Thursday, June 26, 2008

About authoring tools

Within eLearning, I believe that there are certain tasks that will not
be accessible to the generalist user - primarily graphic arts work.
However, the tools available are now enabling the Subject Matter Expert
to be able to do something they previously could not: create coherent,
well implemented, multi-page content. The standards (SCORM/AICC) aren't
changing how development is being done - but they do help make it
possible to track more, different content using a variety of LMSs.
(These standards are relatively young.)

A good approach is to give tools to the SME/Instructional Designer so
that they can input, maintain, and update the textual content of the
courses. Good tools also allow them to manage additional
graphics/multimedia created by specialists in those areas, without
burdening the SME/ID with graphic work. There are still many tools
(advertized as "easy to use") out there that are only accessible to a
graphic designer in order to do the textual content. This is a problem
because graphic designers with instructional design and subject matter
expertise are hard to find.

The real value for the standards are, and will be:
1. Interoperability of content (communication for tracking)
2. (Currently becoming available:) Communication to allow more dynamic
content (a database-driven server-based system can alter paths of
3. (Future:) Interesting ways to combine content and provide more data

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Fake SCORM limitations that mask LMS or authoring tool limitations

A number of people think there are SCORM limitations when the real limitation is the LMS or authoring tool who then blames it on SCORM.  One of my favorite fake limitations has to do with screen size. There is nothing in the SCORM specification that requires a fixed size
screen. The concept of the fixed size screen is a hold-over (with
enormous inertia) from the print paradigm. That is, graphic designers
have gotten accustomed to specifying layout of every pixel of every
letter with respect to fixed size pages. Most tools have been adapted
to this concept: to maintain the precise duplication between the
authoring environment and what the page looks like at delivery,
regardless of student's settings, you have to specify a fixed size.
However, this is really bad web etiquette:
1. Pages either take up too much of the screen (requiring horizontal
scrolling to read a single line) or too little (a small box within a
larger screen area).
2. Accessibility and respect for student's browser default settings are
ignored. If a user wants his default font size to be 20pt, but the
course is built with the print paradigm, their desire will be ignored.
Then, it will be difficult for them to read the content.
3. Content doesn't rearrange if the student wants to put their course in
one half of the screen so that they can work on other tasks in the other

Please see the ReadyGo authoring tool that creates SCORM conformant
courses that resize to the student's browser size. If you want to, you
can also select a template that uses a fixed size screen.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Getting courses out fast

As with PowerPoint content creation, the fastest way to handle the turn-around and review cycles is to let the subject matter expert drive. That is, if the SME is in charge of assembling, editing, and publishing the content, you will get the fastest turn-around. However, for this to be effective, the process has to be broken down. In PPT production, the level and use of graphics/multimedia is typically minimal. For web content/eLearning, people want to do a lot more. The difficulty is that SMEs are not typically good at creating multimedia (nor should they be).

Typically the solution to this limitation is then to have the graphics/multimedia experts create the courseware, however, now you are stuck with several problems:
1. Lack of familiarity with the content: Inappropriate graphics/multimedia end up being incorporated into the course
2. Desire by the graphic artists to show off: They want to show what they are capable of doing. This drives up the costs, and is contrary to "rapid" concepts.
3. Communication breakdowns between SME and implementer. We all know about the 20 iterations due to the spell-checker that replaces the correct technical term with one that is a more common, but closely spelled word.

The SME can be empowered to be the manager/assembler of content, but there is a little bit of training and up-front assignment of tasks that needs to be carried out.
1. Most SMEs are comfortable with PPT, and don't want to move past this one-dimensional, face-to-face presentation style. With eLearning, the content has to be 3-dimensional (hierarchical page structure, plus links to other resources) so that a self-study environment is successful. (If you handed out your 3x5 speaker notes with a recording of you reading the content, would people find this engaging?) The SME has to provide multiple presentations of the same content so that people with different learning styles can adapt the content to their needs. This actually is not that difficult to explain to SMEs.
2. Separate the task of graphic/multimedia creation. The SME can provide descriptions of what additional visuals they want that can augment the content. (Flying bullets and page transitions are visually distracting and do not provide additional information. A moving flow diagram might be useful, as would a blow-up of an assembly.)
3. A standard look-and-feel template needs to be decided ahead of time. Otherwise, the SME will end up spending all their time trying to figure out which layout for the content they want. What I mean by this, is that they will fixate on placing a forward arrow 3 pixels up on one page and 3 pixels left on the other, and never implement the content of interest. Keep in mind that with eLearning (if done properly) there is no need for the content to control the learner's environment -- that is, your content should adjust to the end-user's screen preferences rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all screen size and content size on the learners. Learners like the web because they control where and what they see. If you take the control away from them, they will lose interest in the courses you are trying to provide.

Then, with a proper tool that does the bookkeeping for how the pages are managed, how the tables of contents are built, etc. an SME can actually control the process. Since the SME is the expert in the material, the fastest production will occur when they can create, control, and revise the material. We have found that people with a journalism approach akin to the nightly news are excellent at creating and managing rapid eLearning. In contrast, people whose approach is more like a full length feature movie production are more appropriately applied to traditional eLearning (CBT delivered over the web). Our customers have reported being able to produce 20 courses in one month with a staff of 1 person using the above rapid approach. Previously, they were using a traditional approach that yielded 1 course per month per developer.