Part of the reason for SAP’s success is that it can educate and train users and consultants throughout the world in using its software. Dr. Thilo Buchholz leads a key unit within SAP that provides ways to author and re-purpose learning content. This interview sheds light on how SAP succeeds in this area.
John : What is your job role at SAP?
Thilo : I manage a team that is responsible for production platform management and operations within the Knowledge Productization Services department of SAP Education. We evolve, optimize and operate an authoring platform in order to develop all kinds of educational content.
John : So you are responsible for the systems that are used to create all of SAP educational content?
Thilo : Yes. It’s a sophisticated, distributed environment for offline and online editing based on SAP Knowledge Warehouse using a farm of Windows Terminal Servers, which allows us to be very efficient in content production. It covers all content from material for traditional classroom training, to e-learning and also certification questions for exams. It also includes content for Ramp-up Knowledge Transfer, explaining the new and changed features between the previous and the next release of SAP software.
Since we introduced XML as a publishing methodology, we have a single source model for all our content. That means we can produce all necessary material for classroom training events like handbooks or the presentation as well as e-learning, all from the same source.
John : I think you were one of the pioneers in XML single source. Can you tell me about this?
Thilo : SAP introduced this approach in 2000. At this time I was an instructor for customer training teaching ABAP, our programming language. Originally I joined the project as one of the two pilot authors using XML for content authoring at SAP. We modelled our own semantic data structure for educational content and dynamically published the content as instructor handbook, instructor presentation and participant handbook, all out of the same content. A further highlight on this journey was the introduction of a tool called Education Content Customizer that allowed our subsidiaries to tailor content. This tool allows taking material for specific training and merging it with another course. With this customization the subsidiary can then dynamically publish handbooks and the presentations that exactly fit to what their customer needs. About 4 years ago we started to implement Questionmark Perception (the system used by SAP for question authoring) as our certification environment for developing and delivering questions and exams.
John : I know you translate questions for certification. Do you also translate the education material?
Thilo : Yes, of course. If the content is needed in another language we localize the source content. The improved efficiency for the translation processes actually turned out to be one of the biggest benefits we derived from our move to structured authoring in XML.
John : How many languages do you translate into?
Thilo : It varies by content, but we have the option to translate into more than 20 languages.
John : How do you check the quality of translation once it’s been done?
Thilo : To ensure consistent translation of software user interfaces, documentation and training, SAP has a specialised, central department for translation. These colleagues require high quality of the sources we deliver to them and deliver high quality translations to us. They use very sophisticated technology like translation memories, machine assisted translation etc., to translate different material. That ensures that for instance menu entries and field names are used consistently in documentation, in the software and in the training material. Of course they also check prior to handing back to us whether the content is complete and correct.
John : Does that apply to the questions as well?
Thilo : That applies to certification questions in the same manner. That’s why it’s important for us that Questionmark Perception can export questions to XLIFF format, which is a special XML format for translating content. The central team use that in their infrastructure to translate the content and give it back to us. The nice thing about XLIFF is that it allows you to roundtrip the content. That means you can develop a transformation script to transform your semantic structure into XLIFF then translate in this standard format and finally use a script that allows you to transform back from XLIFF into your data model.
John : How do you see things changing in the future for production of training materials?
Thilo : I see a tendency in the technical documentation community to unify and standardize XML data models. Our department is moving our data model to DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), an OASIS industry standard that contains in its latest release special learning and training elements. Using DITA supports SAP’s Education strategy by providing flexibility and scalability to involve partners in the content development. Another important aspect of using an industry standard like DITA is the fact that all main authoring tools support this standard out of the box.
John : SAP is moving quite rapidly towards mobile. Do you see increasing use of mobile devices for delivery of assessments and other learning material?
Thilo: There are great opportunities, but I feel there is a risk of missing opportunities by just looking at nice devices like the iPhone and iPad and just running learning assets on them. What I like to ask myself is what does the feature of mobility add to the learning experience – how can someone learn faster or more efficiently with mobile devices? It’s very important to think about scenarios, where we recognize a real value-add for the learner from being mobile.
It’s hard to apply this to desktop SAP software since the user has a desktop as learning environment. Why would you learn on your iPhone if there is a 21 inch screen in front of you?
I see more opportunities for mobile learning if the SAP software itself runs on mobile devices. In this case the performance support for the user should run on the same device.
Another example would be if the learner needs to gather knowledge in a moving environment, for instance if the learner is a sales person on the road preparing to meet a customer.
John : How else could tests on mobile devices support the learning process?
Thilo : One interesting mobile scenario is to deliver certification exams. I envision using a meeting room in a hotel or similar, just equipped with WIFI to run certification exams. We’d just put iPads on the table and do a proctored exam. The benefit for SAP would be that we would save on the IT equipment needed in a test location; we put 15 iPads or Netbooks in a box, and can actually run an exam nearly everywhere. And the people being tested don’t need to travel long distances, the proctored certification comes to them since it is mobile. Currently our existing infrastructure would easily allow delivering exams like this and we are evaluating this as a possibility.
John : As more SAP software runs on mobiles, do you see delivering learning content on mobiles will be more important?
Thilo : Definitely yes. SAP has a strategy of delivering business applications On Premise, On Demand and On Device. And as we deliver our software in these categories, our knowledge transfer, the actual performance support needs to be delivered via the same distribution channels. So we will be publishing educational content On Device if the software is delivered on Device. Actually our single source approach provides us with the flexibility to deliver educational content wherever it is needed.
Questionmark Perception could serve in this environment by flexibly supporting assessment scenarios. One example is to deliver a pre-assessment prior to a learning object; If the learner can answer the questions, then he or she can skip the learning object. Secondly in the learning process the learner can use self-assessments in order to check progress. And after the learner has passed the learning object it’s good to be able to have some control to see if he or she achieved the learning objective. So overall, an assessment scenario is enriching e-learning content and helps the learner to steer themselves well, without a face-to-face trainer. Remember that in a classroom environment the instructor frequently checks on the learning progress of participants and adjusts approach based on this result of his/her “assessment”.
John : Apart from mobile, what technological changes do you see for the future?
Thilo : I am very interested in automatic question generation. If you have a good ontology, that means a formal representation of your knowledge area as a set of concepts and the relationships between those concepts, you can potentially generate questions automatically. Subject matter experts could then review questions and identify good and bad ones, which could feed back to improve the ontology
There is software out in the market that allows to derive and evolve a ontology for a knowledge area by using documentation, training content, or certification questions as input. A semantic model supporting your structured content increases the accuracy of the ontology dramatically. I think from there it is an attainable rule based application to generate multiple choice questions for assessments and first level certification exams.
John : Do you think this is 1 year away or 20 years away?
Thilo : Somewhere in between, perhaps 3 to 5 years. From my point of view, to derive an ontology automatically is the hard part, but already today we could consider using automatic systems to multiply questions, i.e. make several questions out of a single one. To give a specific example: there are concepts of special and general ledger within financial controlling with SAP software. They would be neighbours in the respective ontology about financial accounting, and there are categories that belong to a special ledger, belong to the general ledger or belong to both. If I have this simple ontology put in a system it is quite easy to generate a lot of multiple choice questions out of this information.
Of course to compose meaningful exams out of those generated questions, we’d need to use test forms to only choose one from a set of questions, but I believe it could be possible to “multiply” existing questions with this automatic methodology. This has the potential of reducing the effort spent by subject matter experts in simple test asset creation. And, since SAP certification strategy is moving towards more sophisticated levels of certification, the SMEs’ knowledge and experience would be more efficiently leveraged to develop more sophisticated question types rather than using them for more basic questions.
John : If people are taking SAP learning or education, what changes will they see as a result of your work. Will the quality improve?
Thilo : Of course, I hope the quality will improve as we introduce task based minimalistic design principles and update the style sheets. But I think one of the biggest benefits will be that the content can be much more tailored to the learning needs of the specific learner – and this will significantly improve the learning experience , applicability of the knowledge and sustainability of the knowledge acquired by consuming SAP Educational products.
You can see more on SAP Education at http://www.sap.com/services/education. This is the third in a series of interviews with people making a difference to the SAP Ecosystem in learning and assessment. Earlier interviews were with Thought leader interview – Prashanth Padmanabhan plans to revolutionize SAP’s learning and talent management, on the future of SAP’s learning and talent management and with Thought leader interview – SAP Certification Manager Sue Martin on Transforming the SAP Certification Programme on SAP certification.