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Elearning Thought Leaders: Tom Kuhlmann September 15, 2010

Posted by Eric Matas in eLearning, Interview.
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New Feature eLearning Weekly Interviews Thought LeadersTom Kuhlmann is VP of Community at Articulate. I can’t think of a cooler thing to be VP of—especially right now. Community and elearning are trending big time.

You can visit the Community page on Articulate’s web site and learn that, as VP of community, Kuhlmann’s ” job is simple — to turn our users into rapid e-learning pros.” Anyone who has read his blog (Rapid eLearning Blog) knows that it is a wealth of tutorials and practical tips for elearning designers and developers. It is no wonder that the blog has reached more than 600,000 readers.

Kuhlmann is the first to admit that not all of those readers are customers of Articulate. When you combine Kuhlmann’s writing with Articulate’s Community Forum and Gabe Anderson’s Word of Mouth Blog, you get a vibrant elearning community that is further augmented by Twitter and Facebook. Not to mention Screenr.

Elearning professionals are creating tutorials on Screenr and starting conversations that allow us all to benefit from perspectives and ideas only available through the kind of networking Articulate and Kuhlmann have established. It is Articulate’s dominance in elearning community that led me to interview Kuhlmann. We had a long conversation on the phone highlighted by his excitement about the conversations he is seeing. Kuhlmann is knowledgeable and gracious. I recommend seeking him out at the conferences—which you can learn more about at the end of the interview.

eLearning Weekly Interview: Articulate’s VP of Community, Tom Kuhlmann

eLW: Many elearning professionals, including me, have praised Articulate’s online presence and use of social media. How is it that you have such a lead in this area compared to other authoring software companies and other companies in general?

TK:  It’s all old fashioned customer support.  We really embrace our mission to empower people.  Most people don’t care about Articulate.  What they care about is getting their jobs done.  We try our best to help them do that.

Since it’s ultimately all about communicating with people, we leverage the communication channels to do so.  Social media is just one way we can help our customers.

eLW: What are some of Articulate’s challenges when developing software for elearning?

TK: Software’s just a tool.  So the goal is to create a tool that works well and sells well. :)  There’s always a balance between what you should and shouldn’t have in the product.  It’s not always about having every feature.  Too many choices is not better than too few. So it’s a challenge to consider the customer requests and then integrate them in upgrades.  Finding the right balance isn’t always easy.

When I used to look at software purchases with previous employers, it struck me that some of the more sophisticated authoring solutions were almost at a point where it was just better to learn Flash than to learn a proprietary authoring language.  So the goal is to add capability without complexity.

eLW: A debate continues to rage on regarding “rapid elearning tools” and other options, mainly Flash development. Is this debate changing…will it ever end?

TK:  I think the debate is kind of pointless.  They’re all tools that serve a purpose.  Find the right tool for the right purpose.  I have a post hole digger but I don’t need to use that every time I did a hole.  If I plant a garden, all I need to do is poke a small hole with my finger.  It would seem ridiculous to use the post hole digger.  In the same sense, if I need to dig a post hole, I wouldn’t get very far trying to poke the ground with my finger.

Rapid elearning tools offer a lot of capability without requiring advanced programming.  But they don’t offer every possible thing you can do in elearning.

Strategically, my default position would be to use a rapid elearning tool because it’s the least expensive and quickest approach.  Some courses require custom Flash work to augment the course and fill in some of the gaps.  In those cases, I’d use a hybrid approach where I leverage the best of rapid elearning and insert custom Flash pieces.  The reality is that not all courses can be built with rapid elearning tools.  So the next stage would be to do an all custom course.

Strategically, this is a solid approach because you can do most of your work with a rapid authoring tool and you free up your more costly Flash development resources to work in areas where you get more bang for the buck.

eLW: There are other conversations taking place regarding elearning design and development—can you share an example that you have seen or been a part of?

TK:  A lot of people in our industry like to criticize rapid elearning and make it sound like it’s the cause of bad elearning.  But the reality is that bad elearning’s been around for a long time.  Even today, I see plenty of crappy courses created in Flash or in some of these new 3D game-like environments.

I tend to see it in a different way.  Years ago the conversation was all about ADDIE which is a programming process.  So a lot of the conversation was about what you could or couldn’t do with the software.  Today, the software is relatively easy to use.  So I see a lot less conversation about the programming part of elearning and a lot more about how to build better courses.

I can’t recall a time in our industry where we’ve had as much conversation about how to build good courses as we have today.  It’s a good thing.  Remember, in the grand scheme elearning is relatively new.  So it should just be expected that as we mature we experience growing pains and do a better job defining the learning experience online.

eLW: What favorite web sites do you visit frequently?

TK: I scan a lot of feeds in my reader so I don’t really visit a bunch of sites, per se. I follow blogs in our industry, design sites, and stuff like that.  I’m also a gadget guy so I follow a lot of the tech sites that cover gadgety stuff and new technology.

I’m intrigued by the mobile learning and things like augmented reality–interested in seeing how all of that unfolds.

eLW: What were you doing before Articulate?

TK: I did some consulting on the side and worked for your typical large organizations with long meetings and lots of pointless elearning. :

Now for a few personal questions that will really give readers a chance to get to know you.

eLW: Are you a Mac or PC?

TK: I’ve used both, but mostly PC.  I love my tablet PCs.  I’ll probably get a Mac somewhere down the road.

eLW: What phone are you carrying now?

TK: I’m a gadget guy but hate cell phones. :)  A few years back, a cell phone company had a booth at our HQ.  I asked the guy why I should get a cell phone.  He told me that if I was on the way home and my wife needed me to pick up some groceries, she could just text me the list.  That did more to convince me not to get a phone than to get one.🙂

Personally, I don’t like being tethered to everyone or feel the need to be connected 24 hours a day.  I just have a simple pay as you go mobile phone and buy a chunk of 1000 minutes per year.  I usually end the year with about 500 minutes.

With that said, the phones today are less about the phoning and more about computing.  I’ve been waiting to see how the Androids evolve and compete with the iPhone.  I also like what Microsoft’s done with their new Windows Phone 7. The Win7 phones are the most intriguing to me.  I’ll probably jump into a smart phone when I can get one on my terms and not be locked into a long term contract.

I think an iPod Touch with a mifi card is a better deal for me.  I’d love to have a mifi-like device that I can snap to my iPod Touch.

eLW: Do you have a favorite app out there?

TK: My favorite app is a new product I see being developed at Articulate.  It’s going to be cool.  But I can’t talk about that much.  Virtual collaboration is a large part of my job so I’ve played around with almost all tools and technologies.  You can ask the community team.  They’re still trying to figure out how to uninstall yuuguu.

I love Dropbox. Dropbox is by far one of the best apps when working together in a virtual environment.  I’ll be writing a bit about how I use it for my daily work.

eLW: What was your most unusual job?

TK: I used to work in a sawmill during a high school.  I had to climb under the machines and clean all of the saw dust out.  I hated that job.  I was also a lazy teen, which made the job worse because I hated it and never did much.  Needless to say I didn’t last long and ended up in the Army.🙂

eLW: Thank you, Tom. Now, one last question for readers who like networking: Are you planning to attend any conferences or events where people can connect with you?
TK: I’ll be at all of the major elearning conferences.  The schedule is available on the Articulate site.  I also update my sessions on the blog.

You can find Articulate’s and Kuhlmann’s schedule here.

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