SharePoint LMS: The Good

I’ve had a lot to say about what SharePoint LMS doesn’t do well – so it’s only fair if I end with what SharePoint LMS does do well.

It’s actually SCORM compliant

Many claim to be SCORM compliant – but we’ve tested it and this one definitely is!

It works well within the SharePoint constructs

I do a lot of SharePoint based solutions for business collaboration. Therefore it only makes sense that if we were going to do e-learning, we would want to do something that fits within the SharePoint construct. This one works great in that respect and can quick enhance your portal. This is like taking a good LMS and adding the full power of MOSS to it!

You can easily insert surveys into the learning path

I really liked the fact that we could ask a student if they liked the course right at the end of the learning path!

It works on MOSS – don’t try to install it on WSS!

It works great on MOSS. We made the mistake of testing it on WSS and it literally tore WSS apart!

It’s got tons of bookmarking

There are actually 2 levels of bookmarking. You can return to your position in a learning path or return to your position within your SCORM. Pretty cool!

You can easily add quizzes

We ultimately didn’t need them because our quizzes are part of our SCORM, but I like the fact that we can roll these out.

Reports can be scheduled and emailed

I did like the fact that we could schedule recurring reports and they can automatically be emailed to someone. That takes away the burden of manually pulling the reports.

User Management Module allows for easy management of students

We did add this module and it really helped our LMS administrator.

You can apply your own theme to each course

We didn’t do this – but I can definitely see the usefulness of being able to have a different look and feel for each course.

Prerequisites

This was a core requirement for us. We liked to be able to force a user to complete a lesson or activity before moving onwards.

Ultimately – if you deal with a SharePoint environment, you will like this product. It’s got a lot going on and I think with future versions will be a force to be reckoned with in the e-learning game!

SharePoint LMS: The Bad and the Ugly

I’ve indicated that I was overall happy with this product, but that’s not to say there aren’t things that could really improve it and take it to the next level.  For anyone considering deploying SharePoint LMS – here are some things to be aware of :

The gradebook – not all it’s cracked up to be

I had two major issues with the gradebook. The major one was that when we added over 500 users, the gradebook came to a grinding halt. Whenever one of us accessed the gradebook – it simply failed to respond. When we had only 20 users it worked fine. It seemed to be a huge resource hog and would shoot our server memory up to 2GB and cause huge processor spikes. When this would happen, sometimes a page would load, sometimes not. Often the entire site stopped working for all of us because one person accessed the gradebook. Therefore we had to get rid of it because it had huge performance implications.

The second issue was more of a subjective issue – but it doesn’t really seem that useful for the end user. It uses a horizontal way to display the information which makes it not that easy on the eye. There’s also no way to really customize how it looks for students. Ultimately we abandoned it and added a way for users to see their attempts and scores on the course landing pages.

You can’t add HTML in a lot of places

It takes a few clicks for a user to get to their lessons. For example:

  1. Click to get to your course
  2. Click to enter your learning path
  3. Click to confirm you want to start the learning path
  4. Click to start the lesson

Now this is not an unreasonable number of steps to get to a lesson. However, to an end user who may not be aware of what a learning path vs lesson is – this may seem a bit confusing. We were able to use SharePoint designer as well as some of the menus to add some text explaining this, but it would be nice to have menu options to fill information at each of these stages.

Double sets of buttons

SharePoint by default has double sets of buttons. This is so that if you have a long list, you don’t have to scroll to the top or bottom to find the buttons. However, in some cases the LMS has these double sets of buttons with only one line of text in between them. If we were able to add some HTML in between the buttons it would make it a bit more attractive, but for the end user, it looked awkward from time to time.

While within a course – the full list of courses does not display

When you are at the root of the LMS, you can see a list of all available courses on the quick launch. Unfortunately when you drill into a course (which is really a sub-site) the course item on the quick launch remains, yet it’s empty. This creates a menu option with no content. We couldn’t figure out how to turn this off. It would be nice if we were able to get it to fully populate.

Delineating between attempts of a learning path and attempts of a SCORM

This really got us confused. When a user is moving through the learning path, there are a series of screens identifying where there is a new or existing attempt. However, the default language doesn’t reflect that in the LMS.  We found ourselves starting attempt 2, and then starting attempt 4 and not understanding how the LMS was counting. Ultimately we discovered that it was attempt #2 of the learning path and attempt #4 of the SCORM. We added some cues to explain this to users as they worked through the learning path.

Unable to get to full SCORM data

When a user finishes a SCORM, they get a full summary of their activities. It’s the type of stuff that is most useful for evaluation of your training.  It tells them what they answered, what questions they did well on, what questions they had to answer more than once, how much time they spent etc. Unfortunately when you run reports on activity, you aren’t able to access the granular data. We also could not find the data and so therefore couldn’t pull it into a list or out of the database L

Reporting wishes –  why are they only cumulative

The reports are always cumulative. We wanted to provide a report over a specific period of time. We devised a way to pull regular reports and then calculate the difference between the current report and the previous one to determine activity – but that’s a round-about way of doing things.

I wish the reports had some advanced charting

We really would have liked to have some pie-charts, bar graphs, etc for the reporting. It produced a concise table with information, but when showing these things to the client – it’s always better to have some graphics that can be generated automatically. A reporting panel would be great.
Controlling where a user lands at the end of a learning path

At the end of a learning path or at the end of a lesson, a user always lands on the respective allitems.aspx page. The problem is that this page doesn’t really fit within a web-site and is more of a page that makes sense in SharePoint. As a result, we used SharePoint designer to customize these pages so that they looked like they were part of the navigation.

Control over the quick launch area that lists the elements of the learning path

It’s great that the LMS lists all of the elements of your learning path as well as your progress. It does this in the quick launch. However, the quick launch is always fairly short and cannot support long amounts of text. To address this the LMS allows scrolling, but it looks awkward. The result is a horizontal scroll bar in the middle of the quick launch that seems out of place. If nothing else – this text should wrap and perhaps be bulleted so that it can be clearly viewed.

The language files are cumbersome
You might not be too happy with the default language in the LMS. We wanted to change things like the words attempt and how it displayed attempts. It was initially grammatically wrong … it would say :

  1. You are about to start 1 attempt
  2. You are about to start 2 attempt
  3. You are about to start 3 attempt

We were able to change this – but it’s literally like searching for a needle in a hay stack.  Furthermore, one we opened the language files, we realized that text was re-used in multiple places. So you might change congratulatory text yet realize it’s used to congratulate people for 3 different scenarios. Without a manual for the language files, it was quite tedious to customize it. This LMS could benefit from a control panel for managing these things or if nothing else… a manual for the language files!

Migrating user scores – ain’t so easy

We needed to migrate scores for users into the LMS. There was no way to do this with an import feature. We also couldn’t go in and “set” scores or award certificates for users. This presents a large problem when migrating a large number of users into this LMS.

Last Thoughts

We were able to overcome pretty much everything listed here. However, the fact that they needed to be overcome is what was frustrating. Ultimately, I do like this product. There are things that work great and other things that are strangely challenging. With some custom development and use of SharePoint designer, you can do quite a bit to make this your own.

SharePoint LMS: The insider overview

I’ve now conquered my 4th public-facing SharePoint portal. This one was a little different because it was designed to serve as a platform for a learning management system (LMS). We went with SharePoint LMS (www.sharepointlms.com). Last year we did a proof of concept and deployed it internally to make sure we understood what we were getting ourselves into. This year it was time to prove we could do it. I have mixed but overall positive feelings about this product. It does do what it claims on the brochure – but in some ways certain things could be done much better.

We were able to create our own SCORM compliant flash e-learning lessons and get them to work within the LMS. All of the lessons scored properly – so it was comforting to know that we were able to move our lessons from one LMS straight into another LMS. Our requirements were fairly straight forward:

  1. Develop a working LMS
  2. Migrate our content into the new LMS
  3. Migrate user scores into the LMS
  4. Allow for multiple learning paths per course
  5. Add surveys at the end of each course
  6. Generate certificates for users
  7. Support prerequisites within the learning paths
  8. Allow users to bookmark their progress within their lessons
  9. Allow users to track their progress through lessons
  10. Allow users to retake lessons as they wish
  11. Make sure the menus were not confusing

There were more – but that’s a good overview of what we set out to do. Because SharePoint out of the box is so plain-vanilla – we also designed a fully custom theme to make it look more like a web-site. What we ended up with was a heavily customized SharePoint site. We got the learning management system to work. We created our own navigation and as-you-go help cues to assist users with using the site. As for the requirements :

  1. We did create a fully functional LMS
  2. All of the lessons were migrated in
  3. We were able to migrate the user scores (but that’s another story for another post!)
  4. We were able to create all of our learning paths
  5. We were able to integrate surveys into the learning paths (but there’s more to add on how that worked ultimately!)
  6. Certificate generation worked fine!
  7. We got all of the prerequisites working – so you had to pass certain lessons to move onwards.
  8. We got bookmarking to work (but we didn’t realize there were 2 levels of bookmarking!)
  9. We were able to show users their progress (but I’ll talk about the grade book later)
  10. Users could take lessons in or outside of their learning path
  11. We did quite a bit to work with the menus – but even the default SharePoint menus are frustrating at times.

I should add that to deploy this it took a SharePoint administrator, SharePoint specialist or two, a SharePoint developer, a flash / SharePoint developer, as well as a full e-learning team. Once deployed the product is easy to use – but do not make the mistake of thinking it’s easy to deploy this.

I’ve come up for air!

I’m sorry that I disappeared for the last few months.  I always hate to say work got the better of me – but it really did in this case. Aside from the many projects I was working on – I took on a challenge to lead the migration from one learning management system to SharePoint LMS. And to add to that – we decided to do it in 7.5 weeks! We finally got it done – but I definitely won’t try to roll out anything that complex in such a short period of time again. I’m going to follow up with some posts about the project – because it’s pretty cool. Also , I feel like we had a chance to really work with the product and find its strengths as well as weaknesses.

Random SharePoint Tip: Quickly set rules for Alerts in Outlook

I came across this by accident, when looking at an alert email in my Outlook. Before I start let me say that this occurred using WSS 3.0 and Outlook 2007. When an alert from SharePoint come in, you get a menu option on the top left of the message asking me if I want to set a rule. When I click on it – it’s prepopulated with the title of the alert and allows me to set a rule immediately f or this kind of alert. This is kind of cool because it’s a shortcut way to set outlook rules for SharePoint alerts. If you use the SharePoint task lists heavily – you will know that you can quickly get a flood of emails – so this makes it that much easier to organize it all.

Testing out gogo In-flight Internet on Delta

I’ve been dying for the opportunity to try this feature out. I’m headed on a cross country flight on Delta tonight and I’ve decided to try the in-flight internet service that they offer. I purchased the $9.99 day pass and that’s what I’m using to type this post right now.  The goal was to see if surfing the internet wouldn’t be painful and hopefully to be able to play final fantasy XI while in flight. The sign up process wasn’t terribly difficult. It was the same as most of these internet sites  – fill out a form and you are good to go.

I was able to log into my final fantasy and I’m about to attempt a Maze Mongers run. For those of you who don’t play it – that won’t mean much – but this is sheer bliss for me.

Two thumbs up for gogo inflight internet!! Score 1 for Delta!

House and Home (Canal Walk – Cape Town, South Africa) Horrible customer service

I don’t vent often, but this purchasing experience was so ridiculous that I think they deserve an entire post about this. This might be because I’ve lived in the US for so long, but it’s absolutely unacceptable for me to spend any amount of money on a product and for a retailer to be completely apathetic about providing what I purchased. Hopefully anyone who finds themselves in Cape Town shopping for furniture will look at House and Home in Canal Walk and then keep on walking by. They don’t have a great website – but here’s what I found : http://www.houseandhome.co.za/finding_a_store1.asp?prov=WESTERN%20CAPE

Here’s my story:

I was in town visiting family this December. We were in the market for new patio furniture. On December 21st we came across House & Home in Canal Walk and they had some reasonable prices for patio furniture. After spending considerable time with the sales rep, we agreed on a set. The price was roughly R4200 ( About $600). The cashier even went back to the computer to double check to make sure the furniture was in stock. We asked about delivery and she said they did next day delivery. I made it clear that we needed this purchase because this furniture was needed for a Christmas event we were hosting. With this assurance, I went ahead and made the purchase. I also indicated that same day delivery would be great, and she said she would check with her manager and said it might be possible.

We discussed the delivery process and she indicated that they would call right before they arrived. After all of this, I was dismayed to see that on December 22nd nothing arrived. I called the store in the afternoon to inquire about my purchase. First I sat on hold for a very long time. Once I got to speak with someone they said that they would call me back in a few minutes. Of course no one called back. I called again and they said – no one is picking up in the delivery department, they must be loading the truck and your stuff is probably on the truck. An hour later I called again. This time they said, “I’m sorry , it seems that two of the chairs you want weren’t on the order, so they didn’t deliver it.” At this point I was livid. I asked the woman on the phone why our stuff was left off. She indicated that this time she would actually check on the next delivery. So why was I not surprised that on December 23rd – still no delivery. In fact – our furniture didn’t arrive ever. So on Saturday December 26th, we went back to the store to get our refund.

After confused looks on the cashier’s faces – they decided to get a manager. I’d like to note that when we said we want a refund, they thought we were coming for a refund for a refrigerator. This leads me to think that a lot of people were angry about not getting their purchases, and we’re not the only ones who wanted a refund. The manager was hesitant to give us his name or contact information. We paid with a debit card so they insisted that the refund had to be done in cash. Oh and surprise-surprise – they didn’t have enough cash in the register. Therefore they claimed that they would be getting money from sales in the rest of the day and someone would go to the bank.

Needless to say we spent Christmas without any patio furniture. We haven’t received any communication regarding this – and don’t know if we got our refund yet. It’s pathetic that a major retailer can have such pathetic customer service. Their manager was a joke, and was clearly uncomfortable. It was obvious that he just wanted to get out of this situation as quickly as possible. The sales person simply lied about having our stuff in inventory and their phone support is pathetic. If this retailer wants to compete with real chains, they will have to do better than this – because I will never shop at House & Home. And now that I know House & Home is a division of Checkers (for those who don’t know – a grocery store chain) – I don’t think they deserve my money either. I’ve been sharing this story with all of my friends to protect them from going through the same nonsense.

Emergency Landing on a Commercial Flight

I never thought I’d have an emergency landing in a plane. In fact, I never really paid any attention to those safety cards. Yes, we read them and make sure we know what’s there, but every time we get into a plane, we assume that it won’t apply to us. Well, a week ago, we were coming from Johannesburg to Cape Town and actually had to use what was in those safety cards.

For starters, we had been awake for about 3 straight days. We were catching our flight back to Cape Town in the afternoon. Our flight was delayed, because the plane couldn’t land in JHB. The plane circled for a while and was redirected to another airport to refuel. Finally the plane arrived. Once it arrived ( and 5 gate changes later) we boarded and were ready to roll out. The weather had turned horrible. A storm formed and the heavy rains started. Despite that, our flight took off. The first oddity of this flight was the fact that we actually flew low for a long time until the pilot found a hole in the clouds. Once we started ascending, a flurry of lightning crashed around the plane. Once we got above the clouds, I was convinced that the worst was over. About 40 minutes before landing, the pilot came on the speaker,” Ladies and gentlemen, we are having problems with the landing gear. We will have to prepare the cabin for an emergency landing and emergency evacuation of the plane. The crew will be coming through the cabin to brief you on the procedures and please cooperate with them.” The woman next to Peter kept asking if this was really happening. I told her “I know this is horribly philosophical, but we can’t stress over what’s happened – since we can’t change it. All we have now is to change the way we react to what’s coming next.” I’m not sure if that gave me any comfort, but it felt like a painful reality.

At this point people started seriously reacting. One woman across from us simply broke into tears. People started praying. The flight crew asked people in the emergency rows if they were still willing to open the doors. One woman simply threw her hands up and walked away from the seat. Now this is just me being pissy – but frankly speaking – shame on anyone who asks for an emergency row because they want more room but when push comes to shove, they aren’t willing to fulfill the role. The flight crew found people who were willing to open the doors and briefed them thrice on how to open them. As well as reminding them that if they saw flames or smoke, not to open that door, but to exit on the other side. The flight crew then swept through the cabin, removing all personal items and stowing all of them. They instructed us to leave all personal items. At this point, I started to realize that this was a very bad situation. Then the crew started teaching us how to do the brace position for an emergency landing. The pilot said ,”This is just precautionary, and we’ll only give the command if we need it.”

When we started descending, we noticed that this was not a normal descent. The plane was dropping so fast that our ears were popping. Suddenly the crew started shouting over and over, “Brace Brace – Put your head down! Brace Brace – Put your head down!” At this point it hit me that we might not make it through this. People were saying their final goodbyes, praying, and some just sobbing. We put our head’s down and waited to see if there would be sparks or flames or something. Fortunately we landed ok. People cheered when the plane touched down. The captain came on and said that we landed ok but our steering mechanism was shot, so we would have to be towed into the gate. Needless to say, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable on a plane again – but I NEVER want to go through an ordeal like that again.

Chapman’s Peak Drive in Cape Town

Chapman’s peak drive is some of the most scenic drives in Cape Town. It’s a blur of hair pin bends , beautiful backdrops, mountains coming out of the ocean, etc. I thought I’d share some of the pictures we took when we were there in 2006.

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SharePoint Tip of the Day: 1000 file limit in document libraries

Although I’m anti-folders and I like to use columns as a way to organize things – there is a limit to how many things you can put in a folder before SharePoint performance starts to degrade. I have always preferred 1000 although some say you can go as high as 2000 items per folder before you have issues.  There’s a good article on scaling the performance of SharePoint here.

You can have up to 5 million files comfortably in a document library – but you must use folders. You should set your views to show less than 2000 items. This can be difficult, but remember that your views don’t have to show folders. A flat view can allow you to use folders for organization but still display without folders when needed.

Also remember that you can turn on indexing to improve performance as well.