Tag: authoring tools

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Five Things to Consider When Choosing Game Creation Applications

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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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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

A Few Words About: Formatting Your Content

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From the May 2010 issue of Penny For Your Thoughts newsletter…

When preparing materials to give to your newly hired course designer, ask her (or him!) what format is best. You may not realize it, but building a course in an LMS application such as Moodle can not be accomplished by simple “copy/paste” or “upload” of an entire file. Each page is actually a web page, written in HTML just like this newsletter, a WordPress site, and any number of other web applications that you may have seen or even used.

HTML doesn’t like special characters (like the apostrophe I just typed) or formatting symbols used by Word. They may look ok when you paste them in, but on the user’s screen, they’ll show up as little rectangles instead of punctuation; you’ve seen them before, I’m sure. Or, maybe you thought someone went wild with the ampersand. That’s what happens when you copy directly into an HTML editor from another application with its own formatting. PowerPoint has another whole set of problematic formatting and PDF isn’t without quirks.

So, before you go through the effort of nicely formatting something, ask your designer what will work best for her. Most of the formatting I receive has to be completely scrubbed out and redone.

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Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Web Considerations for Small Businesses Marketing and Selling eLearning Content

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Is it the packaging or the suds inside? This was a question raised in one of my marketing classes last century. I assume that it is still a topic of discussion today. My experience tells me that packaging sells a product for awhile, but if the soap doesn’t clean the laundry, it won’t be on the market for long.

So, what’s more important to you as you launch your eLearning site? Is it the website look? Is it the functionality (how many bells and whistles it has)? Or, is it your content, which is the product you’re really selling?

The answer to this dilemma is no different than any other consumer product or service: focus on what your customer wants and you’ll be fine. Generically, customers of eLearning want, in no particular order:

  • Easy access to the content
  • A reliable platform that won’t crash or eat work
  • Engaging content
  • Useful content
  • Validation of knowledge in the form of feedback (grades) and proof for others (a certificate for instance)
  • Interaction with others

Of all of the inquiries I receive from small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to put their content online, 9 out of 10 confuse the marketing of the product (eLearning) with the product itself. The best web solution for delivering an eLearning product is probably not the same as the best web solution for marketing that product. It is simply coincidence that they are both -along with selling of the product – hugely dependent on Internet applications. The distinction was more obvious 30 years ago when laundry soap was in a box, marketed on TV, and sold in a store.

I have two Moodle sites, one WordPress blog, and one Drupal site with 14 sub-domains (powered by WordPress). To set up all 18 URLs cost a fraction of what custom PHP coding to make Moodle work “seamlessly” with WordPress would’ve cost. My annual costs are minimal and each site can be upgraded without breaking any interfaces. I have the extra flexibility of having vastly different themes and copy on each one, different plug-ins installed, and targeting each one specifically to a market segment rather than having everyone search for what she needs on one “integrated” site. I don’t sell “products”, so I don’t need a shopping cart, but if I did, I would have a separate site with a shopping cart plug-in, or I’d have a sub-domain with something like Zen Cart installed. For the few products I have sold, I have used Amazon.com and eBay.

In future posts, I’ll discuss in more detail…

  • Platforms
  • Functionality
  • Content

…as they apply to teaching (eLearning), selling (shopping carts), and marketing.

My advice to all of you trying to “design” your eLearning and marketing sites:

Go the easiest route to please your customers. Avoid custom coding for anything except your theme (as long as it is upgradeable). Make the best “laundry soap” you can and package it in a convenient, pleasant, “paper box”. Concentrate on what you do best and you’ll do well!

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Thursday, March 25th, 2010

eLearning Tests and Surveys – What Tools Do You Need?

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Sometimes, you just get lucky.  I could not figure out how to write this post in fewer than 5000 words, many of which would be red, bold, and in uppercase letters.  Then I came across this post by Connie Malamed at  The eLearning Coach.  So, now I don’t have to write about how to write a good question!  Everyone should heed her advice before even considering what tool to build the questions in.  All the beautiful technology in the world won’t matter if the questions suck.  And, unlike an ugly graphic or a boring video, a bad test question can harm the learner.  A poor test that is used to judge an employee’s job-worthiness is never going to be a good thing.

So, I’ll assume you have some great assessment questions – for quizzes, tests, and surveys – that are reliable and valid and that you want to use them in your elearning courses.  Let’s look at them in terms of the Five Basic Things to consider about authoring tools:

Will assessments add value to my training design? Yes. Every eLearning course needs some assessment method.  At a minimum, you’ll want to know if your students perceived that they got something out of it.  That’s a feedback survey, not a test, but the question development and delivery are the same.  You’ll also probably want to know if the students learned anything and/or demonstrate some level of competency.  This tells you not only just that – what they learned – but also how good your course was at teaching them. 

Do I have the skill? This is a two-parter.  The skill to write questions is one thing.  It’s the main thing. The skill to build questions in an online application is another.  Luckily, the latter is remarkably simple because of some of the fantastic options available. 

 What are the options?  I build all of my tests in Moodle so I don’t use many of the available tools.  But, I also use Engage as a “pop-quiz” maker. If I don’t care what the answers are and I just want to reinforce a concept, I think this is a better option than a “flat test”.  Moodle has a Choice activity that captures the data but doesn’t look as snazzy.  Articulate also offers QuizMaker, which is about twice the price of Engage and does quite a bit more.  Joomla QuizForce is similar to QuizMaker and comes with the LMS.  At a hefty $800, Adobe Captivate does many things, including flash-based quizzes. If you don’t have a good assessment feature in your LMS or you want something customized that is in HTML and not flash, try Drupal Webform.  I have an example here.  Or, you can code one from scratch! (Yeah, right). Be creative.  You can use a quiz as a survey and vice versa. 

How much functionality do you need from this tool? The answer to this depends on what your objective is.  If you want to wake up your students with a flash presentation in full color and sound, you’ll want to opt for one of the flash applications.  If you want some serious data collection that dumps to a file that you can do statistical analysis on, pay more attention to the results than the delivery methods.  That usually means not using flash.  If you need to prove competency or that the student took the test herself, you’ll need to make sure that you can verify log in and track time spent, as well as grades.

Will this tool work within my LMS? To be assured that it will work, use the one that is built into your LMS (Moodle, Joomla, Blackboard, etc.)  That will ensure that you can track all the vital student statistics.  Check to make sure that your LMS will accept flash applications and/or allow you to open external websites before using those tools.

I believe that all instructors should want feedback on their courses and use tests to judge themselves as well as students in a constant effort to improve.  But, it if you own a business that offers eLearning to clients or employees, there is a financial reason to have good test and survey questions.  Knowing what level of competency your employees have, which training works and which doesn’t, and having the ability to get feedback on the experience is critical to long term success.  Remember, what matters most is that you start with good questions.  Good information, good questions, lots of variety…GREAT eLearning.

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Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Graphics for e-Learning: What Tool Do You Need?

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I’m sure my friend and colleague, Elizabeth the Bibliophile, would tell me that graphics can’t be authored; author is a verb that applies to words only. So, I won’t let her read this before I post it. I hope you understand that I am using the term “authoring” to mean “a method to create, edit, or otherwise do something with”. 

Even if you don’t share my belief that eLearning is far more than flash animations and videos, you probably still agree that graphics are necessary. But how many? What type and quality? Who is going to create them, edit them, and how will they be viewed? Last time, I listed my Five Basic Things to consider about authoring tools, so let’s start with those: 

Sketch created in PowerPoint

Sketch

Will graphics add value to my training design? Yes. Every eLearning course needs graphics. Nothing could be duller than page after page of words (sorry, Elizabeth!). In my courses, I use images not just for my HTML pages but also for the flash animations I produce (we’ll get to that feature in another post). If you teach event planning or catering, photos of food tables might suffice. Or, maybe simple sketches will do.  If your eLearning course is How to Use Photoshop, you might need screen shots. Business courses might use a lot of charts and graphs. I can’t think of any content where a picture isn’t worth 1000 words. 

Do I have the skill? OK, I’m going to be honest. I have used PowerPoint since 1991. Before that, I was pretty good at Freelance. When I started building eLearning courses in 2005, I needed something to resize graphics so I bought Photoshop. I don’t know a masking layer from a vector. It was three years before I figured out how to do anything other than crop and resize. I could have done that with PowerPoint or even Picasa. I would argue that “professional” graphics can get in the way of learning. Most of us are used to seeing more “homey” graphics in training, so maybe that’s the best way to present the material. I don’t know of any hard evidence either way; you decide what your students will respond to most effectively.  

Image created by a designer

By a Graphic Artist

What are the options?  The options are seemingly endless, from free to big bucks. Many will bathe your dog for you. Picasa is free and does most of what you’ll need to do. Easy Thumbnails is another option. Photoshop costs about $700, but its “little brother”, Photoshop Elements is about one tenth that price. Paint comes on every PC and Paintbrush seems to be a good option for Macs; also free. Many of us have PowerPoint and some even know how to use it for something other than bulleted lists J. If you need high-end graphics and can’t create them yourself, go to iStockPhoto, Veer, or Dreamstime, and purchase individual images for just a few dollars each. Hire a professional graphics designer for the really special images. 

PowerPoint Clip Art

Clip Art

How much functionality do you need from this tool? You’ll need the right format (jpeg, gif, png, etc.) and the right size for your eLearning pages, which you can probably do with any of the free applications. PowerPoint will not only allow you to create simple images with shapes and “clip art”, but it will also save your files, slides, and individual images in a variety of formats.  The example at the right is one I used in a client’s course with his voice telling the story about “Being Burned”.  If you create graphics for your eLearning courses the same way you would if they were for face-to-face instruction, you probably don’t need Photoshop functionality. Remember, design the output to add value and suit your audience. The graphic is way to deliver the message, not the message itself. 

Will this tool work within my LMS? For graphics, it’s probably “yes, easily”. Just make sure you size them appropriately and use the right file format. 

Next time, we’ll talk about creating and editing audio, video, and flash for eLearning courses.  Penny

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