Tag: blended-learning

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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Monday, March 15th, 2010

eLearning Audio, Video, and Screencasts: What Tools Do You Need?

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As I write this post, I realize that it’s hard – as a viewer – to draw clear distinctions amongst these eLearning features: audio, video, and screen casts (depicting mouse movement, with or without audio).  For the sake of brevity (which is not one of my strengths), I’ll refer to them collectively as “moving media”.   Some will involve using graphics (including screen prints), which are covered in a previous post, and many will output to a variety of formats, including flash. 

Five Things to consider when choosing tools to create or edit “moving media” for your eLearning courses:

Will “moving media” add value to my training design? Yes, if it reinforces the lesson and isn’t used simply to showcase the technology.  Most of the time, some simple versions will add a lot of value; in some cases, studio quality versions are called for.  To make eLearning GREAT, many types of media should be used to present the same message.  For each major learning point, I write the message (plain old text) and depict it graphically, I paraphrase what I wrote in an audio recording, and I combine all three in an Articulate Engage animation. Sometimes, I add a video or screencast. This provides something for both auditory and visual learners, for slow and fast connections, new and older technology, and reinforces the lesson. 

Do I have the skill? For “moving media”, I do not.  I have a tiny microphone that came with a computer – three computers ago.  I don’t even have audio recording software (that I know of) and I don’t have a video camera!  I use the Engage audio editor, which has features I am not talented enough to use.  The biggest issue with most novice-recording is that it sounds s-l-o-w.  To make a good recording, you almost need to talk too fast.  If the audio or video is of an actual event, careful editing is probably required, which also takes skills I don’t have.  Creating screencasts is a whole lot harder than one would think. You’ve watched them: “Uhm”…”Ahh”, [typing that goes on forever]… If you think you have the skill and want to learn more, check out Lynda.com for tutorials.

What are the options? The options range from desktop audio recording and cell phone videos to productions with actors and a script.  The biggest source of videos for me is YouTube (which I always embed so that my students aren’t bombarded with the rest of it).  If your training material warrants it, such as safety training for an electrical worker, you can hire a video production company like Creative Works at quite reasonable rates.  A short, well-produced video could add a lot more value than several amateur ones.  For high end screencasts and audio try Captivate, Camtasia, or Screenflow.  I tried several, but I found Articulate Screenr to be all that I could handle. When I wanted something special to promote eLearning, I hired Flexigroup to create an eWheel flash. You could use this in an eLearning course, too.  If you don’t have the time or the money to spend on any of these, you might try using PowerPoint if you already have it. You can save your presentation (with or without audio and animation) as a PowerPoint Show and upload it to your LMS/VLE like any other file. 

How much functionality do I need from this tool?  Most of the time, I get by with my simple mic, graphics, and SPX Instant Screen Capture, which I combine in Engage as alternatives to screencast tutorials.   Because I don’t have the skill to edit audio or piece together video, I don’t need much functionality.  If you do have the skill or need to produce really professional screencasts with studio-quality audio, you’ll need the high-end applications and good equipment as well.  If you’re like me and have dogs that bark at all the wrong times, you’ll need a sound room, too.  Again, the amount of functionality you need depends on what your training calls for and what you are capable of doing.  For most small businesses, the authoring tools should be simple and inexpensive unless media is your business; otherwise, your good information will go a long way in the simpler formats.  If you’re teaching how to use a software application, you must have good quality screencasts.  If your course is on good public speaking you must have high quality video.  If your course is in statistics, low tech cartoons might be better to ease the pain.

Will this tool work within my LMS? This is a good question to ask before spending any time or money on the authoring tool or the media itself.  Matt Bury just released a media player module for Moodle that adds both form and function to audio and video in a course.  I embed or link to most of this type of media; rarely do I upload it to a Moodle course.  If your LMS will allow you to open external links, but has strict limitations on what can be uploaded to your servers, this is probably your best option.  If you have restrictions on opening external sites, you’ll have to make sure the specific application is supported by your LMS.

For giggles, check out the history of sound recording at Wikipedia.  Until next time, Penny

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Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Five Things to Consider When Choosing eLearning Authoring Tools

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If you have read my previous posts, you’ve figured out that I am fairly insistent that eLearning is a combination of many media, delivered (distributed) in a variety of formats.  That would imply that there could be many types of authoring tools, each with its own strength.  In this post, I want to share some of the things to consider when choosing the authoring tools to create those features.

First of all, you might want to know what an authoring tool is!  In the purest sense, it could be a pencil and a piece of paper.  Or, a knife and a tree large enough to carve something in the trunk.  An eLearning authoring tool is software that allows us to create and publish our material in electronic format.  Wikipedia says: “An authoring tool is a software package which developers use to create and package content deliverable to end users.”  It goes on further to discuss the distribution of that content.  I want to expand the definition of “authoring tool” for our discussion to include any and all applications that create or distribute content for e-Learning purposes.

 These are my Five Basic Things to consider when deciding which authoring tools to buy or use:

  1. Based on the training design for my audience, what features and functionality (see list below) do I need?  Which are nice to have?  Which are not relevant?
  2. What can I (or my employees) do and what should we contract out to others?  Do we have the skill to do it or the time to learn it?  Is this how we should be spending our time? 
  3. What are my options?  What applications are out there and what are the trade-offs regarding price, ease of use, and capability? Which is better:  Open Source or proprietary software?
  4. What do I need the application for?  To create, to edit, to view, all of that?  What will my students want it for and what is best for them?  What applications are highly specific and which are “multi-taskers” that I can get more value from?
  5. How will these applications work together in my eLearning environment?

The list of features that GREAT eLearning requires is ever-changing.  As I’ve said before, the eLearning features that you might need authoring (creation and/or editing) tools for includes: Graphics (pictures, illustrations, tables, etc.), Audio, Video, Flash animation, Screen captures, Assessments (quizzes, tests, surveys), News (forums, RSS, streaming), File sharing (students and teachers; uploading and downloading), Collaborative efforts (web meetings, chats, wikis), Student “records” (grades, participation, profiles), HTML (text, links, etc.) content, and of course, some way to package it all up together and deliver it to the students.

For each feature we use, we are going to need an “authoring tool” if we do it ourselves.  This could rapidly become very expensive, for software, training, and equipment.  It could consume all of our resources (time and energy) and cause us to lose focus on the real output: Good Information.  So, before we go out and buy lots of software tools, rent a recording studio, or hire a platoon of experts, let’s ask a few questions. 

For each of the above features, we need to determine:

  • Do I need to include it in my eLearning? Does it support my learning objectives or is it just “cool”?
  • What value does it bring to the lesson, the course, the student’s experience?
  • What quality level do my students expect or need? 
  • Where does it fall in my overall learning design?  Is it the most important, the least important – or somewhere in between - of all the features I could spend time and money on?
  • Do I currently have the skill, knowledge, and/or tools for it?  What is the gap between what I can do now and what I need to do?
  • How will I discover and test my options?

Over the next few posts, I’ll share with you my thoughts and experiences on how to answer these questions for each feature, starting with Graphics.  I will in no way do a “software review”; not only have I not tried many applications, but there are plenty of other places to find that information.  I will, however, share with you how a small business owner can afford GREAT eLearning with a little bit of planning and prioritizing.   See ya’ soon, Penny

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Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Features of GREAT e-Learning

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In my last post I said that elearning should be an electronic version of the best class you ever took.  To make that happen, you have to start with good information as your key ingredient, and add the right amount of spice… 

So, what makes great e-Learning?  Two things:  Good information and variety.

Good information.  All the spice in the world can’t overcome the bad taste of poor information (or liver, ick).  You don’t have to have breakthrough research or the perfect mouse trap to provide value to your students; you just have to have something they want or need to know.  Your core information needs to be:

  • Focused on the student’s needs.  It’s ok to teach algebra to an 8th grader.  It’s not ok to teach programming to a 30-year old small business owner who just wants a website.  Don’t use jargon that is over the head of your student. 
  • Timely.  Again, an 8th grader might not need algebra at that time, but it is a foundation class and those algebra lessons will be recalled years later.  On the other hand, an adult learner, who has a lot on her mind, isn’t likely to remember today’s lesson if it isn’t applied by tomorrow.
  • Unique.  What do you have to say – or how do you say it – that sets your lessons apart from everyone else?
  • Accurate.  This is not the most critical feature in keeping your audience interested, as wild Internet rumors have proven.  But, I think it goes without saying that it is the most important thing if you care at all about what you do.

Variety…no elearning course should be all text or all video or all anythingEvery course should include at least some of every one of these things:

  • Webpage text
  • Graphics, illustrations, photos, or other simple visual media
  • Video and/or flash animations
  • Audio (separate or part of the video/flash)
  • Field trips for the mind…in the form of RSS feeds, simple web links, linked documents
  • Tests of understanding and competence…quizzes, assignments, and/or projects
  • Interaction with others…chats, forums, wikis and glossaries that are collective works
  • Choice of pace…instructor-led, self-paced, due dates or open-ended assignments
  • Offline and personal time…reflection, individual assignment and projects
  • Tools to further explain and support the concepts…downloadable templates, book lists

To stand on this soap box just a little longer, I’m going to say that it’s not enough to have all of these elements in a course; they must be blended together in a meaningful way.  All too often, I see courses that have several elements, but they appear separate and unconnected.  I am frequently given course outlines that have one video, followed by one downloadable file (a PowerPoint slide deck), followed by a quiz, possibly with a page of text thrown in somewhere.  Aaarrgghh!  We want to create a deliciously rich and complex sauce, not a three-layer Jello® mold!

I think almost every page should have a mixture of media.  When I design a course, my outline goes to the page level, where each page is dedicated to a topic, a concept, or an important point. 

  • Each page has at least some text, an offsite link or two, and some “eye candy” (graphic, picture, audio, flash, and/or video).
  • Every section (week or topic) has several pages (of mixed media) and usually an activity of some sort (quiz, assignment, chat).
  • Every course has collaborative media (wikis, glossaries, forums), tests of understanding and reinforcement (quizzes, assignments), and resources (web links, RSS feeds, documents to save or print). 
  • Every course starts with a POG (Purpose-Objectives-Goals) and ends with a Summary.  (If a course is long, there will be POGs and Summaries for sub-sections as well).

Features of GREAT e-Learning

It is imperative to design the learning before creating it, which means not only deciding what you’re going to include, but how.  There are a great number of software tools to create a range of multi-media, and to distribute that media to your audience.  These are generally referred to as authoring tools; they range in price and complexity from “free and easy” to “a fortune and very difficult”.  Large corporations can spend $100,000 on applications that don’t work, but we small business owners can’t!  Not only don’t we have the money to throw away, but we can’t afford to waste the time, either.  In my next post, I’ll talk about how to choose authoring tools for e-Learning that are affordable, flexible, and worth the investment.

See you next time!  Penny

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Sunday, February 28th, 2010

What is eLearning?

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Of course you already know that eLearning is a compound word, formed from electronic and learning.  But that isn’t much of a definition.

So, let’s define eLearning as:

An electronic version of the best class you ever took.

It should not be an electronic version of the most boring lecture you ever suffered through!

My high school math teacher, Mrs. Wever, stood on her desk and tap-danced while she sang geometry theorems to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.  It’s hard to fall asleep or daydream in class when your teacher is doing things like that.  Putting difficult-to-remember concepts to music also helps the human brain remember them…ever wonder why you can remember all of the lyrics to songs you don’t even like, but you can’t remember the action items from yesterday’s staff meeting?  If you sang the action items, you’d be more likely to remember them…

Luckily, technology allows all of us to present even difficult and boring (to some) topics like geometry, in an interesting and indelible manner without dancing on our desks.  With electronic learning, it is possible to create a virtual classroom by blending the critical elements of learning: a text book, a singing and dancing teacher, brain teasers, a workbook, and peer interaction.  These elements work together without ever putting people in the same room as one another.

If you already have a great class that you teach or a book that everyone says is “a good read”, you are that much closer to having a great elearning course.  If you have some awesome information that others would like to learn, but you shy away from singing in public, you can still convert your material to an interesting and compelling online course.  There are some wonderful people out there who create videos and animations for not that much money.  The main ingredient to a successful e-learning course is good information.  If you start with good information and add the right amount of spice to it, you have the perfect recipe for a great course,  which can support your clients, promote your products, and add a revenue stream to your business. In my next blogs I’ll be talking about what “spice” goes into a great e-learning course and how to choose authoring/creation tools for those elements.

No one sets out to teach a boring course.  Many of us have a deep-seated fear that no matter how polite they are to our face, our students think we’re dorks and snicker behind our backs.  But for businesses offering eLearning as  part of their product or service mix, it goes beyond emotions.  If you want your students to come back for more courses and recommend your training to others, it must be interesting.  If it isn’t, they’ll move on to your competitors.

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