eFrontPro 4.2.0 – your favorite LMS with extra awesome

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It’s summer fever for IT vendors and customers. Microsoft announced Windows 10, Google announced the new Android a couple of weeks ago and Apple just announced the next iOS and OS X versions. But, the best news is probably about the platform you use everyday and really care about: eFrontPro has been updated to 4.2.0.

Ever since we introduced eFrontPro as a modern, future-proof base to build upon, we’ve worked hard to get major updates full of new features coming your way with impressive frequency (and don’t let the version numbers fool you, what we call 4.1 or 4.2 other vendors would have happily called 5 and 6 feature-wise).

But I digress. Let’s open the (virtual) box, and see what goodies eFrontPro 4.2.0 brings to the table…

Revamped ILT

eFrontPro 4.2.0 takes the instructor led training (ILT) features we’ve introduced in earlier eFrontPro versions to the next level, giving physical world trainings and webinars the same first class status online courses had.

Physical world training is represented with a Training Event, which is a special form of Lesson, and can have one or more Training Sessions, each being led by one or more Instructors and taking place in its own location and/or date/time. eFrontPro 4.2.0 is even smart enough to prevent you from accidentally assigning the same location to more than one sessions at the same date/time (resource sharing prevention).

To handle enrolling and capacity issues, eFrontPro offers automatic waitlist management and automatic iCal invitations (compatible with MS’s Outlook, Apple’s Calendar and most popular calendar applications).­ ILT sessions are also integrated with eFrontPro’s own calendar, so that a user’s upcoming sessions automatically appear there too.

Instructors can pre­-book seats, but it’s also possible for students to self-­enroll to their preferred training sessions, with successful attendance leading to automatic lesson/course completion and certification.

Oh, and for those of you that have configured BBB or Webex in eFrontPro, you now get one-click setup of webinars.

OpenSesame Integration

eFrontPro now integrates with the OpenSesame service, a huge marketplace of SCORM ­compatible content that you can purchase and add to your eLearning offerings.

Administrators can browse the whole OpenSesame catalog from eFrontPro’s management interface, and purchase any available content with one click. eFrontPro takes it up from there, automatically converting purchased content to Lessons that can be allocated to courses at will.

If you’re interested in more details about working with OpenSesame material in eFrontPro, stay tuned as there’s an upcoming post dedicated to this alone.

Upgraded upgrade system

Upgrading just got a lot easier with 4.2.0, as installing the latest version from now on just takes a simple click on the “upgrade” button within the management interface.

This makes it dead simple to stay up to date, which means you get all the new features sooner and always have the latest and more secure version installed.

Keeping in sync

eFrontPro 4.2.0 comes with a powerful engine that can periodically check for CSV files in specific folders, and update its own data, making integration and syncing with external sources as easy as pie.

Here’s how this works:­ the administrator creates import tasks that are ran periodically (e.g. every 24 hours). When the task is run, eFrontPro looks for data files in a predefined folder and imports them, just as if the administrator had manually used the “Import from CSV” option.

eFrontPro keeps detailed reports for each task run, and notifies the administrator if anything went wrong (e.g. data mismatch).

It’s a whole new day for the calendar

A new, easier to use yet more powerful calendar UI is available in the full calendar page.

Not the tame, humble calendar you once knew, this one supports drag-and-­drop handling of events and one-click export of its data in iCal format (suitable for importing in Outlook, Google Calendar etc.).

Question everything

eFrontPro 4.2.0 also brings back some advanced question types you might remember from eFront 3.6: HotSpot and Matrix.

HotSpot allows the professor to upload an image and specify parts of it that need to be clicked for the answer to register as correct.

Matrix questions are based on a MxN table (a grid, or “matrix” in math terms), where the user must pick the correct rows and columns.

New security features

Besides the dead easy one-click updates we’ve already mentioned (which will ensure you always have the latest security updates installed), eFrontPro 4.2.0 brings a few more security enhancements.

First, there’s a new Security tab in the Settings page which will make configuring the various security options easier.

Then, there are (even more) elaborate password rules you can set, including password expirations, the option to forbid password reuse, account lockup after several unsuccessful login attempts, etc. (all optional of course). You can also optionally enforce unique email addresses.

What’s more, any security related errors are logged for later inspection by the administrator.

File library

A simple to use file library is now available in all lessons.

All the professor has to do is simply drag and drop files to add them to the library, and they will be made available to all of the lesson’s users.

And more…

As always that’s not all. eFrontPro also comes with lots of smaller features, bug fixes and enhacements. Dig in the new version to find out for yourself, and keep an eye open for our upcoming decicated OpenSesame post.

Enjoy!

Bonus: You can now create your own personalized eFrontPro trial learning portal by visiting the following URL: http://www.efrontlearning.net/demo

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eFrontPro marches forward with 4.1

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We decided to build eFrontPro from scratch in order to replace our eFront codebase that was getting long in the tooth and to be a great foundation to build upon for the next decade.

It wasn’t an easy task: we had to rewrite legacy code, to re-think the architecture and UI, to make it more modular and speedy, and to learn and adapt new technologies. It also involved a lot of hair-pulling and head-scratching, in order to come up with the best solutions to the challenges we faced.

Yep, it wasn’t easy. But, as hard work is known to do, it paid off. You’ve seen it yourself, in the faster pace that major eFrontPro updates arrive, with the first one landing just a month after our first release. And then another.

Well, it’s time to introduce our freshly baked latest update, eFrontPro 4.1.0, and the goodies it brings to the table.

Curriculums

You know Branches, Groups, Audiences, and the rest of eFrontPro’s logical groupings, they are here to help you organize your e-learning deployment in the way you like, and avoid repetitive manual tasks.

eFrontPro 4.1 introduces “Curriculums”, a way to bundle several courses together to handle as a single package. You can offer a whole curriculum for sale (like selling courses), assign a curriculum to a user or a group, see aggregates reports for the whole curriculum and award certificates upon a curriculum’s completion.

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Certificates

The new version builds upon the Certificate features of the previous one, adding several significant new features. Besides being able to award certificates based on curriculums (see above), you now also have the option to have self-expiring certificates that can be re-assigned automatically to the students upon (or even before) expiration. Last, but not least, we’ve also added a new reporting page for certification related statistics.

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Automatic content conversions

To make online content creation faster and less tedious, we’ve automated content conversion by integrating EncodeMagic to eFrontPro. You can now upload all kinds of videos, audio files, presentations, etc, knowing that they will be automatically converted to formats that your users can open, with the optimal encoding and delivery for all web-enabled devices (laptops, tablets, phones etc).

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Tests

This version allows you to automatically create variations of your tests with the new “Randomized” question type, that can select multiple random questions from a question pool. You can select how many questions out of the pool you want to use in each test.

We’ve also added question timers, for time sensitive tests, as well as the option to re-use questions across lessons.

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Payments

You asked for it, you’ve got it: version 4.1 adds the (not so long) awaited support for Stripe payments.

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SEO URLs

If you’re running your eFrontPro service publicly, you’ll love this one: all eFrontPro URLS are now SEO friendly, for better Google placements and more traffic coming your way.

Login with Facebook

Third party authentication is all the rage these days, especially from the big-3 providers (Facebook, Google, Twitter). Well, you can now let your users register and login with their Facebook account.

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Reports

Reports weren’t a major focus for this update, but we still managed to squeeze in a number of reporting improvements and a few new report types.

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More documentation

Last, but not least, we revamped our eFrontPro documentation, nearly tripling it in size. Besides entries for the new features in this update, you’ll also find several mini how-tos guiding you through common tasks, answers to frequently asked questions, technical guides for installing, securing and taking care of your eFrontPro deployment.

You can check the ongoing eFrontPro documentation here.

Oh, and that’s not all. There’s also a tutorial on creating your own themes, for the HTML/CSS savvy types, and an API guide integrating it with your other systems and services.

Finally, the documentation includes an extended Plugin Guide, you may use to extend eFrontPro to fit your needs.

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Early X-mas For eFront Users: eFrontPro Gets Its First Update

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My, how time flies. It feels like yesterday when we announced eFrontPro, the newer member of our highly successful eFront product family, designed from scratch to take advantage of the newest web technologies while maintaining the ease-of-use and flexibility that eFront is famous for (only, even more so).

eFrontPro was a major release that took some years in the making, and we would be justified to pat ourselves on the back and rest on our laurels for a while.

Instead, we worked even harder in bringing you the first update to eFrontPro, with several new features, goodies and bug fixes.

So what’s new in this update?

A lot. So much in fact, that it’s more than a point update, and almost feels like a whole 2.0 release.

When we wrote that eFrontPro will serve as a stable, modern, basis for the platform’s future, allowing us even faster development cycles we weren’t kidding.

Let’s have a rundown of the major new changes, and what they mean to eFrontPro users:

Support for Surveys

You can now conduct surveys and collect results automatically through eFrontPro.

It’s a feature that’s a god-send for getting feedback from your users, understanding their needs and identifying problem spots and market opportunities in your e-learning offering.

Video-conferencing support

Not only you can now have video-conference in eFrontPro by leveraging BigBlueButton’s or Cisco’s WebEx video-conference tools, but you can also save a video-conference for later replay.

Perfect for giving the opportunity to students to watch a video-conference based lesson they’ve missed, or to refresh their memory with it.

Over 10 new themes to chose from

Aesthetics matter. And web themes are not one-size fits all, they must match your branding ― and your audience.

That’s why this update includes 10 beautiful themes to chose from. From minimal to business or fancy, now it’s your call.

Export Excel compatible files

For those of you who swear by Excel (and you have every right to: it’s an excellent tool for data analysis and statistics), eFrontPro now allows you to export beautiful, richly formatted, Excel files showing system status, test and survey results, etc.

Easier on the eyes and better at making the relevant data pop-out, our new Excel exports come with nice headings, appropriately styled cells, alternating row colors and all that jazz.

REST based API

This might not mean much to you, but it opens a whole new world of possibilities for those wanting to expand and integrate eFrontPro with other systems.

We’ve included a full blown REST based API, so that you can connect, script and interoperate to eFrontPro from any platform or language with the ability to talk to REST services (that’s all of them).

And, of course, we documented the heck out of it.

So, those are the basic new features of the new eFrontPro update. There are other smaller features and changes, as well as several bug-fixes and improvements, but it would take a whole lot of scrolling to cover everything.

Besides, we’re already busy, working on the next bunch of features. Until then, enjoy the update.

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Insight Into Your Classes: Reporting in eFrontPro

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Evaluating the success of your students and courses is something between a science and an art.

The art part is the kind of inexact heuristic that comes from experience, and you’ll get it after you deal with your first batches of learners.

The science part is, of course, all about measuring. And for that eFrontPro has you covered.

There’s a fancy term for measuring things in enterprise software that we have also adopted; it’s “reporting”.

The name probably comes from the days when enterprises printed their weekly, monthly and annual earnings reports with those new fangled computer things, but what it describes is quite simple.

Reporting is just gathering and displaying information about a particular subject.

In particular, reports in eFrontPro are visualizations of interesting data regarding the system, the courses and the users.

Reports are specifically good at revealing general trends and at spotting irregularities, which are the two most important things you should know about your e-learning service.

A general trend for example would be a steady uptick in student enrollments as a course becomes more popular.

An irregularity on the other hand would be something like too many students failing a course.

Both examples are the kind of actionable information that will help you improve your classes.

In the first case for example, you could consider investing more on this suddenly popular class and perhaps offer similar ones.

On the second case you could re-examine the course’s material and/or discuss the situation with its instructor.

This is the intended, and best, way of using the reports facility, not just as visual eye candy, as many do, but as a way to get actionable insight about your e-learning business.

The default view, “System”, displays an overview of “events” and activity that occurred in the the current day. As with any report, you can adjust the reporting period to yesterday, week, month and year or set a custom date range.

To help you get started, eFrontPro, comes with a variety of pre-defined reports already built-in. You’ll find them in the (imaginatively named) Reports section.

eFrontPro splits reports into 4 general categories: System (which we already mentioned), Users, Courses and Tests, with each providing insight on its specific subject. There’s one more section, called “Timeline” which we’ll cover later.

eFrontPro comes with a variety of pre-defined reports. Upon entering the Reports section, in the “Systems” tab you’ll see an overview of “events” and activity for the current day. You can adjust the reference period to yesterday, week, month and year or set a custom date range.

You can of course create your own reports by filtering eFrontPro’s database for the information you need.

You can see data, for example, by User Type, Group, Job, Skill, Audience, Branch, recent activity, or any combination of the above. This is were eFrontPro’s powerful organization and categorization tools (like Groups, Audiences, Skills etc) come in handy, as they enable to narrow down the report to just the items you need (from a general overview, down to a single specific user, course or test).

The Reports page is divided into two panels, with the top one showing a few key indicators (that change depending on the subject, e.g. for Users those are: number of learners and instructors, course completions, time spend on site, and latest activity), and the bottom one showing a detailed listing of relevant information (e.g. courses taken, status, score, etc).

The final section in the Reports page is called Timeline, and this gives you a full historical listing of any action in your LMS platform (users logging in or out, students completing a course, a conference starting, etc). You can filter this down to only see the events you are interested in.

You might notice a lack of flashy plotting options that some other software might offer. That’s not because we couldn’t add it in, but because it’s basically useless eye candy, which not only doesn’t help you get to the information quicker, but actually misrepresents the data.

Even the ever popular pie-chart, for example, is considered a bad visualization by statistics experts. In eFrontPro we stuck to what works and what can give you the relevant information at a glance.

And with that, we covered most of what you need to know about reports in eFrontPro. There’s plenty more to discover once you start using the product, but this should be enough to get you started.

Stay tuned for more tips, hints, e-learning rants and eFrontPro insights.

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Organizing Your Courses in eFrontPro

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With eFrontPro, the new, revamped, version of our popular eFront LMS platform we made a (sure) bet into the feature of e-learning, incorporating the latest web technologies, adding several long requested features and streamlining our codebase to serve as the foundation of our future work.

While doing that we strived to keep everything that made eFront so popular and intuitive.

In this post we’ll have a look in the features eFrontPro offers for organizing your courses. Some of them will be familiar from eFront, others are new, and some have minor or major changes in their implementation.

But they were all designed to work together to make your life easier, based on our research into how you use our products.

So, let’s have a look.

Users are the foundation of user management in eFrontPro. The platform keeps a single, unified, user database, so you can manage and keep track of all your users, whether they are admins, instructors or learners.

Users can have a type (User Type). This corresponds to their role in your e-learning organization (e.g. student, content editor, etc), and it’s where you manage what they can do on the platform.

Users can also belong to a Branch. A Branch is a division of your e-learning organization, which can have it’s own professors, courses and students.

An organization, for example, that has offices in different cities, could have a London branch and a Manchester branch. Or you could have a branch per department (“Humanities”, “Mathematics”, “Business”).

Or both, actually, as branches can be organized in whatever hierarchy fits your organizational needs.

Users can belong to one or more Groups. This allows you to treat all of the users in a group as a single entity. You can send messages to the users of a group directly, assign them courses, or see aggregate reports about them.

Your students can also be assigned Jobs (e.g. on works in “Marketing”, the other is an “Accountant”).

This might not make sense for a general e-learning offering, but it’s very useful for organizing the learners in an enterprise e-learning deployment, where they are taught different classes depending on their role in the company.

Users can also belong in an Audience. Audiences are logical groupings of users according to a list of criteria you define, like the Branch they belong to, their Job, their User Type, or even custom attributes that you have defined.

The difference between Groups and Audiences is that the latter are dynamic. If you have used iTunes in the past, think of it as something like the “Smart Playlist” feature.

Between User Types, Audiences, Branches, Jobs and the like (not forgetting the custom attributes you can add), you have the flexibility to organize your users in any way you like. Which takes us to our next topic: Courses.

Courses are the main entity into which you organize your content in eFrontPro. Courses in eFrontPro can be remote (e-learning) or class based, allowing for hybrid learning scenarios. This is defined in the course’s type.

You can assign Users, Lessons and Skills to a Course.

A course’s users are, of course, the students that take the course, and *skills* describe some specific knowledge or experience that is either offered by the course (e.g. completing this course will give you that skill), or required by the course (and can be obtained by taking another course).

Skills are an intuitive way of setting up the prerequisites for taking a course.

Courses also belong in Categories, which can be a flat list (“History”, “Math”, etc) or a hierarchy (“Ancient Languages/Latin”, “Ancient Languages/Greek”) with as many levels as you need to map your content.

Finally, courses take place in a Location. Locations describe the venues (real of virtual) that your classes or meetings will take place. They also allow you to organize your class schedule and inform your students of upcoming meetings.

Students can also view metadata about a location (such as street address, telephone, url, timezone, etc), which is especially handy in hybrid learning scenarios.

Below Courses we have Lessons. A lesson organizes a single unit of a courses’ material, and can contain text or multimedia content, files for download, tests and quizzes.

And there you have it. Those are all the main organizational tools that eFrontPro offers.

Between them, you have everything you need to cover any e-learning use case, including the flexibility to set your virtual school up in the way that you want it.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for more posts on eFrontPro, eFront, e-learning and course creation in general.

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Algorithmically generated content. The future of e-learning?

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As an e-learning course designer or as the person responsible for the LMS in your organization, the hardest part of your job is content creation. It’s a repetitive and time-consuming task that requires a deep understanding of the subject matter combined with continuous assessment of the needs of your students.

You might wonder is all or part of this task can be automated. You might even have heard about “algorithmically (or computer) generated content”, and set your hopes high. In this post we’ll have a look into “algorithmically generated content”, explaining what it is all about, how it fits with e-learning and how mature the technology currently is.

Algo-what?

An algorithm is a just another word for “computing instructions”. Algorithms are the constituent parts of computer software. You can think of them as “recipes” for achieving a certain outcome. The steps to calculate a square root? That’s an algorithm. The steps to decode and play an mp3 file? That’s an algorithm. How the projectiles move in Angry Birds? Yep, that’s too described in an algorithm.

Inventing algorithms and translating them so the computer can execute them is what programmers do. And “algorithmically generated content”, perplexing as it may initially sound, describes the simple idea of instructing the computer to generate content.

Algorithmically generated content is nothing new.

It exists, in various forms, for over half a century, while the related research goes even further back. Consider a typical screensaver, the kind that displays colorful graphics on your monitor. That’s “Algorithmically generated content”, right there. The programmer didn’t draw each individual picture in your screensaver. It just gave instructions to the computer on how to combine simple drawings and effects, and let it create thousands of pictures on its own.

The idea behind algorithmically generated content for e-learning is similar (though the algorithms are much more complex). We feed the computer with knowledge about the subject matter, and give it instructions on how to combine it to generate new material.

Yes, but is it any good?

Well, kind of. There are several algorithms (or “computer programs” if you prefer) for algorithmic content creation. Some of them you might have stumbled upon, in services like (now closed) Summify, which provided computer generated summaries of news articles, or in websites such as the Big Ten Network, that feature sports stories written by computers.

Existing examples of algorithmic content creation are somewhat crud (like the aforementioned automated summaries), or are based on rigid rules and data and produce formulaic results (like Big Ten Network’s sports stories, or computer generated weather forecasts). So don’t expect to be able to tell the computer “write me a 20-lesson course on astronomy” any time soon. Maybe that’s for the better though — you wouldn’t want computers to put you out of business as an e-learning course creator, would you?

So, is algorithmic content creation of any use to me now?

Yes, it is. You might still have to write the better part of your course material, but there are several ways algorithmic content creation can help you. Even today, capable LMS systems, can automatically create quizzes and exercises drawing from a pool of existing material and a set of simple rules. That’s a basic form of algorithmic content creation that is nevertheless a huge time saver.

Perhaps the more immediate success will be that of a hybrid form of human assisted algorithmic content creation, in which the content creator writes, tags and categorizes his course material, and the LMS engine uses it to create different courses for different groups and students with different skill levels and interests (adding supplementary material for things that the students have difficulty with, using test results to reinforce specific topics, tailoring a course’s progress to user interests, skipping some chapters, etc).

This kind of computer assisted content creation will be a much bigger deal in the future. And it’s perhaps this synergy, of human and machine, building on the strengths of both, that will define tomorrow’s e-learning courses, helping drive down their cost, and enabling a much better customization of the material to the individual student.

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