My Top 10 Tools for Learning

For Learning Technologies Magazine, October 2007

Jane Hart, an independent e-learning consultant and Head of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies talks about the work of the Centre and her Top Ten Tools.

I set up the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies earlier this year with the main aim of keeping a watching brief on emerging tools and technologies suitable for learning and job/business support and improvement purposes.  Since that time I have been compiling a Directory of Learning Tools, and it now contains over 1,800 free and commercial tools that range from “traditional” course development tools through 21st century (E-Learning 2.0) collaboration and sharing tools as well as tools for personal learning –  and I add new tools on a regular basis.

Every weekday, I also post an item of e-learning interest in my blog: Jane’s E-Learning Pick of the Day This is usually a new tool that I have come across that I think would be useful for learning purposes but sometimes it is another resource of interest for e-learning.  With so many tools available I am often asked what are my personal favourites; what, in fact, are the tools that I use on a daily basis for my work and for my personal learning.  So here I present my Top 10 Tools.

  1. Probably the most indispensable tool for my work, and for my own personal learning, is  Bloglineswww.bloglines.com In the past when I kept a watch on news and activity in the e-learning world I had to visit many websites on a daily basis. But nowadays with RSS feeds, I can easily aggregate and scan through the hundreds of different blogs and news feeds every day to keep up with what is happening.  Bloglines is a hosted service, so I have the Notifier running on my desktop, and this alerts me to new postings.  However, because reading these feeds is an important part of my work, I actually have Bloglines open in my browser all the time, and the display refreshes regularly. With hundreds of subscriptions it’s important to manage the system well to get the most out of it.  One way I do this is to place the feeds in different folders – very useful if you have a mix of personal and professional feeds.  I have also set up the display to show only the feeds with new postings in them; so I am not totally overwhelmed when I view the list.  I have also installed the Bloglines subscribe button in my browser, which lets me quickly and easily subscribe to feeds that I find whilst browsing. Although Bloglines has been very effective for me for some time now, they have just unveiled a new beta service with a new design, new features and functionality, so it will be interesting to see what extra I can get out of it.
  2. Whenever I come across new tools or resources I generally enter them straightaway into the relevant page on the Centre’s website, e.g. in the Directory of Learning Tools, or the E-Learning Showcase (for good examples of e-learning) or the Free books list.  I use Microsoft FrontPage www.microsoft.com/frontpage – to maintain the website.  In fact I have used it for many years working up through all the versions from 98 to 2003. Unfortunately it is no longer being developed and has been replaced by Expression Web and SharePoint Designer, but for me it is very usable and I am so familiar with it now, that I will continue to use it.  I can set up pages, even new websites very quickly and easily, which is useful when I want to provide a secure area for client work.  I have FrontPage Extensions installed on my webserver, which means I can do things like process data.  In other words I can set up online forms and have the data I capture either sent to my email address or stored in a file
  3. To run my blog, I use TypePad www.typepad.com This is a hosted, commercial service, but having investigated some of the other options – both free and commercial, I like the functionality TypePad offers me. One of the features I make good use of, is the ability to schedule postings.  This means I can write them in advance and they are posted automatically for me at a time I want.  So for instance if I come across a tool in my web travels that I want to blog about, I can write a posting straightaway and then schedule it to be posted first thing the next morning.  TypePad also provides me with stats on usage and some storage space, which is always very useful, and there are lots of different widgets available now to add extra value to the blog itself.
  4. Of course, one of the great things about blogging is that people don’t actually have to visit the blog every day to read the new postings; they can simply subscribe to the RSS feed and read the postings in their reader.  However, I realise that not everyone is comfortable with RSS yet, so I offer my blog readers the option to receive the postings by email.  To do this I use the Feedblitz service – www.feedblitz.comFeedblitz effectively converts my RSS feed into daily emails.  For bloggers it is easy to set up and install on a blog and for the reader simple to sign up for the email service.
  5. A great little free tool that I have been using both on my blog and website is PollDaddywww.polldaddy.com This lets me create, host and manage short surveys and polls to gather feedback from users.   There are a variety of different styles you can use for the polls to match the look of your website. The polls can then easily be embedded into a web or blog page, and users can, with one click, also see the up-to-date results of the poll, which is a very nice feature. For serious polling you can also make sure that readers only respond once from the same computer or IP address.
  6. A lot of my work involves dealing with people, whether it be colleagues, associates, clients and so on, hence I use a number of different tools to help me both keep in touch with people and to work collaboratively with them. One of the tools I just couldn’t do without to keep in contact with people is Skypewww.skype.net. I either text chat with them or talk to them just like on the phone as it supports Voice over IP (VoIP). I pretty much use it for all my voice calls now and it therefore helps keep my phone bills down.  However, not all my contacts are on Skype itself – where voice calling is free – so I also use SkypeOut, a paid-for service to call landlines.  I can therefore call around the world for a fraction of the cost.  I also have a SkypeIn number which means people can call a UK landline number and this is directed to Skype on my computer. This is particularly useful when I am out of the country, as my UK clients only pay for a UK call.  There are also a number of 3rd party add-ons that extend its functionality, like Pamela (an answering machine) and Unyte (to share documents and applications).  And I mustn’t forget to mention Skypcasting, which are large hosted calls.  You can listen into Skypecasts or even host your own – a possible way of running a remote training session. For working collaboratively with colleagues, for example for sharing documents and files and working on projects together, I set up
  7. wikis.  For this I use PB Wikiwww.pbwiki.com – whichis a great tool as it is free, and I can quickly set up a hosted space for any project I want.  I can either do this on the fly whilst I am working with people, or else spend some time “organising” the space for more formal purposes. PB Wiki has recently released some new features, and it is suitable for both general business purposes as well as for training and education.  One of the useful features of PBWiki is that when you set up your wiki, it also sets up an RSS feed.  This means you can track all changes to the wiki through your RSS reader, so once again you don’t need to keep going back to the site itself to see what has been taking place.
  8. Of course, from time to time I actually need to meet with people!  If face-to-face is not possible – and with clients all over the world, it’s often not possible – then the next best thing is a web meeting.  I often make use of Powwownow ShowTime www.powwownow.co.uk/Web-Conferencing/ for this.  It’s easy to set up a small web meeting and present a PowerPoint or PDF file presentation or share my desktop.    I’ve used it for presenting proposals to clients as well as for small training events.   With overseas clients there are also international dial-in numbers, as well as access via Skype.
  9. Working as an  e-learning consultant a lot of my activity involves helping organisations decide what is the most appropriate way of dealing with their learning, performance or business challenges.  Most of the clients I work with want to create a solution quickly, easily and cost effectively, so I help them select the right tool for the job and then support them as they both design and develop their materials.  Here are two approaches to creating learning solutions and two tools that I have found effective.
    • A quick and easy learning solution is to take an existing PowerPoint presentation, and convert it into a Flash-based online tutorial with a voiceover and add some quizzes or tests.  Although there are now quite a few tools on the market that can do this,   PointeCast
      Publisher – www.pointecast.com is one that I have been using for a number of years to create some professional looking materials. It also has an easy-to-use interface for the learners to control the slides, the narration and to view the slide notes.
      PointeCast Publisher comes in a number of editions that suit your budget and functional requirements.  Although both the Lite and Publisher editions provide sufficient functionality to convert narrated presentations into Flash-based versions, the Professional edition lets you produce quizzes and tests and creates SCORM compliant content that can be used in any LMS.
    • For the creation of more traditional self-paced online tutorials, I’ve recently been working with CourseLab  – www.courselab.com The budget for the development of the tutorials was quite small so this free tool allowed the client to spend their money on services to support the rapid design and development of the tutorials.  CourseLab has lots of great features (e.g.
      e-learning module templates and an object library), it uses a PowerPoint-like interface and the output is very professional as the final result is also converted into Flash.  It therefore compares very well with some of the high-end commercial tools. If you want you can purchase the PowerPoint import pack, which lets you re-use PowerPoint slides, rather than starting completely from scratch.

So, these are the tools currently on my Top 10 list – and they just go to show the variety of tools that are now available for both personal learning as well as creating learning.  But what tools do other learning professionals like?  I posed this question in July and August 2007 on my website, and invited people to send me their Top 10 Tools.  108 people responded from all round the world and over 400 different tools were mentioned.  From all the lists I then compiled the Top 100 Tools for Learning 2007. So did my tools make it onto the Top 100 list?  Well, 7 of them did and 2 of them appeared in the overall Top 10.  Which ones were they and which tool came out as the number 1 choice?  You’ll have to come to the conference to find out.

I’ll be running the Top 10 Tools activity again next year to compile the Top 100 Tools for Learning 2008, so at the conference you can find out how to take part – and I’ll also be taking a stab at predicting the tools that I think will make it onto next years list.