The IMS Global Learning Consortium needs to loosen up!

Today I’m working on a simple JavaScript/XML-based quiz. I decided I’d like to use a standardized XML format for the quiz questions and answers, so I googled QTI, a common quiz format. Turns out QTI is (yet another) IMS specification (duh, I should have known that!).

I looked up the QTI specs on the IMS site and couldn’t believe the boldfaced notice I saw on the page: “HTML documents may be viewed online, but may not be printed without permission” (emphasis added).

Can you believe that? IMS is in the business of creating standards they want the whole world to use. These standards should be open, easily accessible and free from licensing constraints. Why on earth do they want to put silly notices like this on their site? (Not to mention they didn’t even provide a contact link to help the visitor contact IMS about getting permission.)

This reminds me of their Common Cartridge project, which developers can’t even browse without being a paid member of IMS (individual rate: $100/yr).

The marketing tagline for the Common Cartridge project? “Free the content”

I say it should be free the standards!

HTML 5: The strong element

I just saw something interesting I thought I’d pass along. In the new HTML 5 proposal, the strong element is being modified to represent “importance rather than strong emphasis.”

The WHATWG gives the following example:


<strong>Warning.</strong> This dungeon is dangerous. 
<strong>Avoid the ducks.</strong> Take any gold you find. 
<strong><strong>Do not take any of the diamonds</strong>, 
they are explosive and <strong>will destroy anything within 
ten meters.</strong></strong> You have been warned.

The b element is supposed to represent “a span of text to be stylistically offset from the normal prose without conveying any extra importance, such as key words in a document abstract, product names in a review, or other spans of text whose typical typographic presentation is boldened.”

The WHATWG gives the following example:

The <b>frobonitor</b> and <b>barbinator</b> components are fried.

To me, this is both exciting and confusing. Knowing we can nest the strong element opens up some new styling possibilities while keeping the markup valid and semantic. But using both the b and the strong elements, with different conditions for their usage, will ultimately be confusing for most people, including me.

Wonder how WYSIWYG editors will handle this.

Building e-learning courses: Should we use e-learning authoring tools?

This post was triggered by BJ Schone’s question “How do you build e-learning courses?

So, here’s my question: How do you build your e-learning courses? Do you build them from scratch (ex. HTML, JavaScript, etc.)? Do you use an authoring tool for the whole course structure?

This is an interesting question. Personally, I use home-grown solutions, not any particular e-learning authoring tool, though I often use e-learning authoring tools such as Adobe Captivate to create some of my animated content.

However, I think before you can really dispense advice which particular development approach is best, there are a number of factors to consider.

Questions abound

Who’s using the tools?

Development tools are generally used for two things: creating new courses and updating existing courses.

Here are two common scenarios for teams creating new courses:

  1. The team is large, with specialists. I know of some e-learning companies who have specialists for each type of project task, with strict orders to maintain the development boundaries: the instructional designer only works on curriculum development, the writer only writes, the web developer only works on the technological elements, the graphic designer only works on graphic elements, the subject-matter expert only provides insight about the topic and is not involved in any technological development tasks, etc. Apparently this makes it easier to subcontract the work and replace or augment team members where needed.
  2. The team is small, with generalists. In most cases, each person in an e-learning development team wears multiple hats: the instructional designer also does some web and/or graphic design, the subject-matter expert writes large chunks of the curriculum, etc. There often isn’t an experienced web developer on the team, so the team may be forced to learn an off-the-shelf program such as Captivate or Lectora just to get the course out the door. Sometimes, if the team can afford it or is in a time crunch, they may hire a subcontractor to do the technical work.

I think situation #1 lends itself to standard web development tools, whereas situation #2 lends itself to e-learning authoring tools. More on that in a minute.

When you get to updating courses, the question becomes: Who is responsible for maintaining the course? If the course is internal, do your coworkers know how to use the software, too? If the course was for a client, are they expected to purchase the development tools you used, and have enough technical expertise to use them?

Is portability a concern?

The portability of the content is an often-overlooked issue. When I speak of portability, I mean portability in three senses:

  1. Portability as a course from one LMS to another
  2. Portability of the content fragments within a course from one course to another
  3. Portability of the entire course to other file formats or mediums, such as XML, PDF, a database, etc.

What about accessibility?

We should never forget that there are a significant number of people taking our courses who may have special needs, including people who may be deaf, blind, color-blind, have low-vision, or other physical impairments (such as limited ability to use a mouse or keyboard).

Where are you going with this?

Buckle your seatbelts, you may not like this statement: Most e-learning tools do not promote the creation of effective courses, do not promote web standards, and do not promote accessibility; they merely make cookie-cutter course development easier for technically inexperienced course developers.

There, I’ve said it. Please don’t hate me.

Let me take a few moments to explain my thoughts on the subject.

Effective courses

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that e-learning tools cannot create effective courses. However, I do believe that the templatized nature of most e-learning development tools leads many course developers to favor convenience over effective communication and education.

More time is spent on shoehorning course content into templates, and less time is spent on the instructional design aspects of course-building, where you stop and ask “how can I really engage the audience during the course?” (And by ‘engage’ I don’t mean just adding a simple quiz question.) Personally I don’t find the pre-built interactions in many e-learning tools to be very good. And the few that are good tend to be so overused that they get stale fast.

Since many of the developers using these authoring tools are not experienced web developers, they rarely venture ‘outside the box’ with the tool, and tend to stick to the course options presented by the software. Thus, the course developer’s options are often limited to the tool manufacturer’s instructional design preferences and notions of what constitutes a ‘proper’ course. This may lead to a boring, unimaginative course, or even worse, a course that doesn’t meet the needs of the learner.

My gist is that the tool, with its limitations and hard-coded inclinations, often winds up driving the end product more than the instructional designer. This is not unlike PowerPoint’s relationship with presenters, and how PowerPoint templates have reshaped modern notions of what a good presentation should be.

As I see it, PowerPoint presentations became the standard for two key reasons: they make presentations seem more ‘official’ or ‘professional,’ and entry-level users found the software’s templates to be very easy to use.

PowerPoint is not the answer

“Need to create an online course but don’t know how? Our tool allows you to convert your existing PowerPoint presentations into effective, engaging courses in MINUTES!”

This sounds like a dream come true for non-technical people who need to create an online course fast. But let me ask you a question: how many GOOD PowerPoint presentations have you seen that were created by non-designers? C’mon, be honest… we all know that 90% of PowerPoint’s built-in templates are ugly and hard to read.

More importantly, truly effective PowerPoint presentations are secondary (and complimentary) to a good, dynamic classroom trainer. These presentations are often simple outlines, minimalist in nature, designed to focus the attention on the presenter, not the PowerPoint file.

Simply stated, a PowerPoint presentation is designed to display a linear presentation of bullet points. How does a linear presentation of text (perhaps with a few animations thrown in) have any bearing on effective web-based training? Short answer: it doesn’t.

To expect a trainer’s PowerPoint presentation to be an effective online course without the trainer is preposterous. The trainer’s experience, charisma, presentation skills, and ability to fine-tune the course content to the needs of the individuals in the classroom is paramount.

(An ugly little secret in our industry is that quite a few course developers — and clients — don’t care about the effectiveness of the training nearly as much as they care about being able to say the training has been created and is available to the client. But rest assured: If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t one of them.)

e-learning development tools

I’m not implying that all e-learning tools follow the “let’s import PowerPoint!” model of course building, but you can’t deny how rampant PowerPoint-to-e-learning conversion tools have become in our industry. My belief is that our industry (and others) has a fixation on PowerPoint simply because of its ease of use.

The most popular e-learning tools I’m aware of today are Adobe Captivate, Articulate Presenter, Rapid Intake’s FlashForm, and Lectora. What do these all have in common? They’re geared towards users with little or no development expertise. Yes, they’re geared towards the PowerPoint crowd.

Each of the tools has its strengths, and I’m not telling people not to use them. However, I’d like to point out that each of the tools either creates files in proprietary formats (which requires purchasing their product just to make edits), or outputs courseware that doesn’t adhere to web standards and best practices.

What’s the alternative?

Using standardized web development techniques, including writing valid page markup, maintaining the separation of content from presentation via valid cascading stylesheets, and using unobtrusive JavaScript, will free your course from the shackles of a proprietary e-learning development tool format.

The most persuasive argument for using specialized e-learning development tools has been maintenance — the desire for easy updates and not relying on technical experts to handle the editing.

But I disagree; not being tied to a particular tool or proprietary format means that practically anyone with general web development experience will be able to make edits to your course or even create new courses using your system. Millions of people around the world work with HTML, and hundreds of thousands work with JavaScript. I’m willing to bet that the number of people familiar with proprietary e-learning development tools is much smaller, probably numbering in the thousands. It’s a niche.

Maintaining courses built with web standards means you can hire just about any college student or web designer to come in and make changes. It means YOU can make changes if you learn a little about HTML, or use a standards-supporting WYSIWYG editor such as Adobe Dreamweaver. The key is for your course system to adhere to web standards.

ELearning software that outputs to HTML (such as Lectora and ToolBook) do not output HTML documents that adhere to web standards. Same for many homegrown proprietary formats that have caused grumbles in offices like yours and mine. Not only are these courses harder to update, but they’re more likely to have browser compatibility issues and are less likely to be ‘future proof.’ Adobe Captivate is a good example: The latest Captivate SWFs aren’t even compatible with Flash SWFs created in Flash CS3 (publishing to ActionScript 3).

Using standard web technology means you will have the greatest flexibility possible, including the ability to embed rich media (Flash, Quicktime, etc.) whenever you like. It also means your courses will work in the largest percentage of browsers possible, including mobile devices and game consoles (depending on what type of rich media you embed in your courses).

Until e-learning development tools offer greater content flexibility and create courses that adhere to best practices for web design and accessibility, I heartily recommend using standard web development tools in place of specialized e-learning development tools.

Accessibility

Web sites built for any federally-funded project are required by law to meet a certain standard for accessibility. So why don’t we ever hear anyone talk about accessible online courses? No matter how well you think you may know your audience, don’t ever think it’s reasonable to assume no one with special needs will ever take your course.

Accessibility is imperative for a certain percentage of people. It’s a complete downer for another segment of the population, who think making a web page accessible means making the web page boring and free of any rich media. Perhaps this used to be a fair assessment, but not anymore. Many good people have put in long, hard hours making formats such as Flash SWFs and Adobe PDFs more accessible. Plus many alternative web browsing devices can now parse JavaScript, enabling some JavaScript-heavy sites to maintain a reasonable degree of accessibility (disclaimer: it really depends what you’re trying to do with the JavaScript).

What’s even better is that web standards have finally taken root over the last half-dozen years, enabling manufacturers of alternative web browsers to improve their handling of the modern web page. This means that adhering to web standards will take most of the effort out of making your site accessible! You may need to tweak a few things here and there, or put some extra effort into improving the quality of the accessibility — specialized CSS, a little extra markup, and descriptive text are good starting points — but you will have at least met a basic level of accessibility without even trying. This is way cool.

This is yet another reason why using standard web development tools is a good idea, and using e-learning-specific authoring tools may not be the perfect tools their marketing departments would have you believe.

e-learning authoring tools need an overhaul

I understand that it is simply not reasonable to expect all e-learning developers to learn code and create courses using web standards. In my experience, many self-described “e-learning developers” are either instructional designers who know very little about web development beyond using a WYSIWYG editor like FrontPage, or are web developers who know little about instructional design. “Dabblers” are the norm, and I accept it.

With such a large number of non-technical people in what is largely a technical endeavor, who can blame the non-techies for wanting to use an e-learning authoring tool? They’re cheap, they’re easy, and — most importantly — they get the course out the door. The demand is there and is undeniable. Everyone wants better tools that will make their lives easier, even me.

But we can make these tools better. MUCH better. And these better tools can lead to better courses. That’s what we ALL want, right? Isn’t that why we’re in this business?

Based on what I’ve seen, the e-learning tools industry needs to shape up and provide better solutions for its customers. Here are some suggestions.

Make your tools adhere to web standards and best practices.

Make accessibility easier

When creating courses using your product, why not include tools and gentle guidance that aids the developer in making the course more usable and accessible? For instance, you could prompt users to enter descriptive text for any image imported into the course. You could have a warning appear if the user writes a sentence in all capital letters. You could have a tip appear informing the user that the table they just imported should have a long description, and should only be used for tabular data.

Use better markup and styling techniques

Speaking of tables, the documents created by your tool should never use tables for layout! Adherence to web standards means all page styling (fonts, color schemes, etc.) should be handled by external CSS, not inline styles or deprecated font tags. You should also use JavaScript sparingly, and as unobtrusively as possible. Let the page markup (HTML) and styling (CSS) do as much of the work as possible. Avoid browser-specific code, such as Microsoft’s ActiveX, like the plague.

Allow users to export their content into easily reusable formats

If your tool adheres to web standards, it should be easy to export (most) course content to a reusable format such as XML. Allowing users to export their content to XML in turn allows the user to easily repurpose the content for different media, such as importing it into a print-based document format such as Adobe FrameMaker, using server-based conversion tools to create dynamic on-demand PDFs, or syndicating the content via RSS feeds.

Give the developer more flexibility — and encouragement — to try instructional design approaches your design team may not have thought of.

Many courses are designed to be page-turners with a few interactions scattered around. I’ll admit I’ve created my fair share of these courses. Tool manufacturers often promote their built-in templates as meeting or exceeding well-established instructional design principles. Entry- and mid-level developers in this field may actually believe your marketing spiels, and think that your templates are the holy grail. This may be good for your business, but it certainly isn’t good for the person taking the course.

Why not build more navigation and format flexibility into your tool, encouraging the user to think outside the box? Remind the user that your templates are just starting points and the real power of your tool is the flexibility it provides. Adobe Captivate’s success with its branching feature is a good example of how hungry developers are for alternatives to standard, page-tuner-style linear navigation.

Wrapping this thing up

Getting back to BJ’s original question, I use custom home-grown course solutions. This isn’t for lack of wanting a good all-round e-learning authoring tool; I just think there isn’t one out there that meets my needs yet. And until there is, I feel more confident working with standard HTML, throwing in the occasional Flash or Captivate file. I recommend this approach to others because I think it’s the most browser- and platform-neutral method, and opens up the development environment to any web developer without requiring expertise in a niche (and ultimately limiting) e-learning authoring tool.

What do you think?

Wow, OK, I sure didn’t intend to write this much. As you can see I had a few things I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a while. If you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in this topic, too, so I ask you to kindly let me know what you think. Am I off-base here or what?