Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Realizing the Potential of the Tin Can API

By Joseph Suarez

Each time a major eLearning authoring tool or LMS vendor announces they are (or will be) supporting the Tin Can API, the eLearning community can be heard giving a simultaneous cheer and moan. Why would the “next generation of SCORM” cause such a mixed reaction? Here's my interpretation.

In the short term, Tin Can support is perceived as a good thing because it means organizations will theoretically have the capability to migrate from SCORM to what's being promoted as a highly improved standard for recording and tracking learning experiences. With vendors adding Tin Can support to their products, it signals a quick and wide adoption of the new standard. This is a cause for celebration to some.

However, unless the promised improvements of Tin Can are also eventually realized, the future won't likely be any brighter. For years, thought leaders in the industry have been calling for radical change that moves us beyond the simple LMS completion checkmarks SCORM has become notorious for. They would argue that to adopt Tin Can only as far as to replicate SCORM’s limited functionality completely misses the point.

Without getting into the history of SCORM, it’s fair to say that how it is widely used today was only part of what was originally imagined. Julie Dirksen described the missed opportunities of SCORM with this analogy over on the official Tin Can API blog:

“Basically, it’s like someone having a $50K budget for a new car, and spending a thousand dollars on the actual car and the other forty-nine thousand on making sure we always have a parking space.”

Chicken & Egg
Remember when fuel-efficient hydrogen cars were supposed to be the next wave of the future? A major problem keeping the idea from taking off is a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. No one wants a hydrogen car if there are no refueling stations around, and no refueling stations are going to exist without a customer base of hydrogen car owners.

I see Tin Can as having a similar dilemma. If we don't eventually see and experience examples of Tin Can utilized to its full potential, how are we going to create enough market demand to pressure vendors to fully empower their tools with that ability? Yet how can the full potential of the Tin Can API become mainstream if that capability isn't within arm’s reach of developers?

It’s not an insurmountable problem by any means. It just requires some pioneering developers to enlighten the rest of us to what's possible. Fortunately, that may have already has begun through a Tin Can API prototypes page. It’s worth bookmarking and checking up on in the hopes of doing more cheering down the road.

What are your thoughts on Tin Can's potential?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Designing eLearning for Cognitive Ease

By Shelley A. Gable

I recently started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and the chapter on cognitive ease offered all sorts of implications for eLearning design.

Promote a good mood.

The Finding: Kahnemann describes a study in which participants needed to rely on intuition to complete a task. The study found that participants in a good mood doubled their accuracy, while those in a bad mood performed poorly. This, combined with additional discussion in the book, suggests that a bad mood creates cognitive strain, and a good mood promotes cognitive ease.

Implications for eLearning: Although we may not have control over a learner’s day or personal life, perhaps there are things we can do to make learners smile from time to time. Consider a dash of appropriately placed humor, a relatable and/or inspirational story, and graphics that create a warm, positive tone.

The amount of time spent on eLearning may influence mood, too. Long lessons may leave learners wondering if they’ll ever end, while a series of short lessons can help create a sense of progress. Shorter lessons can also help prompt learners take a brief break and re-energize if they’re feeling mentally fatigued.

Ensure repeated exposure to critical content.

The Finding: I took a social psychology class several years ago and clearly remember this mantra: “familiarity breeds liking.” Kahnemann’s book explores this concept, describing studies in which participants were exposed to messages repeatedly over time. Repeated exposure seemed to increase participants’ liking and trust in the message.

This reminds me of the concept of spaced learning that Hermann Ebbinghaus – one of the earliest researchers of learning and memory – introduced in the 1800s. Spaced learning suggests that we retain newly learned knowledge longer when taught repeatedly over a period of time.

Implications for eLearning: Two simple ideas come to mind. First, we can take advantage of the flexibility eLearning offers to spread out training. Instead of conducting four hours of training within a single day, consider dividing it into one-hour sessions over four weeks, for example. Although the content will likely advance from one session to the next, this spaced approach would allow for reinforcing core components over time.

Another consideration is to ensure that core messages are repeated at every practical opportunity (this doesn’t have to mean repeating it verbatim every time). For instance, I recently worked on some customer service training where anticipating customer needs was a core principle. Although the training teaches a variety of tasks and behaviors, nearly every scenario prompts learners to pause to anticipate needs and then reinforces the impact of doing so.

Create clean visuals.

The Finding: The book describes a study in which participants were asked to solve a case study problem. For one group, the problem included a company name that was difficult to pronounce, while the other group’s version had an easy-to-pronounce company name. Everything else about the problem was identical. Interestingly, the problem-solving success rate of participants with the easier company name was significantly higher than that of the other group.

The book also describes similar studies where research participants working with low quality images or difficult-to-read fonts were also more prone to errors in completing tasks.

Implications for eLearning: The study about the difficult company name immediately prompted me to think about the names I assign to characters in the stories and scenarios I write. This reinforces the importance of keeping those names simple.

It also reinforces the need to include crystal clear images in training. Occasionally, I encounter an eLearning lesson that has an image (often of a system screen) that is either too small to read easily or a bit unclear. While most of us can probably intuitively agree that this type of thing is annoying, the evidence in Kahneman’s book suggests that it directly impairs learning. In fact, one of the studies described would even suggest that problematic images continue to negatively affect learning, even after learners have moved past the image and it is no longer the focal point.

Did you notice other implications?

If you’ve also read Thinking, Fast and Slow, do you recall any “ah ha” moments you encountered while reading the book? And did any of those learnings affect your eLearning design? If so, please share!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Call to Action Items in eLearning

By Joseph Suarez

Add that item to your cart? Download a 30-day trial demo? Sign up for our monthly newsletter? Anytime we are called to act on the web, we are being asked to make a decision whether or not to fulfill the intended goal of the site owner. Web designers refer to such an attempt as a “call to action,” a sales and marketing term referring to any prompt or trigger leading toward a sale. But don’t let the salesmen approach deceive you, as they could also easily benefit eLearning professionals as well.

When designed correctly, the call to action stands out from the rest of the page to help draw the user in. is a great example of a well-designed call to action landing page. The main call to action is to download Dropbox, which is backed up by the call to watch a video.

However, if a page is designed without intention, the call can be lost in page clutter. Calls to action often come in the form of a button or link, as the user is typically asked to take action on a separate page such as checking out on an e-commerce site or filling out a form to sign up for a newsletter. Sometimes however, as is often the case in eLearning, the call is to interact with a single page with no other goal than to absorb information. As an example of this, take a look at the site shown below.


A subtle call to action statement invites us to “meet the team.” When we click on any portrait, we are shown an overlay with that person’s bio plus the option to cycle to other team members. This creates a beautifully simple yet effective call to action statement, leading to an interactive experience. Note how it was only implied to click or tap each portrait, and not redundantly stated.

The call to action in this example is made distinct by its location in the center of the page. Whether just plain-text instructions or links and buttons, calls to action work best when they’re visually distinctive from the rest of the surrounding content through the following contrasting techniques:
  • Size
  • Color
  • Placement
  • Animation effect (subtle)
For eLearning development, a good practice is to decide up front which contrasting method(s) will be used and then apply consistently. If nothing else, try using a nice contrasting color for call to action text (visually distinct from hyperlink text). 

An appropriate call to action better ensures the learner won’t be left wondering what to do next. If there is some interaction to complete before clicking the Next button, that call should be clearly established. Consider also indicating when the Next button is safe to click. The default Articulate course player does this nicely by subtly flashing the next button when each slide is complete.

Technically, any button or link used in eLearning could be considered a call to action. Sometimes they are almost impossible to miss, like a button to submit an answer in a knowledge check. Often however, sections of eLearning content become crowded for space and messages can be missed. In these cases, it may be beneficial to take some cues from web design trends and apply some calls to action that are difficult to miss.

What types of calls to action have you seen or used?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Personify eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

As technology continues to command an increasingly prevalent role in our lives, it seems that our brains still respond better to a human touch. We can use this knowledge to help improve recall from eLearning lessons.

The research…

I’m in the midst of reading e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer (it’s really a must-read for anyone who designs instruction). One chapter describes studies that suggest that including coach-like characters in eLearning and similar on-screen agents benefits learning.

Reading this chapter reminded me of a study I heard about a while back, in which subjects completed an online lesson on a health-related topic. While completing the lesson, subjects were asked questions and prompted to type out responses. Group #1 was told that an actual person received their responses during the course, while Group #2 was told that they were simply interacting with a computer. In reality, both groups were interacting with a computer only. Post-test results showed that Group #2 performed better. The researchers hypothesized that the perception of social interaction benefitted learning. (For the record, I think I heard about this on NPR, though I couldn’t track down the story when I tried finding it for this post.)

So how can we add a human element to eLearning lessons?

Consider these approaches…

Present eLearning from the perspective of a coach. Rather than simply displaying words on a page, introduce a coach type of character who serves as the narrator, being the voice of presented information and activity feedback.

For example, the coach might be a manager who needs the learner to help accomplish a challenge. A few years ago, I designed an eLearning lesson about insurance options. The main character was a manager who needed someone to help her answer customers’ questions about insurance. The eLearning lesson conveyed information as though she was teaching it to the learner. When the learner responded to knowledge check questions, the manager provided feedback and any needed coaching.

Or, you might make the main character an experienced employee who takes the role of mentoring the learner. In some ways, the approach could be similar to the example described with a manager. Additionally, you could create challenges in which the learner competes against the experienced colleague. For instance, if a performance requirement is to complete a task within a specific amount of time, you might prompt the learner to compete with the other character (e.g., Abby can do it in 30 seconds – can you beat her time?).

Provide the learner with a collaborator. The main character within an eLearning lesson could be someone who needs to learn along with the learner. Perhaps a fellow new employee or other acquaintance.

For example, a lesson that introduces learners to the mortgage industry might include a character who is about to buy a house for the first time. The lesson challenges the two of them – the learner and the fictional first-time homebuyer – to learn about the industry together. The “telling” information in the lesson could be knowledge the homebuyer already possesses and is sharing with the learner. Then, the homebuyer poses specific questions to the learner, which the learner answers based on reviewing job aids or other available resources. Feedback to knowledge checks might take the form of the homebuyer agreeing that a response sounds right (for correctly answered knowledge checks) or that something still doesn’t make sense, with a suggestion of something else to consider (for coaching in response to incorrectly answered knowledge checks).

Make interactions feel personable. There are many ways to do this. For instance, write eLearning content in a conversational tone, rather than a formal, textbook-like tone. Even feedback for knowledge checks can feel more relatable when written somewhat informally (consider saying “Are you sure?” or “That doesn’t sound quite right” instead of “Incorrect”). The chapter mentioned earlier in e-Learning and the Science of Instruction also offers advice for making eLearning feel more personable, from using polite language to animating avatars to use natural gestures.

How have you done this?

If you’ve used any of the approaches above, please share your experiences! What was the situation? How did you approach it? What advice can you share? And, if you happen to be familiar with the unidentified study described toward the beginning of this post, I’d appreciate being pointed to the source!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lectora Best Practices Part 3 – Using Text

By Joseph Suarez

This is the third post in a series dedicated to best practices when using the eLearning authoring tool Lectora. Part 1 detailed how to optimize user preferences, and Part 2 went over using actions and variables. Part 3 will be all about text and formatting text in Lectora.

Using Lectora text styles
As mentioned in a previous post, Lectora text styles define the font, color, and size settings for selections of text or entire text blocks, and they automatically update all affected texts when changed. This is both a time saver, and a good way to stay consistent with text formatting throughout a course.

Paste unformatted text  (Ctrl+Shift+V)
It’s common practice to use Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to storyboard an eLearning course. Unfortunately, when you copy text from these programs and paste it into Lectora, extra hidden text formatting is carried with it. This can lead to text formatting problems, especially with bullet points. The simplest way around this is to paste text without any formatting. The universal shortcut for this (though oddly not available in Microsoft Office) is Ctrl+Shift+V.

Underline hyperlinks and only hyperlinks
A common web usability rule that should carry over to Lectora is to only underline text when using hyperlinks. This avoids confusion over what is or is not a hyperlink. As an alternative for emphasis, use bold or italicized text.

Use descriptive alt text on buttons and important images
Ever wonder why when you leave your mouse hovered over an image on a webpage, sometimes a little text tooltip pops up? Those are image alt tags attached to the HTML code. For example:
<img src="exampleImage.jpg" alt="An example image used to demonstrate alt tags">
Whatever is in the quotes after “alt=” will display when a mouse hovers over. In addition, the visually impaired rely on alt tag descriptions to describe what an image conveys or a button does. This also fulfills part of Section 508 compliance where “a text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided.”

In Lectora, whatever an image or button is named (as displayed in the Title Explorer pane) will be converted to its alt tag when published to HTML. Therefore, images that aren’t there just for decorative purposes should have alt tags enabled and named according to what is visually conveyed. Buttons should also be named according to what they do when clicked. For example a next button should not stay named “arrow47right,” but instead named something descriptive like “Go to next page.”

Convert text blocks with uncommon fonts to images
You know that super awesome font you downloaded and want to use in your Lectora course? Well, it’s not that easy. Unless every single computer viewing your course also has that font installed, all the text that used your special font will default back to an ugly Times New Roman.

The best way to ensure fonts display correctly is to stick to web safe fonts. But if for some reason you must use an uncommon font, you can choose to render the text as an image when published. This converts the image to a transparent gif image, but has some minor drawbacks:
•    The text inside can no longer be highlighted or copied.
•    The image should now have a text equivalent for 508 compliance (see above).
•    Being a transparent gif, there will be unintended pixel artifacts around the letters which will show if placed over any non-white background.

In no way has this series been an official or exhaustive list of Lecotra best practices. They are mostly time savers and development practices I’ve picked up from the helpful community of Lectora users and discovered on my own (usually the hard way). Please comment if you have any additional Lectora best practices of your own.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Using Video in eLearning

by Dean Hawkinson

One of the growing trends in eLearning and mLearning these days is the use of video. Video, when used properly, can be a very effective tool in supporting the learning process, whether as a part of an eLearning course or as standalone videos delivered via mobile devices. I have been involved in several training projects that included video, and thought I would offer some thoughts around best practices and cautions when using video in an eLearning course.

When using video within an eLearning or mLearning course, it is important to keep it relatively short. In my experience, I have found that a single course should be no more than 30 minutes in order to keep the learner’s attention. As such, video should be short enough to be one of the supporting pieces of the overall course. For mLearning delivery via mobile devices, video is a very effective way to deliver a quick message as a standalone delivery, and I’ve found it works best when kept to 5-10 minutes for each clip.

For this article, I would like to focus on video in an eLearning course. Here are some ways that video can play a role in your courses:

  • Introduction or closing thoughts from leadership – For a course introducing a new product or program that you need to get your learners excited about, an introductory (or closing) video from your company’s senior leadership is a great way to get them motivated about what they are about to learn.
  • Demonstrate right and wrong behavior – A great example of this would be for a retail sales organization where you can show video of a customer interacting with a sales associate. Video is effective in showing both correct and incorrect behavior, and the use of humor for the incorrect behaviors can be very effective!
  • Introduce a behavior then test on reaction – Building on the customer interaction idea, using video to show part of the interaction and stopping to solicit the correct response from the learner is a great way to test knowledge and provide some practice in the process.

Let’s take a look at some reasons that support using video in your eLearning courses.

  • Breaks up monotony and “page turning” – We have all gone through eLearning courses that put us to sleep with “read…click…read…click…read…click…,” right? Video can enhance the learner’s overall experience by breaking up the monotony and can even introduce some entertainment to the learning.
  • Great way to show senior leadership support of program – It shows that the program or product you are introducing is supported by senior leadership, adding to its credibility.
  • Actual demonstration of right and wrong behavior without needing an instructor/facilitator – Video allows eLearning to provide instruction on these behaviors without the need for a live instructor or demonstration.

Alright, so we have talked about some ideas for using video and the benefits. However, using video is not without challenges. Here are a few:

  • Budget – Shooting a video requires equipment, skills, and resources beyond what is required for a typical eLearning course, resulting in a greater cost to produce the course.
  • Editing can take a while – Using video in your course does not exactly support rapid design and development. Depending on the complexity of the videos, editing can take quite a lot of time and resources to complete.
  • Logistics of scheduling the video shoot, resources, actors, etc. – Shooting video includes scheduling a time when all of your resources are available, obtaining a location for the shoot, and securing actors in some cases.
  • Where to house the video – Software such as Lectora allows you to imbed your videos directly in the course itself. Using the .FLV video format works best with Lectora but you will need to consider your authoring tool and delivery method to determine the best format to use. However, if you are unable to imbed the video and need to link to it, you need an external server to house the video.

These are just a few points about using video in your eLearning course. Do you have other experiences with using video that you would like to share?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Turn These Slides into eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

Ever been handed a PowerPoint slideshow by a client, with the request to convert it into some kind of eLearning thingy?

Oh…and then also told that you only have a week to get it done? (And of course, this is in addition to whatever you already planned to accomplish this week.)

Even if you can’t influence “the powers that be” to allow more time for a proper analysis or to use a different approach, consider taking the actions below to produce a reasonably effective eLearning lesson relatively quickly.

Ask the client what learners must be able to DO after completing the training. Even if the situation doesn’t allow you to conduct a gap and cause analysis to validate the training need, asking this question helps ensure that the training has the potential to influence behavior.

Additionally, creating a quick list of what learners must be able to do can help you:
  • Write objectives
  • Create relevant scenarios
  • Chunk and organize the content around desired behaviors/tasks
  • Distinguish between critical and nice to know information

Write scenarios immediately. I’ve heard some people say that when deadlines are tight, there just isn’t time to write scenarios. I understand how writing scenarios can feel like an extra task, considering that scenarios are probably not included in the original pile of content. However, scenarios benefit learning in so many ways, it’s hard to justify spending time picking out Clip Art to decorate slides rather than writing even a few simple scenarios.

After all, consider these benefits:
  • Introducing a task with a scenario (i.e., a problem for learners to solve) offers an immediate reason for learners to pay attention to the content
  • Presenting scenarios “shows” learners the relevance of the content
  • Providing scenarios for learners to successfully solve helps learners confirm they understand the content, builds confidence, and creates a sense of satisfaction/accomplishment (i.e., scenarios help create “ah ha!” moments)
  • Describing a scenario can help learners recognize when to apply new knowledge on the job (i.e., they can potentially recognize “triggers” from a scenario when those same “triggers” occur on the job, prompting them to apply desired behaviors)

Even under the tightest of timelines, really simple scenarios likely offer some benefit compared to presenting information with no scenarios at all. If you attempt to draft scenarios immediately, you can send them to your client and allow a day or two for review, while you charge ahead with reorganizing and revising content.

Or, ask the client if a subject matter expert can write scenarios for you. If a lack of time or familiarity with the content makes you question your ability to draft decent scenarios, perhaps the client knows someone who can do that part for you. Depending on the complexity of the training, a subject matter expert might be able to draft a few scenarios relatively quickly and easily.

Cut the nice to know information whenever possible. Many of the client-produced PowerPoint decks I’ve seen include a lot of extra information that won’t necessarily help learners do a task. In some cases, it is because the deck was originally compiled for a different type of audience and/or purpose. Perhaps the extra information was relevant for that audience, and now it is my responsibility to determine whether it is relevant for my intended audience. In other cases, it may be because the client doesn’t know how to distinguish between critical versus nice to know information. After all, as instructional designers, this distinction tends to be on our minds more than it is for others.

The point I’m trying to make is this: Don’t assume that all the information in the deck you receive must also appear in training. Focus on what learners must do after training, and attempt to narrow content down to the information that directly instructs those behaviors.

How do you handle these requests?

If you have your own set of strategies for turning a stack of PowerPoint slides into an eLearning lesson, please share!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Discovering Adobe InDesign for eLearning

By Dean Hawkinson

If you have been developing eLearning for any period of time, you have probably used several of Adobe’s applications to create engaging and interactive courses. With Adobe Captivate, you can create some great system simulations. With Adobe Flash, you can create interactive elements that take your courses to the next level of engagement and even create entire courses. You can create and edit images for your eLearning using Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator. Recently, however, I stumbled across another great tool in the Adobe family – Adobe InDesign.

What Is InDesign?

Adobe InDesign is a tool for creating those things that partner with your eLearning courses, such as resource guides or job aids.You can make them interactive for web deployment and include elements such as Flash files, iPad or any other Apple product.

If you are simply creating a PDF document for printing, you would select Adobe PDF (Print) as your option. Your design of the document would be much simpler, so the end user could easily print it for future reference.

Other Export options for InDesign include the following:

  • EPS
  • Flash Professional (FLA)
  • Flash Player (SWF)
  • InDesign Markup (IDML)
  • XML

What InDesign Cannot Do

InDesign is not for creating eLearning or SCORM-compliant standalone courses. It will not interact with an LMS for scoring. However, it can easily be incorporated into an eLearning course using one of the several export options mentioned above.

Tips for Using InDesign

In the brief time I have been using Adobe InDesign, I have found it very useful for creating an online resource guide or job aid to partner with other eLearning elements. For example, in two recent projects, we created eLearning courses for deployment via the LMS. However, squeezing too much information into a web-based course can be overwhelming for the learner and impact retention of the information. So, we created resource guides with an interactive web-based feel to be available via an online tool to partner with the eLearning courses. These resource guides are accessible at any time and include more detail and information than the web-based courses.

I like to create a menu of links to each section within the document that appears on each page, so that the learner can click the links to jump to each section. When you use the Interactive PDF option, the learner can select “Full Screen” as an option, which provides the document with a complete web page look and feel. As with PowerPoint’s master slide functionality, you can easily create master pages and apply each one to different pages throughout the document. This makes it easy to include interactive menu items, copyright information that needs to be on each page, or other elements that would be the same throughout a series of pages.

One problem that I did run into with InDesign was using Flash (SWF) files imbedded into the document. For some PCs, the Flash elements worked fine. However, for others, strange things would happen, such as a black background showing up behind text or moving images in the Flash element, making it very hard to read or view. I could never determine a pattern or reason for this, so I ended up not using the Flash elements at all.

Consider the size of your document as well when deciding what elements to use. It might be a better end-user experience if you link out to videos and other items rather than imbedding them if they are large in size. You don’t want learners getting frustrated at long load times with your document.


Overall, I am very excited about learning more about this tool and using it in my eLearning “arsenal” of tools. Have you had any experience using InDesign or any tips you would like to share?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Practice Early and Coach the Details Later

By Shelley A. Gable

A typical training design is to start by telling learners everything we want them to know about a topic or a task, and then we eventually give them an opportunity to practice.

For a training project I recently started, a team member said something that resonated with me: Let’s make sure learners are practicing this stuff as early as possible. In other words, minimize the presentation and discussion at the start of a lesson, and unleash learners to practice performing new tasks and solving problems as quickly as possible.

That’s not to say we should push learners into practicing a task they’re completely unprepared for. After all, letting learners flounder too much can result in frustration, shaken confidence, and wasted time. Instead, the trick is to tell and/or show learners just enough to help them start trying a new task. Then, let them dive into a scenario, perhaps allowing them to experience some trial and error, and then offer additional information in the form of post-practice coaching.

What are the advantages of this approach?

Reduces cognitive overload early in the lesson.

Research on cognitive load tells us that people can only absorb a limited amount of information in a single sitting. So, if an eLearning lesson begins with several pages of new information, learners will likely forget a portion of that.

Why would we spend time presenting information that will likely be forgotten?

If we limit the amount of information a lesson initially presents, we increase the likelihood that learners will recall it. Prompting them to apply that new information as soon as possible further helps promote long-term recall. And, it helps ensure that we use training time productively.

To offer a very simple example, suppose an eLearning lesson teaches learners how to change an address in a customer database. You might start the lesson by simply showing them how to access the function, and then teach them about nuances later (e.g., which line to indicate an apartment number, proper abbreviations, forbidden characters, etc.).

Maintains attention.

We’ve all been there: Long lectures or pages of reading often leaves our minds to wander.

But if we’re in the midst of solving a challenge, we’re more likely to feel engaged. So, if we spend less time presenting information upfront, we might have fewer drifting minds. And, if training has a continuous pattern of short spurts of information followed by immediate application, learners might feel more accountable for paying attention to that information, knowing they will need to use it right away.

Increases reflection and processing.

Suppose you’ve only provided enough information at the start of a lesson to help learners ease into some initial practice. Chances are, there’s probably more they need to learn (e.g., consider the nuances of changing an address from earlier). By presenting this additional information after learners experience the task, you can now prompt them to think about it in the context of their experience.

For example, suppose the address change scenario that learners practiced right away included an apartment number…

If an initial presentation at the start of the lesson instructed learners to indicate an apartment number in Address Line 2 (for example), this fact may have just seemed like one tidbit in a sea of other facts at the start of the lesson. Therefore, learners may or may not recall it by the time they get to a practice scenario later.

If you wait to address it until after the scenario, you can now present it as a form of coaching and feedback. Learners will likely take interest in the information at that point, because they want to confirm whether they did it correctly during the practice scenario. So, you’ve increased their level of engagement with the fact and prompted them assess their performance. Even if they did it incorrectly during the initial scenario, they will likely feel a sense of accomplishment when they perform it correctly in a later scenario.

How do you do this?

Do you already make it a point to get learners “doing” as early as possible in training? If so, how do you accomplish it? And what benefits or challenges have you observed? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Keeping eLearning Readable – Visual Readability

By Joseph Suarez

Though at times challenging, a good instructional designer can transform a complex process into a simple message in the hopes that knowledge will be transferred and retained. However, many factors -- both preventable and unpreventable -- can interfere with that message and hinder learning retention. One such preventable barrier is poor visual readability.

What is readability?
Readability is all about how well text can be read and understood, and it can be thought of as having two equally important sides: contextual and visual. The contextual side focuses on how well text can be understood by the reader. A writer can influence this with choice of words, number of syllables, sentence length, etc. Several tests exist to determine contextual readability, and you can use free online tools to test your own writing.

On the other side, visual readability is determined by how well text can be seen and sent to the reader’s brain to be processed. While this is traditionally a graphic design role, everyone is probably familiar with at least some of the many small factors that come together to affect overall visual readability. Most of these factors fall into two categories: typography and spacing.

  • Font choice
  • Text size
  • Text color (contrasted with background)
  • Text weight (how bold text is)

  • Legibility (how far apart letters are)
  • Line & paragraph length
  • Line height (distance between lines of text)
  • Margins and white space
  • Distance of text to other elements (images, other text, etc)

Unfortunately, many eLearning development tools don’t have strong spacing options, and it’s usually up to the developer to work within the confines of the tool to ensure a reasonable amount of space is used. This may require some extra pixel pushing, but in the end is well worth it.

Below is an example of a block of text where no attempt to improve visual readability has been applied.

Contrast that with this other example with visual readability improved:

The overall effect is achieved by the factors previously listed, such as contrasting the text headers from the main body with size and font choices, and applying improved spacing through line height.

The end result is text with greater visual readability. This removes a barrier to learning retention as it gives the reader’s eyes and brain a break, so a learner can focus more on processing and storing the content itself. Plus, it’s more pleasing to the eye and inviting. All the more reason to keep eLearning readable.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Accomplish Spaced Learning with eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

Most of us know that cramming isn't a very effective learning strategy. At least not for long-term recall. Some of us figured it out on our own in school, and some of us were warned about the perils of cramming by our parents or teachers.

So why do we sometimes design our training to be like cram sessions?

Think full-day (even multi-day) workshops crammed with more product information, or sales skills, or whatever, than anyone could possibly absorb in that amount of time.

Hermann Ebbinghaus could've also warned us about cramming back in the late 1800s. Ebbinghaus was among the earliest researchers to contribute to our understanding of learning and memory. And although his work is over 100 years old, the findings related to cramming -- or rather, spaced learning -- are still relevant.

The concept of spaced learning is pretty intuitive, really. It suggests that we retain newly learned knowledge longer when taught repeatedly over a period of time. But simply repeating the exact same learning activity several times isn't the way to go. After all, even an attentive learner may accidentally zone out when listening to a lecture or reading a passage for a second (or third, or fourth) time. So, the trick is to ensure there are variations. In an educational setting, this can be an advantage of study groups. Even if the group gets together a few times to review the same material, the conversation is likely to differ somewhat during each meeting. This not only helps maintain learners' attention, but it can also help plant the knowledge more firmly into long-term memory and create more triggers to assist with recall later.

The flexibility eLearning offers makes it a practical way to accomplish spaced learning within a training design.

With instructor-led training, a single-day workshop may offer the most logistically convenient and seemingly cost-effective approach. With the flexibility of time and geography that eLearning offers, reinforcing content repeatedly over time becomes more feasible.

How might this work?

Imagine a course on troubleshooting equipment failures. An initial course (taught by an instructor or via eLearning) might introduce some problem-solving principles, perhaps teach learners how to use available job aids or other performance support tools, and then provide practice opportunities with basic and intermediate scenarios. The next week, you might prompt learners to complete an eLearning exercise of more basic and intermediate scenarios. The following week, learners complete another eLearning exercise of scenarios, this time moving toward more advanced problems. With multiple sessions building learners' skills over time, they may be more likely to have truly mastered the material in a way they can recall opposed to simply reflecting on a whirlwind workshop that seemed good at the time, but seems quite fuzzy later.

Have you tried this approach?

If you've used eLearning with a spaced learning design, how did it work out? In what ways was it effective? And what challenges did you encounter?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Using White Space for Clutter-Free eLearning

By Joseph Suarez

Imagine two scenarios. First, you are driving in a car down an open road with the windows down. Second, you are standing in a crowded bus stuck in traffic. Now imagine how the available space around you in each scenario would make you feel.

Chances are the car seems less stressful and more inviting (no offense to public transit). That almost claustrophobic feeling of being on the bus with little to no breathing room is exactly how our eyes perceive a document, presentation, website, or eLearning course without a healthy amount of white space.

What is White Space?
It is a visual design term for the negative space around and between visual elements (positive spaces).  On the web and in eLearning, these positive spaces typically show up as text, graphics, video placeholders, buttons, form fields, etc. White space, then, is the dark matter, the absence of any positive element.

The term white space seems to imply color, but negative space is not necessarily white. A great example of this is the homepage for Bing - Microsoft’s search engine. While the white space on Google’s homepage is actually white, each day a new high quality photo is used as a background element for Bing’s homepage. Both employ highly effective use of white space around the positive space of a logo and search box.

Two search giants using white space effectively. Click to enlarge.

Generally, when white space  is used effectively, it conveys a more professional and possibly sophisticated look and feel. Luxury brands, cosmetics, and of course Apple often use this to their advantage to convey simplicity and elegance.

Contrast this with a typical direct mail flyer stuffed into everyone’s mailbox where white space is actually considered a bad thing. Direct marketers may make more money cramming as many ads on a single piece of mail as possible, but the vast majority of the time the rest of us are better off using more white space, not less. This is especially true for eLearning courses and presentations.

Striking a Balance
Using white space effectively requires a strong balance between positive and negative spaces that matches the visual design, marketing message, and/or learning objectives. When that balance is struck, it has the following advantages:
  • Improves readability – the ability of text to be seen and scanned 
  • Can portray a more sophisticated or elegant look and feel
  • Looks more professional, and gives the impression it’s worth someone’s time
  • More effective at communicating a message and aiding learning retention using lots of white space effectively.
Presentations and eLearning courses with pages filled wall to wall with text are uninviting, unprofessional looking, and just plain boring.  That type of design (or lack thereof) is less effective than one where an emphasis has been placed on visual design.

Seeing the Negative Space
So much of developing training material such as eLearning courses and job aids involves the content. It takes a different mindset to see the empty spaces between the content and design accordingly. Here are a couple techniques you can use:
  • Highlight everything on screen (Ctrl+A). This should outline every positive element in most applications, and allow you to see exactly where the white space is. 
  • Think of every page element (or group of elements) as having a reverse magnetic field that repels other elements away. The more spacious the overall design, the stronger the repelling force becomes.
Once you begin to see the negative space, you can tweak the design to space elements more effectively, decide what is crucial, and possibly eliminate unnecessary elements.

So remember, just as you would rather be cruising down the road in a car with the wind blowing through your hair than be stuck standing on a bus in traffic, so too does the end user of your design yearn for balance between positive and negative design elements. Leave the clutter for junk mail.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Is Your eLearning Effective for Dummies?

By Shelley A. Gable

I recently started teaching myself how to play harmonica with the help of a book from the For Dummies series. And I'm impressed. These guys are good instructional designers.

That said, I realize that the point of these books is to instruct. But that's the point of a lot of books, and not all of them do it well. So kudos to them.

And that got me thinking...

What, exactly, are they doing right?


Am I doing those things right when I design an eLearning lesson?

As I started to sputter out a few tunes on my new harmonica, I made it a point to notice the instructional tactics that were most helpful for me. 

Modular chapters. Each chapter begins with a concise list of what you will learn about. And while the chapters build sequentially (foundations to application, simple to complex, etc.), they're written in a way that allows me to jump around between chapters. In my case I was eager to play, so I jumped past the foundational chapters and skipped ahead to the chapters that taught notes and simple songs. After feeling satisfied with some initial tinkering, I went back and read the earlier content on technique. Creating this type of flexibility can help initially gain attention and then maintain engagement of a variety of learners.

This flexibility can work well with scenario-based eLearning. Imagine opening a lesson with a scenario or case study. Learners who like to tinker can dive in immediately, perhaps clicking "hint" buttons or accessing job aids as needed. Having the option to work the scenario right away keeps them engaged and helps avoid the zoning out that can come with being forced to read introductory information first. Learners who prefer more guidance could opt to review a job aid or a demo first. Having this route available can benefit learners who become overwhelmed when pushed into something too quickly. Everyone wins.

Conversational tone. The book's friendly voice helps create a feeling of learning from a personable instructor. It's even entertaining at times. That conversational, natural language also helps make it a quick, easy-to-understand read. That means less re-reading to comprehend a sentence and more time spent learning. 

When you draft training materials, do they read more like a traditional textbook or a casual blog post? If you're thinking textbook, does it have to be that way? Why not make eLearning read more conversationally?

Consistent visual cues. A hallmark of the For Dummies books is their consistent use of icons. I found the "tip" and "warning" icons most helpful. As I mentioned before, I was eager to just start playing. While I didn't have the patience to thoroughly read full paragraphs at first, their icons helped draw my eye to the important stuff, which helped me get rolling more quickly. I eventually went back to read the paragraphs for the sake of going beyond the bare basics.

Of course, eLearning can take advantage of icons in the same way. Using them consistently (and somewhat sparingly) can help ensure that even skimming learners notice critical information. And if they need more help to perform a task or complete a scenario, even skimmers will likely delve deeper into the content as needed.

So how's my harmonica playing?

Well, after my first half hour with the book, I could play a mean When the Saints Come Marching In. And when I say "mean," I really mean something that's a bit off-rhythm and out of tune. Yet, surprisingly recognizable. Which I'm telling myself is a good start.

What have you noticed?

If you've paged through a For Dummies book (or a similar type of series), what instructional qualities benefitted you? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Saving Time with Lectora Text Styles

By Joseph Suarez

One helpful feature of Lectora that is often neglected is “Text Styles.” They provide an easy way to set the font, color, and size settings for selections of text or entire text blocks. Best of all, when a Text Style is updated, any affected text in a course is also updated. For example, if you are asked to change the page titles of an entire course from blue to green, you could do so with one quick change rather than manually fix every page.

If you constantly find yourself tweaking text settings, try taking advantage of Text Styles. You may notice some similarities to CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) or the Text Styles used in Microsoft Word. However, it’s not necessary to know either. Just keep in mind that once a selection of text is associated with a Text Style, it will automatically update if the style changes. 

Changing Existing Text
To set or change a style for existing text, first make sure the entire text block or a portion of the text inside is selected. Then from the text tool bar, click the Text Style drop-down list (down arrow to the right of the “T” inside a blue square – see image below). This pulls up a list of existing styles. From here you can select one of those, or create/change a style by clicking the “Edit Styles…” option.

Setting a Default Text Style
Text blocks always start with a Text Style. It just might not be the one you want. To change the default Text Style so that each new text block follows different font, size, and color settings, go to the course’s Title Properties under the Background tab.

In the example above, the style “Body Text” is used as the Default Text Style throughout the entire title. Any new text block will automatically use that style’s font, size, and color settings. Clicking the “Styles…” button pulls up the same Text Styles window as the “Edit Styles…” option where styles can be created or changed. If the Body Text style changes, so will all the default text in the entire course.

Import and Export Text Styles
Styles you create and change are not tied to a specific course. Instead, styles are tied to a PC’s user preferences. Other Lectora developers will only see their own styles. Although, whatever is set as the “Default Text Style” in a course’s Title Properties will be preserved regardless of whether a developer has that specific style or not.

To share Text Styles between developers, Lectora provides the option to import and export Text Styles. This is much easier than trying to make sure everyone is set up with the same exact styles. If you begin to rely heavily on Text Styles and will be working on a course with other developers, saving exported styles to where everyone has access is ideal.

So if you haven’t already, give Lectora Text Styles a try in your next course.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Teach Learners to Use Job Aids

By Shelley A. Gable

Many eLearning courses walk learners through a detailed process flow within the course, and then the eLearning courses tell learners that a job aid with the same information is also available for reference later.

Instead, consider directing learners to the job aid first. Teach them how to use it, prompt them to refer to it to help them solve a scenario, and provide any supporting clarification and tips as needed within the scenario's context.

What are the advantages of this approach?

It mirrors the job. The research that  Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson synthesized into the five moments of learning need reminds us of how useful performance support (like a job aid) is at the moment that someone needs to apply knowledge. Using these same job aids to help introduce new knowledge helps reinforce the availability of job aids and how to use them.

It's consistent with how we learn. The January/February issue of Scientific American Mind described the Google effect of how people learn. In short, research suggests that the internet has changed the way our brains store information - instead of remembering the information itself, we've become programmed to remember how to access information for future reference.

It avoids duplicating content. If all the details of a process flow (or something similar) are already written out in a job aid, why repeat all of that content in an eLearning lesson? After all, if something changes, duplicate content means more material to update.

It potentially shortens training time. Suppose an organization has a performance support site, knowledge management system, or intranet in which several job aids follow a similar structure. If training successfully teaches learners how to follow the job aids for critical tasks, they should be able to follow the same types of job aids to help them complete other tasks. As a result, you may be able to reduce the number of job tasks you need to include in an eLearning course.

If you have a client who isn't convinced of this final advantage, put it to the test. Pilot an initial version of an eLearning course that focuses on referring to job aids to complete a few critical tasks. Then, assess learners' ability to complete other tasks that weren't included in training but have corresponding job aids.

What's your approach?

Do you introduce job tasks in eLearning courses with the help of job aids? What advantages have you observed? Any drawbacks?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Designing eLearning for Schema Theory

By Shelley A. Gable

Have you ever seen a news story about someone with a phenomenal memory? Maybe someone who could miraculously remember sequences of numbers or objects?

Have you ever been invited to attend a workshop that promises to help you improve your memory? Perhaps it promised to help you remember people’s names, among other day-to-day things?

If you’ve attended this type of workshop, or if you’ve seen an interview with someone who has a remarkable knack for recalling seemingly random items, you may already know the method. In short, the trick is to associate items with familiar visual cues. I attended a free mini-workshop like this a few years ago. The facilitator had us envision a castle; he prompted us to visualize each item we needed to remember in a different room of that castle. It worked impressively well – many of us who attended still remembered the full sequence months later.

This is schema theory.

Part of the foundation of learning psychology, schema theory suggests that memory consists of interrelated networks of knowledge, or mental models. Our experiences constantly build and revise these mental models, which we use to solve problems and understand the world around us.

The more firmly we can integrate newly learned knowledge with our existing mental models, the more likely we are to be able to recall that knowledge later.

That’s why recall is so important.

Regardless of which instructional design model is your favorite – Gagne’s nine events of instruction, Merrill’s first principles, or something else – stimulating recall is likely an important component of it. Many interpret this recall step as a review from a previous lesson, reading, or training session. While it certainly can be a review of recent learning, it doesn’t have to be.

The key is to help learners conjure up an existing mental model, so that it’s easily accessible for integrating the new knowledge they’re about to learn. So, it can also be effective to prompt learners to relate information to other personal experiences; the idea is to prime the schema for new content.

Schema theory also supports the effectiveness of stories and scenarios in learning. A compelling story can help create, or dramatically build, a schema itself. When learners practice skills with problem-based scenarios, those scenarios are likely to include realistic triggers from a story, a learner’s mental models, and the work environment.

Want more?

Has schema theory helped inform the way you design eLearning? If so, please share your two cents. If you’d like to learn a little more about it, check out the resources below.

Emmott, C., & Alexander, M. (2009). Schema theory. In S. Shapiro (Ed.), Review of Educational Research (Vol. 75, pp. 531-566).

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Norman, D. A. (1983). Some observations on mental models. In D. Gentner & A. L. Stevens (Eds.), Mental models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

3 Things I'm Looking Forward To In Lectora Version 11

By Jay Lambert

Trivantis gave a sneak preview of their upcoming Lectora Version 11 release at this week's user conference in Chicago. Many of us have been nervous that Version 11 brings a complete interface redesign (yes, I still fondly remember the old "traffic lights" from before the previous redesign). But the switch to a ribbon format seems sleek and even user-friendly at this point.

Version 11 brings more Social Media integration which will excite many. But truthfully, I'm not sure how that will be received by corporate America.  Twitter and RSS feeds and the like are cool, but probably still off limits in eLearning courses for the scores of companies that still lock out Dropbox. So that seems a little more sparkle than substance at the moment. But I can see the coolness factor.

So what really excites me about the redesign is more on the practical side. Trivantis has finally simplified a few things that have long frustrated us Lectora developers.

For example, here are 3 things that, though smaller changes, will make our lives easier.

Version 11 will allow developers to change the properties of multiple selected objects. No more having to painstakingly adjust properties one-by-one of like objects on a page when a color needs to be changed or a margin increased, etc.

The new Lectora will give us a visual cue when conditions exist for an Action. Currently, you have to open the Conditions tab to see if anything is there. The visual cue is going to make troubleshooting a lot simpler. And it will help avoid gotchas that can happen when copy/pasting existing Actions or inserting them as Library Objects.

And Version 11 will simplify inserting tables. This one has been long requested as the only way to insert a table was by a sub-menu that only appeared when right-clicking within an existing text box while standing on one leg, or so it seemed. Anyway, an easy way to insert a table is great news.

So while these are probably smaller additions than Trivantis will be promoting with the Lectora redesign, they're very welcome changes to me.

I'm sure there will be other pleasant news as we learn more about Lectora Version 11 (such as hopefully further movement into HTML5). But from the preview, these were 3 that stood out. As I hear more, I'll try to post my favorites.

What are you hoping Lectora will make easier?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What are you reading for eLearning insight?

By Shelley A. Gable

It seems that many of us in the training industry are avid readers, particularly when it comes to reading for professional development. And while I’m sure I’m not the only one with an ever-growing reading wish list, I’m also continuously on the lookout for recommendations to add to that wish list.

If you’re in search of recommended reading for eLearning insight, consider some of these sources of inspiration

Books about training, consulting, and trendy business topics. 

Take a moment to browse the online bookstores of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) or the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), and you’ll likely find a year’s worth of reading ideas. Bookstores from other relevant professional associations likely have some good reads, too, such as the Society for Human Resource Management or the American Evaluation Association.

Another good source of ideas is to find out which books university programs in the field recommend. Although the idea of buying a bunch of textbooks might not be appealing to some, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that not all of the required reading materials take the form of a traditional textbook. For instance, when I was in the Instructional and Performance Technology master’s program at Boise State University, the books required for my classes included The Performance Consultant’s Fieldbook by Judith Hale (included a CD with several consulting templates), Systems Thinking Basics by Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson (an easy-to-read workbook), and Analyzing Performance Problems by Robert Mager and Peter Pipe. These, and several of the books I read for my coursework, were very informative yet did not have that traditional textbook feel.

What are your clients reading? Although these reads might not relate to training specifically, they can offer a unique source of inspiration for your work or simply help you better relate to your clients. Even if you tend to take a skeptical view of the fads promoted by the latest bestsellers in business, being familiar with them may still spark ideas or at least give you a sense of what informed some of your clients’ ideas.

What are the leaders of your organization reading? If you have your sights set on upward mobility, reading some of the books your leaders read may help you better relate to them, too…even give you some casual conversation material. You know that cliché about dressing for success? Perhaps there’s also something to reading for the job you want.

Journals and magazines about workplace learning, performance improvement, and related fields. 

Journals are worthwhile reads because they’re timely, and they tend to be firsthand sources of the evidence for our evidence-based practices. Many journals are peer-reviewed, meaning that a submitted article is reviewed by others in the field who evaluate the submission for its quality, rigor, and relevance to the field. Examples of journals that are especially relevant for those of us in training include Performance Improvement Quarterly, Journal of Workplace Learning, and Human Resource Development Quarterly.

For those who prefer more casual reads, there are plenty of other publications that publish research in a more conversational tone or that simply summarize findings and ideas from other sources. ASTD’s Training + Development magazine and ISPI’s Performance Improvement Journal are both examples worth taking a peek at.

You might also consider magazines from closely related fields. Personally, I’m a bit of a neuroscience nerd, so I enjoy – and often gain inspiration from – Scientific American Mind. Those who are heavily involved in eLearning development might enjoy magazines for programmers or graphic designers. And those of us who write training content may pick up some helpful nuggets from literary and other writing-related magazines.

What are your favorite bloggers reading? 

If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you followed a link from Twitter or an RSS reader. Which means you’re probably following other eLearning blogs, too. Follow your favorite bloggers on Twitter (I know, many of you probably do this already), since folks often tweet about what they’re reading. Note references to books or articles within the blog posts themselves. Some online articles include a References or Related Readings section at the end – I’ve noticed this consistently with eLearning Guild content and ISPI’s PerformanceXpress.

Looking for other good eLearning blogs to follow? Check out, a site that aggregates top eLearning blogs from around the world (and which we're proud to be included in!).

What are you reading? 

Although I’ve recommended some of my favorite reads here, I realize there are probably many good ones I’ve either neglected to mention or that are simply not on my radar at all. So what do you read? And where do you find inspiration for your reading wish list?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

3 Defining Features of Articulate Storyline

By Joseph Suarez

Articulate Storyline has been surrounded by a lot of hype for quite some time, and its launch has been no exception. However, behind it all is a solid product with simple yet powerful features and abilities.

Recently out of beta and released to the public, Storyline is the latest software product from a vendor that’s proven it understands what eLearning professionals want and learners are engaged by (no pun intended). Storyline continues on the success of the Articulate Studio product line with a new, yet familiar feeling authoring tool.

While no longer a PowerPoint plugin like Articulate Presenter, Storyline maintained an interface very similar to PowerPoint. So anyone familiar with PowerPoint 2007 or higher will immediately feel at home with the basic Storyline capabilities.

Many of Storyline’s features have been long awaited. Here are three that, in my opinion as a former beta tester, separate it from its predecessor Articulate Presenter and other authoring tools.

Publishing Options
Without rehashing any of the Flash vs. HTML5 debate, the fact is the web is in a state of flux. It’s an exciting, yet often difficult, time to develop materials for web delivery, especially eLearning. Flash has its limitations, but currently so does support for HTML5. Then there’s the whole issue of native mobile apps. Choosing which technology to develop for is a tough decision.

No single program is going to solve that dilemma, but at least with Storyline, we finally have a tool that gives us the option to publish as Flash, HTML5, or iPad app. It will be interesting to see just how well these newer publishing options fare over time.

Triggers & Variables
Articulate Presenter was always a great product, but it lacked one key feature: variables that can be acted upon by actions. Storyline solves that problem quite well with the addition of variables and programmable actions known as triggers.

With triggers, you can build simple or complex interactivity. For example, you can use a single trigger to jump to the next slide, or use a series of triggers and variables to create a drag and drop activity. With only a very basic understanding of programming, the sky is the limit.

Best of all, all triggers are listed in order (and in plain English) in a trigger pane. If you need to change a trigger, such as jumping to the next slide instead of the previous, you can do so right from the trigger pane.

Character Packs
Storyline has built in sets of characters, both illustrated and photographic, that can act as avatars or characters in a story. While not the first authoring tool to add such a feature, Storyline makes manipulating character expressions and poses very simple.

The real fun starts when you combine Storyline’s triggers and object state feature. You can easily change character expressions, poses, etc. based on the learner’s actions. For example, an avatar can smile when the learner selects a right answer, or show concern when a wrong answer is chosen. It’s really amazing how quickly interactions like that can be created.

Those are just some of the features of Storyline. A full list of features is detailed on Articulate’s website.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Project Management for eLearning Professionals

By Dean Hawkinson

An instructional designer serves many functions in a training initiative, one of which is often project manager. However, we sometimes lose sight of this critical role. In a lot of cases, we are managing a team of people to create an end product, and we rely on several project team members to accomplish actions that enable us to create the instructional materials. In this post, I address some of the critical things we need to be aware of in project management and a few tools to use along the way.

First and foremost, we need to identify who a project’s key stakeholders are, including subject matter experts (SMEs), and gather this team of people together to create a project plan. Let’s look at some of the critical elements of a project plan and then discuss some ways to create one.

Identify Deliverables and Owners

One of the first steps in project management is to identify all of the deliverables that the project requires. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Identify WHAT you will produce. Are you simply creating a web-based course, or are you partnering it with a job aid or online reference tool? If the course is instructor-led, will you produce a participant guide, instructor guide and PowerPoint presentations? The most important thing is to be clear about what you are producing and include everything so that your client and team are all in agreement.
  • Identify project milestones. What are the dates of SME review and deadlines for producing the material? Make sure you allow yourself enough time for thorough review by SMEs and stakeholders.
  • Identify WHO will complete each task/milestone. Assign each task to someone on the project team and document it. It is your responsibility to regularly follow up with all team members and make sure that they report back on their progress regularly.
  • Communicate! Set up regular meetings with your team. The frequency depends on the project and availability of your team, but I like to have weekly meetings throughout the life of the project.

Tools for a Project Plan

A common software used for project management is Microsoft Project. It includes a Gantt chart to visually represent milestones and completion of tasks. There are several other benefits to using Microsoft Project, including the ability to list out your project milestones in tasks and sub-tasks while easily assigning resources, due dates and other relevant information. It is a great way to organize all of the tasks and sub-tasks associated with a project. You can also change font colors to help you keep track of how tasks are organized. However, the Microsoft Project is expensive and is usually outside of the standard software package for many companies. You also can run into problems if you are trying to share your Project file with team members, as they will not be able to view it if they do not have Project on their own computers.

I like to use Microsoft Excel for project plans. While it does not include a Gantt chart, it is easy to use and maintain, and most people have Excel available. You can use colored text and other formatting and formula tools to draw out certain milestones or information. The conditional formatting feature can be especially helpful for highlighting tasks according to their status or drawing attention to one that becomes past due. You can also create formulas to help you calculate due dates that take into account the type of task and your resources’ availability. I like to start simply by listing all of the deliverables and then listing resources and due dates for each one.

There are also many online project management tools that you can use – just put “online project management software” in your Google search, and you will see many options. Some are freeware while others will have fees associated with them.

Whatever tool you choose to use, it should be easily viewed by your team members and easy to maintain. We have all experienced “scope creep” in our projects, and things can change rapidly. Using a tool such as Project or Excel to build a maintainable project plan will help you stay ahead of these changes.

What tools do you use for project management? Feel free to share your experiences.