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

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