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.