Friday, August 21, 2009

Bandwidth Gluttony: We Still Need Short eLearning Course Load Times

With the increasingly faster speeds available to Internet users around the world, it seems to me that e-learning developers are more and more often forgetting to ask the question: "How long will it take the learner to load this course?"

This seems especially true for e-learning developers new in the Flash space, who are sometimes seen creating entire lessons or courses in one large Flash movie.

When you develop e-learning courses in a desktop environment and preview them locally, it's easy to forget that once you post them out on the web, the course could become largely unusable for some users because of bandwidth connection speeds.

It appears that many of the e-learning software tools for computer-based training don't address this very well either. I have heard complaints about Captivate, Articulate, and Lectora producing files impractical in size. In fairness, I don't know why this is happening in those cases, and this may be because the users aren't setting them up correctly--I'm not intimately familiar with those tools. All I know if how we designed Rapid Intake's tools.

Modular Content Design and Delivery

From the outset we designed Rapid Intake ProForm and Unison so the courses would load as quickly as possible? How is this accomplished in Flash if you have a lot of content? The answer is through modularization.

In Rapid Intake, the course interface (table of contents, media controllers, etc.) loads first along with SCORM LMS data communication pieces. This totals about 90K and is the minimum for the course to run. Once that course interface (also called a "wrapper") is loaded, the content pieces the learner has requested load separately as needed. So if the learner goes to page 1, it only loads the first page's content.

Because the content is all driven by XML, the objects, such as video, audio, images, and other Flash movies, reside outside the course structure and are loaded dynamically, loading when the learner needs them.

How to Handle Large Video

What about large video files? Yes, in some cases you need to pre-load, but instead of pre-loading the whole file, do a progressive download and specify what percentage of the file should be downloaded before it starts playing. Many Rapid Intake users leave the default (50%), but on a very long video the learner would have to wait too long, so we recommend lowering that. On a very short video, you may want to have the video download at 100% because it won't take long and there is the risk that the learner's playback will get ahead of the download. (You could also do true streaming, but that is a separate conversation.)

Whether you are building your e-learning from scratch, or using rapid e-learning development tools like those at Rapid Intake, use a modular approach to content delivery to make the most of whatever bandwidth connection your learner has.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Externalizing Content: Part 2 - Flash/XML Sample Files

Before reading this topic, you may want to read Part 1.

As promised in my last post on this subject, I'm providing some sample files that should help you get started if you want to build a Flash and XML e-learning course architecture from scratch. 

Steve Hancock and I wrote an early book on using Flash to create e-learning. Some of the examples are somewhat outdated now, especially since we haven't updated it since Flash 8 and it's only available in e-book format now, but the Flash and XML samples are still relevant and may be helpful in figuring out how to get started.

These samples are fairly primitive, but the intent here is to help you grasp what is going on. If you want some examples of complex Flash/XML solutions, look at the output from ProForm Rapid eLearning Studio or Unison. Both of these tools offer free trials, so you can build something and check out the output. These tools use a similar approach not only for architecture, but for interactive content as well. The Flash and XML these e-learning tools output is more complex but much more powerful as well.

I hope you enjoy the examples!

Download Flash/XML Chapters from Book (this explains the sample files)
Note: This contains chapters 17 & 18 from Using Flash to Create eLearning. Chapter 17 isn't really about XML at all, but it is a primer on externalizing content using ActionScript rather than XML. Then chapter 18 builds on the concept by using XML .

Thursday, October 23, 2008

eLearning Games - It's All About Learning Motivation

When I was about 9 years old a large dump truck backed into our yard and dumped a mountain of dirt over a large portion of our back yard. I grew up in a family with nine children, we had a large backyard that we used for everything from football to tag. So we were horrified to hear that Dad was going to turn about half of the back yard into a vegetable garden to teach us something about gardening. As part of the effort he brought in dozens of bales of hay as well. One day he found me and my friends behind the house building a two-level "fort" out of the hay bales. For some reason, what he said when he saw us back there working so hard has always stuck with me: "You know, if I had asked you to build that, and even offered to pay you money, you'd be complaining the whole way through."

The lesson is obvious enough. When work is a game, motivation goes through the roof.

Fast forward about 25 years. I was the Training Manager for a software company in Washington. This company had been around for over 15 years by the time I came on board, but they were still doing new release training for customer support by having the top developer in R&D come to the large training room and drone for three hours about "Now let me explain feature 3.2.4...". Everyone dreaded those annual "training" meetings and the long feature document that came with it. Consequently, support personnel knew very little about the new features that the customers began implementing.

At that time I was the only training person in the training department with no budget. What to do? I decided to implement a Knowledge Bowl format competition between customer support teams. Every week for four weeks we had support teams come down and compete against each other in the training room. Even I was surprised at the result.

Instead of holding training, we held the games and gave out the same boring feature documentation. But now, with a six-foot trophy and bragging rights on the line, we found people reading the document on their lunch break, studying in the bus to and from work, practicing with each other for the competition. They ended up knowing that content better than they ever had before, and we didn't even implement any "training". Moreover, it created better team camaraderie.

So I guess there are two lessons here. First, pushing training through traditional means may not be the answer to the performance or training problem. Look for innovative ways to solve that question.

Second, if you choose to create e-learning content, adding games can be a powerful motivator. We've found in our informal observation, that if you include the word "Game" anywhere in the Table of Contents, most learners will jump to that first and start playing.

With this in mind, I encouraged my 7th grader last year to do a science project where she tried to find out whether or not putting a game-style quiz at the beginning of an e-learning course as a sort of pre-assessment activity would have any impact on test scores compared to a standard quiz with the exact same questions. She created a course on New Caledonia using Unison, Rapid Intake's browser-based course authoring system (yes, even a 7th grader can use Unison) and built a Jeopardy-style quiz game at the front of the course and had the students log in from her school.

Granted, it was a junior high science project and the sample was fairly small, but the students who had the game for the pre-assessment fared about 10% higher on their scores on average than the ones that had the regular quiz-style pre-assessment.  I know that's far from conclusive evidence, and I would sure like to see a real study done to explore the same question, but logic predicts that we all would do better with games vs quizzes.

The trick becomes how to create e-learning games quickly without needing to be a programmer. That's where Rapid Interactive eLearning development tools come into play, like Rapid Intake's Unison and ProForm. To build a Jeopardy-style quiz e-learning game from scratch in Adobe Flash, for example, would take even a seasoned developer hours if not days to design, program, and test. With the form-based rapid interactive e-learning development approach, you simply fill out the forms associated with the template that is based on the game, then preview to test it. Again, the magic of this approach is you get to focus on the content, not programming.

Go ahead and sample some of the e-learning games you can create in minutes using these tools:
  • Scatterbrained (Jeopardy-style multiple choice quiz game)
  • Concentration (Traditional matching game with tiles--good for things like terms/definitions)
  • Risk It All (My favorite multiple choice quiz game where you are given a certain number of points, then you place a bet with as many points as you like on the idea that you'll be able to answer the next question correctly)
  • Categories (See if the learner can identify which category a fact belongs in...good for depth of learning questions between similar but different areas of knowledge)
  • Trouble With Triples (A kind of "multiple correct" game where you have to identify which three items among many distracters pertain to the description)
Here's my final tip. Some organizations think "games" aren't professional enough. One colleague suggested they get around that by calling them "immersive learning activities". Hey, whatever works!

How have you used games in your organization? I'm fascinated by the subject. I know there is a wide variety of game-playing being done and I think this will continue to grow and broaden over time.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Externalizing Content - Flash and XML for eLearning Development - The Perfect Marriage

Since everyone seems to be disputing what "marriage" means these days, let me hold out as an example the perfect technology marriage when it comes to eLearning Development: Flash + XML (eXtensible Markup Language).

If you aren't using Flash and XML as your e-learning development architectural platform, here are a few reasons you should consider it.

I'll start with Flash, then XML, then how together they make an indomitable pair.

  • Flash Gives You Reduced Browser Incompatibility Issues. In other words, it won't matter what browser your learner uses because Flash works the same in all browsers (with few exceptions). Try accomplishing this with DHTML and CSS and you'll find it a challenging task where you wish you could limit the type of browsers people use. Instead of limiting or restricting, why not use Flash which works virtually everywhere?
  • Flash Easily Integrates Rich Media. No one expects e-learning to be text and images anymore. Learners expect video, audio, animation, games, quizzes, tests, and simulations. Not only do they expect it, but a good instructional designer will use these different mediums effectively to enhance the learning (I am not advocating adding rich media for media's sake). Who hasn't seen great animation, video, games, or simulations in Flash?
  • Flash is Ubiquitous. Yes, I know...did I really have to use "ubiquitous"? I love words and how else can you say "It's EVERYWHERE!" in just one word. I suppose I could have said "Flash is Everywhere", but isn't "ubiquitous" fun to say. Use it today. It will brighten your day. So...because Flash IS everywhere, most people don't have to download a plug-in to get it installed on their machines.
  • Flash is Portable. eLearning courses you build in Flash can be launched in a browser online, on a CD-ROM, made into an executable and run from a local machine or network, and on many mobile devices.
How about XML? When I first heard of XML back in the late 90s, I was a little intimidated by it. The name certainly doesn't sound very user friendly.

So, if you're not familiar with XML, think of it as a text-based outline of content. Kind of like building a bulleted list with indented nested bullets, etc. In simple terms, XML is a way to organize and structure content optimized for the Internet. It is a flat text file (unlike a database) and is easily portable because it is so small.

So what are the benefits of XML for e-learning development?

  • XML can act like a database that builds the e-learning content for you. Imagine being able to build an interactive quiz by editing a text file. How easy is that!!?? Now imagine building learning games, simulations, and other interactions just by editing that simple text file.
  • XML is Portable Text File. What if you want the benefits of a database driven content structure but don't want to install a database or worry about back-end database programming. Simply open the text document and build content. If you set it up right, it's that easy. And, when you're done creating and you're ready to move it to the web server, does your web server have to go through some long installation process like it would with a database? No! You do need some technology that can read the XML and give something to the learner in the browser, but that's where the Flash player comes in (which I'll discuss in a bit).
  • XML is an Open Web Technology Standard. This is important because developing using standards can help make what the e-learning courses more maintainable by yourself or by others in case someone else needs to modify the course in the future. There are millions of people who know how to work with XML because it is a standard. If you were to build your own text file structure, you'd be the only person who knew how it worked. It also means it opens a variety of compatibility and interoperability opportunities to you.
Separately Flash and XML are both great technologies, but together? Incredible! Here's basically how it works: XML stores the content and references to content and Flash reads in that XML to display it in a way the learner can get to and interact with the content. Separating the content from the framework of the course provides big benefits:
  • Anyone Can Build eLearning in Flash! That's right, once you set up Flash to read and work with XML, anyone can edit the text file and build great content. Imagine having to learn Flash well enough to build an Jeopardy-style learning game, or a branching "choose-your-own-adventure" style simulation of a problem. This would take you months if not years to learn how to do. Now someone is going to have to build it and tie it into XML (we did of course in ProFormRapid eLearning Studio and Unison, our browser-based rapid e-learning development solution), but once that is done, to build the game, you just edit an XML text file. How easy is that?!! And how fast!
  • Develop AWESOME eLearning at Hyper Speed! Say goodbye to boring page turners because you don't have the time or money or expertise. Imagine taking the principles in my blog entry about instructional patterns and template-based development to make better e-learning faster. If this is all tied into Flash and XML, once you have templates that do what you want, you can develop at an unimaginable speed. And you won't come out with cream-puff courses either. One of our customers, a large (very large) accounting firm, used Rapid Intake's ProForm Rapid eLearning Studio to build 200 courses in 4 months! Even I was amazed.
  • The Whole Process Can Be Form Driven. Once XML and Flash are tied together, you need to find an easy way to create/edit the XML. Since it's a text file, you can just edit it using a text editor, but that eventually because impractical because the XML can get pretty complicated and unwieldy. So, a form-driven interface can be built to create and edit the XML. This can be done with a web forms so that you can actually build the elearning content in a browser (i.e. Unison) or using Flash or some other desktop-based tool to layout forms (i.e. ProForm). Taking this step is more work initially, but then it really speeds up development, because you are building the content by simply filling out forms instead of editing the text file...even easier!
  • Fewer Errors in Development. Developing this way produces fewer errors because the Flash part has been vetted previously and it is simply reading in content and organizing it for the learner. In the previous example I gave, the project manager that pulled off 200 courses in 4 months wrote to tell me that they had an average of only 5 (yes that's 5, not 50, not 500) quality assurance testing errors per course when they went through the QA testing phase. Wow! That's a HUGE benefit of Flash/XML based development that doesn't get mentioned very often.
  • Localization of Text Becomes Easier. One of our customers has translate each course they develop into 26 different languages. Now that gets a little crazy no matter what technology you use, but using XML makes it much easier. Most translation companies will take XML files (which are easily emailed because they are so small). So you simply create the course in the primary language, send the XML to be translated, bring it back, replace the original XML file and SWOOSH, your text is now in a different language. Now, there are many more issues related to localization that you have to be aware of (text density and different character sets to name a couple), but externalizing your text into XML makes the process so much easier. No need to open the course authoring environment, just work with the XML. You may want to check out our white paper on localizing e-learning courses.
  • Localizing Images, Audio, Video, and Flash Movies Becomes Easier. In some cases, localizing the text isn't enough--you may need to create images, audio, video, and Flash movies that have the right cultural content. XML can point to the external resource (e.g. a path to an image or other media asset). Flash reads the XML and says, "Ah hah! There is the media I need, I'm going to load it and serve it up to the learner." This is great in and of itself, but for localization becomes essential. Similar to text, you can just replace the media asset files with localized versions (as long as they are named the same and in the same location) and POOF! Your course has all of the right cultural references. Building those assets becomes the tedious part, not getting them into Flash. In a nutshell, you build the course once, then localize all of its externalized content. You may want to check out our white paper on localizing e-learning courses
  • Course Maintenance Becomes Incredibly Easy. In most authoring environments, suppose you want to change an image that is outdated, or an audio or video file. Typically you would have to open the authoring tool, update the content, re-publish, and test. And who knows what might happen during publishing. Maybe you accidentally screw something up in the process. Not so with Flash/XML architecture. With Flash/XML, you can simply locate the media asset and replace it. It's that simple. This does assume, of course, that your Flash is pulling in the media assets dynamically based on references in the XML (which is how we designed ProForm and Unison).
There are probably more benefits, but my fingers are getting cramped. This has been a long post, but enough cannot be said about the benefits of using Flash and XML together to build effective e-learning courses that engage the learner and at the same time help you build quickly and easily as well as make it easy to maintain the courses as they age.

Together, they are truly the perfect marriage. We may even be able to celebrate on their 50th Anniversary.

Please stay tuned for another post where I will provide some actual sample Flash/XML files to download to whet your appetite and get the concepts in place, just in case you want to implement this whole approach from scratch yourself.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Unison Takes Gold in Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Awards

I have three kids (ages 14, 8, and 11) and I have to admit that seeing Unison, our collaborative rapid e-learning development web application, win Gold in one of the e-learning industry's top award competitions is something akin to seeing one of your kids do something great.

The ground-breaking collaborative and web-based online course authoring features in Unison have been in the works for years and we've worked innumerable late nights and early mornings getting it to market. We have an exceptional team of designers, programmers, marketing, and support staff and it is one of the most satisfying things to date to see their hard work recognized and acclaimed.

While industry awards are great and coveted and we appreciate them as much as anyone, I am, in many ways, more gratified to get phone calls and emails from our customers that are already using Unison praising our efforts and explaining how they are able to meet their objectives better by using Unison. Having the financial votes of confidence and support from T-Mobile, Intermountain Healthcare, Costco, Petsmart, Baker Hughes, General Physics, and so many others adds the kind of credibility to what we are doing that an award can never do. Our Unison customers are our life blood and our best supporters.

In an effort to keep the nature of competition friendly and fun, Brandon Hall asked that all acceptance speeches be in the form of a haiku or a limerick.

No, I am not kidding.

So, without further adieu, here's the "award winning" Unison Limerick (authored by Isaac, our Unison Project Manager):

Unison makes collaborative courses
With content from various sources,
Whether it's clients or SMEs,
With every user you need
You finally all can join forces.

CONGRATULATIONS to my dedicated and incredible team at Rapid Intake! I don't express it as often as I should--I work with some of the best professionals and people I know. I'm proud to lead, work with, and learn from and with them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Keeping Interactivity at the Center of eLearning Development

I participated in Bryan Chapman's pre-conference session at the Brandon Hall Innovation in Learning conference. Bryan's session was titled Keeping Interactivity at the Center of eLearning Development. He focused on creating reusable catalogs (I've often called them libraries) of reusable interactions that can be used in different courses by just changing the content of the interactions.

The main reason e-learning developers don't include interactivity in their courses?

Based on a survey, here are the top results in order:

  • Cost
  • Time
  • Steep Learning Curve
  • Hard to Integrate (how do you track the SCORM data or get an HTML interaction to work with Flash)
  • Why Should I?
  • Not in PPT (if you only know how to use PowerPoint, you're going to be limited when it comes to interactivity)
  • Lack of Creativity (meaning they aren't sure what kind of interactions to build)
He also gave these ratios for development hours to create a one hour e-learning course:

PowerPoint Conversion: 33:1
Typical eLearning: 224:1
Simulations: 750:1

Then, of course, he explained that there are tools that assist with making interactivity better. He mentioned Hot Potatoes (which has some simple HTML-based interactivity) as well as CourseBuilder for Dreamweaver, then newer tools such as Raptivity, Instructional Spice. We were flattered that he also included Rapid Intake's tools ProForm Rapid eLearning Studio and Unison Collaborative Web-based Rapid eLearning Development Solution in his list of tools he would recommend.

His presentation went right in line with my recent post about creating reusable interactions based on instructional patterns. It was great to hear a different perspective advocating the same kind of solution to the problem of scalability when it comes to creating effective content.

He gave me an opportunity to show how you can use Rapid Intake technology to aggregate modular interactions built from multiple sources. Class participants emailed me sample interactions they'd built with some of the other tools and I combined them into a course using ProForm. I then demonstrated how ProForm and Unison can be used to pull disparate content together as well as build original Flash/XML based content.

PowerPoint conversions are here to stay (for better or worse...probably a mix of both :), but that wave is passing as tools that make building interactions faster, less expensively, and easier are coming to the forefront to show that building highly interactive e-learning content can make sense, even for those who are brand-new to elearning development.

P.S. One related link - if you are using CourseBuilder for Dreamweaver, there is a book available here on how to use it. It was written for Dreamweaver MX 2004, but CourseBuilder really hasn't changed in its functionality since then (only an update for Dreamweaver 8 has been released). So it might be helpful.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rapid eLearning - Fad or Future? Instructional Pattern-based Development Heralds in the Era of Rapid Interactive eLearning Development

When I first realized that converted PowerPoint presentations being passed off as "e-learning" were starting to gain momentum as a movement in our industry (circa 2003-2004), the instructional design idealist in me wanted to pull my hair out.

I wondered, is this going to change the definition of "e-learning"? Will learners come to associate converted presentations with the concept of online learning in such a way that it would have a detrimental impact on the larger e-learning movement as part of the solution to training and performance problems?

Seeing that we were rapidly moving away from custom course development, where everything is built from scratch (and being part of the movement to make things easier and faster myself, having put some of my own thinking into our own tool development), I began to wonder if Rapid eLearning development was going to be fad or not? Would it burn out a then beleaguered industry?

As I explain in the white paper titled Using Instructional Patterns for Rapid and Effective eLearning, it is not a fad, and converted PowerPoint presentations play an important role in moving our industry forward. I also contend, however, that we should not stop there! Instead, we should be building and adopting systems that help us quickly create effective e-learning solutions by making it easier to create pattern-based solutions--patterns that we've found get results in the real world.

Programmers have been using code patterns for decades now. If a programmer wants to accomplish a certain task, like sorting from A to Z (to be simplistic), why go through the trouble of figuring out the code? Simply apply a pattern to the problem that someone else has already figured out.

In the same way, most content can be approached instructionally by an already proven pattern.

A simple example comes from software simulations. For many years we all built software simulations from the ground up using Dreamweaver, Flash, Toolbook, Authorware, and whatever other tools we had at our disposal. Even though a variety of simulation models across a spectrum (from what I call "lock-step" to "full re-creation" of the software or environment, like Microsoft Flight Simulator where you have infinite sequences through the simulated experience) were available, time and budget almost always forced us to do the lock-step simulation. (A lock-step simulation being the type that gives you one correct step to accomplish at a time, without having options to fail. If you do the wrong thing, we provide feedback that says, "Sorry, that's not right. Do this...") Over time this type of simulation became accepted as "effective enough". It could be created relatively inexpensively compared to full blown simulations, but still allowed the learner to try it for themselves.

That's what I call "competent medocrity". Sure, it would be ideal to have a full simulation, but we all recognize that's rarely possible due to time and budget constraints.

Now what do we see all over the place? Tools that have evolved to make it easier to build a simulation based on that lock-step pattern such as Firefly, Captivate, Viewlett Builder, and more. There are dozens. We don't need to build it from scratch anymore. The benefit? We can build a simulation for less money and time than before because the tools follow an establish and accepted pattern.

What patterns do you see from your own experience? What patterns do the tools you use help you to follow?

When we set out to build Flashform (which became ProForm) and its online cousin Unison, we wanted to create a tool that would not restrict instructional designers, but rather provide a platform on which they could build their own rapid development system based on the patterns they see as effective. Some templates are provided, of course, based on patterns that we think are effective, but the real benefit is the ability to create XML driven, form-built, content that is based on your patterns.

Want to build an interaction without knowing how to program it? Just fill out the forms and set the options and away you go. Have an instructional approach that isn't "templatized" yet? Make a template, create a form, tie them together via XML (it's easy with Rapid Intake tools, or you can do it all on your own using Flash or Flex) and then recreate that content following that pattern the next time without reinventing the wheel.

In Unison you choose from a library of reusable templates that are organized into different categories (the following image are the ones in the Learning Games category):

This way, we get beyond converted PowerPoint to Flash presentations but into real learning interactions. I predict that tools will be so easy to use in the future, that building interactive e-learning that is designed on proven principles will be easy. Those tools will be to instructional design and e-learning development what the modern word processor was to typing and writing by hand. Yes, rapid e-learning is here to stay, and tools will be built on instructional patterns so that as instructional designers, we can focus on effective content, not on programming.

Get the white paper now: Using Instructional Patterns for Rapid and Effective eLearning