Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A bad way to go about creating distance-based training

Recently I have received quite a few calls from customers interested in
using video to do their web-based training. Typically, their concept is
to provide PowerPoint bullet slides alongside their video with
narration. They'd like a tool that can do this, synchronize everything,
and then give a test at the end of the session.

Here are a few thoughts about why the above scenario is a bad way
to go about distance-based training:
1. Length of Video: If you go to YouTube, currently the most successful
on-line video site, you'll find that most of the popular videos are
shorter than 2 minutes. Occasionally, you'll find some that are close
to 5 minutes, but these are the exception. This is a strong lesson for
training. People's attention span to watching content on their
computers is 2-5 minutes. After 2 minutes, many people will drift away,
check their e-mail, work on the latest task their boss gave them, etc.
If you plan to give a 30 minute video, break it up into segments that
are no longer than 2-3 minutes.
2. Narration: Only 10% of the information we learn is via audio
(statistic from some PBS documentary)

. But yet, many people are using
PowerPoint presentations (which are clearly incomplete as a self-paced
training material) augmented by narration.
They are leaning heavily on the audio to "complete" the skeleton/bullet
points provided by PowerPoint. Think about it...your slides that only
contain 20% of the information necessary for giving the complete
material are being "completed" by a mechanism that only gives 10%
retention. Further, our customers have observed that when courses have
audio, the learners drift away from the visuals (and start checking
e-mail etc.) since the content is being spoon-fed to them. Sometimes
having both audio and visuals is sensory overload, so the reader
naturally blocks out one of them (usually the textual/visual content.)
Further, in many settings, having audio turned on will distract
co-workers, and using headphones is not allowed (e.g. nurses in an open
3. Delivery: Videos can be very fickle about whether they will play or
not. The student must have the correct version of the plug-in with the
right codecs (codes to display the video) installed on their computer.
If they don't, they won't see the video. We have seen the best results
occur if you convert your video (.mpg) files to Macromedia/Adobe Flash
files (.swf). Most people have Flash installed on their computers, and
fewer IT departments will block them.
4. Synchronization: When delivering separate pieces of content from the
web, synchronization is very difficult. Each multimedia element will
download and arrive at a different time. If you need very tight
synchronization, you need to embed all the synchronized content into a
single file/stream. Unfortunately, this means a longer download time.
Users get very impatient and will abandon content if it does not
download within 20 seconds and start playing. If it is in one
stream/file, you have just taken navigation control away from the
reader. Good web sites provide multiple avenues to explore the
material. A single "movie" narrows this to just one outlet.
5. Give your reader control: Successful web sites like Google provide
the information to the reader so that they can select what to see next
when they are ready. Recorded presentations provide the information
sequenced as the narrator would like it, and delivered at the narrator's
rate. We have seen learners fast forward over the content and just get
to the mandatory test at the end. In cases where they couldn't
fast-forward, they just walked away from their computers until the video
was over, and then they took the test. That is, in neither case, did
they watch the video, that was so expensively created.
5. You're not George Lucas: Video requires a good story, professional
actors, and professional production; otherwise it looks like a home-made
slide show. I have been at some companies that could afford very
expensive video productions, and even the best productions bored me to
death. Corporate training does not typically have good character
development, striking cinematography, and award-winning musical
accompaniment. People's expectations regarding video are very high, and
unless you can meet those, your readers will disparage your effort.

My rule is that every bit of motion/animation must be justified: Does it
add vital informational content (e.g. shows a trajectory) or is it just
decoration (your boss wants to be the star of his own video)? If it is
more "decoration" make sure your boss agrees that the it is necessary
for improved return on investment.

So my recommendation is to break up the video into short segments hosted
on separate web pages or preferably, avoid it entirely in exchange for
more text-based content. Make startup of the video optional so that the
user can play/replay when they want to. Place tests/quizzes and other
content (especially printable articles) between the videos so that the
user has something they can reference, and to force the user to really
go through the content. Make test question content context sensitive to
the material that is important; however, don't force the reader to watch
the video, especially if they already know the material. Otherwise, you
will quickly gain an enemy from the experienced users who have been
required to take the course.

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