Monday, September 24, 2007

The difference between run-time reusability vs design-time (or assembly-time) reusability

As a test, ask a friend of yours for their favorite PowerPoint presentation. Now grab your favorite PowerPoint presentation. Now, open them both in PowerPoint (but not in the same file). Present one. Immediately when you finish the first, show the second. Now, do they look like 2 presentations that were pasted together, or do they look like one continuous course?

Instead, take the content from the two presentations, put them into a single PPT file, and make sure that they are consistent in:
1. Look and feel: backgrounds, fonts, navigation, structure
2. Style: Text style, location of test questions, parallel structure of notes
3. Navigation text: This doesn't really apply to PPT, but with web sites/web courses you need additional labels and texts ("next page", "previous page", "grade the test", etc.) These need to be consistent throughout a single course, or the student will be very distracted.

Once you make sure these are all consistent, you can serve the content, and it will look smoother.

The difference here is whether you do run-time reusability or you do With eLearning if all you do is modify the style sheets at assembly time, you are not really using the SCOs unchanged.

I am a proponent of design-time or assembly-time reusability, and as you can tell, I don't like run-time assembly. More than that, I am a proponent of being able to re-use components of a SCO such as graphics, multimedia, pages, page groupings, test pages, etc. Some of these are what SCORM 2004 calls "assets".

A good tool will let you copy/paste content modules from various sources so that you can create a unified course. For example, suppose you want to number the SCOs so that the user knows at all times where they are. If you number them before assembly, and then you change the assembly order, the numbering will be incorrect. If you use content from different authors, it is important to make sure all the "stock" texts, navigation images, tables-of-contents, etc. are consistent. This is nearly impossible if you limit yourself to run-time re-usability.

In the web course process, there is the publish step. This is comparable to the print step with documents. During the publication step, you assemble your course for delivery. The way SCORM is designed, the publish step is more like grabbing multiple documents that have already been printed, and staple them together in a new order just prior to delivery. As opposed to printed documents that are linear, web courses are multidimensional with a "web" of interconnections. SCORM forbids the interconnections between SCOs. However, this does not prevent the author from giving the student clues about the interconnections between SCOs. For example, with the ReadyGo tool, if you choose to make each chapter of your course a SCO, the tool still builds a table of contents for the entire course that shows the other chapters but doesn't let you jump to them through the course. Within the chapter, the student is allowed to navigate anywhere.

If you design your SCOs so that the primary objective is re-usability, then you'll find that you're making them smaller and smaller, and more generic. You can entirely avoid the navigation issues by making each SCO a single-page object. You can also make tests so that each test is a separate SCO. (With many LMSs you must do this if you want to find out if a student understood a specific data item because they only store the score for each SCO.) However, I feel that these steps are bad for the end-user. When going from SCO to SCO, the LMS must close the current session and open a new session. The best turn-around I've seen for this is in the 5-10 second range. Typical delays are around 20 seconds. Any delay between pages of content will cause the learner to drift off the subject (and often they go check their e-mail or instant messages). So, the more granular your courses are (for re-usability) the slower the delivery and the more disjointed it will be for the learner. Now, if there are any visual disparities between the SCOs, these further disrupt the learning process.

So, yes, you can re-use SCOs at run-time. You will probably win some awards for your ability to use the SCORM, and you'll feel proud of yourself for creative re-use of content. But what about the learner's experience. Shouldn't that be the highest priority? If you alienate enough employees (with learning experiences that they dread), what's the point of re-usability?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What really is re-usability in eLearning

Someone who used to work at ADL labs pointed out to me that re-usability
should really go beyond just SCORM courses. You should be able to take
the same content and serve it without tracking. Or you should be able
to print out the content for those users who learn better from paper.
Also, you may want to re-use the content for people with visual
disabilities. So, it shouldn't just be about re-assembling 20 SCOs 50
ways to create 50 courses.

How can this be accomplished? I see 2 approaches:
1. At the tool level. Use a tool that contains your content. SCORM
courses are one of many different outputs that the tool can produce. It
could also produce, printable versions, AICC courses, non-trackable
versions, etc. You can copy paste between different courses or from
other sources and re-arrange content prior to course assembly.
2. Using XML/XSLT - but here, you're post-processing the course files,
basically passing them through another program to produce different
output. (That could get really tricky with the tracking scripts.)

I see run-time re-usability primarily for different delivery platforms.
You should be able to specify a different style sheet (at run time) so
that an end-user on a PDA can get an optimal format for them, and a
person with visual disabilities should get a good layout for their
needs. This is possible if you specify a style-sheet at run-time,
something the SCORM discourages.

Furthermore, re-usability should be from the learner's point of view.
Will the learner come back to the course and re-use it as a resource
(like a textbook)? Or has the content been designed for a one-time
event, like a face-to-face presentation? A learner may remember that a
certain procedure or fact was described in a course they took, but
they'll only re-use it if they can get to it quickly. 3 screens worth
of gateways just to get to the start of the course, followed by some
enforced navigation sequence will deter the user from using the content
as a resource.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Instructional design resource

I just found a great eLearning blog: Cathy is an Instructional Designer who has spent a lot of time figuring out the fine points of moving training to the web and showcasing how to effectively communicate asynchronously.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Views on Face-to-Face (F2F) videos:

If your objective is to tape the face-to-face (F2F) presentations, and then deliver these as "eLearning", you will be quite disappointed in the results when it comes to learner retention. Although many people believe it to be "active" and "animated", video training is an extremely passive form of training, and results in very low knowledge retention. Further, people can read and ingest information about 3 times as quickly as is spoken. This means that unless the presenter is attractive, professional, and smooth, the viewers will quickly disengage. We have seen that videos that last more than about 2 minutes are abandoned quickly - this is even true for YouTube. Our customers have told us that they have also seen this behavior, and have found lower student satisfaction with video based courses than with simple text-and-picture based courses. We have also seen that because videos require plug-ins, many learners are unable to see them. An IT person usually has to be dispatched to install the plug-in software. By the time the learner then gets around to seeing the video, it can be 3 or 4 days later; by which time, they have lost interest in the courseware.

If you want to offer your employees self-paced training, consider creating more web-like content. This means that the content has tables of contents so that the student can establish their own navigation path that takes them to the material of interest. This becomes very "active" learning because the student is in control of the experience. If you provide them a self-propelled presentation or a linear slide show, you take control away from the learner. This usually results in the learner losing interest in the content.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Where does XML fit into eLearning?

XML can be used as a display language when combined with style sheets.
You can then embed scripts to provide some level of dynamic/interactive
content. This would be like saying PostScript can be used to define how
a page is rendered. You can embed pictures so that they appear on the page.

XML is really designed as a data storage format. As such, people
typically put all the data into one file. This is similar to having a
Word document that has all the content in one document. However, when
viewing pages on the web, you should really have a "web" of documents.
If you save a Word document in web format, you get one long document.
You can have internal links that take you from one place in the document
to another, but you are still looking at one long page. Web sites
consist of collections of files, with each page of content consisting of
a separate (or several) files. These files could be built using XML, or
you could save some time by building them in HTML, which is
fundamentally a display language rather than a data storage format.
Please convey this in your white-paper so that people will get away from
saying that "XML" is the solution. XML is a tool. Good content
organization, layout, and functionality, also known as "instructional
design", is the solution.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What is broken in eLearning implementation?

I see that eLearning and CBT are earning a bad reputation, not because the approach is fundamentally flawed, but because the implementations have catered to the lowest common denominator. This breaks down into two major parts, both of which are fundamentally driven by the customer desire for quick fixes.

1. LMS side: Customers want an LMS that shows the training department has enterprise-level clout. Beyond that, the customers are only now starting to think about what the user experience (operational concept) will be and what, if any, detailed reporting and tracking is needed. 95% of the LMSs I have seen only provide a report of who has completed the course. There is no consideration of tracking how many times an individual answered a particular question. This kind of tracking is very important to discover if there is a problem with the question or content or to see if students are just guessing at answers to get the "completion certificate". Many LMSs have been happy to provide this minimal set of back-end capabilities while focusing on the pretty front-end "virtual campus" interface (and on a strong sales department). This results in systems costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars that provide empire building but little else.

2. Course Authoring: If your course consists of converted PowerPoint slides with a single final test at the end, chances are your students will skip over the slides, take the test, and be done with it, without actually learning anything or proving that they know the content. Generally, presentation slides require a live instructor to complete the content and ensure that the students spend the time on the material. If you take away the instructor, presentation slides provide maybe 20% of the training. Visual animations such as flying bullets only add distraction; but that is what many course authors are including because, "gee, look how cool this is!"

In order to use CBT/eLearning effectively, the course owner must follow the entire sequence that the students experience. This means designing the course to match the delivery environment, providing multiple expositions of the same material, asking test questions on the same material multiple times in the session (and requiring completion of the multiple tests), and most importantly, reviewing the results of the training by seeing how each question was answered. Otherwise, it is like a high school that hands out the textbooks at the beginning of the year, and just looks at the scores from a self-administered test after the student has "graduated". "Quick and easy" solutions will lead, in the long term to a backlash against eLearning. Throwing new technologies (podcasts, wikis, game shows, and blogs) will not solve the problem if the content and approach are not sound, well thought out, and properly monitored.