Blackboard: Spoke too soon?

Alfred Essa posted this tidbit today:

An Important Correction to the Blackboard Patent Story
A number of us, including this blog, have gotten this story wrong. It’s time for a correction.

The USPTO has NOT invalidated the Blackboard patent. Instead the USPTO is proposing to invalidate the patent and has issued some preliminary documents for review and comment. At the end of the day the USPTO still might uphold the patent as valid.

Let’s hope this is just a matter of semantics, and that the USPTO will continue along their current path towards invalidating Blackboard’s patents. *fingers crossed*!

Creating simple ungraded quiz questions with feedback using HTML and JavaScript

Clive Shepherd recently wrote about “inductive learning.” He said:

In my post last week, Whatever happened to inductive learning?, I complained how difficult it was with current rapid development tools to write more conversational inductive questions in which you as author are able to comment on each selection that the user makes.

He explained that he wasn’t looking for graded answers, just a method for providing custom feedback for each clicked answer. He then provided some examples he created in Captivate and Articulate Presenter.

When I read his post, the first thing I thought was how dead-simple it is to create that kind of interaction in HTML and JavaScript. Flash-based products are not (as of this writing, anyway) really built for doing this kind of work, so why bother?

I think the biggest argument for trying to shoehorn this kind of interaction into a Flash-based system is the graphical user interface (GUI)… the avoidance of working directly with code. The Flash-based systems have nice GUIs, while the HTML-based systems are generally outdated and clunky.

Well, for those who don’t like working with code, I feel for ya; I honestly understand where you’re coming from. But, you sometimes need to go outside of your comfort zone to achieve your goals.

For those who are willing to give it a shot, I present to you a simple HTML and JavaScript template for inductive learning-style questions (ungraded, customized feedback for each answer selected).

This is a simple demo, but because it’s built in HTML with CSS and JavaScript, it’s completely customizable and can be restyled and/or re-purposed for a variety of question types. JavaScripters can even add SCORM calls if desired! I’ve used this approach successfully at work, though my version at work uses MooTools effects to give the interactions a much smoother, Flash-like feel.

Enjoy! Please let me know if you find these examples helpful, or if you have other ideas for this kind of question style.

Lines in the sand

Before I get to my point, I’d like to give you some background information.

For better or for worse, I’m something of a perfectionist. I’m also something of an idealist; this combination makes life very difficult sometimes. When I embark on a project, I’m usually driven by an innate desire to do it the “right way.”

Before coming to the e-learning world, I worked with print publishing and radio production for about a decade. These are excellent fields for perfectionists! Print production allowed me to work with extreme precision, down to a pixel (actually, a point: 12 points in a pica, 6 picas to an inch!). Radio broadcasting requires precision to a second; there is no room for mistakes. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges presented by both fields, and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I enjoyed the constraints: things were black and white, right or wrong, no in-between. Lines were drawn in the sand, cross them at your own peril.

When I went to grad school, I majored in Education, specifically the Instructional Technologies program. In grad school, students are taught instructional design from a ‘best case’ point of view. An idealist point of view, with an emphasis on always performing a thorough analysis of the situation, followed by the implementation of a well-designed solution, followed by lots and lots of evaluation. This was the right way to do things. The line in the sand was clear: skip these steps at your own peril.

Instructional design: the right way or the realistic way?

Being an idealist, I eagerly bought into what was being covered in grad school. I believed (and still do, to a point) that every project should follow ADDIE or a similar model. C’mon, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Again, the line in the sand had been drawn: skip these principles at your own peril.

Now that I’ve spent a few years working full-time as an instructional designer-slash-e-learning developer, I’ve learned first-hand that the instructional design ideals taught in grad school are quickly thrown out the window when you get a ‘real’ job. The most common culprits are time and money, but sometimes it’s managerial ignorance or politics, too.

I’ve witnessed that most training departments don’t do any post-implementation evaluation. It’s not for lack of desire, they simply don’t have the time and/or resources. “Well, they at least do a thorough analysis of the problem, right?” Nope, not so much. An analysis is done, to be sure, but it’s usually pretty quick, and the SME has a pretty influential role in defining the problem, which conflicts with the instructional designer’s main function: define the problem by evaluating the situation and questioning all assumptions, then, if applicable, design a training solution for that problem.

However, many real-world training teams don’t even have an instructional designer, which means the SME carries much more weight. Oftentimes, due to staffing and funding issues, the SME and the trainer are the same person!

And thus the world of e-learning development software is born.

The crazy world of e-learning development

A team with an instructional designer, given the time and resources, would probably not use most of the e-learning development tools on the market because of their inferiority. A much more mature and robust e-learning course can be created by a tandem of an instructional designer, technical writer, graphic designer, and web programmer. But who in this world of downsized training budgets has the funding or time to build a team of experts to create these highly customized courses?

Hardly anyone.

So e-learning development products flood the market, and suddenly SMEs are empowered to create their own professional-looking training materials — fully LMS-compatible! — in a matter of hours. Instructional designers cringe, but the masses have spoken, and they like their newfound abilities!

e-learning development, the right way or the realistic way?

As a perfectionist who is well-versed in the world of e-learning technology, and as a trained instructional designer, I admit I have turned my nose at e-learning development software for a long time. I drew my line in the sand, as I have been taught by both experience and education, and I knew which side I belonged on.

Assuming you even need a course — job aids, podcasts, screencasts, wikis and online forums may solve the problem without even requiring a course to be built — the right way to build an e-learning course is to follow an ADDIE-style model, with an emphasis on instructional design and evaluation. Your courseware should be as interactive and engaging as possible (without falling victim to adding interactions for interaction’s sake), should incorporate the latest Web and accessibility best practices, and should be SCORM-compliant. Avoid clip art and cheesy stock art whenever possible.

However, many people will tell you the realistic way to build an e-learning course is to use a template from an off-the-shelf e-learning development tool. It will contain limited but easy-to-use interactions, allow you to insert whatever free clipart and/or images you can find on the web, and will lead to a simple, decent-looking course in no time, without hiring a contractor.

You wind up not with a Mercedes or BMW, but a with very functional Ford… it gets you from A to B and well within budget.

I admit I find it hard to argue with the ROI of this approach. Having said that, I have always been highly annoyed by the poor aesthetics and code quality of most of these e-learning development tools. But does anyone else care? No! They don’t look under the hood, they just care that the car starts when they need to drive it. I can’t fault anyone for feeling that way. I would feel that way, too, if I wasn’t the mechanic who puts these buckets of bolts together.

I’ve also had issues with how the cookie-cutter nature of the software tends to lead the user away from instructional design considerations — I wouldn’t be surprised if the trainer creates their e-learning course so quickly that they probably haven’t even done any analysis and assessment before digging into the development work.

But again, I’m finding it harder to say that this approach is wrong. Context is key, and in many of these situations, a brief, quickly built and deployed piece of training (perhaps not even a full course) may be a perfectly suitable solution. Bullet points are not always evil.

Can’t we all just get along?

Yes, I have been questioning the ferocity of my beliefs for some time, and conversations with others (and the e-learning blogosphere) have led me to eventually shift my opinion on the subject: No, lines do not have to be drawn in the sand, and the simple act of drawing them may be more harmful than helpful.

Some of my peers are also re-examining their beliefs and asking questions; I think this is great, since our field is a quickly evolving field. Just today, Aaron Silvers wrote about tactical versus strategic planning:

Lots of organizations in the last 10-20 years solve problems by looking at the immediacy of issues. The brushfires. The low-hanging fruit.

Aaron wasn’t writing specifically about what I’m writing about, but the line struck a chord with me; putting out fires and trying to grab the “low-hanging fruit” is a primary cause of the explosion of just-in-time training, a large chunk of which is e-learning courseware developed using “rapid elearning” development tools such as Articulate Presenter.

Clive Shepherd is excited about this, saying

One of the really exciting consequences of the web 2.0 revolution is the emergence of all sorts of new learning objects, designed for quick access when you need something that’s just-in-time and just enough.

  • Short videos
  • Slide sets
  • Podcasts
  • Mini e-books

Each of these media can be developed using commonly available tools and skills, something that can’t be said for interactive tutorials. They are better suited than tutorials to performance support applications, where learning is not the primary objective.

I’d like to emphasize two of his phrases: “performance support applications” and “just enough.” Most e-learning is designed to help someone do their job. The learner is a busy person and doesn’t really want to take long-winded courses; s/he just wants to know enough to get the job done. Likewise, most training developers will choose the easiest and fastest way to create these training materials, ideals and theories be damned!

Personally, I feel torn between wanting to satisfy the needs of the learner in the quickest fashion possible, and wanting to present a complete, thorough course using sound instructional design, including needs assessments and evaluations.

Warning: gestalt shift!

I think what this boils down to is that we’re in the midst of a gestalt shift from ‘courseware by professionals’ to a rapid e-learning world (and no, please don’t use the term elearning 2.0!).

If this is a rapid e-learning world where SMEs produce courses, where do the skilled e-learning developers fit in? I believe there’s room for all of us. Clive Shepherd admitted “It’s still quite hard for non-specialists to create good interactive tutorials, even of the rapid variety.”

I recently exchanged emails with Tom Kuhlmann from Articulate, and I really appreciated what he had to say about the topic:

It was just a few years ago that only a few people were able to create those horrible gray web pages with [little] more than text. Now, look at where we’re at. You need no technical skills and with some of the new 2.0 web tech, you can create some pretty impressive stuff.

I’m for anything that democratizes the process and gives people power to develop their own training and whatever else they want to do. Are you going to get perfect courses? No. But that will create a market for those that can produce better stuff.

I think there’s a place for it all, and with that a lot of opportunity for people like you who have good programming skills. You’re able to help the novice ID/SME bring their content up a notch.

Where do professional e-learning developers go from here?

I agree with Tom, but I’d like to take it one step further: rather than “helping the novice ID/SME bring their content up a notch,” I feel it’s the responsibility of professional e-learning developers to pressure the e-learning development tool industry to improve their products to meet higher standards, both in terms of web & accessibility best practices, and in terms of educating their customers on what comprises sound instructional design.

I think there’s an excellent model to follow: In the early- to mid-90s, Adobe and Aldus produced high-quality instructional booklets explaining the print production process from start to finish. These guides were distributed free with the manuals for specific software titles (PageMaker and Freehand). The guides were extremely well-written and illustrated, and taught me a lot about the preproduction and printing process before I ever stepped foot in a print shop.

Why did they supply these free books? I never really found out. My assumption is that a deeper understanding of the print process would foster more skilled use of their software, and a deeper appreciation for its power/capabilities.

The e-learning development tool industry would be wise to follow that lead; educating its customers about e-learning and related topics (ADDIE? Gagne? SCORM? Design principles? Color theory?) can only help to improve the industry as a whole. And as we all should know, if we do a good job, the learner does a better job, and the world becomes a better place.

PTO sets Blackboard straight

All 44 of Blackboard’s patent claims have been thrown out by the US Patent & Trademark Office. It’s not 100% official (this is the first step in the process), but things are looking up… for everyone except Blackboard. I really think they shot themselves in the foot by trying to establish a monopoly via patents and lawsuits. The negative PR will haunt them for years.

Desire2Learn’s response (visit site)

On March 25, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office issued its Non-Final Action on the re-examination of the Blackboard Patent. We are studying the document, found here, but in short, the PTO has rejected all 44 of Blackboard’s claims. We caution that this is a NON-final action; both Blackboard and Desire2Learn will have an opportunity to comment before a final action will issue, and after that, the decision will be subject to appeals.

However, we’re still pleased.

T.H.E. Journal article: USPTO Rejects Blackboard Patent Claims (visit site)

Blackboard’s e-learning patent looks to be going down. The United States Patent and Trademark Office this week sent out a “non-final” determination on the reexamination of Blackboard’s patent in which all of the claims on the patent were rejected. Blackboard still has a period of two months to respond to the determination.

We spoke with representatives from the two parties that filed for the reexamination of the patent: Desire2Learn and the Software Freedom Law Center. Their comments follow. Blackboard itself chose to release a statement (approximately 3:30 p.m. PDT) rather than speak directly with us today, although we might have additional comments next week. [ read the article ]

Michael Feldstein’s reaction (visit site)

Now, in addition to the fact that Blackboard will be able to argue against the ruling with the USPTO, there are a number of questions regarding how this affects the court case. Will the damages finding still stand? Will the USPTO ruling render moot D2L’s post-trial motion before the judge regarding invalidity? If not, will it imact that ruling? What happens to the issues of royalties and injunction going forward? [ read the article ]

Blackboard loses marketshare, moodle makes gains

Michael Feldstein also wrote a very interesting blog entry about LMS market shares, and how Blackboard is in steep decline while moodle appears to be booming.

The American Association of Community College’s Instructional Technology Council (ITC) has just published its 2007 Distance Education Survey Results, covering data from 154 U.S. community colleges.
[…]
Blackboard lost 7% market share in this segment over the past year. Even worse for them, it looks like this trend is accelerating … Blackboard could easily lose 20% market share over the next 3 years.
[…]
Clearly, Moodle is a winner, having gone from less than 4% market share to more than 10% (in this segment) in a year’s time. Moodle is now the only non-Blackboard LMS with a double-digit market share in this segment.
[ Read entire post ]

Things to consider when working on a project

I read not one, but three great blog posts today regarding what kinds of questions you should asking yourself when working on a project. Two of the blogs were not specific to the e-learning industry, but they apply nonetheless.

Why?

The first blog, by Jason at 37signals.com, suggests that you should always Question your work. He lists the questions he feels we should always be asking ourselves when working on projects:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What problem are we solving?
  • Is this actually useful?
  • Are we adding value?
  • Will this change behavior?
  • Is there an easier way?
  • What’s the opportunity cost?
  • Is it really worth it?

As instructional designers, we’re trained to perform high-level impartial needs assessments, but we’re only human and get tripped up in the details as easily as anyone else. One of the easiest things to do is to forget to ask yourself “is the training I’m about to create really going to solve the root problem?” Taking a moment to step back and ask yourself Jason’s questions (especially if you’re a freelancer trying to decide if a project is worth your time) is a good idea.

Taking care of business

Speaking of freelancers, Joeflash had a great blog post today titled Business tips for freelancers. Again, not specific to e-learning development, but still directly applicable to contracting work in almost any field. His sixteen tips are very practical, and the list is a quick but very worthwhile read.

Looks matter

Lastly, Tom Kuhlmann at Articulate wrote a nice blog entry about Why Looks Matter in E-Learning Courses (And What You Can Do About It).

This particular blog entry gives great tips about the visual design of your e-learning course. He advises readers to:

  • Understand How to Use Colors
  • Create a Fresh and Contemporary Design
  • Maintain a Consistent Look and Feel

These are the kinds of things I would expect most course developers to already know, yet it isn’t very hard to find examples of courses that don’t adhere to these basic design principles.

Side note: I’m generally not a fan of Articulate’s products, but I think Tom’s blog is a must-read for e-learning developers. He usually has great tips and practical advice, in easy-to-understand language, without trying to do any hard-sells of Articulate products. We should all strive to write so clearly, especially in our courses!

SWFObject is officially at 2.0

Geoff Stearns and Bobby van der Sluis have finalized SWFObject 2.0. It is no longer beta, and SWFObject 1.5 is now considered deprecated.

SWFObject 2.0’s home is located at Google Code, which includes full documentation and downloads. I believe support will be handled by the SWFObject 2.0 Google Group. I’m not sure what will be happening with the SWFObject Support Forum, which has focused on the pre-2.0 versions of SWFObject.

Thank you to Geoff and Bobby (and the late Michael Williams) for all their hard work… SWFObject 2.0 will certainly have a major impact on the Web.

Good news from the IMS Global Learning Consortium?

A press release issued today indicates the IMS Global Learning Consortium is piloting the use of Creative Commons licensing for some of their standards. This is excellent news for proponents of open standards, and will hopefully lead to more openness from the IMS.

Excerpt:

Historically, specifications and standards consortia have grappled with the need to be good stewards of the investments made by consortium members and achieving control toward interoperability in practice, while also engendering market innovation. IMS GLC has conceptualized a novel approach that may be applicable to many standards organizations. Today, almost all such organizations publish their specifications under standard copyright.

“We are pleased to be breaking new ground in achieving wider use of and innovation from open standards while still stepping up to achieving interoperability in practice,” said Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global Learning. “IMS Global has been working for two years now to put in place some key processes, such as open source tools for application profiling and testing, that will enable this new approach.”

Read the full press release here:
IMS Global Learning Consortium Announces Pilot Project Exploring Creative Commons Licensing of Interoperability Specifications