Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Choosing Authoring tools

Regardless of what you choose, when you are reviewing tools, be weary of
the really slick 2-minute demos. Some tools look really easy and slick.

Watch the course 4 or 5 times to see how it holds up to repetition.
Will your learners be able to use the content as reference material
during their daily tasks? Think about what makes Google usable- if
animation was useful, wouldn't Google have the found links fly in?
Choose tools where the content delivers quickly (ie. the end user
doesn't have to wait for a download before the content starts) and the
student can skip over material they already know.

I see authoring tools fall into several categories:
1. PowerPoint Converters: Articulate, Breeze, etc. Authoring is done in
PPT, and these "tools" just convert it into a slide show, perhaps adding
a test at the end. Breeze is more of a synchronous delivery mechanism
(like WebEx, Citrix GoTo, etc.). Instructional design is pretty much
non-existent. Why does this matter? If all you care about is
completing the author's task, it doesn't matter. If you want ROI, and
to get learners to actually use the content, you need to make a good
experience for the learners. I recommend using these tools only if your
presentation is 2-5 minutes. Beyond that, the learners will drift away.
You can actually use just PPT 2003 or later without resorting to other
tools if this is your objective.
2. Animated Screen-capture movies/Simulation: Captivate, Qarbon Viewlet
Builder, Camtasia: These tools create elements that you can add to
your course. They make good components to put on sub-pages so that
those students interested in further details can drill down to them.
These tools are a little more difficult to use (properly).
3. WYSIWYG tools ("PowerPoint on Steroids"): ToolBook, Lectora,
Authorware: These tools present you a pretty much blank screen and let
you set up the instructional design from scratch (or from an
pre-existing template). Generally, you should story-board before using
these tools. I've seen that these tools have a print-paradigm
assumption. This means that courses they produce only display correctly
on certain size monitors, and can't be re-sized. One way the tools get
around this limitation is to take over the entire screen, so that the
student can't really use the course as a guide to an application they
are learning.
4. Web-paradigm tools: DreamWeaver, ReadyGo: These tools produce web
content that delivers properly on multiple browsers regardless of screen
size/resolution. Multi-level navigation is easy to build (so that the
user isn't locked into a linear course flow - they can choose what is of
interest to them). DreamWeaver is probably too difficult for most
occasional course developers to use.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

How to Condense Training

A good way to condense the training is to break it into an on-line part and an in-class part. The on-line part can start with a pre-course session that brings all the users up to a level of knowledge of basic terms and ideas that are required to take the in-class part. After the in-class portion, another on-line course can be given to ensure that the learners remember the pertinent points, have more examples available about application of the pertinent points, and have a chance to refresh/gel the concepts covered in the intensive in-class portion. The adage about "tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them" is very applicable here. In the pre-course, prepare them for the main course. This can include a lot of foundation material. For the employees who already know the material, they can quickly skip over (and they won't feel like you wasted two days of their time with it), while for the employees who aren't yet familiar, they can spend as much time as they need to get up to a basic proficiency level. One of the keys to making on-line training successful is to present each concept 4 or 5 different ways since each learner will benefit differently from the various presentations. Instead of just having PowerPoint slides posted on-line, each page should have content (or links) such as main ideas, case studies, step-by-step procedure, detailed explanation, history of the approach, a quiz (non-graded), a test (graded), a field study, or an exercise. This gives the learners enough opportunities to view the material that they can learn it without having to have an instructor hold their hand through every detail.

As you look over the course outline, it should become apparent what material is the most critical. This material can be presented in the pre- and post-course, but it is essential that it be presented in the face-to-face sessions.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

XML - why do I keep hearing this?

I keep hearing "XML XML XML".  Yes, it is a good file storage format -
but it only becomes a displayable content when you combine in style
sheets. A series of XML pages does not make a course any more than a
series of text pages does. Downloading and editing XML in a text/XML
editor (like Notepad) is a somewhat cumbersome approach that I wouldn't
impose on an SME.

Besides, with all the extensibility options for XML, we're back to a
tower of Babel. For example, suppose there is a 3.25.
All we know is that someone called it a value. How did they calculate
it? We don't know. What can we do with it? We can display it with the
format for "value", whatever that may be. Instructionally, it still has
no meaning. The big advantage I see to XML is that you can get
open-source (free) parsers. So you can break down XML files into the
component variable/value pairs without starting from scratch. However,
you still need to understand what to do with each variable/value pair in
order to gain any advantage from it. XML is not a solution - it is an

So, I would say "Microsoft Office converters" do NOT fall into the
authoring system categories. Without going outside the Microsoft Office
tools themselves, you can already save as XML, MS-HTML (their own
special flavors), etc. You'll need to consider Excel, PPT, Notepad,
WordPerfect, WordStar, TeX, and MS-Word appropriate eLearning Authoring
tools if you consider a format converter a tool also. A tool should at
least add some instructional value (e.g. trackable test questions).

The category I missed/excluded was LCMSs. These are database
repositories from which you are able to create courses by assembling the
pieces that have been placed into the database. Their installation and
support costs/requirements can be quite high. I prefer a stand-alone
software approach (like MS-Word, MS-Excel, ReadyGo) to authoring
documents, spreadsheets, etc. Also, I like to review the content before
it is published to ensure that I don't produce ransom note appearances
by just bundling together a grab-bag or content.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Building courses fast

There is more to speeding up the turn-around than using specific tools. The real key is to design the development process for fast turn-around. Several of our customers have used the "Content Factory" approach, and have been able to move from creating 50 courses per year to 450 without adding personnel.

The first step is to decide which courses are "traditional" and which are "rapid". Traditional course will have a longer shelf-life, so one can afford to include more high-production elements. These courses can take up to 2 months to create. Rapid courses are for fast-moving material. They can be created in a matter of hours. The key to the fast turn-around is to dispense with high-production elements like professional multimedia and voice overs.

Traditional course creation typically requires that the content/text people deliver their material to the graphic artists who then assemble the courses with high visual production costs/values.

The course production for rapid content separates the "visual" element, staffed by graphic designers and the "textual" or "content" portion. A tool like the ReadyGo Web Course Builder allows the subject matter experts or the "text" people to assemble the graphics with the content and output the course in a few hours. This way, instead of requiring 2 months for 2 people to create a course, one individual can create a course in a single day. Graphic elements are re-used. They surround the text, which contains the primary information. By implementing the primary content as text rather than graphics (e.g. Flash) the courses can be maintained and updated much more quickly.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cost justiyfing an LMS

The costs of LMSs are typically much higher than advertised. A rule of thumb is 1x for the hardware, 2x for the software, and 3x for installation services (and that doesn't include content conversion.) That is, if you paid $50K for the hardware on which you ran the software, you would need to pay $100K for the software, and then $200K additional for installation, configuration, and running of the software.

With LMSs, the typical installation process takes 2-3 years. They need to merge their database system with your company's database. This requires custom consulting services since the database designs are usually quite different. This cost needs to be factored in. However, if you want to use the LMS as an independent system (that is, every time someone gets hired or leaves your company, you have to record this fact on your LMS rather than inheriting it from the enterprise employee system), then you can reduce the installation process to a 1-2 month period.

When choosing an LMS, it is important to define your needs, rather than deciding what LMS-vendor-provided-features you'd like. For example, the majority of LMSs will only store a single score and a single pass/fail status for each student/course. So, after you spend many 100's of thousands of dollars, you still won't be able to use the LMS to carry out a survey or see why nobody got higher than 90% on a particular course (was it a bad question? Did you not cover the information in your course?). Before investing in a full LMS, I recommend starting off with a testing assessment system that has full reporting capabilities. For a few thousand dollars you will get a much better idea of your needs.

And then, there is the cost of converting courseware. I have seen no cases where off-the-shelf courseware (e.g. MS-Office Basics, Accounting Basics, etc.) are used at the levels envisioned. Typical usage that I have seen is about 15% of what was desired. Most training content is custom to the company. So, you should become familiar with course creation. In doing so, I recommend taking a course on web instructional design (or visit http://www.readygo.com/isd). There are many factors about the web experience that need to be taken into account in order to get return-on-investment for your courses. Simply converting PowerPoint and adding an audio track will be very easy and inviting to the course authors, however, will be a repellent to the company's employees. When viewing web courses, the more control you give the user, the more efficient they will be (in zeroing in on the content they need), the higher their satisfaction, and the higher the chance that you will earn back the cost of your investment. If they have to sit through 1 hour of an automated slide show, of which they already know 90% of the content, you have just wasted 54 minutes of their time, and learners will not forget this the next time you offer them eLearning.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Monday, July 7, 2008

Quick and dirty Office converters

What I (and learners) find unsatisfactory is the tools that take a
single Word document, turn it into a single-page course, put in the
minimum SCORM API initialize/finish calls, build a 10 line XML manifest
pointing to a single file, and then call this a "SCORM course". The course creators
goal appears to be SCORM Conformance, rather than instruction. I also
find LMSs that only track the very minimum required by the specification
to be a disservice. For many course authors, whose goal is to get the
"SCORM Conformant" deliverable off their desk, this kind of tool is
certainly attractive. From the studies our customers have done
(comparing these approaches to instructionally sound tools), the
learners are quite unhappy with it. I think people can do better than
the bear minimum.

The specifications (SCORM/AICC) are available so that you can create
useful courses, so that you can see what the students are doing, and so
that you can tune your course based on how the students perform. The
ReadyGo tool has been tested with lots of LMSs. We have seen what they
can and can't do and have customized our interfaces (available to all
customers) for many of the LMSs in order to take advantage of the
different implementations. (The author only needs to select a different
LMS from a pull-down menu. The tool does all the other necessary work.)

A large number of LMSs only store the very minimum required by the
specifications. There are a few LMSs that actually go to the effort of
capturing the student's responses - and a few of them even provide
reasonable reports to the course administrator.

Quick and dirty Office converters can produce "SCORM
conformant" content. What I question is whether they produce good
training. I also can't see that the effort has been made to take
advantage of different behaviors that are achievable within the
specifications. I just think that "Lowest Common Denominator"
approaches will produce employees functioning at the lowest levels. I
also think it will scare learners away from eLearning - a few years ago
I took an on-line course that was mostly audio. Unfortunately, the
computer I was using didn't have speakers. I took the test without
reading the content, and considered the whole exercise a waste of
time...and I had additional motivation to see what they had done with
the course implementation-wise. Scaring people away from on-line
training by creating bad content is a good way to guarrantee your own
unemployment in the long run.

Al Moser