Choosing eLearning Development Tools – Part 1

Note: This is the first in a series of posts about my experience evaluating eLearning tools. I started this endeavor a few weeks ago, and was surprised by the lack of real-world evaluations of tools. There are lots of generic articles and the tool companies have lots of white-papers and success stories, but there are not a lot of real evaluations. If you know of some, please let me know. I don’t know how long this series will go, but my list of tools is at about 20, so it could take a while.

Defining Requirement and Goals

Suppose your company doesn’t have any eLearning. You provide training, but no eLearning. What if you had to start from scratch and choose eLearning development and deployment tools? You have a clean slate. Well, the slate isn’t entirely clean – you have Microsoft Office, but that’s it. What tools would you choose? Where would you start? Do you start with development tools or an LMS? Your budget is minimal, staff resources are limited, as is eLearning development experience. You have to come up with a plan for eLearning development and implementation. That is exactly the scenario I’m in right now- figuring out what tools we need to develop and deploy eLearning.

I decided to tackle it on two different levels – development and deployment. Since eLearning is generally deployed via an LMS and most of them ultimately end up with the same basic capabilities, I started with development tools.

Once I started my research, I realized I was putting the cart before the horse. I had a come up with a list of some tools to evaluate, but hadn’t established my evaluation criteria, other than less money is more better. Even worse, I hadn’t even defined our organizational goals for eLearning. We want (and need) to offer eLearning, but we have no goals and haven’t defined what we hope to accomplish by offering eLearning in addition to classroom training. I’ve been in the eLearning field for a long time and have a lot of development experience, so of course I jumped right to the tools, but I really needed to step back and do a proper analysis.

About this same time I read B. J. Schone’s blog post Introducing eLearning into an Organization (Part 1 of 3). That’s really where I am, the introduction phase of eLearning. Unfortunately that requires a lot of meetings and discussions and can move just a little too slowly for me, so while I’m working on the defining goals stage, I’m starting research on development tools and LMS solutions. I figure regardless of goals, we will need tools, and in general tools are goal agnostic. They’re just tools – it’s how we use them that’s important.

Defining Requirements

I have experience with various development tools and would probably choose Flash and Dreamweaver for the bulk of my development work, but those tools are a little daunting to the other developers and SMEs I work with. They need a much simpler, easier to use tool. So, foregoing my wants and desires, I went back and started my analysis by defining some requirements for development tools – who are the developers, what is their prior experience, and what are my constraints.

Developer Description:

  • Highly computer literate
  • Experienced with Content Management Systems
  • Highly technical
  • Some experience with HTML
  • Some experience with screen recording tools
  • Content experts – they know the subject matter very well
  • Extensive PowerPoint experience

I also came up with some constraints and requirements:

  • Spend as little as possible – both initially and over time
  • IT will let us install software, but we have to manage it ourselves, so LCMS-type tools aren’t an option
  • 5 developers (including me)
  • Windows XP Pro operating system, 2 gigs RAM, around 2 GHz processor

That pretty much sums up my requirements. My primary concerns are cost and ease of use. While the other developers are computer literate, they still need a tool that is relatively easy to use and has a low learning curve. Since we already have a CMS and PowerPoint, it would be nice if our new tools could take advantage of our existing content. 

In the next post I’ll discuss my evaluation criteria for development tools. After that, I’ll get into specific tools and share my experiences with the tool and the companies that make them.

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Standards Compliance in eLearning

Do standards matter in eLearning? As developers, do we care about what standards bodies like the W3C publish? As long as we produce courses that play in the current browsers, does it really matter? I say yes, standards do matter.

Today I started (but did not finish) an eLearning module on expense reporting. The company I work for uses a web-based expense reporting tool from an outside vendor. The vendor produced an introduction course on creating expense reports. The course did not work in Firefox, at all. It’s not that it was buggy, they built in browser detection to make sure you had Internet Explorer, and if you didn’t, you couldn’t even access the course, as shown in this image. This is the actual message, with the company name blurred.
Bad eLearning Desgin

So what? All computers have IE, so why not use that? Well, actually not all computers have IE. Most Macintosh users don’t use IE, and Unix users don’t use IE either. While that may not be a big concern today, what about in a couple of years? Oh, and what if your target audience works on Unix systems? Schools are starting to abandon Microsoft in favor of Linux because it is easier to support and more cost effective. And don’t forget that Dell now sells systems with Ubuntu pre-installed. The change from a Microsoft-centric world could happen faster than you think. If you invest time and money into developing eLearning, you want to protect your investment and hopefully have it still work in whatever browser comes next.

Even more importantly, as a learner I hate having to leave my comfort level, in this case my preferred browser, to accommodate a lazy developer. Annoying learners before they even start a course is a very bad thing.

Standards exist for a reason, and as developers we have a responsibility to meet those standards. Too often, developers workaround standards (aka “hack”) in order to get online courses to play nicely in all browsers, or a specific browser. Compatibility is the precise reason standards like the HTML and XHTML exist. All web-based courses should, at a minimum, follow one of those standards and allow anyone using any web browser to access the courses. Yes, creating courses that play nicely in all browsers in a pain and takes extra work, but you also want eLearning to be accessible. No eLearning course should use technology that is specific to a browser or operating system or that requires a special download. Flash is ubiquitous, so we can assume everyone has it.

There are plenty of technologies and strategies available to make eLearning interactive and engaging, without employing browser specific hacks. Now, if web-browser developers would just implement the standards in a uniform manner, it would make everyone’s life a lot easier. I’ve fought with JavaScript and CSS enough to know that you have to work pretty hard sometimes to get things to work in both Firefox and IE (usually IE is the problem).

The standards are there and they are important. We need to use them and push software companies or the open source developers to respect them. It will help developers, and ultimately improve the learner experience.

The Value of PowerPoint

This month’s Big Question over at the Learning Circuits blog is about the appropriate use of PowerPoint. My first thought was “Oh, great. More PowerPoint discussion. Isn’t there something more exciting to talk about?” But then ALT-Tabbed over to PowerPoint and continued my course development work. So I guess the appropriate use of PowerPoint is still one of the most relevant discussions we can have. Everyone uses it, and there are dozens of tools out there to convert PowerPoint to eLearning, so why not discuss what is probably the most ubiquitous training tool around?

I’ve read several of the responses to the question, many of which are very good and insightful, but my favorite to date is from Wendy Wickham on her blog. I won’t quote her, but her post is short and to the point. There are several other post that basically say it’s just a tool and is not inherently evil, people just use it in evil ways. I have to agree with that sentiment.

For me, PowerPoint is a great organizational tool. I use it to organize ideas and generate outlines, especially for instructor-led courses. But the real benefit to my organization is that it helps trainers stay focused and organized. We have a dozen or so trainers who deliver classroom training using the same set of presentations. The PowerPoint helps ensure that all trainers cover the same points, stay on track, and don’t make things up as they go. PowerPoint is basically the lesson plan. I’m sure they don’t all stick to it in every class, but at least they know what they are supposed to cover and it provides a baseline.

Bottom line, it helps me be organized and serves and a guide for trainers.

Is Moodle your LMS?

Last week I attended an eLearning Guild webinar about their recent release of Learning Management Systems (LMS) Report. The webinar was as much about their data analysis/display tools as it was about the LMS report. The data tools were very cool and allowed you to splice up the data in a thousand different ways. It would be great to have a dynamic tool like that for evaluation data. I could probably make the results say whatever I wanted. The coolest thing is that the data was live. The tool pulled the data from the actual online data base, so if people were answering the survey questions during the webinar, the results would change to reflect the new responses. The data parsing software is from Tableau Software, if you’re interested in checking them out.

Anyway, enough about the toys, on to the report findings. Unfortunately, I didn’t shell out the $1300 for the entire report (I think that was the cost they mentioned in the webinar). That’s just not in my budget, but I did read through the synopsis, which is available on the eLearning Guild web site. You might have to be a member to view it. Here’s the direct link to the PDF.

If you follow the LMS market, then the report won’t surprise you much. The big name players are all there with their market shares. What did surprise me was how much of an impact Moodle had on the survey. Based on this survey, Moodle enjoys a significant market share, even in corporate environments. For organizations with fewer than 5000 people and fewer than 5000 learner, Moodle is the most used LMS. That’s significant. Even if the eLearning Guild’s data has a wide margin of error, Moodle still has a large install base in smaller organizations. My theory is that these organizations don’t have the budget to spend on commercial systems, so they choose the most economical product – Moodle. Moodle also offers a robust feature set that rivals many commercial products, so not only do you save money, you’re likely getting most, or all, of the features you need. The synopsis also discussed return on investment, cost per learner, and satisfaction. Needless to say, Moodle scored very high in these categories.

So, what does this mean to the average eLearning practitioner? If you’re shopping for an LMS then you definitely need to look into Moodle. It has matured to a point were it legitimately competes with, and often beats, commercial products. While the software itself is freely available, you have to consider installation, configuration, and maintenance. Those are not free, and Moodle itself doesn’t offer any of those services. Moodle isn’t a company, but there are people out there that offer Moodle install/setup/config services. Moodle is open source, and thus has a huge support base that you can tap into to answer questions and get help. You can also customize it to meet your specific needs.

More importantly, because of Moodle’s success other open source tools could start to be used more widely across all organizations. Corporations and government agencies tend to be a little fearful of open source products, maybe because they don’t come with support. The truth is they do come with support, but that support comes from the community. The more people that belong to the community, the better the support becomes. That is one of Moodle’s strengths. Now that a lot of people use it, you can find help online and there are many books available as well. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were an authoring tool that had the same open source community? Your eLearning budget could focus on making better training, not upgrading tools every year. Software is a huge cost that can quickly get out of hand, not to mention keeping track of licenses.

I look forward to the day when my software budget is $0.

Gas Pedals and eLearning

Yesterday the Supreme Court brought to life the “obviousness test” in ruling that Teleflex’s gas pedal combined with a sensor was an obvious invention for a “person having ordinary skill in the art”. What does that have to do with eLearning? A whole lot if you are Desire2Learn, or use an LMS. Desire2Learn was sued by Blackboard right after Blackboard was awarded their broad (and obvious) LMS patent last year. (Patent Office info)

This ruling on a gas pedal could hopefully kill all of Blackboard’s patent, or at least much of it. To anyone in the eLearning and education community, the Blackboard patent is not just obvious, it’s absurd. I’ve read the patent, and found nothing original or special about it. Being a developer with many years of experience (even at the time the patent was filed) I definitely qualify as a “person having ordinary skill in the art”. I had even built my own LMS to support an online course around the same time Blackboard filed their patent. Doesn’t that make the idea of an LMS obvious? To me it does. I’m not the only one, check out the History of virtual learning environments on Wikipedia. It chronicles the development of LMS type systems dating back to 1728. More importantly, it includes dozens of computer based systems developed decades before Blackboard filed their patent.

I fully support a company’s right to make money off their original and innovative ideas. In the case of Blackboard, I laughed when I heard they got a patent for something so blantantly obvious. Then I realized the implications, and got really angry. I was mad that they thought they could patent something so obvious and critical to the training and education universe, and even more angry that the patent office actually granted the patent. What a waste of tax dollars, and now Click2Learn is wasting money defending the obvious.

I sincerely hope the Blackboard patent gets voided. In this day and age, an LMS is an essential tool, and no one company should own the idea of an LMS. It is a ubiquitous technology. I shouldn’t have to pay Blackboard because I want to track student progress in a course, whether using a pencil and paper or some electronic means.

Related links:

e-Literate – Supreme Court Strikes a Major Blow for Patent Reform
Ars Technica – Supreme Court ruling makes “obvious” patents harder to defend