters, simply because they do such a great job of focusing on and telling a great story. I feel this is especially key for an eLearning game, because the underlying content (or “story”) is what you are trying to relate to and get the learner to understand. After all, if your learner has a great, fun time playing your game, but ultimately walks away with no more understanding of the underlying subject matter than they had before playing the game, then it has ultimately failed.

Another great suggestion that Nick made was researching and gaining a good understanding of the games intended audience before starting development. This will enable you to design characters in your game that the audience will relate to. The most effective games are those that most deeply engage the player and a great first step in that regard is giving the player a character with who they can readily identify with. He gave a great example of this by outlining a prototyping phase of an earlier game based project that had an even split of female and male characters to choose from. After allowing a sampling of the game audience to play with this prototype, they found that the vast majority of them chose the male avatars, giving them the insight to change the selection of characters in the developed game to be primarily male. One more idea that Nick gave to consider when developing an eLearning game was to integrate reward mechanisms into the gameplay. This is again based on the idea that the more engaged in a game a learner is, the more effective the game. If a learner has something to play for, in the form of in game rewards, then they are more likely to keep playing the game in order to get more rewards. This is especially true for eLearning games, because the rewards can be designed in such a way as to relate to the subject material. Again, Nick provided a great example to back this up, by showing a project aimed to educate young learners about dinosaurs. The primary game mechanic was having the learners navigate around a map in search of dinosaur fossils – with the fossils acting as the reward mechanism, it was a great tool to provide the learners information about each fossil as they discovered and collected their “rewards”. Overall, I think the use of games in eLearning is a great, and effective, way to provide learning material in a way that goes far beyond the traditional page turner model that has become so prevalent, and Nick gave some great pointers on how to design these games to maximize their effectiveness in terms of achieving the overall learning objectives.

eLearning devcon was a great conference, and showed that the eLearning community really has it’s finger on the pulse of new and emerging technologies and how they can be applied to eLearning development. I came away with my mind filled with great ideas, ready to further explore these new ideas and utilize them effectively in upcoming projects.

Determining a Strong Direction for Good Site Design

We recently embarked on the task of re-working our website. It is a task that, I’m sure, for anyone in our business can be a challenging endeavor. There is always a desire to play up one’s expertise in web design and development and that desire often leads to pretty yet overly complex and difficult to navigate sites. In an effort to impress, it is often easy to overwhelm. My contention is that the most impressive and useful of sites are often the most simple and straightforward of designs.

Of course, to say “simple and straight forward is the way to go” is easy, but what one really needs is the evidence to back up those claims.

We began the task of re-designing our website by first taking a look at our Google Analytics findings for the site as it currently existed. We took a look at who our audience was, what they found interesting, what pages they tended to click on most, what pages they tended to avoid, what type of content they were most likely to linger on, etc. We took this information, dissected it, and determined what was and what wasn’t working well for us.

The two major conclusions we arrived at were pretty much what we’ve come to expect among users: They will not dive very deep into a website to find pertinent information, and they will not read a wall of text when a short paragraph would do just fine.

This, of course shouldn’t be surprising in the least. As users ourselves, we understand the importance of clear, succinct messaging when it comes to web content. We live in an online world that is comprised of a wealth of content. Sifting through it should be a simple and straight forward as possible.

And so, we took our Google Analytics findings to heart and got to work on building our new website. The results of which is a clean, simple, elegant design that places as much pertinent content on the front page as possible, allows the user to sort and navigate that content in a variety useful of ways, and never overwhelms nor waters down the content with an unnecessary amount of information.

Iona adds more fiber

Today, The Iona Group got a new addition–a nice new high-speed fiber optic voice and data connection to the office. iTV-3, a local service provider, added the Morton, IL area to its service area, and we were happy to be one of their first Morton clients.

The new connection will provide Iona with a fast and reliable data connection. This will allow us to provide improved collaborative services to our clients through the faster internet connection. In addition, moving to iTV-3 support The Iona Group’s core principles of being technology leaders in adopting the all fiber-optic service and in supporting other businesses in our community.

Currently, we have transitioned the phone service to the new connection. Tomorrow begins the internet switch. During the next few days, there may be some service interruptions as all of the addresses transfer to the fiber line.

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