Sarah Austin is Head of Learning Platforms at City & Guilds Kineo and heads up a highly skilled team that develop and deliver learning management solutions to our clients, using the Totara platform. LMSs sometimes get a hard press, so sitting down with Sarah and her wealth of experience, I was keen to find out why and what might be done about it.
5 minutes with Sarah Austin
Q: First, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into your line of work?
A: “I started out as a researcher at Brighton University focusing on Innovation Management. After five years, I decided to change tack and joined an elearning company as a content designer after completing an MSc in Information Systems. Actually, it wasn’t even called elearning then; we worked in ‘new media’.
One day I was asked to lead on a web project, despite my protestations that I knew nothing about websites. With one project under my belt, I became the resident expert. This progressed into managing the company’s web team.
I then went ‘client side’ and worked as Programme Manager in Virgin Atlantic’s IT team. It was a great experience, and invaluable in terms of understanding the client perspective, but I realised that I loved being on the supplier side: developing and delivering solutions to clients. It was around this time that City & Guilds Kineo approached me.
I was brought in to grow the LMS side of the business, which included the exciting joint venture to create a new platform, Totara. Our Learning Platforms business has gone from being just five or six people to a team of around 40."
Q: What gets you excited about your role at City & Guilds Kineo?
A: “I’ve loved the challenge of taking on something new and growing and developing it. I sometimes stand back, look at the team and think ‘Wow. Now look at us’. The original City & Guilds Kineo directors let me to try out new things and drive things forward as I saw fit - I was trusted. I still love that now. There’s no bureaucracy blocking ideas. It’s fast-paced, we can find solutions and try out new ideas."
Q: What are you most proud of about the LMS services we offer?
A: 'First and foremost, it’s the team itself. It’s very professional and highly skilled; and works really well together to deliver fantastic solutions.
I also think we’re unique in that we can tackle big, complex projects and provide a seamless end-to-end service from implementation right through to hosting and support.
I’m also proud that we’re very design driven and we’ve invested a lot of time and effort into creating some great looking and engaging LMSs, whatever device you might be accessing them from. So, quite a lot to be proud of really!.'
Q: LMSs can sometimes get a bit of bad press. Why do you think that is?
A: 'Systems of old are seen as being dull, clunky and not very learner friendly. But this is changing as they are increasingly providing richer functionality and a more intuitive, engaging user experience.
But even with a top product, technology is only ever half the answer. The other half is about change management.
Successful implementation requires significant investment on the client side to proactively promote and manage their LMS, and keep content fresh and engaging. The most successful projects are the ones where clients partner with us and dedicate time and resource into taking it to the next level.'
Q: What’s on the horizon for learning platforms?
A: “It’s an exciting time as products are transforming rapidly with lots of newcomers entering the market. I think this was really noticeable at Learning Technologies with the growing presence of LMS vendors, both large and small.
I guess the industry trends are pretty well known: responsive design, social and informal learning, gamification, UX and big data.
Watching the move to responsive design has been interesting as it has taken pretty much a decade to see this trend actually become reality, or the norm (hooray!). I wonder if the pace is going to quicken now for other trends? I hope so.
I think we’ll see a greater adoption of social and informal learning tools over the next few years, both within and outside of LMS platforms. For example, we have the new Totara Social platform that can be used either with or independently from Totara. However, it’s not one size fits all. For some organisations, the right informal learning solution may be more about making better use of existing systems and tapping into how audiences use social technologies day-to-day. So we can help our clients by not only giving them the tools but through consultancy to help create a strategy that works them.
As for gamification, it’s probably well on the way to becoming one of the most overused words, if this year’s LT was anything to go by! Beyond the hype, in LMS terms gamification sits particularly well in the extended enterprise (external audience) part of the market. I think we’ll see the badges, leader-boards and other competitive elements being used a lot more. They can provide great incentives for those delivering product knowledge to their resellers.
Improved UX is inevitable now with the ‘consumerisation’ of interface design. Everything needs to look and behave like the best of the web and apps. Improved usability is a big focus of the next release of Totara, due out this summer.
As for big data, this is essentially about harnessing the rich data captured about learners during their learning experience, from any systems the learner may interact with as part of the learning experience – LMS, social learning/networking tools, elearning authoring tools, etc. I think it’s still some way off before we see fully personalised and adaptive learning experiences as the norm but the work towards this starts now. Over time, big data analytics will really help give organisations a better understanding of the effectiveness of their learning and be invaluable in driving improvements.”