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, December 5, 2012

Learning Lessons from Black Ops 2

by Jonathan Shoaf

As a boy growing up in a neighborhood full of kids, I understood the importance of a challenge. A challenge is where you put all your skills to use to beat an opponent. The challenge pushes you beyond your current skill level. It is something to prepare for and something to learn from. In my days the challenges involved things like throwing rocks, wrestling, and bicycle racing. Today, multiplayer video games are a more likely place to find millions engaged in a challenge against their fellow man.

“to boost my performance and become more valuable to my team”
Recently while playing one of these multiplayer video games it occurred to me that I learn the game for the same reasons I learn at work--to boost my performance and become more valuable to my team. I started to think about how I learn in the game. I quickly realized that there are many similarities between learning to excel at a multiplayer video game and learning to excel on the job. There are lessons here.

For a point of comparison, I've chosen the game Black Ops 2. This is a first person military battle game that is the latest iteration of the acclaimed Call of Duty franchise. The Call of Duty games have been the top selling video games for the past few years. For those unfamiliar with the multiplayer game, it's basically a game where you try get a higher score than the opposing team. You do this by gaining points every time you defeat an enemy player. Player ability and teamwork both come in play in order to win the game.

Here are some of the lessons that can be taken from Black Ops 2.

People don't have time for learning

In Black Ops 2 you are given a weapon and a countdown and suddenly you are in the midst of a fight. Stop to figure things out and you'll quickly be defeated. When the match is over, you have about one minute to lick your wounds and consider how you would do it differently next time. But the next match brings a different challenge and a different competitor. You don't have time to practice what you just learned.

The same is true on the job. Most people get thrown into a job and are asked to start performing. Even if an employee goes through some amount of formal training, they are still not completely prepared when they get started. An instructional designer may prescribe job aids or electronic performance support systems to those with limited time for formal learning.

Leverage mistakes as teachable moments

With so little time, how do you learn in Black Ops 2? The answer is real world teachable moments. The Call of Duty franchise has provided a simple moment of learning that every player is exposed to. It's called the Kill Cam. Each time you are defeated you get to see a replay of how the enemy defeated you. You learn their technique and can use it against other opponents. Skip the Kill Cam and you miss a potentially valuable lesson.

Well, most of us don't have the equivalent of a Kill Cam on the job. The closest learning tool to that may be to use coaching. A supervisor can bring in an employee after making a mistake and coach them on what do differently next time. Learning from our mistakes is what all of us animal-types do. Do you have a plan to leverage mistakes as teachable moments?

Talking to people makes a difference

On most gaming systems Black Ops 2 players have the ability to communicate with each other through voice chat. You can learn a lot from more experienced players. For example, you can share strategy for a particular situation against an enemy. Players can teach each other the best places to defend and score points against an enemy. You can also ask questions to other players who are often very forthcoming with their knowledge. Why won't my Dragon Fly deploy? The other player may know the answer.

Talking to people makes a difference on the job too. Just like in a game, some people are afraid to speak up and ask questions. As learning professionals, we should help setup environments for sharing. Examples of this may include apprentice/master relationships or social media and other knowledge sharing opportunities. Coach supervisors to set expectations that their employees should communicate and learn from each other.

There are some things that only experience can teach

You can understand all the weapons, all the support packages, and the rules of the game; but, when you step on the battlefield its not always apparent what to do next. Playing Black Ops 2 means you have to learn to adjust to unpredictable playing styles and situations that only experience will teach you how to handle. It's one thing to walk through a jungle with teammates with no signs of opponents. It's a completely different experience to walk through when you've heard a sniper up in the trees and you see another opponent coming down the path in front of you and you realize no teammates are there to support you. Another thing experience will teach you is to not stay in the same spot too long. Remember that Kill Cam? Opponents learn too.

Learning from experience is true on the job as well. An employee may know all the facts, but until they've handled a variety of situations over time, they'll still be lagging in performance to more experienced employees. Having newer employees partner with more experienced employees is one way to share some of the experience. However, there's not an easy substitute for true individual experience.

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, November 7, 2012

3 Ways to Use Adobe Connect

by Jonathan Shoaf

Adobe Connect is one of the leading virtual classroom products on the market. It has this reputation because it is user friendly, feature rich, reliable, and provides an identical experience for all users on all systems that support Adobe Flash. Adobe Connect competes in both the web conferencing and education markets.

There are several reasons it competes well when it comes to corporate learning. First, it is easy for learners to participate. All they need is a web-browser that supports Flash. There is no requirement to get IT involved. It also supports collaborative sharing and breakout rooms. It's video streaming and sharing capabilities are a step above the competition allowing presenters to push out video and pause video in the same spot for all partipants. And finally, it has robust polling and audience engagement features.

For all these reasons, Adobe connect can be used to do a variety of sharing and learning tasks online.

Lectures and Webinars

When there is a large number of participants and audience interaction is not a priority, Adobe Connect works well for these lectures and webinars. First, Adobe Connect allows presenters to share PowerPoint presentations. Event hosts can upload these ahead of time and Adobe Connect will convert them to a Flash format.

During a presentation, presenters may want to poll participants to guide the topics covered in the lecture. Adobe Connect has robust polling capabilities. Presenters can create polls ahead of time or on the fly. Presenters also have control over whether or not results are broadcast to the participants.

There are two roles Adobe Connect provides for teaming up on lectures and webinars. Hosts have the ability to create meetings and setup the structure for the participants to see. Presenters, on the other hand, do not need to be experienced with Adobe Connect. They can be invited by a host and simply control slides while the host handles all the other necessary tasks for a meeting.

It is important to also mention Adobe Connect's mobile capabilities here. Learners can participate in webinars from their Android or iPhone device. As a participant they will be able to see slides, hear audio, and participate in chat.

Colloborative Learning

Adobe Connect should not be thought of as a tool only for a large number of participants. In fact, some of the best features work for smaller groups. For example, nearly everything presented in Adobe Connect is a whiteboard. Attendees can use markup tools to annotate slide shows, images, and even streaming video.

Break out rooms are intelligently designed in Adobe Connect. Participants can be grouped into smaller rooms where they each become presenters and can share with each other. Group work done in these break out rooms can be shared with the rest of the class when the breakout sessions have ended.

Because it is Flash based, any Flash file can be imported and used in a meeting. These could be simulations, games, or self-paced e-learning modules. This allows the use of more interactive content to engage participants.

Personal Meeting Rooms

When is a virtual classroom not a classroom? When it's your own personal virtual office. When you create a room in Adobe Connect, it is persistent. It stays there until you tell it to go away. This means you can have a virtual office that is always available for meetings. You can have your meeting room's URL on your business card.

Adobe Connect's desktop sharing can be used to share information with others in these rooms. You can even take control of a participant's desktop (with their permission, of course).

Other benefits to having a meeting room include using a web cam so that attendees can see each other, sharing downloadable files with attendees, and using Adobe Connect's VoIP capabilities to allow meetings without the added cost of telephone conferencing.

These are just a few of the ways you can use Adobe Connect. It is a well thought out product that provides many options for interacting with and engaging remote participants. How do you use Adobe Connect?

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?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

E-learning Developer vs. Web Developer

by Jonathan Shoaf

You know when to hire a plumber. You know when to hire an electrician. But do you know when to hire an e-learning developer? How do you know if you need a web developer?

Let's take a look at those roles. First, let's look at an e-learning developer.  An e-learning developer will have the following abilities:
  • Knowledge of how to use an e-learning development tools such as Adobe Captivate, Lectora, or Articulate. Many developers specialize in one particular tool. However, it is not uncommon to for an e-learning developer to be skilled in several tools at the same time.
  • Multimedia.  An e-learning developer will be able to use a variety of sounds, graphics, and video formats in an e-learning project.
  • Basic knowledge of e-learning deployment options. This includes developing for web, LMS, and even DVD distribution. An e-learning developer should have a basic knowledge of the versions of SCORM and know which version is appropriate for a project.
  • Knows the importance of instructional design on a project and respects the pedagogical choices made in a project.
Let's get real. You can't expect everyone who calls themselves an e-learning developer to have these skills. However, those are the skills you should look for when hiring an e-learning developer.

That's a pretty comprehensive list. So you may be asking why would I pay extra for a web developer? To answer that, let's look at some of the abilities you will gain in a web developer:
  • Knowledge of the underlying technologies of e-learning development tools. E-learning development tools are usually based on HTML or Flash technologies. A web developer has a deeper understanding of these technologies and can extend the abilities of these tools with that knowledge.
  • Integration. A web developer will know how to integrate an e-learning project with a variety of web-based tools. Got a PHP or ASP based server that need to talk to your e-learning? A web developer is the answer.
  • Multimedia. A web developer's knowledge of multimedia will often surpass that of an e-learning developer. A web developer will understand bandwidth and browser limitations related to multimedia and develop accordingly.
  • Ability to fix issues with an LMS. A web developer may have no prior experience with SCORM but they will be able to fix it or enhance it. SCORM is based on Javascript and web developers take pride in their ability to be a Javascript Ninjas.
I've found that web developer's generally have these basic skills. They often come from computer science backgrounds and schooling making them more predictable than e-learning developers. That said, you still need to filter candidates accordingly.

Do you think this will have an impact on your hiring decisions in the future?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Developer's Perspective of Adobe Captivate 6

by Jonathan Shoaf

Some people get excited about the new fall TV shows in September. Baseball fans get excited for the MLB playoffs in October. Developers, like me, get excited for new releases of software. All the new features and improved exciting!

Now that I've taken a look at the new release of Adobe Captivate I find myself only somewhat excited about making the upgrade from the previous version. Overall, Captivate 6 is still the same Captivate you know (and hopefully love). The user experience has not changed dramatically and most of the features are in the same old locations making it an easy upgrade to get up to speed on. Let's get into the meat of it.

PowerPoint Capabilities

Captivate 6 is continuing to improve its PowerPoint capabilities. The integration is better than ever supporting PowerPoint 2007 and 2010. Slides imported from captivate can be edited using an integrated PowerPoint editor making it easy for designers and developers that are more comfortable using PowerPoint.

Quizzing Improvements

I work with several instructional designers and one of their constant frustrations with Captivate in the past has been that you can't have a graded and non-graded quiz. Captivate 6 allows for non-graded quizzes as well as branching and partial scoring.

Introducing Themes

A welcome change for Captivate authors is the ability to apply themes. Adobe provides several themes out of the box. From my perspective as a developer, I like the fact that I can customize my own theme and share with my team of instructional designers.

Screen Capture Improvements

Captivate has always been my favorite tool for software simulations. It has nice screen capturing capabilities and lends itself to creating and modifying simulations. Adobe has improved on this by adding the ability to capture high definition full motion videos. Developers who have been frustrated in the past by missing animations during video capture will appreciate this new feature.

HTML 5 (eh, mobile) Improvements

Captivate 6 now has HTML 5 as an export option. Primarily this is added support for the iPad. I would have liked to see a more responsive design approach that adapts to the various screen sizes of mobile. Still, this is going in the right direction. Further, a single SCORM package can be exported that will adapt to Flash or HTML 5 depending on the learner's system. That's a nice touch.

And More

There are more improvements to Captivate 6 worth mentioning. Captivate 6 comes with character packs making it super easy to add characters to a slide. Also, Captivate 6 comes with a variety of interactions using the previously existing widget framework. These can provide for a more interactive knowledge transfer to learners.


Performance wise, Captivate 6 demands more computing power. I've got a three year old Windows 7 laptop and Captivate 6 runs very slowly. It doesn't look like Adobe put a lot of time into improving performance.

As an experienced developer, I would have liked to see improvements to the workflow surrounding interactivity. For example, the user interface surrounding advanced actions and variables looks virtually unchanged. I've often wished for improvements that would allow me to develop advanced conditional actions more quickly. Also, there appear to be no new action triggers which have led to the popularity of products such as Articulate Storyline and ZebraZapps.

Finally, I would have liked to see the ability to put buttons on the master slide. Pasting a button on each slide is not the ideal workflow. Along those lines, there do not seem to be a lot of improvements to make the usability of Captivate 6 more intuitive. I think Adobe would be well-served by doing a usability study to inform changes to a future release.

To sum up, there's nothing uber-exciting from my perspective with the new release. It's a solid release but it feels like patch work more than a creative rethinking of the product. Have you made the upgrade to Captivate 6? What's your experience?

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.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Using Variable Flags to Provide Feedback in Adobe Captivate

by Jonathan Shoaf

Flags are common everyday objects. When a flag is raised into position, it has meaning. Flags are used as signals. The are used in races to signal caution, final laps, and victory. They are used in the Olympics to signal an athlete's country, when an athlete goes out of bounds, or commits a penalty. Flags have meaning.

When it comes to developing e-learning, flags can be very useful. Flags answer the question "was something done?" Did the learner complete this? Did the learner click here? Did the learner see the last page in section two?

Most e-learning tools, including Adobe Captivate, provide for the ability to use flags. Sometimes this is done automatically by built in variables that let the developer know things like "did the learner complete the quiz?" However, creating custom variables allows the developer to track nearly any thing in an e-learning module.

Creating a flag in Adobe Captivate is easy. First, go to Project > Variables... in the menu bar.

Next, create and name the flag by clicking Add New in the variables dialog. In the Name field, type the name of the flag. It is common convention to start off a flag variable with the prefix "f_". In this case the flag will track when the section is complete so it is named "f_section_complete". Set the Value to 0. This is important. A flag only has two states. The flag is either raised or it is not raised. The value is set to 0 to indicate it is not raised until the learner does something to make it raised. Later in the e-learning the flag will be set to 1, meaning that it has been raised. Click Save to store the variable and Close to exit the dialog.

Now that the flag is created, we need to pick a place to raise it. A flag can be raised on just about any event such as when an image is clicked on or a page is entered. In this example, the section complete flag should be raised when the last page of the section is entered by the learner. To do this, select the page. In the Properties panel go to the Action section. At the On Enter event, select Assign. Choose the variable flag "f_section_complete". Assign it with a value of 1, indicating that the flag is raised.

At this point, the flag has been created and set to raise when the last page of a section is entered. What do we do with this information? Well, that is up to you. This information can be used to do things like place a checkmark next to a completed section, give feedback to the learner, or calculate some type of score or reward. In this case, text will be shown when the flag is raised. This text might say something like "Congratulations on completing the section" or "You are now ready to review".

To do this, create an advanced action. Go to Projects > Advanced Actions... in the menu bar.

For Action Type select "Conditional Actions". For Action Name type in "check_flag_status". In the If section select the variable "f_section_status", "is equal to", and type in the literal value of 1. This is the equivalent of saying if this flag is raised, do the following actions. In this case the action Show is selected and the text to appear, Text_Caption_2, is chosen. Save and Close the Advanced Actions dialog.

To make this conditional action occur, you will perform the same procedure as when you raised the flag. Instead of choosing Assign, choose Execute Advanced Actions and choose "check_flag_status" as the Script.

A flag is a good tool to have in your development arsenal. Try experimenting with one or two flags in a project and then get more complex as you comfort level improves. The use of flags enhances the usability and feedback of an e-learning project.

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, July 11, 2012

Keep Learners Fit by Controlling Calorie Intake

by Jonathan Shoaf

The term calorie is most commonly associated with foods. It is used to measure the energy producing value of foods. Most of us know that unused calories turn into stored energy known as fat. Calories are also used to fuel the human body to do new and exciting things. We need calories to function!

Today I'm talking about knowledge calories. These are the calories associated with learning. The are used to measure the ability of knowledge to increase performance on the job. Just like food calories, they can be stored for future use or fuel a learner to do new and exciting things. Also like food calories, if a learner gets too many, it can be counter productive. Too few and the learner has trouble performing. Learners need these calories to perform!

Think of training according to the type of knowledge calories the learner needs: high calorie or low calorie. And then of course, there is the dreaded empty calories!

High Calorie

A high number of knowledge calories are needed when a lot of specific knowledge is needed to perform correctly on the job. Learners who specialize in a particular task need high calorie training.  These are learners who require a lot of specific training. For example, a call center operator or service technician fits this description. These learners often have specific procedures to follow and need to know how to use specialized equipment or systems.

High calorie learning will contain specific information which is vital to performance. These acquired skills will need to be practice and may require coaching. The learner simply won't be able to complete their job correctly unless they get this high calorie learning.

Low Calorie

Low knowledge calorie learning is better when lots of information is needed but little is required to do day to day tasks. Learners who are training on something outside their primary role need low calorie training. Managers, for example, may need high level overview training in low calorie doses instead of the high calorie training required for specialized workers. Another example of low calorie training is new employee training. New employees will often have job aids and other resources available if they need to get more in depth knowledge about a work protocol or job benefit.

Low calorie learning will contain an overview of information. Feedback to learners will be important but practice will be less important. Mastery is not expected to be 100%.

Empty Calorie

Empty knowledge calories occur when lots of information is given but little or none of it applies to the learner. This might be a situation where the learning module is mismatched with the target learners. Another example might be the situation where an elaborate video production is made with an interesting and entertaining scenario; but, there is little that the learner actually takes away.

Empty calories not only are useless to the learner, but they can actually harm the learner as they are distracted by trying to store the useless information for business needs that never materialize. Avoid empty knowledge calories!

When we provide learners with the right amount of knowledge calories they will be enabled to do new and exciting things. If learners get the wrong number of calories they will perform poorly or feel bloated with unused knowledge. Do you know of examples of learning that tries to provide high calories when all that is required is low calories? What about the opposite?

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?