>Flat=Bad, Depth=Good

>Somewhere up in the Gateway city, there are instructors at a College who are thrilled that I’m getting a chance to use the graphic design diploma I slaved so hard to get 15 years ago.

I spent part of the weekend and all of yesterday re-designing our standard e-learning background and interface because, frankly, I wasn’t happy with the one we had whipped up. Now that I think about it, it was a little dull and awfully PowerPoint-like. Strangely enough, I went through this same process of revisions when I was designing the logo and look and feel for my consulting business and its web site. My initial design was flat and “okay” but subsequent revisions and ideas got me to a more 3-D look that almost “leaps” from the screen. That’s kinda what I have going now. This might not be a big leap for some, but I’m feeling like what we have now is a bit more polished and ‘professional’.

So there’s my “lesson learned” for this week: add some depth and some subtle 3-D effects to your interface and you move away from the “slide show” kind of content and towards a more multi-media kind of effect.

Lesson #2: Interactive buttons are a bitch to create (mouseup, mouseover, mousedown, etc.), but well worth the effort at the end.

I had to do a bit of an end-run around the design process and use some of my own software tools to accomplish this end, but I think the result is worth it. We now have a new background, with a bit more “real estate” to work in, and a nice, slick bottom navigation “console” with a new suite of buttons and controls.

I look at it this way: if I can get professional-looking content developed entirely in-house, that has to be a winner somewhere…

>Webcast/Webconference/e-Work Tools

>I was fortunate to have been exposed to e-learning relatively early on the corporate side of things. One of my first e-learning experiences was becoming an online facilitator during CDI’s early trials with online learning sessions. In this post I’ll talk about some of the tools I’ve used for these purposes as well as my experiences.

Placeware – This was the very first tool we used for online learning “webcasting” at CDI (sorry, I refuse to call it a “webinar”.) Its best market is for conferencing and remote work or collaboration. While at the time it didn’t have a good audio/video integration, it was awesome if you wanted to have “breakout” sessions with the online participants. The look and feel was like that of a conference, complete with virtual rooms and virtual “seats”. It also offers whiteboards, shared applications, etc. etc. The overall facilitator could even move between “rooms” as needed. Placeware is now owned by Microsoft and is branded as “LiveMeeting.”

Centra – We moved to Centra early on in our online learning experiments because it had better audio/video integration. I admit, I really liked the Centra environment. It had the ability to get participant feedback through chat, or other emoticons. The facilitator even has the ability to generate surveys and questions on the fly and incorporate them in the presentation. Our particular installation also let us upload and store presentations converted to HTML, or in their native format (in our case, PowerPoint) so that a participant could always access a presentation even if the Live session was over. We could record and save our content as well. The “on demand” feature was a real bonus for us. Centra offers both hosted and turn-key solutions. They’ve made a real effort to position themselves as a good online learning platform in addition to being a solid e-work and e-conferencing tool.

At the time we weren’t doing a lot of tracking of learner-specific stats, but we did know that participants liked having access to the content whenever they wanted to access it. We weren’t doing a lot of Learning Object authoring at the time, so I can’t speak for how effective Centra is at handling such things. However, I wouldn’t put it past them.

WebEx – I used WebEx at my last employer. While it is a good conferencing support tool, I didn’t find it as effective for e-learning. The interface was pretty basic. There was no integrated video service, and (more often than not), I had to use an external Teleconference provider to have any supporting audio, as opposed to something more integrated. The whiteboards, surveys and shared applications worked fine, but after my experience with Centra I was, frankly, disappointed. My biggest complaint about WebEx is that I couldn’t provide content “on demand.” Even recording and saving content needed a proprietary tool. I could only store recorded content in this proprietary format. Perhaps that was a limitation of a hosted solution, I’m not sure. Basically, if I wanted to have an event running, I needed to actually be there to start a saved version and then monitor it.

What I did like, however, was that I could save a presentation, burn it to CD, include the WebEx player, and then distribute it. For some of our customers who couldn’t seem to attend scheduled sessions, this was a great solution. I wouldn’t, however, describe WebEx as an e-learning platform. It does conferencing and webcasts, but that’s about where it ends.

Again, there’s no shortage of Webcasting and online broadcast or e-work tools out there. Again, a Google search on this topic yields big results.

Message Boards

I should talk for a moment about message boards. I like these kinds of tools for offline, threaded discussions. The nice thing is, most of these kinds of tools are free and simply require a web server for access. I see them as a way for online learning to mimic real-world environments with messages, discussion and interaction. Most of these tools are Freeware, as opposed to OpenSource, or there is a very minimal cost associated with licensing. Tools like Ceilidh, WebWiz, vBulletin, phpBB can add another dimension to a real online environment. You’re welcome to brand it as an e-community if you wish.

>e-Learning LMS/LCMS tools

>I’ll preface my comments here by saying that we’ve only deployed an LMS strictly as a prototype (as of the date of this post.) We’re not actively using it to host and deliver content. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. Simply entering the term “Learning Management System” into Google will yield a huge result.

There are very blurred lines between the Learning Content Management Systems and Learning/Learner Management Systems. Some tools may indeed allow you to manage a library of learning content and components as well as offering the delivery, hosting and tracking elements. My only suggestion here is to get some solid demonstrations of the product to see how well they will suit your needs. Do NOT, repeat, NOT, rely on just the product fact sheets. While many of the products available can eventually get to some kind of solution, the effort required to get there can be arduous and, frankly, painful and frustrating.

LCMS:

EEDO Interactive offers a tool called Force Ten which really, really impressed me. Positioned as a Web-based Learning Content Management System, it really offers good abilities to both manage content as well as develop it. The feature I particularly liked was a workflow-based development process. It was possible for you to actually author content through the browser window, and then add routing information to escalate the content to a reviewer or to another author. Very, very clever. Expensive to implement in-house, but clever. EEDO does offer hosted solutions which definitely make them more attractive.

TrainingPartner is the LCMS we used in my days at CDI. While we used it as a scheduling and course management tool, it is a full-featured LCMS. There are no hosting or development features on board, but the reporting capabilities are awesome. Important for me is that they’re Canadian (Victoria, BC.) They actually recommended EEDO to me, as well as recommending KnowledgePresenter. (They are now the Canadian distributor for KP.)

LMS:

ELM is the LMS offered by Outstart, the makers of TrainerSoft. It was comparable in features to the LearningSpace LMS that was featured during the course. TrainerSoft (if I recall) offered both an implemented solution as well as a hosted solution.

aTutor is an open-source Learning Management System, developed at the University of Toronto.

Moodle is another open-source Learning Management System.

OCCAM is yet another open-source Learning Management System.

While “free” is never a bad thing, you should be prepared to do a lot of customization of the software yourself. If you’re not comfortable with handling the nitty-gritty of systems administration, I’d recommend leaving these tools in the hands of those who have said skills. As much as I might appear “technical”, I’m not that much of a code geek.

EnQPlus is kind of an all-in-one tool that I saw demonstrated by a former colleague. It didn’t suit my needs at the time, but it might be worth further exploration if someone is curious. Contact Jeff Woods at Mindvault. He’s reselling the tool.

>e-Learning Authoring Tools

>Now that we’ve talked about some of the planning stuff, I’d like to share some of my experiences with authoring tools. Where possible, I’ll also offer some pros & cons about tools that I’m using and also to tell you what I’m using them for. (I know, I know…sentence-ending preposition…)

Content Prototyping:

PowerPoint. Nothing really beats PowerPoint for basic prototyping and some proof-of-concept work. We have a very specific look and feel that is applied to all of our publications and online presence, so I don’t have to worry too much about re-designing navigation elements and suitable colour schemes. The ability to quickly add elements like audio and other multimedia are also a plus. The disadvantage for PPT is that I can’t easily add any tracking code for an LMS. Not that its impossible, just very, very difficult to do on my own.

Authoring:

The tool I am currently using is called KnowledgePresenter. The current version is a vast improvement over the last (2004) edition. I like KP2005 for a couple of reasons: its somewhat similar to PowerPoint in that you can work on a slide by slide (screen by screen) basis for developing the content. It also lets you make use of a library for frequently-used items (headings, graphics, text boxes, etc.) For people who like granular control, there’s an impressive properties sheet to play with. The Professional edition (the one I purchased) also ships with a simple LMS, as well as tools for screen capture and simulation-building as well as an assessment/quiz builder.

The folks at Knowledge Presenter also offer a great list of lessons, tutorials, whitepapers and other documents to assist you in flattening the learning curve.

The downside to KP is that it doesn’t offer a big array of templates for pro-programming your learning. It also doesn’t have any kind of “Outline” creator so that you can quickly lay out your major step/screen/slide headings. It’s not as well documented as I’d like, but the user support forums are quite good and you can learn a lot from both the user community and the support staff who actively monitor the questions posted.

TrainerSoft is another tool I evaluated before moving to my current employer. Its similar in approach to KnowledgePresenter. However, it’s a bit more expensive for the authoring tool. The vendor does offer an excellent simulation builder, but at $8000 USD it’s quite pricy. It did offer a “tree” view of your Learning Object and the associated screens, which I liked, but I ultimately chose KP at my current exployer because of the bundled features and better cost per license. Having said that, their sales follow-up and customer service were excellent.

DazzlerMax was the third tool I looked at. I couldn’t really relate it to any other application I’ve used. It presents a very interesting “timeline” view and a unique way of seeing the relationship between the various elements on a slide. However, I found this approach to be incredibly granular and it was tough to see a completed Learning Object when faced with a dizzying array of objects and properties.

Other tools like Saba and Authorware were either too expensive for my considerations, or they had an extremely steep learning curve, so they didn’t make the cut.

Tools aside, I still tend to storyboard with pen & paper. Shades of my old graphics background, I guess. Old habits are hard to break.

>Learning Object development links

>The following documents and papers were really invaluable to me in my research and they clarified some of the mystery surrounding Learning Objects. I didn’t “get” the whole concept of LOs because I couldn’t equate them to the more “linear” process for developing materials for classroom training.

While there are some links over on the right side, these ones are a little more specific.

  1. The Herridge Group: Joanne Mowat is the principal for Herridge, and she’s also had a long involvement with the ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement) in Toronto. On her ‘White Papers’ page are two documents I found to be very, very helpful: An Introduction to Learning Objects, and Learning Objects and Instructional Design.
  2. AliveTek: This e-learning consulting firm has a number of Articles and documents worth reading, in particular, the Learning Object Storyboard, and the Learning Object Analysis Sheet. I use these two forms regularly.
  3. Article: We’re Not Designing Courses Anymore. An interesting article comparing traditional ISD with e-learning concepts.
  4. Article: Gagne’s Conditions of Learning. One of the articles I read made reference to his model, so it may be worth a look. Not e-learning specific, but interesting nonetheless. This article is a precis of Gagne’s work.
  5. Article: Repurposable Learning Objects Linked to Teaching and Learning Styles. A somewhat more in-depth paper on LO development. While there is some product-specific discussion, I found the overall content to be quite interesting.

Let me know if you find any of these useful. The big winner for me were the 2 papers from Joanne Mowat along with the storyboard and analysis sheets from AliveTek.

>Course Observations and Clarifications

>I mentioned some of these comments in my course evaluation and to some of you privately, but I want to offer a little bit of clarification on a couple of points on e-learning that S. made during his presentation, and also to clarify the “message” that the course may have delivered.

MESSAGE: e-Learning means software development

FACT: e-Learning does not have to be a software development project for your organization. There’s a phenomenal amount of content and information that you can develop in-house without writing a single line of programming code.

MESSAGE: e-learning means spending/investing a lot of money

FACT: as with the myth above, you don’t have to invest a lot of money in e-learning to get modest results. Even though we purchased an authoring tool where I work, that investment was relatively small. For organizations with almost no budget, there’s a wealth of tools and resources out there. Google was a big research tool for me. Toss in some keywords and see what you get. Having said that, there may be some overhead costs that you can’t avoid. But weigh those costs against the Return on Value you get from transforming your learning environment.

MYTH: you need to purchase a LMS or LCMS

FACT: e-learning can take place in your organization without either of these tools. When it comes right down to it, a LMS is basically a web server that can store your content and provide tracking mechanisms. However, if you want to start small, all you really need is some kind of tool to author content, and a means to distribute it. You can even start with PowerPoint, or some kind of HTML editor to generate content. As long as you follow some good e-learning planning and development practices, you can achieve great results.

My take on it: start authoring some basic content, get it distributed, then see what kind of tracking metrics you need.

Other random thoughts: I think there was a LOT of confusion about technology, and I sensed a lot of frustration about it. You’ll gain more from a real understanding of the planning and strategy steps for building e-learning in your workplace than you will from becoming versed in the subtleties or SCORM/AICC and that sort of thing. I’m not a standards whiz and I don’t plan to be. Nor am I a software developer or database administrator.

For those of you at the strategic, as opposed to tactical, level for e-learning…focus your efforts on planning and strategy. In the long run, the knowedge/skill/awareness outcomes are the same. e-learning just gives you a different vehicle to get you there.