Meet the team #1: Eleftheria means freedom

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You’ve enjoyed the platform, you’ve dug the features, you’ve appreciated the support and you loved the end product.

It’s time to meet the people behind it all.

In this series of behind-the-scenes interviews, we’ll be introducing the team that created eFrontPro, is managing your private Clouds and keeps churning all those nice updates.

We’ll start with Eleftheria Papatheodorou, an eFront customer service veteran that’s been with the company since its humble beginnings and helped us build a solid support team that gets high praise from our customers.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the title: Eleftheria does mean freedom in Greek).

Please introduce yourself to our readers. What’s your name, background, and responsibilities inside the company?

I am Eleftheria Papatheodorou, or El which is my nickname!

After studying Management Science and Technology at the Athens University of Economics and Business I was hired by Epignosis and for the last 8 years I’ve been a member of the team.

I am responsible for customer training and support management.

eFront customers praise your team’s responsiveness to their support requests. In an industry were support is often an afterthought, what’s your secret?

Well, it IS a secret, so we better leave it as it is. We wouldn’t want our competitors to read about it 😉

But here’s a small hint: loving your job helps a lot.

eFront, and now eFrontPro, have come a long way since the early days. How has the support team kept up with their ever expanding user base?

I think that having a great support service is one of the features we use to attract new customers, so expanding our user base and keeping our support top-notch were always interdependent.

As a customer oriented company, our support service has been and still is our top priority. We were never afraid of working hard to cope with our ever increasing number of customers.

Of course at times this has been very demanding, as the team was small and had to support really big customers, but we kept at it, determined to succeed.

That said, supporting a product with such a user friendly interface and built according to actual customer needs and feedback, has certainly made our jobs a lot easier.

Is there anything regarding support that you find particularly challenging?

I’d say that understanding how the end users actually use the product is a big challenge, as it’s those needs that should guide our product development.

Through support we get to have an in depth communication with our customers, and besides helping them solve their problems and teaching them how to work with the software, we must also be capable of “decrypting” any implicit messages.

Obviously no one knows what’s lacking or what’s needed in an eLearning product better than its actual users, but they can’t always put it in concrete terms, and what’s important to one customer might not be to the market at large.

So, part of our job is to gauge what the market needs based on the support questions and requests we receive, note them down, and use them to plan our roadmap.

Many see support as a thankless job for a “silent hero”. Do you think support can be rewarding?

The most important thing is that you, yourself, feel thankful for your job. In this sense there is really no thankless job.

When it comes to support, I find it really rewarding and I can assure you that when the customers are happy they can become really generous with their praise. Often I’ve been touched and flattered by our customer’s comments.

The real silent heroes for me are the developers, who are behind the scenes and do all the hard work.

Do you study the competition? What you think are other companies’ shortcomings when it comes to their support offerings, and how does eFrontPro differ?

To answer this I would ask for our customers help. I would welcome them to post their comments and share their opinions with us.

How do you like working for Epignosis? How does it compare to the average Greek company, based on your prior experience, or what your friends in other IT companies tell you?

I could not ask for a better workplace environment. The team is great and we are more like friends than colleagues, something which is very important to me.

As for comparing it to other employers, I don’t like comparisons in general since they can lead to the wrong conclusion. Everything in life has its pros and cons, nothing is perfect. And there’s always our personal perspective to consider. What’s great for me may be irrelevant to someone else. The challenge is to find what best suits you.

You’ve been been with the company for nearly 8 years now. What do you think has changed, if anything, since the early days, regarding your job function, the team, and the product?

Many many things have changed, as you probably can imagine.

First of all, many new members were added to our team and this requires better organization and more formalized procedures. We are still working on these since we are still growing our team and we often have to reconsider and improve our procedures.

As far as the product is concerned, I can assure you that you wouldn’t recognize it as it was 8 years before. The philosophy is still the same but the implementation is much more modern and feature complete.

My job function has also changed. When the team had fewer members each of us had to undertake many different tasks, or “wear many hats”, as they say, whereas as the company grows our roles get more specialized.

What kinds of support methods do you offer (e.g. email, web form, chat, over the phone, etc). Which one do you think works better and why?

We offer email based support as well as training sessions via web conferencing tools.

When it comes to support I think that email works best.

First of all, our market is global and the different timezones don’t allow, at the moment, for a live 24 hours support service (though we plan to expand our support services in the future).

Furthermore, having the questions or requests in written form in front of you helps you better understand them and gives you the time to find the best possible answer.

Finally, there are several cases where the support request has to be forwarded to the tech/development team. The email is the most secure way to transfer the customer’s message exactly as it is.

On the other hand, training requires a direct communication with the customer and this is where the web conference tools excel. Through a virtual “classroom” interface, customers can watch my screen, follow the lecture, and ask questions during their training.

After all these years have you developed any general theories or personal ideas about what makes for good end-user support?

Not sure if it can be called a theory, but I have developed a kind of motto: be truthful!

Customers don’t want to hear “beautiful” lies. They just want to know if what they ask for is possible or not and how.

Always try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes to better understand him/her. Of course you must first love listening to others, otherwise this job can be painful.

Where do you see eFrontPro in 5 years time? And where do you see yourself?

5 years is enough time for us to build a completely new product, so eFrontPro may not exist anymore! (Ok, just kidding! :-) As you can tell from our nearly 10 years in the industry, we’re committed to our products for the long term).

I don’t like making predictions because I don’t want to be proven wrong.

Just stay tuned and make sure that you “follow” us!

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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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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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A Sneak Peek at eFrontPro: Offline courses

A Sneak Peek at eFrontPro: Offline coursesWeb-based applications are a wonderful thing: They give you the ability to access your information anywhere, anytime, using any internet-enabled device. Take for example a web-based LMS, like eFront: You can access your learning content from work using your laptop, from your smartphone using a mobile network or from your tablet using your home’s wifi.

But there’s a catch: You need to have an active internet connection to actually use the application. No internet availability where you are? What a pitty, all this information you needed right now is unavailable.

But here comes HTML5 on the rescue again! With its wonderful offline application mocapabilities, one doesn’t need to be connected to access the desired content! But how does this magic work?

Put simply, an offline-enabled web page, provides a description file, the Manifest, that informs the browser of the files that are needed for the current page to function. The browser then proceeds to download and store these files. When the same page is requested and an internet connection is not available, the browser will seamlessly present the “downloaded” page, allowing for the user to continue working.

EfrontPRO takes this functionality a step further, allowing for a student to preemptively download a whole lesson for offline access, even if he/she hasn’t actually accessed it. The process is more than simple:

  1. The professor enables “offline support” from the lesson’s settings page.
  2. The student can now see an “offline” icon on the lesson’s dashboard. Clicking on it will download all of the lesson’s content and resources for offline viewing
  3. At any point that the user tries to access the system without an active internet connection, the system will automatically switch to offline mode, listing the available lessons for offline access
  4. When an internet connection is available again, the user will be presented with the option to switch back to online mode

Finally, it’s worth noting that the resources made available for offline access can be anything, from text and images to videos and complex SCORM packages. Offline support is available and has been tested in all modern browsers and operating systems, including iOS and Android devices.

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