IBM Mindspan Solutions seeks to strengthen the human element in online learning with new collaboration features in an upgrade to its Lotus LearningSpace e-learning platform.
LearningSpace 5.0, which began shipping last week, features a customizable student interface that replaces the Java applet-based interface with one that uses dynamic HTML and Cascading Style Sheets. In addition to making LearningSpace more accessible to a wider group of users, this change makes it easier for corporations to customize and brand the interface, according to officials at IBM Mindspan Solutions, in Somers, N.Y.
The student interface was also simplified so it is presented as three areas—a general home page for corporate and system announcements, a course catalog page, and a page for conducting courses.
Another new collaboration feature is the capability for classroom instructors to choose a live broadcast session mode that can be sent to a large audience whose members need to download only a small client for viewing. To minimize the bandwidth needed for such a broadcast, it can be conducted as a set of whiteboards with audio provided via a telephone conference call.
The broadcast can include streaming audio and video for when bandwidth is less important, as when delivering employee messages corporationwide.
Also new is the capability to record and play back an instructor-led class that is delivered in real time.
A Breakout Groups feature enables students in large groups to break up into small groups to work on in-class assignments. These groups are formed by directing students into private chat sessions with a couple of colleagues each. An enhancement allows students to share documents asynchronously in a forum similar to a threaded discussion in a newsgroup.
The chat and e-mail functions are more pervasive in LearningSpace 5.0, IBM officials said.
The officials said they expect IBM to add the capability to offer LearningSpace courses as Web services in the next release of the product, which is scheduled for the second quarter of next year.
Martha Mealy, product marketing manager for LearningSpace at IBM, acknowledged that there is some art to managing all this collaboration effectively and said IBM offers consulting in that area.
"Our advice is to gradually add these features so people become comfortable [and] so the technology doesnt obscure the content," Mealy said.