Relearning Flash

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been diving back into Flash after a little hiatus to work on classroom training. It was a longer hiatus than I would have liked, and included getting the CS3 upgrade to the most current version of Flash. I hadn’t looked into ActionScript 3.0 until I opened the program to start some new projects. I did do some work in AS 2.0 in the past few months, but nothing new. When I started a new project, I of course targeted ActionScript 3.0. ActionScript 3.0 is a pretty radical shift, much more so than I had anticipated. I feel like I’m going back to square one learning ActionScript.

My programming background is not that deep. I learned web programming languages out of necessity. I started using Flash at around version 4 and just kept up over the years. ActionScript 2.0 was great because it was just like JavaScript. I picked it pretty easily and even started creating objects when necessary. I was comfortable and confident with Flash and felt like I could pretty much do whatever I needed to with ActionScript. What I didn’t know, I could learn because I understood how things worked. Now, I’m completely lost.

ActionScript 3.0 kind of scares me. I’m not computer science major with years of programming experience. I’m an eLearning developer trying to find tools that will help me create training products. Now, Flash is more of a programming tool than a creative tool. For a lot of people I’m sure the change was welcome and makes their lives easier. For folks like me, it’s huge barrier to productivity. It sets me back a few weeks (maybe more) because now I have to go and learn something new while trying to get projects done. In a small training group where I am the Instructional Designer, Flash Programmer, and Graphic Designer, Project Manager, and any other job title you want throw into the mix, taking time to learn a program I thought I knew is a bitter pill to swallow. Now I have to explain to my manger (who hired me in part because I knew Flash) that I need to take a break from projects to learn Flash.

Adobe hasn’t left people completely out in the cold. You can still work with ActionScript 2.0 in Flash 9. That’s what I ended up doing for my recent project. Deadlines sometimes don’t allow for on the job training. If you have a Flash file written in ActionScript 2.0 and want to convert it to 3.0, you’re out of luck. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way. Saving As doesn’t work. The languages are too different.

At this point, I don’t plan on going back and redoing any of my old projects. I’ll learn AS3 and move on. My primary concern is how SWF output from tools like Articulate Presenter and Viewlet Builder will work with AS3 files. The Flash Help file says you can load AS2 SWF files, but can’t call functions or pass data. Hopefully I’m wrong about that and they will play together nicely. If they don’t, I guess we are stuck with AS2 until other vendors make updates to their products to add support for AS3.

I wonder how much upgrading to Flash 9 has cost training departments. No just the price of the upgrade, but the cost of updating courseware. I know it will cost me a lot of time, not just to learn AS3, but also to try and integrate other SWF files from other programs. Well, at least I can honestly say I never stop learning.

Classroom Training Books

So, this post has very little to do with eLearning, but it’s something I’m struggling with at work right now. What goes into the ideal classroom training book?

Right now I’m wrestling with a 350+ page book for a 3-day instructor-led class. It’s packed with a lot of really good, useful information that mostly supports the objectives. But 75% of the content is straight out of the documentation. There’s also a bunch of PowerPoint files that go along with the book. (Note: I inherited this course, I did not develop it.) The cynic in me says that nobody reads the book, they just use the pages with the exercises, and when necessary refer to relevant sections. I don’t think my assumption is too far off, based on what the instructors tell me. Between the book, PowerPoint, and other media files, this course is a huge burden to maintain.

There’s one theory that basically says “Give ’em a print out of the PPT file and any exercises. That’s all the need. If students need to refer to something from the documentation, well then they should just use the documentation. Documentation is not training, and should not be used as such. Classroom materials shouldn’t regurgitate the docs, they should leverage the docs.” I’m leaning this direction because I think it will force students to think more about the content. If the book is small and doesn’t include every detail, students will likely take notes on what is relevant to them. That means they are processing important information instead of passively listening. It also trains them to use the documentation instead of calling tech support. It also reduces our cost while speeding up development time. Do you know how long it takes to proofread 350 pages? Too long. Instead of spending my time formatting 350 pages, I could be developing better learning interactions or exercises.

There’s another theory that says “Students are all dumb. Assume they need to be spoon fed and need everything in one place. They will be annoyed if they have to switch between electronic docs and the course book.” I like to think people are smart, until they prove otherwise. Unfortunately, too many people prove otherwise. Still, if students have to do a little more cognitive processing while in class, is that a bad thing? If they can’t manage multiple windows on a computer while referring to a printed course book, is that my concern? They must have to do that on the job, why not in class? If people struggle a little, but don’t cross the line and become annoyed, doesn’t that struggle help them learn? I tend to learn things that I have to fight with a little, and I know I’ve seen research that backs me up. Anyone with a reference, please email me. I’m too busy proofreading to do research.

I think with the next iteration of the course I’m going to completely start over – toss the entire course and rebuild it from the ground up. The course book will list objectives for each section, references to the documentation, and a high level overview of what the chapter covers with a couple of pretty graphics to illustrate a few key points. Maybe a couple of pages of content followed by exercises. No PowerPoint slides, no documentation. Just the basics. The exercises are already well written and include everything students need to accomplish the given objective. Students will get a thin book, a CD with documentation, and a pen to take notes. And many hours of hands-on practice.

Thoughts? Have you done this before? Please share your experience. If I get a trainer mutiny, I’ll let you know. Management should like the reduced cost and improved efficiency, and I’ll get to spend more time on eLearning. Everyone wins, right?