eLearning is the logical evolution of the time tested “distance learning” courses that have been around for longer than any of us care to remember. As an example, when I was in the Air Force, all enlisted people had to complete a “Career Development Course” in order to advance in our career. This was a stack of books dealing with your specific career field and administered by the Air Force’s Extension Course Institute. As a munitions specialist, my particular stack of books had 9 volumes that were literally over 10 inches thick. We had to study the material on our on time, take a proctored test after each volume and a cumulative final exam. We had to score at least 60 on each test in order to move forward and 60 on the final. Once completed successfully, we were awarded our “5 skill level” which meant we didn’t have to be watched every second of the day, but could now be trusted to actually do work on our own. Such was the state of distance learning in the Air Force. We have come a long way since then and now, most distance learning involves using some type of electronic device, computer, tablet or even phone. eLearning has become somewhat of a well-regarded panacea to reach broader audiences and thus enhance a given organization’s student reach (which of course means more funding).
eLearning isn’t really a panacea, but many people have hung their career on it with that in mind. Don’t mistake what I’m saying here, eLearning is a great methodology, but it will not solve all of our learning problems. I remember when eLearning was just getting a foothold and the uproar from the “brick and mortar” schools about how terrible eLearning was. OK, it may not have been all that great early on, but kudos to the few stalwarts who persevered to make eLearning work. If the B & M institutions had their way, eLearning would have died a violent death in the 1980s. A number of the early adopters were literally run out of business by the B&M schools because the B&M schools had sufficient political clout to mount a “witch hunt” and kill off some of the on line only schools that were drawing students away from the B&M schools. But, one thing about students, they know a good thing when they see it and so many demanded eLearning as an option, it has now been not only embraced by the B & M schools but has expanded their walls to students they never would have been able to enroll. I offer as proof of that, Western Governor’s University. WGU is a completely on-line and accredited university that evolved out of the needs for geographically dispersed students throughout the southwestern United States to have access to higher education. And now, so many of the same schools who screamed so loud in the 80s and 90s, now every one of these schools have a robust eLearning program. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set the college world on fire in 2001 when they announced they were putting their curriculum on line and making it available to the world for free. In reality, MIT really forced eLearning into the modern age. If MIT could do it, what could other colleges possibly do to protest? Other colleges were forced to get on the bandwagon. Today MIT has about 2300 courses available on just about anything you can imagine. And these are not the proverbial “underwater basket weaving” courses, these are the hard core math and science courses that MIT is famous for presenting. With this as a bit of background, let’s talk about eLearning today. eLearning methodologies are as varied and successful as there are organizations employing them. Let’s begin by looking at the two most basic types of eLearning.
eLearning comes in two basic flavors, “asynchronous” and “synchronous” courseware. Asynchronous or “not real time” learning has two basic methodologies, self-paced courses and discussion courses. In self-paced courses the student logs onto a web site or either installs software onto a computer (or reads or performs an assignment) and proceeds through the lesson or course content at their leisure. In discussion based eLearning courses, the students log on to a “chat room” and provide input into a discussion group. These discussion groups may be moderated or non-moderated depending on the preferences of the institution. In moderated discussion groups a leader, normally a faculty member, but it might be a student moderator, provides discussion questions and keeps the discussion on track as well as scores the participants as necessary.
In synchronous eLearning, the instructor and students are all “virtually present” at the same time. Specific methods used include a virtual classroom where students see the instructor and, in some applications, see other students. This includes audio and video conferencing using Video Teleconferencing, conference calls on telephones, video and audio chat on computers, shared whiteboards, application sharing and instant messaging. All of these are useful and successful when properly employed.
Unlike the “distance learning” books that were mailed to me by the Air Force in the 1970s, eLearning is learning that takes place on some kind of electronic device, hence the “e” in eLearning. But just as with making a phone call on today’s cell phone that requires a huge unseen by the user infrastructure, the same is true with eLearning. eLearning requires four components. The part used by the learning consumer is some type of computer, tablet or even a smart phone and is the smallest component of the four. This device must be linked via the internet to a server providing content. This is our content warehouse or repository. This server farm of content is managed by a software product called a Learning Management System (LMS). The content provided by the LMS is created by a team of specialist, including a subject matter expert (SME) and hopefully, led a skilled instructional designer who is masterful in creating content suitable for distribution in an eLearning format. This content can be developed in many ways using many software tools. These can range from the simplest of Microsoft WORD or PowerPoint to more complex systems such as ADOBE CAPTIVATE to advanced proprietary systems that make building learning content very easy and efficient and especially interactive for the learner. I will provide some sample organizations that provide these products at the end of this article.
The one thing in my mind that really sets eLearning apart from the Distance Learning of the past is the degree or level of interactivity eLearning can present to the student. Just as in a traditional classroom, there can be various levels of student interaction with the instruction. Just as you can sit quietly in a classroom and read an assignment, so too can you sit quietly and read text on a screen, just as you are doing now. However, just as with traditional learning, most students tend to learn more when they are more involved in the learning process. One of my goals, long term, is to turn this monograph (and most everything else on the STEEDS website) into an interactive on line tutorial. But first things first! To help us categorize the various levels of interactivity of eLearning, the Department of Defense organized eLearning into four categories of Interactive Multimedia Instruction. This is codified in MIL-HDBK-29612-3A dated 31 August 2001. These four levels are briefly described in the table below.
As with so many things, there are good and bad things or advantages and disadvantages of eLearning. Let’s look at the advantages of eLearning.
1. On-demand learning, any time, any place
Many corporations and businesses have transitioned to eLearning because it saves time and is more accessible than traditional training. Because learners can access material through their personal or work computers, the need to travel is removed, and in-class materials are replaced with shareable files. eLearning also saves time, as instructors are no longer required to manually grade tests and quizzes, which reduces the need for and costs external assessment developers. Since eLearning can happen anytime and anywhere, there are no restrictions. This makes eLearning ideal for global businesses or those with non-traditional work schedules. When done correctly, eLearning can provide just-in-time training, which means content is ready for learners when they need it. Content can also be tailored to meet specific needs.
2. Tailored to learner learning
I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but suffice it to say, people learn differently. This means that some people learn quite well by simply reading a document. Others do better by listening to the content. Most people in America learn better by being actively involved in the learning content.
So in a nutshell, there are 3 types of learners: visual, auditory and tactile, also called haptic.
Visual learners learn new skills by seeing and learn new information best through visuals. Using diagrams and other visual methods of learning are recommended for these types of learners. Visual learners make up about 60 to 65 percent of the general population (depending on whose research you read).
Auditory learners learn best through the use of verbal communication and lectures. Auditory learners need to hear the content. This is one reason why “books on tape” have been so successful for organizations like “The Great Courses” Of course this company like so many others offering eLearning programs also offers visual media but a sizable portion of their business is providing auditory only courseware. Auditory learners are keen listeners and pick up the audio clues that most visual learners might miss. Things like tone of voice, the pitch within the voice and the speed of the person speaking. This information is critical for the auditory learner to accurately retain the information. Auditory learners make up about 30 percent of the general population.
According to most research, the third group of learners learn better by completing a physical task. When applying the tactile approach to learning the person learns best when they can touch and take an active part in the learning. Tactile learners (sometimes called haptic learners), may suffer from a short attention span which can make it difficult to learn new skills unless the hands-on approach is taken.
Let’s wrap up this short section by endorsing the tactile learner by sharing a famous quotation from Confucius. “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.”
3. Potentially unlimited number of students
Typically the higher the level of interactivity with on-line instructors the lower the number of students that can be served. If there is no on-line instructor present, then the sky is the limit as to the number of students that can be served. If the courseware is designed to have an on-line facilitator (instructor) then the number of students may average about the same number of students a B&M instructor can handle.
4. May save learner time.
Saving time is of particular interest to learning in the corporate world where time away from the job is often considered wasted time by management. If the content is interactive and engaging and supports the learner quickly mastering the content, then the learner may save some time in the overall learning process. But keep in mind that while engaging content will likely facilitate the learning process for the learner, this highly interactive content will require a more extensive development and deployment process which will be more expensive and time consuming for the training department to develop.
5. Reduced travel expenses.
In the age of reduced budgets brought on by intense competition with foreign corporations, travel budgets are often cut to the bone or eliminated altogether. This requires creative ways to train employees which often means developing eLearning. Often this creates a conundrum for management as to where to put limited resources. Is it better to spend money on one person to attend a training class or spend that same money on developing an eLearning class that can have multiple learners participate in the learning event? In short, what’s the Return On Investment for putting one person on a plane vs. building content for dozens or even hundreds?
6. Allows for multiple repeat participation with courseware.
eLearning can permit the student unlimited repeated cycles through courseware. Even if the student passes a summative evaluation, they can retake the content to clear up any confusion or even retake the content as a refresher weeks or even months after initially completing the instruction. Of course, this can be controlled by the Learning Management System, if for some reason; the student is not allowed to return to the training at will.
1. Time consuming to build properly
The key words here are “build properly”. Most anyone can throw a bunch of PowerPoint slides together and put them on an LMS. There are times this passes for eLearning. However, to be done properly and actually have lesson objectives, student activities and so forth, requires time just as with building proper in-residence content takes time.
2. Requires specific skill sets to build and administer successfully
Not only does effective eLearning require a knowledgeable SME to develop content, it also requires a professional Instructional Designer as well as an LMS administrator to manage the courseware on line. Seldom does one person possess all of these skills, but it can happen. Typically, we are talking about a team of at least three people. This is the absolute minimum required to build even simple, yet quality, eLearning products. Often a graphic artist is required as part of the team to develop interactive content along with other specialties.
3. Requires expenditure for infrastructure, servers, connections, computers
While there is some expenditure for overall infrastructure is required, it is usually best to grow your infrastructure as your team and student populations grow. While there is a minimum level required to succeed in eLearning, you can purchase or lease limited resources to stand up the program. If you buy, try to buy expandable resources so that as you grow, you do not need to replace your equipment, but simply add to your existing equipment. All computer equipment becomes obsolete in about 5 years, but until that day comes, try to buy expandable equipment to accommodate growth and new technologies. For example, think back to your first cell phone and compare that to your cell phone of today. There is a huge infrastructure behind that phone’s use, all of which has grown as the technology has matured. For example, my first cell phone I purchased back in 1990 was called a “bag phone” as it was the size of a woman’s handbag. It was a phone with no other features at all. Today’s cell phones not only contain phones but a myriad of other applications, cameras, software to entertain and connect us to people we don’t even know.
4. Requires consumers to be at least computer savvy if not proficient
While the old concept of “distance learning” required the student only to be able to read the books mailed to them, we have come to the point now that the student must have reasonably modern computer equipment and the ability to effectively use that hardware and maybe its congruent software.
5. Can lead to isolation and a lack of cohesive learning experience
eLearning is not for everyone. If the student is the type of person who requires a lot of human interaction, eLearning can be daunting, especially if the learning opportunity is one which does not require interaction with other students on line.
6. Requires a degree of self-discipline.
As said earlier, there are two forms of eLearning, synchronous and asynchronous. Asynchronous, or learning without the omnipresent instructor, requires a significant degree of self-discipline in order to complete assignments. With no one periodically checking on the student, some students rapidly fall behind, lose interest and ultimately, eLearning takes the rap.
The Single Most Important Factor in Successful eLearning
If you’ve read any of my other articles on this site, you know that I’m a stickler for systems and processes. The most important factor in successful eLearning is the appropriate use of a solid Instructional Systems Design (ISD) model. I won’t go into ISD a lot on this page; you can refer back to my other articles on JADDIE if you need a refresher on ISD. Suffice it to say here, that following a system is the key to properly creating interactive courseware that is interesting and motivating to the student.
The Second Most Important Factor in Successful eLearning
An Authoring Tool. Authoring tools enable instructional designers, SMEs, graphic artists and others to create and publish multimedia eLearning content. Modern authoring tools do not require computer coding skills, but they do require some degree of computer skills. Authoring tools enable non-programmers to quickly and easily create content and then publish to HTML or CD-ROM. Before you buy an authoring tool, I strongly recommend all the members of your team test run several versions from different companies. I’ll attach a general authoring tool checklist at the end of this document.
Ease of use should be a top priority when choosing eLearning software. If it will take weeks or months for your developers and instructors to learn the software, they won’t want to use it for their courses. Your courses should be easy for your designers to create (and maintain) and easy for your learners to use.
The Third Most Important Factor in Successful eLearning
In addition to an authoring tool, we must consider what do we do with a lesson when we have completed the authoring process? This is where the Learning Management System comes in. Each organization must have some form of a Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS is the software that allows the host organization to load, track, assess and monitor the learning content. There are literally dozens upon dozens of LMSs on the market. I’ll include a list of some of the most popular at the end of this article along with an LMS selection checklist. The key to remember is; you must have an LMS of some type in order to manage your content. The LMS will house and manage the content developed in the authoring tool. Think of it like this, you have a great recipe (ADDIE), you mix up all of your ingredients (your authoring tool), but without an oven (LMS) to cook the ingredients, they are generally worthless.
The Fourth Most Important Factor in Successful eLearning
A mobile-friendly course is one that can be successfully taken on a phone, tablet, or other mobile device. Today’s learner has their cell phone with them almost all of the time. According to T-Mobile’s website, there are now over 7 billion cell phones in the world where the world’s population is also just over 7 billion. That is an average of one phone per person across the world. Many people have 2 or more phones using one for personal and another for business. Of course I understand that some countries have very few cell phones with limited connections, but across the planet, these are the generic numbers. In America, there are about 330 million phones with our population of about 320 million people. The point of this is that we as a society in America are glued to our mobile devices. We use them for not only keeping in touch with family, business and shopping but also to learn things. We routinely search YouTube for videos on how to do various tasks. Just recently I could not figure out how to remove the battery from my Corvette. I searched YouTube on my mobile phone while in the garage standing next to my Corvette. I quickly found 18 videos showing how to remove the battery. (Corvettes are very compact and use every inch of the under the hood space making it difficult to get to the battery.) So the point of this is that while we can build content using our ISD system and our authoring system and host it on our cool LMS, if the content is not “mobile friendly” we may well lose our student audience who wants to view the content on their phone or other mobile device. This can be pretty tricky if not approached with intelligence. There are hundreds of various mobile devices with a variety of different browsers to deal with. It’s also important to know that Apple products, iPhone, iPad, etc., do not support Adobe Flash. Adobe and Apple do not play well together. The point of this is, if you have a number of Flash videos embedded in your content, you are going to lose a number of your students who are Apple users.
Your newly developed course must talk with your LMS. Without that communication and your LMS managing student’s progress, your students will quickly dump your program. eLearning courses and LMSs need a common language so that courses can send information back to the LMS. To facilitate this, the eLearning industry has come up with several eLearning standards that allow courses created by any one course developed within standards to communicate with an LMS. We in the eLearning business have settled on four main types of standards an LMS will use to communicate. These include the AICC, HTML, SCORM, xAPI formats.
Note on Phil Dodds: If you’ve seen the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you’ve seen Phil Dodds. He was the sound engineer who played the now famous notes to begin communications with the alien ship.
With HTML 5 (Hyperlink Text Markup Language), eLearning developers can create more engaging and interactive training for use on mobile devices and tablets. Since the output runs within the browser instead of a standards package, you have more options when creating interactive content.
Hosting Your Courses
All of your great course development efforts are for naught if you can’t get them to the students. That’s where a special skill set and a software product called a learning management system (LMS) comes in. The LMS is a software application that administers, delivers, tracks, and reports on the your content to your students. Let’s examine the functions of an LMS.
Administration: The act of supporting, updating, and maintaining the LMS and the courseware that is houses.
Delivery: The presentation of the courseware to the student in a student friendly manner which engages the student.
Tracking: The recording of each learner’s actions while participating in the courseware.
Reporting: The search and retrieve capability of each learner’s information as they progress through the courseware.
As I stated earlier in this monolog, students now want their learning on a variety of platforms, not just a desktop computer. Learners now engage on their tablet, cell phone or similar mobile product. This means the LMS must support mobile delivery of content to allow learners to access courseware any time and any place. Some LMSs also allow learners to not only access courseware, but also to download the courseware in segments and then access the content while offline. This can save the student considerable money if they have a “pay per gigabyte” plan.
Course Development Using an ISD Model
The key to any successful learning project; electronically delivered or otherwise, is following a sound instructional model. You probably know there are dozens of very successful models available for use. One only needs to Google “ADDIE” to come up with literally hundreds of models. Most any ISD model will work for you, but make sure it’s a model you understand. As an example in this article, I’ll use the newest model being touted by the Association for Talent Development (TD.org), the “Successive Approximations Model, SAM”. Let’s take a quick look at SAM, and then we’ll go through the model’s basic steps to build an eLearning course.
There are three Phases to SAM: 1-Preparation Phase, 2-Iterative Design Phase, and 3-Iterative Development Phase. The key to SAM is its “rolling” nature. SAM is the latest well publicized attempt to produce a “non-linear” ISD model. Many people view even the basic ADDIE model as linear and therefore, inflexible. In reality, my opinion is that any ISD model should be used in a flexible manner and move from section to section as necessary to accomplish the task of course development. Many people do not agree with this and this “non-linear” need has driven a more iterative model, such as SAM.
The model is relatively self-explanatory. The key is in the two iterative phases you have the ability to work in a “circular” manner, which is an iterative manner, going back through the steps in the phase to revise the work as you go. To me, this just makes good sense, regardless of the graphic of the model.
OK, so let’s discuss building an eLearning course using SAM. First we need to step through the Preparation Phase.
In the Preparation Phase, it’s important to gather all of the team members who will be working on the course to share all relevant information. Why is the course being developed, who are and what do we know about the target audience, what resources do we have available and so forth. At a minimum, there are seven roles, which ideally, would be seven people that need to be filled to create eLearning courseware. The six roles are: 1 - Instructional Systems Designer, 2 - eLearning Courseware Developer, 3 - Courseware Programmer, 4 - Media Production Specialist, 5 - Subject Matter Expert, 6 - Stakeholder, and 7 - Pilot Participant. Let’s take a look at each role to understand how each fits into the development life cycle of a course.
1. Instructional Systems Designer (ISD)
The ISD is the leader and the senior advisor. This person is also the ultimate arbitrator of disputes. The ISD will use an instructional design model and adult learning theories to guide content development that learners will want to participate in. The ISD designs lesson structure, and creates flowcharts and storyboards. They develop templates, style guide, standards and instructional strategies for IMI lessons as well as assist with lesson authoring when required. The ISD reviews completed lesson designs, flowcharts, and storyboards for instructional integrity and conformance with standards and strategies. The ISD sets up specific duties for each member of the team and tracks their progress for reporting to Stakeholders and other interested parties.
2. eLearning Courseware Developer (eCD)
The eLearning Courseware Developer is the creator of finished content. This person is responsible for using an authoring tool to turn the content into an interactive course with a logical flow and formative and summative assessments to assess content mastery. The eCD is responsible for the overall development and production of IMI products based upon the instructional design. The eCD may either coordinate the creation of static and animated graphics, performance exercises, simulations, and interactive sequences to ensure the overall educational soundness of the program or perform these personally, depending on the scope of the program. Finally, the eCD programs lessons with a courseware development/authoring tool.
3. Courseware Programmer (CP)
The CP programs lessons with authoring languages such as HTML 5, ADOBE CAPTIVATE, ARTICULATE or similar software programs. The CP is the person who actually develops static and animated graphics with authoring languages and converts all content developed by the eCD into usable on-line content. The CP posts the actual lessons on the Learning Management System.
4. Media Production Specialist (MPS)
The MPS may also be called a Graphic Artist, Graphic Designer or Multimedia Designer. Regardless of the name, the MPS creates the visuals for the course. This person is also responsible for creating a style guide. A style guide is critical to the standardization of content. The MPS uses specific software tools to create content, suitable for electronic delivery and develops graphics and is the advisor for visual conventions. The MPS films motion and still-frame sequences, conducts and manages the audio narration and assists in planning media layout.
It’s also important to note that sometimes these three roles (eCD, CP and MPS) are combined. The ability to combine these tasks is directly proportional to two things; one, the skills of the person and two, the workload. The eCD may have knowledge and experience needed to create content within the tool as well as design features. A person who is in this combined role should act on behalf of each interest separately. It’s important to note that even though roles might be combined, the timeliness of the delivery is likely to suffer as the tasked person can only do just so much whereas two or three people can divide the work and accomplish it in a more proficient and expeditious manner.
5. Subject Matter Expert (SME)
The Subject Matter Expert (SME) is the person who is considered the most knowledgeable on a topic who is available for work on the project. This person is responsible for developing accurate content under the guidance of the Instructional Designer. The SME provides information on the lesson subject matter. They review lesson designs, flowcharts, storyboards, and programmed lessons for technical accuracy and currency. The SME authors lessons as required under the guidance of the ISD. If separate lesson plans, such as might be organizationally required in a WORD document or similar format, then the SME is responsible for writing these lesson plans.
6. Stakeholder(s) (SH)
The SH is the person who normally has requested the eLearning courseware to be developed. There may be multiple stakeholders or only one. Either way, this person (or persons) is a critical player in the development of courseware. Typically, this person holds the purse strings and provides funding for the course, although this is not always the case. The ISD is responsible for meeting with the SH in the Preparation Phase of the SAM to gather key information. Topics that must be resolved early are:
Resources (human and material)
Written charter for the project
7. Pilot Participants (PPs)
The PP is a person who has a vested interest in the target audience. They may be a member of the target audience or a supervisor of the target audience. This person provides feedback on the course during the different SAM Phases. The PP will use knowledge of the content and knowledge of the other members of the target audience to ensure the content is accurate and presented properly.
IMI Implementation Team.
Once the content is ready for delivery, another team must be in place to support the delivery. Some or all of these people may be dual-hatted from the courseware development team. It’s critical to remember that if any of the development team staff are repurposed into the IMI Implementation Team, their effectiveness as courseware development team is at least reduced, if not eliminated.
1. Configuration Manager (CM)
The CM catalogs, stores, and distributes courseware materials including student guides, workbooks, flowcharts, storyboard hard copy, lesson design hard copy, flowcharts, lesson disks, backup disks or tapes, and version updates.
2. LMS System Administrator (LMS SA)
The LMS SA enrolls students and tracks student progress through LMS reports. The CA maintains records on student progression and provides student progression records to instructors as well as course completion certificates to students.
3. Information Technology Specialist (ITS)
The ITS manages the technical resources of the ADL system. The ITS must be thoroughly familiar with the infrastructure, hardware, and software requirements to support the ADL system. Provides guidance on issues such as firewalls, encryption, and virus protection. Additionally, the ITS may possess the technical expertise to manage the network. This person provides guidance to managers during the courseware development process to ensure that managers are informed of software programs and programming languages that may be prohibited. The ITS also provides guidance on the infrastructure requirements to support ADL.
Note: This listing is for conducting what I consider “real eLearning” that is IMI level 3 or 4. Once I worked in an organization where the senior leaders fell in love with what we jokingly came to call the “5 minute video solution”. Every “training” event on line became a “5 minute video” solution with no interactivity. We needed fewer people and cutting costs was really all the company cared about.
Once we have the key players assembled we need to collect any relevant background information. You might think of this as the ANALYSIS phase of ADDIE, because in reality, that’s what you’re doing.
The first step is to review any existing information and issues and come to an educated conclusion on how to continue. There are many ways to do this ranging from having all participants write their responses on paper (not recommended - really old school and difficult to capture, but it does work), brainstorming with capture on chart paper or computer or even using a more high tech collaborative data gathering system such as THINKTANK or similar software products. This is my preferred method as it lets each participate be free to document all their ideas without condemnation from their peers and it captures each input into a discrete “bucket”. During this step, it’s important to ask the proverbial six questions of good data gathering: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
Specifically, you need to capture:
Who is the target audience?
What is your overall learning objective? Is this objective suitable for delivery in an eLearning format?
When does the content need to be delivered and for how long?
Where will the eLearning be delivered? That is, what e-platform will students need and will they participate during normal work hours or will attendees be expected to complete the courseware on their own time?
Why is eLearning being created (rather than some other method)?
How does eLearning resolve an issue better than more traditional leaning methods?
When answering the first question about the target audience, the ISD team must determine key factors like:
Level in the organization
Accessibility to technology to support receiving eLearning content
All of this information is gathered in the SAM “Savvy Start” Phase of the courseware development. The next SAM Phase is the Iterative Design Phase.
Iterative Design Phase
This Phase begins the actual Project Planning and then developing prototypes. A key thing to note here is that the prototypes are not expected to be perfect, hence the name prototypes and the concept of iterative development. Prototypes may be recycled many times before achieving the level of perfection suitable for the particular project.
As in developing traditional courseware, the one critical question that must be answered early on is, “What is your objective?” Just as with traditional learning, your objective in eLearning is a goal, which the learner should be able to achieve after completing the course. The goal may be a cognitive, affective or psychomotor action, but it must be something that can be achieved in an eLearning format. As I said earlier, not everything can be taught to the desired level in eLearning. Anything can be taught, but not necessarily to the level desired in the desired domain. I’m not going to delve into the writing of objectives in this monograph as they are addressed in other writings on the website. Suffice it to say here that you must know the primary domain of learning and the level of learning within that domain in order to prepare sound learning objectives.
After developing your objective(s), you begin to design the course. This is often done as a team effort lead by the instructional designer creating storyboards with primary input from the SME.
The most common way to create a storyboard is using Microsoft PowerPoint™ as most people involved in this type of work are already proficient in PowerPoint. I can’t overstress how important developing fully fleshed out story boards are to the creation of good eLearning content. Well-designed story boards that are handed off to the multimedia developer will make the development of the prototype eLearning content much easier and faster. A prototype is a roughly constructed course that includes placeholders for tentative content but still gives everyone an idea of how the course will look. This makes the development of the first prototype much faster and can get the draft product into its first evaluation. This means the iterative design cycle can move faster and get into the Iterative Development Phase that much sooner. Once an objective and purpose has been determined, it’s time to create a script and storyboard. Your script should be easy to read, so play around with the font size and format. Be sure to select a font that’s easily seen from multiple distances. The script should also be concisely written with fillers removed, unfamiliar terms explained, and free of spelling errors. Include formatting clues that help identify important moments within the script like bolding a particular word or phrase. The storyboard should give everyone involved an idea of actor placement, shoot angles, and shot types no matter if you’re making videos with live actors, avatars or Legos.
Iterative Development Phase
Once the design is complete in the Iterative Design Phase of SAM, the storyboards are handed off to the course developer who possesses the knowledge and tools to create the first cut of the courseware. The Iterative Development Phase is when the eLearning Courseware Developer (eCD) uses the storyboards to create a course. The graphic designer acts as a working partner, providing additional material as needed. The instructional designer oversees and provides advice during the process regarding instructional strategies. The SME is also available to answer questions about the specific topic or process.
The content is now fully fleshed out through multiple iterative development efforts. A major part of this Iterative Development is loading the draft content onto the Learning Management System. This will include a trial run with a simulated target audience as well as a draft of all evaluation systems. In SAM, there are four iterations of this Phase, the Design Proof stage, the Alpha stage, Beta stage and Gold stage. Each of these stages refines the level of detail and e perfection quality, until after the Gold stage, the product is ready for full blown target audience delivery. These terms are borrowed from software development theory. Since eLearning content development does indeed include many factors similar to software delivery, it’s appropriate to appropriate some software terms for use in eLearning development.
At the beginning of the development phase, a plan is made to produce a design proof, which is typically the product of the first cycle. Projects with large amounts of content will require a cycle for each type of instructional approach. Approval or disapproval will determine whether:
Additional design work or design rework is needed. If so, the process returns to iterative design to produce needed designs.
Another development iteration is needed to make corrections.
Iterative development can proceed to producing an alpha version of the final product.
The design proof is essentially a visual, functional demonstration of the proposed solution that integrates samples of all components to test and prove viability. It has greater functionality or usability than the design prototypes and is built with the same tools that will produce the final deliverable. In this way, it not only tests the viability of the design, but also of the production system.
Since we’re talking about course development for eLearning that means technology is involved, so the design proof needs to run on the equipment and network to be used by learners and demonstrate functional communication with the learning management system. The design proof evaluation is a critical event in the process. Design proofs are used to scout out potential problems so they don’t become last-minute crises. It’s the big opportunity for the design team and the stakeholders to check how the course will function as a whole. At this point, it is possible to get the clearest sense of what the overall solution is becoming while still having time to note corrections that are clearly needed.
The first production cycle produces the design proof, which provides an opportunity to confirm all design decisions by actually presenting and testing a functional application on the intended delivery platform.
The Design proof tests:
whether the design is in a form that communicates requirements effectively
the suitability of development tools and processes.
Design proofs combine sample content, including examples of all components, with design treatments. Text and media are polished and representative of the final quality to be expected for all similar elements.
Create a Prototype
A prototype is a preliminary model of your course. To do this you’ll place together a sample of everything you determined in the design phase. To create a prototype:
1. Start by creating a page with the correct width, size, orientation, and grid determined when discussing layout
2. Duplicate the page and incorporate at least three different
3. page layouts (maximum of six)
4. Adjust the font to match specification
5. Change the color to match your color scheme
6. Add sample images and be prepared to present alternatives
7. Add navigation that blends into the design
Modify the Prototype
Using the prototype created after design you can now begin to add course objects. To modify the prototype, complete one or all of the steps as needed:
1. Develop pages that include interactivity
2. Add audio
3. Add video
4. Develop the course using accessibility best practices
5. Develop the course using responsive design best practices
6. Prepare the course for translation
7. Add a test
The alpha is a complete version of the instructional application to be validated against the approved design. All content and media are implemented. If problems exist, and there will be problems, these known problems are listed. No major, undocumented issues are expected to be found, but it’s nevertheless common for them to surface despite everyone’s best efforts. Evaluation of the alpha release identifies deviations from style guides, graphical errors, text changes, sequencing problems, missing content, lack of clarity, and functional problems. The stakeholder, SME, and pilot participant will act as advisors while completing the process.
The second production cycle (or set of cycles for large projects) produces the alpha from approved designs.
Full content development integration occurs in this cycle. Samples no longer suffice.
The alpha is nearly the final version of the complete instructional program to be validated against the approved design. All content and media are implemented.
Completion and approval of the alpha signals the beginning of the validation cycles.
Review of the alpha is expected to find only minor deviations from style guides, writing issues, graphical errors, and functional problems.
Because errors are nearly always found in alpha releases, a second cycle, called the validation cycle, is scheduled as part of the process to produce a second final product candidate, the Beta release. The beta is a modified version of the alpha that incorporates needed changes identified during evaluation of the alpha. If all goes as expected and corrections are made carefully, the beta review should discover few errors, and those errors discovered should include only minor typographical errors, or corrections in graphics.
The alpha release is modified to reflect errors identified in its evaluation. The resulting beta release is viewed as a first gold release candidate. There should be no functional errors at this stage.
The beta release should be evaluated by not only subject matter experts, but also by actual learners representative of the target population.
Construction of the gold release is the final phase of development. At this point, while no project ever reaches perfection, the courseware becomes fully usable within the parameters of previously approved project guidelines.
If problems are identified, they must be rectified before the beta release can be given the gold crown. A modified version of a beta, “beta 2” and, if necessary, a succession of numbered candidates is produced until all problems are resolved.
When the beta performs as expected and no additional problems are identified, it simply becomes the gold release without further development and is ready for rollout.
Rollout signals the beginning of an evaluation study to determine whether targeted behaviors are actually achieved and whether these new behaviors secure the performance success expected.
508/WCAG Compliant (Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Web Content Accessibility Guide.)
Ok folks here is one that embarrassed me. I first encountered this Section 508 compliance issue when I was the Dean of the Joint Special Operations University. Considering my students were some of the most physically fit people on the planet I thought it was ridiculous to require our eLearning content to be 508 compliant. Our Air Force, Army and Navy special ops troops were all eagle eyed and very physically fit. I lobbied quietly to ignore the 508 until the events of 9/11 and the resulting movement of our Special Ops troops into Afghanistan. Shortly after the Afghanistan war started, one of the leaders called me and asked if we would take an injured Navy SEAL on staff at the University until he recovered fully from injuries sustained in combat. Of course I said yes. To my surprise, this particular SEAL had sustained eye injuries and was mostly blind. He had some vision but was very limited. I learned a lesson real quick that no matter how fit you may be, you can lose your eyesight or some other ability real quick, especially in combat. I became an advocate for 508 after meeting this warrior who worked on our staff developing curriculum for about a year while he recovered his eyesight. 508 compliance is based on the Workforce Rehabilitation Act, which is a law that requires federal agencies and their contractors to make their electronic and information technology accessible to those with disabilities. The Section 508 requirements are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), an international set of standards. You can learn much more at the 508 website. Here are a few things to consider when creating a 508 compliant training course:
ALT Tags (object names) are used for images and media
ALT Tags are turned off for decorative images
Descriptions are available for complex graphics
Skip navigation link is on each page
Audio includes a transcript and/or captions
Video includes captions and voiceover
Text headers are identified for text
Column headers are identified for tables
Labels are used for form elements and questions
• Transparent buttons used as hot spots have appropriate ALT tags
Games and tests are not timed
Attachments are accessible within their native application
Color is used as a secondary way to convey meaning
A language is declared for the title and any necessary text blocks
Images and text do not flash
When developing a responsive course, you’ll want to:
Use device-based page layouts to speed up design
Create in desktop mode then move from the inside out (tablet then phone)
Review each device individually
Remove items on the page using inheritance
eLearning Software Companies
There are literally several hundred companies involved in producing and selling software to support eLearning programs. This quantity is a testament to the growing use of eLearning as a routine medium for learning. Companies always follow the money and these companies would not exist if it was not a lucrative opportunity to make money. I have listed just a few companies below that I have at least tangential experience with, some much more than others. This is not in any way intended to be an all-inclusive list, merely a starter set of some companies that I of which I have some knowledge. A simple web search will return these and many, many more. I have not included URLs since they change fairly often.
Learning Management Systems
Adobe Captivate Prime