How are you doing topic research, and managing a team to design, develop, and deliver online training? In the past two or three years, some new apps and new approaches have appeared that can help.
One group of these can help you as you research ideas and take notes. These are mainly good for individual use, since they do not offer group-oriented features such as sharing.
The other group can help with management of group development of new applications and eLearning projects.
Research and note-taking
There are two apps that have generated a lot of interest among researchers, including software and eLearning designers. These are personal knowledge management (PKM) tools intended for individual use, not for groups.
Obsidian is a desktop app for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The basic version is free for personal use. It is different in several ways from other PKM and note-taking apps such as Evernote. Obsidian is a new application, stable, but features and new elements are added fairly often. There is a large user community and many videos online that can help you learn the app more quickly.
- Unlike word processing software, Obsidian uses Markdown instead of proprietary formatting to do editing. It is free and supported by every operating system.
- In the free version, Obsidian only stores your note files on the device where they were created. This is a "local first" philosophy, felt to be more secure, and also means your information is under your control. Backups can be encrypted with apps.
- The basis for Obsidian is a discipline known as "Zettlekasten", which can make setup a bit complicated.
- Obsidian supports backlinking.
"Zettlekasten" just means "slip box". It originated with Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who developed a system to catalogue individual notes on index cards. He used this system to organize about 90,000 individual notes on index cards in a loose structure that he described as a "web-like" system. It was simple and it worked.
Each of the index cards had a unique, arbitrary designation. Because the information had to fit on a single index card, the content of those cards was concise. All of this means that Obsidian is better for writing and note-taking, not for use by development teams. Obsidian is said to store information in a very complete way, analogous to the way the brain itself actually works.
In Obsidian, backlinking is important as a way to show the relationships between ideas. The objective is to make the connections between ideas very clear with as little friction as possible. Most note-taking apps provide ways to link ideas in one direction only. For example, in Evernote, if you add a link from an idea in a note to its definition in another location on the web, you will only be able to connect to that definition. You will not be able to go from the definition back to the idea in the note.
Obsidian provides a way to make bi-directional links, and this places the focus on the connections and links between notes, providing a kind of image of the way your brain organizes information. Creating an internal link in an Obsidian note by applying a Markdown tag to a word creates a note elsewhere in Obsidian that you can then use as the basis for a backlink.
Roam Research is a “note-taking application for networked thoughts.” Roam Research is similar to Obsidian in many ways, with differences being in the cost of the Roam Research app and the storage of the information. Roam is not free, and storage is in the cloud. Storage in Roam is organized around blocks, and pages are made up of blocks. Linking in Roam is between blocks. Storage in Obsidian is organized around pages, and links are between pages, not between blocks. Both apps present a map or graph of pages and their links, displaying these ideas in a constellation of relationships.
There are practical challenges in both of these systems. Choosing between them for many users will come down to the fact that Obsidian lives on the machine where it was created, and Roam lives in the cloud. Either application will provide good service as a personal knowledge management system.
Project and task management
While Roam Research and Obsidian can support research and note-taking, they do not help much with facilitation of group activity, such as sharing and task management. Those functions are essential for team activities such as instructional design projects.
New approaches to team management, sometimes referred to as "canvas apps", have attracted much attention in the last two years. These are more like database or spreadsheet apps. (Just to be clear, "canvas apps" are not the same as the application named "Canva", and there is also some difference between the way that canvas apps from Microsoft and other publishers approach team management .)
Notion: a canvas app
Notion, which runs under Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android, is a team-oriented application for task and project management. It is about two-years old and has a growing user community in work as diverse as software development and video production.
Notion is a web-based tool that can perform the functions of different software types that support collaboration. Notion makes it possible for users to build whatever functionality they require. There aren’t many tasks in eLearning development that can’t be supported with Notion, and Notion has a design that works as well for teams as it does for solo operators.
Using Notion involves a serious learning curve, and on the other hand Notion provides templates for many applications. Templates have the benefit of being reusable and shareable. There are also a lot of YouTube videos that will help fill in details, as well as online Notion courses that make up for whatever is lacking elsewhere. Many users simply try to figure out how to build a template that does what they need, but the online resources will save a lot of time.
Setting up Notion works the same way across all devices and supported operating systems. Users need an email address to get started, after which they import a project management template to their Notion workspace.
This is an emerging canvas app, announced November 2, 2021 as part of Microsoft Office and being released over time beginning in 2021. It appears to be similar in function to Notion, although the details are not clear. This is a development that will probably become important in eLearning work over the next year.