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.

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