Dream eLearning: No Constraints

June 17th, 2011
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Earlier this week I received an inquiry about eLearning design.  This gentleman said he was interested in how I would convert his paper-based training to online training, without the constraints of any particular application.  Hmmm…. 

I thought about hanging up on this obvious crank caller.  “Everything is constrained”, I thought!  Then I remembered a video that hit the training circuit many years ago.  It documented the process used by Ideo in the design of a new style of shopping cart for stores such as Whole Foods.  Constraints were not part of that process; quite the opposite.  (Like just about everyone else who has watched that video, I think this would be the coolest place in the world to work). 

So…what would be my no-holds-barred, dream design for eLearning?  If I were approached by someone who asked me what I wanted, I would say: 

  • Interaction in meaningful ways.  I like to write, but not everyone does.  I like to joke around and get to know people, but some people can do that only in person.  I’d like to be able to communicate with them in some way that worked for all of us, even if we were continents apart. 
  • Memorable lessons.  I learn best by experience and when the topic is of interest to me.  I can remember a first-grade lesson in how to use serial commas.  The exercise used Santa’s reindeer.  What child could forget that?  Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen…  If the exercise had been about fruit – apples, pears, and bananas – I would not have been nearly as interested in getting it right. 
  • Field trips.  I like to go places and see things.  I like to put learning into context.  In grade school, we took a trip to Sturbridge Village to learn about silversmithing (among other things). There is nothing quite as convincing as seeing a silver spoon come out of a mold with only a drop of silver going in.  That lesson was so much more effective than a formula depicting the yield of pure silver. 
  • Variety.  Another lesson I remember is from ninth-grade science class.  We went outside during the afternoon – when the schoolyard was empty – to measure relative humidity.  We could have performed an experiment inside, but we did that all the time.  The mere act of walking through the quiet hallways and out those forbidden doors made the experiment memorable. 
  • Blood flow.  I know that most learning takes place between the synapses.  But my brain doesn’t fire very well if my feet and butt are still.  I like to get up, walk around, ponder, dream…

How can eLearning do all these things?

Well, it can’t completely.  At least not with old paradigms.  But it can do all those things in a new way… 

  • Every course should have multiple methods of sharing, so that every student has a chance to communicate in his own way. Include forums, chats, and if you’re using Moodle, the blocks for “online users” and “participants”; enable messaging.
  • Lessons should use examples that are meaningful to the audience.  A colleague of mine mentored young girls who saw little value in learning about math. Their interest was piqued, however, when they realized that math would enable them to get the most from their shopping dollars.  Which was a better deal: A sale offering one third off the price of one pair or a 2-for-1 special?
  • Field trips can be virtual or not.  I try to build my Moodle courses with “field trips for the mind” by including links to relevant external sites.  Whenever possible, build in actual field trips.  For a class in biology, create an assignment that takes students to a nearby lake or river, have them gather plants, take pictures or videos, and post them as their assignments along with whatever written information you’d like them to include.
  • Mix it up with videos, games, flash, and reading materials.  Add a Prezi or two. Pop in some fun quizzes or puzzles along the way.  Engage a guest speaker (live or on-demand) for some of the lessons.
  • Break up the lessons into smaller chunks so that students can get up without leaving in the middle of a topic.  At the end of each section, have a note pop up that says “time to take a break”.  This is a good place to work in your field trips (the actual kind). 

Once you’ve designed these elements into your training, find the software and experts to create them.  Don’t start with software and force your design to its abilities.  For authoring tools and ideas for using various features in your eLearning courses, check out these earlier posts: 

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Competency Frameworks: A First Step

June 8th, 2011
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I’ve been seeing the phrase “competency frameworks” a lot lately.  I’m glad.  I’ve long been concerned about the disconnect between training content and job performance.  In a quarter decade of business training, I have rarely felt much attention was given to the question: “What do these people need to know to do better in their jobs?”  I often felt that training was designed from the starting point of “here’s what I know so that’s what I’ll teach”.

So, what is a competency framework and how will it improve the effectiveness of training?

Ratings of Exceptional, Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, etc.The HR Dictionary defines competency framework as “the set of duties or tasks performed as part of a job with the standards which should be achieved in these duties”.

OK, so for every training course we design, we need to know:

  • What job are we training for?  In other words, what duties or tasks are we teaching someone how to do?
  • What are the standards that we will measure against?  How will we know if our students have learned enough of the right things to perform those duties?  How will we know our training accomplished this?

In my mind, competencies for education are fairly well-defined and adhered to by a very strict accreditation system.  It is relatively easy to accurately measure students’ understanding of geometry, grammar, or DaVinci’s work.  Education provides foundational knowledge; training is the application of that knowledge in a specific situation.  My brother-in-law (a math whiz) was always amazed at how his grandfather used calculus in his machine working job.  But Granddad didn’t actually know calculus; he knew some rules for machining.  My brother-in-law, with his foundational knowledge, can apply what he knows about math to just about any situation.

The difficulty with business training is that job descriptions (and their related competencies) change frequently.  People in those jobs come from varying backgrounds.  Often, people have to adapt to new job requirements because that’s the best thing for the company.  An example would be that of typists.  There’s no such thing as a typing pool any more.  For awhile, typists were converted to word processors (using machines of the same name).  That transition required an entirely new competency: using a computer.

Businesses try to fill the gap between “knowledge/skill” of workers (old, young, new, tenured) and what they need at that moment, with training.  Not only is it difficult to determine what training is required for that gap, it is even harder to measure if the training is effective.  Sadly, it is even more difficult because often the very people in charge of these efforts are not competent in training design or testing!  I’m hoping that with increased emphasis on it from a software view, there will be some attention to the concept itself.

Much the same as when mapping a process, the people who do the job should be involved in the determination of the necessary competencies.  Mind Tools™ has posted an excellent article on the subject, which includes a step by step guide to get it done.  As they say, it will take a lot of effort; effort by the people who actually know the positions.

The US Army is very good at defining job duties and training to them. Every job, at every classification, has defined skills within the MOS system. (Note: this term varies by branch of service, but the structure is very similar.)  Here is an example for a US Army Corp of Engineers Diver for five skill levels.  Notice how this also includes required scores on fitness and written tests, as well as other requirements.  Those developing the training would start with these requirements, not with what they felt like teaching!

I encourage you to read as much as you can about the concept of competency frameworks (start with this Wikipedia article), browse through the Army’s MOS listings (for ideas on how to structure yours), and do your own Internet searches.  To read more on how competency frameworks are critical to the success of your business, visit my blog for earlier posts (such as this one) on testing in a business environment and this one on Purpose-Objectives-Goals for business training.  Future posts are planned for how Moodle supports competency frameworks through grades, scales, and outcomes.

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Calculating the Footprint of Your Training

April 15th, 2011
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What footprint are you leaving on Earth?For any business deciding whether or not to replace existing training with eLearning (and in what proportion), there are several factors* to consider, including the “ecological footprint” of various training methods.

I can’t tell you what the footprint of your training is, but I can tell you how I calculated mine when I created my “Leave a Legacy, Not a Footprint” eWheel in 2007.  If you follow the same steps, you will be able to understand your impact and reduce it, even if you are not able to calculate the exact value.

1. Processes

The first thing I did was to make a list of environmental aspects and impacts associated with the processes of face-to-face training and eLearning. I also looked at meetings; in-person vs. using web technology.  My list of processes:

 

  • Building training facilities (not used otherwise); material production and transportation, land use
  • Furnishing training facilities (furniture, electronics; production, shipment, disposal)
  • Using facilities (air conditioning, heating, water use and treatment)
  • Printing of paper materials, including drafts/mistakes that are thrown away
  • Production of non-paper materials used in face-to-face
  • Shipping of materials to training site
  • Traveling by instructors and participants to training site, daily commuting or extended stays
  • Living arrangements for instructors and participants who are not commuting

I made the assumption that with virtual learning, there would be a negligible increase in computer usage because in 2007 most office workers had at least one work computer and one home computer, all being served by network servers connected through intranet and Internet equipment.  To be completely fair, if everyone did everything electronically, the environmental impact of computers would rise, but by how much I don’t know.

2. Aspects

 

From the processes, I made a list of environmental aspects associated with them.  An aspect is an output of your process that you can touch (and possibly measure) that will affect the environment.

  • CO2 (metric tons) – every process above contributes to this aspect.
  • Freshwater used (gallons)
  • Water treated (gallons)
  • Electricity used (KWhr)
  • Heat produced (therms)
  • Crude Oil (barrels)
  • Noise (decibels/hour)
  • Light pollution
  • Pollution (from chemical used in production and disposal)
  • Non-productive time (person-hrs)

Next, I searched the web to find data on each of these.  I found three particularly helpful sites:

  • The Oil Drum – discussions about energy and our future.  This site gave me a great starting place for calculating the impacts of travel.
  • CarbonFund.org – I used their formulae for calculating the carbon footprint of travel and office activities.
  • Ecological Footprint analysis of The Countryside Council for Wales offers a comprehensive look at how our daily activities impact the environment.

Each of these sources led me to several additional sources.  Because many of the aspects are algebraically equivalent to others (e.g., carbon dioxide per therm is a known value), I pared the list down to these three:

  • Carbon Dioxide (pounds)
  • Crude Oil (barrels)
  • Non-productive Time (hours)

3. Impacts

links to an electronic wheel to "calculate" the ecological footprint of training and working

Click & Spin

Environmental impacts are defined as the change in an aspect between doing nothing and doing something.  They are measured as the increase or decrease in each aspect, due to a change in your process.

Click the wheel and spin it to see the final values.  They represent the increase in each aspect (CO2, Crude Oil, Non-productive time) of each type of training over no training.

If I had been preparing a business case (instead of creating a marketing wheel) I would have been more precise in my calculations.  Still, a relative comparison of face-to-face vs. virtual activities presents a strong argument for using eLearning if your objective is to reduce waste (both environmental and time).

Take it one step at a time

Including footprint analysis in your decision process should make it easier for you to decide how to use eLearning in your business.  Every day, more data becomes available, so it will get easier.  Don’t worry about including every last aspect and impact into your initial calculations; the Pareto Principle applies!

  1. List the processes
  2. List the aspects of those processes
  3. Measure or calculate the impacts

Additional Reading

*The following posts from The eLearning Coach are a good a good place to start when writing a business case for eLearning, considering costs, intangibles, and other non-environmental criteria.

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Sustainable eLearning is Great eLearning

April 14th, 2011
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Ideas for Sustainable PracticesLast month I was amused as I read online instructions for participants in a webinar on Sustainability (of all things). It said “download the presentation file and print three slides per page to save trees”.  Wow! Why print it at all?

I would like to propose that your online training – whether it’s a Moodle course, an eLearning course in another LMS, or a webinar – can be both GREAT and environmentally responsible.  Here are some ideas to enrich your training while doing better by the environment, your students, and your wallet:

1. Take full advantage of online technology.  If you design an eLearning course, making it all that it can be, printing won’t make any sense.

  • Interactive features from games to online chats are meaningless in paper form.
  • Linked text loses its value when printed. Colors disappear.
  • Animations – even simple ones in PowerPoint – are ineffective when printed.
  • Start thinking of training in terms of screens instead of slides.   PowerPoint really isn’t the right tool to present content online.

2. Provide printable material that reinforces your message; not the entire presentation itself.

  • Create full color and illustrated, 10 Tips to Save More Than Paper that serve as references and reminders for the most important messages of your course content.
  • Offer these tip sheets as “rewards” for attending your webinar, taking the course, posting to forums, submitting a great assignment, or getting a high score on a quiz.
  • Use your imagination and make them great.  The best part:  they don’t have to be printed to be useful.  Let your students decide!

3. Build an app that does something your course teaches.  Perhaps it can determine the lumber needed for a tool shed with input on dimensions, calculate the calories burned during a Downward Dog, or plot a graph of this month’s daily revenues.

4. Commission a wheel or slide chart.  Flexigroup offers both print and electronic versions, such as the one I created to compare footprints for eLearning vs. face to face training

  • The electronic version comes with an optional PDF that can be downloaded and put together by the user.
  • My “put it together yourself version” was a huge hit at a trade show.  I ran out the first morning!

Make sure your contact information, logo, and tagline are on every piece.

Additional Reading (and lots more links!) on Sustainability

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Web Accessibility Issues and Options for eLearning Text and Images

March 25th, 2011
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image of a laptop with a megaphone speakerIn response to my post on why web accessibility for elearning is important and how even small businesses can achieve it, I received an email from ReadSpeaker, informing me of their free WordPress plugin.  They tell me they’re working on a plugin for Moodle.  If it works as well as the WordPress version, I can’t wait!

This post addresses how to make text and images accessible to the vision impaired by use of a screen reader such as ReadSpeaker.  Since I’m going to talk about web accessibility as it applies to elearning content only – not any particular LMS – what I learned with the WordPress installation will also apply to Moodle and other LMS content. Obviously, other eLearning elements (such as forms, games, and flash) will be more or less accessible than text and images, depending upon the specific disability. These will be covered in future posts (as I have a chance to check out the options.)

ReadSpeaker was the only screen reader I tested and I tested only their free version.  It took me about five minutes to install on my other blog, Bee-Learn.com.  I was both pleased and surprised at what I found.

What I found with ReadSpeaker, which gives me a really good idea of how my content would be read by any screen reader:

How it treats text

  • In a post on the Lean 5S, the speaker read “fives”; it never occurred to me that it could be interpreted as a plural term.  I will make a point of putting a space in terms like that so that they will be read as “five ess”, which is how it is intended.
  • Slashes are read, which is ok because we would often say it.
  • It pauses at commas, periods, and line breaks.
  • Ellipses are not read, but do result in a pause.  I suppose that’s good because I wouldn’t want it to read “dot dot dot”, but a little meaning is lost… I am not sure how to compensate for this but at least I’m aware of it now.
  • “Cool” is read Coool. Cool!
  • mmmm… is read as Em Em Em Em Not good, but ReadSpeaker has a process for submitting mispronounced words.  Although eLearning is typically more formal than emails, blogs, and text messages, I can see enormous value in adding colloquialisms and acronyms to the screen reader’s vocabulary.
  • I know that acronyms and sounds can be added to the vocabulary because it correctly reads WYSIWYG.  That’s awesome!
  • The title of the page was never spoken.  Presumably this is because it is a different element of the page, although to a sighted person, it appears as part of the same page (by design).

How it treats images

  • The title of the image is read by the screen reader.  This is the stuff that pops up when you run your mouse over the image.  (Note: In WordPress this is typically the name/title of the image file; in Moodle it is the alternate text.  Most articles on this refer to the alternate text.  Test it out on your site, just to make sure you’ve got your description in the right place to be read.)  Because the screen reader can detect it, you can improve the experience for the vision impaired by creating alternate text that is descriptive of the photo.  For example:
    • In this post on the new Moodle navigation button, I originally had titled the image “beelearncoursehome”.  I changed it to “This image represents the original home navigation button on BeeLearn.com, from 2006”, which is read by ReadSpeaker.
    • In this post on Lean 5 S, I changed the title of the image of the desk to read “shown here is an antique roll top desk, piled high with a number of unrelated items.  There are flooring samples, shorts, shirts, books, baskets… It is a mess!”
  • Image captions are also read, so make sure they say something useful – and different – than the alternate text. In the above desk example, the title is read, then the caption; this is a huge improvement over my original version which had titled the image “desk5s”.
  • Since the screen reader doesn’t distinguish image alternate text from the rest of the text, I will make it a point to begin each title with something like “this photo shows…”

Writing carefully and appropriately describing images are things we should all do anyway.  They are also not the only things we can do to make our content richer for the vision impaired.  The good news is that for the most part, good instructional design principles are also good web accessibility design principles. Some advice to improve your content for everyone:

Avoid:

  • Content embedded in images, such as those produced by saving a PowerPoint file as jpegs and simply uploading them.  The individual elements (text, for instance) are not linkable and difficult to edit.  As far as a screen reader is concerned, an image is an image; there is no text on it.
  • Content residing in desktop applications (non-HTML) such as PowerPoint, Word, or PDF.  These documents have many drawbacks as online content ; they also have their own set of accessibility issues.  This will be covered in much more detail in a future post.
  • Long, scrolling pages of nothing but text.  This makes it difficult to follow, even for the most focused student without disabilities.
  • Low content to background junk ratio.  I’ve recently seen some examples of courses written in various LMS, where less than 25% of the screen was dedicated to learning content.  The rest was for navigation, warnings, frames, and even ads!  This sends a message to everyone that your content takes a backseat and it can make it difficult for a disabled student to focus on the real content.
  • Overriding CSS formatting.  Read this post on how theme and content are two separate elements.  Then read this Moodle tip on how simple copy/paste from a web page or a file can mess up your HTML formatting and override your CSS formats.

Do:

  • Build each course with all learning styles and disabilities in mind.  Even a person without a hearing disability may prefer to read about a concept than to listen to you talk about it.
  • Lay out each course and each page with those outlining skills you learned in school.  Headings make your content more sensible for everyone.  (Note: I always add a page title to the top of each Moodle page.  Moodle 2.0 will have this as an option, eliminating the need to retype the page name.)
  • Go ahead and use pictures, graphs, and even cartoons.  Keep your content rich.  Sure, there will be some elements that someone won’t be able to access.  But if you provide that content in more than one format, you’ll reach everyone.  For instance, use the alternate text option in photos to describe the photo, rather than just giving it a name.
  • Go ahead and use color.  But don’t rely on color to get your point across.  Color is highly effective for those who can see it; it is worthless for those who can’t.  Use color and at least one other distinguishing characteristic.

For more detail on designing for web accessibility, view this page at WebAIM.org.  On their site you will also find updated information on screen readers, research on web accessibility, discussions of various disabilities and how they are affected by technology.

Another great resource I found is this page from the University of Wisconsin.

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Moodle 2.0: Completion Status for Resources and Activities

March 23rd, 2011
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A checkmark in the box indicates complete!In my previous post on availability settings for Moodle resources and activities, I stated that one of the triggers of availability is the completion status of another.  Not only is completion status one of the conditions for availability of additional material, but it provides an excellent way to engage students, track their progress, and allow them to keep on a project schedule.  

For small businesses offering Moodle courses in any topic, for any reason, this new functionality is huge.  In at least half of the conversations I have with potential clients, there is a functional requirement to be able to mark items as complete, track completed items, and/or limit access to material based on the completion of other material.  In previous versions of Moodle, this was possible, but not practical for a small organization with limited resources (time to do it manually or money to custom code it). 

This post addresses how to determine completion status; to learn about how both student and teacher can monitor that status, stay tuned.

So, what defines “complete” in Moodle 2.0? 

In all cases, it is possible to choose from “don’t mark as complete”, “the student may mark as complete manually”, or “conditions must be met”.  The conditional settings vary for each activity, because not all settings make sense for everything. My suggestion is to create your content first, then go back and add conditions where it makes sense; don’t do it just to do it.

For non-graded activities such as Web Pages, Wikis, and Chats, there is on option for conditions:

  • Student must view to be marked complete (or not)

For Quizzes and Assignments, completion options are:

  • Student must view to be marked complete (or not)
  • Student must get a grade (or not).  This grade will be determined by other settings which haven’t changed from 1.9.  To learn more about the other settings in Quizzes and Assignments, and how to best use them in business training, follow the links to applicable posts by clicking here.

For Glossaries, the completion options are:

  • Student must view to be marked complete (or not)
  • Student must get a grade (or not)
  • Student must create (enter #) entries*

Forums have the most options for determining completion status:

  • Student must view to be marked complete (or not)
  • Student must get a grade (or not)
  • Student must post (enter #) discussions*
  • Student must create (enter #) discussions*
  • Student must reply to (enter #) discussions*

When choosing to mark an activity as complete when it has been viewed, do so with caution.  For longer courses and for students who are genuinely interested in learning the material, viewed is a great bookmark for where the student left off during the last visit. 

However, I think it is folly to believe that if you require students to view every page, you are guaranteeing that learning has taken place.  It isn’t too hard to hit “next” without comprehending, reading, or even looking at the monitor!  If you really want to ensure competency, use well-written quizzes and assignments and require participation in collaborative activities.

*For ideas on how to engage students by requiring participation in forums, glossaries, and other collaborative activities, read “Jazzing Up Your Moodle Courses with Collaborative Features“.

I’d like to thank the creators of the Mt. Orange School demo site for providing a place for me to learn about these features; if you’d like to play around with Moodle 2.0 yourself, check it out!

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Moodle 2.0: Availability Settings for Resources and Activities

February 27th, 2011
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Construction sign board reads Big Changes AheadIn versions of Moodle prior to 2.0, activities such as assignments and quizzes could be made available to students any time, any time after a certain date, until a certain date, or within a window of time.  However, resources were either available or hidden.  This is problematic when the course design calls for material being “released for viewing” throughout the course instead of all at once in the beginning of the course.  The burden falls on someone (usually me) to “unhide” the content on the specified date.  I have forgotten to do this a couple of times, which led to a flood of emails from panicked students. Oops. 

I am thrilled that Moodle 2.0 will allow resources to be set up with a “show” and “hide” date, just like we’ve enjoyed with assignments. If you’re unsure about the difference between a resource and an activity, check out this earlier post. 

As if this isn’t exciting enough, 2. 0 also adds contingency option settings for both resources and activities.  

Now, in addition to date restrictions, the course creator may limit access to a Moodle activity or resource based on: 

  • A minimum grade received in one or more other activities within the course
  • Completion* status of one or more other activities within the course 

If the activity or resource is not available for any of the above reasons, the course creator has an option of showing it with restriction information or hiding it completely.  When the conditions are met – whether it is a date or status of other activities – the activity or resource will automatically become available.  No more setting the alarm to “unhide” the pages at midnight.  Yeah! 

OK, so what does all of this mean to you?

If you are offering continuing education units or courses that are governed by certification requirements, such as time spent, all material viewed, minimum grades, etc., you are in a better position to demonstrate that those requirements were met.  Even if you don’t have to answer to anyone, but you have certain learning objectives in mind that require a structured journey through the material, these new options are very beneficial.  

  • Students won’t be able to jump straight to the test or the assignments without reviewing the content.
  • All activities and resources may be marked complete, so you’ll have some good data to see what students are viewing – and not viewing – without having to grade everything.
  • You’ll be able to direct students to different materials within the same course, based on their performance of prior materials. If a student fails to view a page or complete an activity to your satisfaction, you can allow access to “remedial” materials, but not the next topic or exam.
  • You will never have to worry about whether the material is hidden when it should be showing, or showing when it should be hidden. 

While I think these new options are awesome, my fear is that this will add confusion for Moodle rookies.  This type of “if…then” logic can become very complex and will require some strategy to employ reasonably.  My even worse fear is that some course creators will go wild with it, with so many contingencies that it might as well be a “view next slide” course.  I can only hope that course creators will default to no restrictions, using the conditional availability only when it supports learning objectives.   

*There are several options for determining the completion status of various resources and activities.  I will cover those in a separate post…

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Five Things to Consider for Web Accessible eLearning

February 24th, 2011
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In my post, Looking Ahead at Web Accessibility, I touched on the reasons why eLearning should be designed with accessibility in mind.  I’m not going to preach why we should do it.  I’m going to assume we’re all going to do it and get right to the how to go about it stuff.  (If you’re still not convinced, check out this blog by CourseAvenue.)

I’m also going to assume that everyone, regardless of disability, deserves and expects the experience of GREAT eLearning.  So, let’s start* with the Five Basic Things to consider when designing for web accessibility:

Will this add value to the students’ learning experience? Without it, many students will receive no value, so yes; web accessibility adds value for those who would otherwise not be able to take the eLearning course.  But the best part is the serendipitous nature of building for accessibility: it will likely add value for everyone.

The thought process of how each word, image, or feature you create will be taken in by this broader audience will enhance your understanding and connection with all of your students.  Many of the practices — such as careful outlining and more descriptive alternate text — will add to the experiences of all.

Do I have the skill? I think skill is less important than awareness and consideration.  Educate yourself on the issues.  Review examples of how a simple change can make a huge difference to someone with a disability.  The most comprehensive site on the subject that I have found is WebAim.org. If you feel that you still need to understand it better, they offer training in accessibility for both designers and administrators.

What are the options? The options range from free to costly, from software to hardware, and from designed-in to user-controlled.  For instance, ReadSpeaker is a plug-in for applications such as WordPress; the user has only to click “listen” to launch it.  JAWS is user-installed software that enables key stroke commands and Braille outputs. Other applications, such as captioning, require the designer to add that feature at the creation stage. 

I will be reviewing these options — and many more — in upcoming posts on specific features.  The first will be on web accessibility as it applies to text and images. 

How much functionality do you need from this tool? If this were a game show and you were asked to name the disabilities that could restrict access to web content, you’d probably shout out “visual impairment” without any thought.  But did you realize that color blindness is also a visual impairment?  What would your second answer be?  Many people think that because the web is written, deafness isn’t a problem.  In my previous post, I mentioned that many people are including voice that explains their content; without it, the content is meaningless.  WebAim.org gathers data on how many informational sites bury their content in videos.  Don’t make the same mistake with your eLearning. 

The answer to how much functionality is needed:  You should consider whether your eLearning audience will include those who have any form of vision impairment, have difficulty hearing, have limited motor skills, as well as the possibility of cognitive disabilities or the chance of seizures triggered by your cool fireworks flash.  Designing with these disabilities in mind will improve the quality of your content for everyone; even those of us without clinically diagnosed memory disorders appreciate intuitive content and navigation.

Will this tool work within my LMS?  Your LMS itself should be web accessible, so your concern is with making your content web accessible. An organized, well-designed layout will work anywhere.  Plugins, such as ReadSpeaker, will work in specified applications only.  Still others will have nothing to do with your LMS because the applications will be on the user-end (you’ll still have to design your content so it works with those applications.)

*Stay tuned for the next posts in this series on how web accessibility applies to the Features of GREAT eLearning:

  1. Web Accessibility Issues and Options: Text and Images
  2. Web Accessibility Issues and Options: Forms and Navigation
  3. Web Accessibility Issues and Options: Links and Documents
  4. Web Accessibility Issues and Options: Audio, Video, Flash, and Games
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Looking Ahead: Web Accessibility and How It Will Affect eLearning Content

February 13th, 2011
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Looking Ahead...I used to have eagle-eye vision.  One day, about 10 years ago, I was having trouble reading the mint stamp on a coin.  I assumed it was a double stamp.  My husband said it was perfectly clear. 

Huh? 

My eye doctor laughed and said there was more to come.  Sure enough, I began to have difficulty distinguishing between the shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower.  Why are they making those labels so small these days?  It didn’t take too long before my computer monitor had vibrating fuzzies instead of words on it. Who changed my display settings? 

I can still see a bird in a treetop a half mile away.  But without computer-reading glasses, I can’t see what I’m typing right now.  

Imagine if special glasses didn’t help. 

Imagine if you could not see what was on your monitor, your iPad, or even a large screen.  Imagine not being able to read an email, see what others are saying on Facebook, get directions to wherever you’re going, or read this blog.  This isn’t just annoying, like having to put on glasses just to read a menu. It limits one’s ability to interact, share, communicate, and learn

Thankfully, there are people who came to this revelation long before I did - and they’ve been doing something about it.  They are creating standards for technology that will not only help the vision-impaired, but those who can’t use a mouse, combine keystrokes, or are otherwise restricted in their use of computer technology.  

The W3 Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative “works with organizations around the world to develop strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities” and has developed guidelines to support this mission.  Other guidelines exist throughout the world, some of which are legally required.  

How can any of this possibly affect your eLearning courses? 

If eLearning is a component of your business, regardless of what that business is, you should be thinking about how what you do will fit with these standards. 

To give you just a hint at how what you do can affect the ability of your potential client base to use and/or enjoy your eLearning, read this great white paper from the Sloan Consortium that examined Moodle for accessibility.  A seemingly innocuous Moodle text string, “This quiz is limited to 1 attempt(s).” would be read by a screen reader as “This quiz is limited to two attempt open parenthesis ess close parenthesis.”

Yikes!  I had no idea!   

I encourage you to read the entire study; you will probably be shocked with the things that you take for granted.  I was.  I don’t have anything to do with the programming of Moodle, but I do create course content in it.  I have always taken learning styles into consideration, but I hadn’t given that much thought to how a technological interface meant to help someone with a disability might not be able to “get my meaning”.  I will from now on. It isn’t enough that the application you use is web accessible; the content must be as well.

Why should you care?

  • You could be missing a large number of potential clients - either for your eLearning or the products and services you sell that depend on online training.  Not to mention that in order to provide training (much of which is online) to any US Federal agency, that training will be required to meet Section 508 standards.  Similar government requirements will soon be in place throughout the world.
  • Depending upon your business, you could be opening yourself up for legal actions and bad publicity by creating learning (or any web) content that isn’t accessible to everyone who needs it.
  • The best reason:  It’s the right thing to do.   

I hope that I never need a screen reader, but I do appreciate web designers who use readable fonts and stick to non-vibrating colors.  I am most definitely going to make every effort to build my eLearning content in a manner that not only meets these guidelines and standards, but provides quality information that is as interesting and engaging as it is for those without disabilities. 

Please follow me on Twitter and/or subscribe to my RSS feed and newsletter.  I will be covering web accessibility in many posts to come…

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Five Things to Consider When Choosing Game Creation Applications

January 20th, 2011
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Using games to enhance learning has been a widely-accepted tool for many years and has gained ground in this past decade*.  Most business training workshops include at least a few team activities and “simulations”.  They serve to get people up and moving about andworking together as a team, in addition to applying concepts in a “real world” scenario.

Accepting games as a necessary part of GREAT eLearning, let’s look at them in terms of the Five Basic Things:

Will games add value to the students’ learning experience? Pilots have long been taught to fly using flight simulators. Video and computer games allow more people to “experience” more than they could in real-life or even in a mocked up scenario.

Studies have consistently shown that games can improve both memory and retention of concepts taught. As you decide the type and number of games to include in your eLearning, focus on games that teach your concept.  I have been involved in workshops (not online) where the games were more like recess than lessons. Don’t just add games; add serious games with a learning objective.

Do I have the skill? This is the million dollar question.  I have been playing around with programs to build or customize games.  If your game is based on an already designed concept, such as Tic Tac Toe, find your way out of the maze, or Jeopardy, it will be a little easier.  To design a new concept would take imagination way beyond anything I possess.  Then there’s the skill to find or build the graphical elements.  Putting the concept and the elements together will, in most cases, require some very good computer skills.

What are the options? The options are much fewer in number than in other eLearning features I have written about. For a review of just a few of the current applications available to build or customize games, check out this post.  For the elements to put into them, you can start with the options I suggested in Five Things…Graphics.  One option is to find a student programmer (at a local university) who will put your ideas into motion.

Don’t despair if you can’t find just the right game to teach your concept.  In 1984 I played with a software flight simulator on a Compaq Portable; I didn’t learn to fly but I did internalize the difference between altitude and distance above the ground.  Perhaps you can find existing games that you can use to meet your learning objectives even if they weren’t designed for that purpose.

How much functionality do you need from this tool? This really depends on your audience.  A stand-alone TicTacToe game may wow your audience; or, you may have a technically sophisticated group of students who expect Wii type games even in their training.  As the options for creating and customizing games increase, so will the expectations.  What is acceptable today is likely to be “lame” in a year or two.

Will this tool work within my LMS? As always, you have to consider whether the application you choose will run on the web, how much bandwidth it requires, and if your students will be able to access it from anywhere.  As far as I know, no LMS has built-in game blocks, so all options will have to be tested for compatibility.  Most importantly, you’ll need to work with your IT department or web hosts to make sure that your server can handle users playing games.  If you use applications such as the Engage, this isn’t going to be a problem.  But if you go all out and have sound effects, videos, complex algorithms, and students playing simultaneously in an online game, you could experience problems.

*There is so much material on this topic that it is impossible to list everything here.  These are a good place to start for both background and ideas for using games in your eLearning courses:

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