It’s time for upgrades, and a Poll

It looks like it’s time to open up the wallet and start purchasing software upgrades. In the past couple of weeks two important eLearning software upgrades have hit the virtual streets:

  • Adobe CS4 came out this week
  • Articulate released the Studio 09 update to all their tools a couple of weeks ago

Tools are constantly going through upgrade cycles, but these are two of the biggest names in the eLearning development tool market, so they caught my attention.

Adobe CS4

This is a huge upgrade, and the first time Adobe has released a unified upgrade for all the Adobe and former Macromedia products. They’ve also changed the bundles – thank you Adobe. The CS4 Web Premium bundle now includes:

The upgrade from most CS3 bundles is $599, even the old Web Standard which did not include Soundbooth, Photoshop or Illustrator. I think Adobe has finally gotten their bundles right making the new CS4 Web Premium bundle an essential upgrade for eLearning developers. I will be upgrading my license at work as soon as possible. The full version is $1699 if anyone wants to buy me an early Christmas present for personal use.

Articulate Studio 09

Articulate Presenter is arguably the most popular PowerPoint to Flash conversion tool available. That’s no fluke, the tool works well and streamlines development. With the right hacking, you can accomplish a lot with Presenter and make it do things it wasn’t designed to do. It’s also an easy way to create Flash animations from slides. I’ve used it for several months and haven’t been disappointed.

Studio 09 Standard includes Presenter, Quizmaker and Video Encoder. The Professional version adds Engage. I downloaded Studio 09, but haven’t tried the new Presenter yet. There were a few quirks and bugs in the old version of Presenter that I hope are fixed. When I have time, I’ll publish some courses and let you know what I think.

For Studio 09, Articualte added Articulate Video Encoder ’09. This tool converts video files to FLV for inclusion in courses. I did take some time to test out this tool and can’t say I was overly impressed. If you don’t already have the Flash Video Encoder (which comes with Flash) then this tool will be useful. It works fine, I just prefer Flash Video Encoder. One feature that Articulate Video Encoder includes that the Flash encoder doesn’t is the ability to record your webcam and convert the file to FLV. I didn’t test this feature, and probably won’t use it. I wouldn’t buy this product as a stand alone purchase, especially for $149, but it’s a nice addition to the Studio 09 bundle, especially for people who don’t have Flash.

Poll

WordPress also added a new tool recently – Polling. Let’s give it a try and see how it works.

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Get Your eLearning in Gear

In writing my blog post earlier this week I saw a blurb in the WordPress control panel about Gears with a link to the WordPress blog. I like bike riding, so the word “gears” got my attention and I followed the link. WordPress is now using Gears to speed up web site load times.

What is Gears? It’s a plug-in and API developed by Google that’s designed to speed up web site load times by caching content on your local computer. It’s sort of a browser cache, but is site specific and doesn’t get erased when the normal cache gets full. It allows web sites to store elements on your computer for quick display when you visit the site. These elements are updated only when necessary. It’s ideal for interface elements, CSS files, and Javascript files.

How do you use Gears? First, the web site has to be using Gears. WordPress is one such site. There is a server side component that manages the offline elements.  As a web surfer, you have to install the Gears plug-in. There are Mac, Windows, and Linux versions for IE and Firefox. Once you install the plug-in the site will ask you if you want to allow it to store content on your computer. You can choose which Gears enabled sites are allowed to store content on your computer and can manage the list of allowed sites from the Google Gears Settings. When I allowed WordPress to use Gears it downloaded 212 items to my local computer that use about 1.75 MB of space. I’m on a LAN with a fast connection, so the download was quick.

What about eLearning and Gears? The most obvious answer is load time. If you produce a lot of courseware that people access either on your LAN or remotely from home, then you can use Gears to download interface elements so they don’t have to load for every course every time. You can also download the interface elements for your LMS.

But interface elements for standard eLearning courseware is the low hanging fruit. What about mobile learning, or learning on-demand? You can cache templates for learning objects so only the content needs to download. A lot of content these days is XML that is rendered by a browser or in Flash. The display logic in Javascript or SWFs can be stored locally and not downloaded every time a page loads. Gears allows you to push updates to offline content, so you don’t have to worry about the local copies being out of date.

Gears is still in its infancy (the current version is 0.3.24.3 as of this posting) with many more ideas and features to come.   One thing I’d really like to see is a Gears implementation of SCORM for offline learning, especially on mobile devices. The Gears web site has examples of offline search engines, secure financial data applications, and applications that use Flex and Gears.  At this point, the future is wide open for Gears and eLearning. I haven’t jumped into Gears too deeply yet, but I get the feeling it’s far more than a glorified cache and could have a huge impact on eLearning.

You can get Gears and learn more at http://gears.google.com, or read the FAQ. There’s are also a developer site with information on the API.

Why Bother with Instructional Design?

This week I had a revelation: My instructional design doesn’t matter. Then I read the Big Question over at the Learning Circuits blog:

For a given project, how do you determine if, when and how much an instructional designer and instructional design is needed?

I read several of the responses and the blog post by Cammy Bean that inspired the question. I think I like Jay Cross’s response the best, probably because it’s short and obvious. (People often don’t see the obvious). My short answer is enough to meet the objectives of the course. For eLearning I think careful planning is required, especially for self-paced courses. For classroom training, and maybe even live online training, almost no ID is needed. Huh? An instructional designer saying you don’t need instructional design? Yep, you need course developers not instructional designers.

In the past year I’ve spent a lot of time working on instructor-led training for both in-person classes and live online classes. What I’ve found is that no matter how much work I do two things are true:

  • The instructor will always do things their way.
  • Students don’t care about instructional design.

The instructor will always do things their way. The trainers I work with are outstanding, both as trainers and as technical experts. They know the product and have years of experience training. They will always, for any given class, adjust the course as necessary for the students that show up that day. The activities I labored over may not be done in a class and the instructor may improvise and create activities on the fly. In other words, no matter how much I plan and design there is no guarantee it will be used in class.

Will this impact learning? Probably, but the students don’t seem to notice because they don’t know what they are missing. Sure, there are pages and slides that were skipped or taught in a different sequence, but they came to class knowing nothing and left with their heads full of stuff. Let’s not debate if it was the right stuff; stuff is stuff.

Students don’t care about instructional design. All they care about is having a good instructor and doing some exercises that are relevant to their world of work. They also like not being at their real job for a few days, and the free coffee and pastries go a long way toward high scores on the course evaluation form (smile sheet). They want the course materials to be accurate so when they do an exercise it works. They also want a copy of the slides, except the slides that say “Objectives” or “Course Goals”. Never mind that the book has all the information they need to accomplish the objectives (and then some), they want the slides.

So a course developer is all you need. Someone to make slides with pretty graphics, write exercises (based on what the instructors want), and produce student handouts. Some planning is needed, but only so at a high level things look like they are in order. For example, if you’re training on how to bake a cake you want to make sure the oven is on before you put the cake in to bake. Simple, obvious stuff. The course developer should test the exercises to make sure they work, even if the instructor skips the previous exercise.

Instructional design for instructor led training is over rated. Good instructors are all you really need. eLearning, now that’s a totally different animal. As instructional designer you get to exercise your complete control and make sure learners get the what they need in the way you’ve determined is best. What about learner control ? That just means making sure they can read the text instead of listening to the narration.

Just remember, people might actually learn in spite of instruction.

DevLearn 2007 Expo

Wednesday I took a (long) drive to San Jose to check out the DevLearn 2007 Expo. I did not attend the conference because the registration fee was a little high for my non-existent budget, but figured the Expo would be a good opportunity to check out the latest new tools. Truth be told, the size of the expo was disappointing. It was much smaller than I expected in terms of the number of booths. It also seemed the conference didn’t have a lot of attendees because every time I walked by a session room they seemed mostly empty.

The small expo size and small number of people did allow me time to really talk with some vendors about their products in depth. I talked with a dozen or so vendors, but only a few really impressed me, with both their product and professionalism. Most did not impress me, and some were actually rude. I don’t want to dwell on those, but I’ll just say that two of the biggest names in eLearning tools were the most unprofessional and unimpressive companies I talked with.

Rapid Intake

The company that impressed me most was Rapid Intake. A few months ago I gave Flashform a negative review. Garin Hess, Rapid Intake’s CEO, contacted me and did a personal demo of Flashform. I changed my mind about the product and wrote a new review of Flashform. Garin was at DevLearn and spent very long time with me talking about the next evolution of Flashform and even demoed the beta version for me. I can’t say much about it now, but it is cool. Very cool. For the first time (maybe ever) I have seen an authoring tool that I’m genuinely excited about. I wish I could say more and tell you all the awesome features, but Garin swore me to secrecy until they are ready for release. What the iPod did for music this new product may do for eLearning development. It really is that cool. Remember when Authorware was the tool? This may be next. This is one tool worth your attention. Keep an eye out for it.

Also, the folks at Rapid Intake deserve kudos. I’m just a guy that has a blog, but they treated me with the utmost respect and truly valued my opinion. Rapid Intake actually listens to the people in their target market. Other vendors were reluctant to get out of their chair to hand me brochure and give me their robotic sales pitch, but Garin and his co-workers had an actual two-way conversation with me.

Exceptional Software Strategies

Who’s Exceptional Software? I’d never heard of them, but that’s normal for a convention expo, half the companies I’ve never heard of. Exceptional Software is software development company with a division that focuses on eLearning. What made them standout was their game, Never Rest. Never Rest is an Instructional Alternate Reality Game (I-ARG). This game takes scenario based learning to the next level by making it realistic – learners actually do things in the game that they do on the job. “Game” probably isn’t the best word to describe it since it really is training, but cool like games.

MediaEdge (the division of Exceptional Software that developed the I-ARG) has developed a Flex based platform for deploying the training that allows instructors complete control over the environment. I haven’t played with a demo myself, but what they showed was impressive. Well thought out, professionally designed, and very engaging. From what I saw they’ve found the sweet spot where games and training mix. The development team was a combination of Instructional Designers and Game Developers and the strengths of both show in the final product.

It was refreshing to see this platform and talk with them because it was totally different than anything else I saw. Most tools are focused on the traditional development paradigms or try to sell you on “rapid development”. Never Rest is really about making something realistic, engaging, and truly interactive -real learning based on real world scenarios. You learn by doing the job you’re being trained for. I’m going to spend some time with Never Rest and researching I-ARGs because it looks fun.

Summary

There were a few other companies and products that I need to look into a little more before blogging about them. There were also plenty of LMS vendors there, but none had anything that really jumped out at me. Same old LMS stuff I’ve seen before, just with a UI face lift.

If you’re looking something to get you excited about eLearning, make some time to look into both Flashform and Never Rest. They are developing new products that will hopefully breathe some new life into the eLearning development tools marketplace.

Five Ways For Projects to Fail

I just read a great article from Inc.com on why software development projects fail, or as the front page of their web site says “What can a walrus teach you about business?” The article gives five common mistakes that will doom any development project. It’s a relatively short article that definitely holds true for eLearning development. For those of you who haven’t realized it yet, eLearning development is software development. We may not all program in C++ or Java, but our development has a lot in common with traditional software development. If you are a project manager you owe it to your team to read the article.

I think my favorite mistake is number 3 in the article, negotiating a deadline. This is where the walrus teaches us a lesson. No, I’m not going to steal the author’s thunder, you’ll have to read the article to find out about the walrus. I’ll just say, I am the walrus. (OK, that really isn’t funny, but how could I resist?) The reason I like this mistake is because it is absolutely true. I hate giving solid dates for development projects because they are never accurate. Good estimates are possible, but only after detailed requirements and specifications have been drawn up and an experienced developer spends a lot of time mapping out the development effort. That process in and of itself will take time. Even then, stuff always happens that derails development.

In a past job I was asked why a development project would take months. I said because it takes months. Even if your deadline is next week, people can only work so fast. The only way to speed up the process is to hire more people. If your deadline is a few weeks and you only have one developer, I can tell you now the deadline will slip. My theory is that unless you have done development (a lot of development), you cannot estimate development time. Even basing your estimates on past projects probably won’t get you in the ballpark. Maybe the same zip code as the ballpark, or the parking lot, but not in the ballpark.

My favorite training related scenario goes something like this. A new course has been thought up by someone who is not a training developer, let’s say it’s a product manager. That PM says we need a training course so customers can learn how to use the new iWidget. The course needs to be a two-day course. It needs to be done next month because a customer will be testing the iWidget and we need to train them as part of the test. Said PM then asks me if I can get the course done. I say “of course”. The next time I’m asked I’ll tell the PM about the walrus.

KnowledgePlanet Firefly Review

A few months ago I started a series of posts reviewing various eLearning development tools. Life and work intervened, so I haven’t been very diligent about getting the reviews out. I’ve got several posts started about various topics like mobile learning, podcasting, and personal learning environments, but I want to finish up some of the reviews first.

When I started evaluating tools, Firefly topped my list because I really needed a good simulation tool. Of all the tools and companies I looked into, KnowledgePlanet impressed me the most. They were one of the few companies that really seems to understand the instructional development process and the unique challenges of developing online training. They understand that developing online training is not just about converting classroom training or shoveling PowerPoint onto an LMS. They understand eLearning developers their particular needs. They have developed tools specifically for creating effective online training that have their foundations in instructional design, not programming. The tools didn’t always have all the features I wanted or needed, but I felt at the core, they understood online training.

KnowledgePlanet has two tools that I looked into seriously: Firefly Simulation Developer and Firefly Publisher. If I had my choice and money was no object, I would buy their products. However, KnowledgePlanet’s tools are very expensive, so I probably won’t purchase them at this time. I wish I could. I like the products, and the people I talked to. They were very helpful and informative without be overly “salesy” or pushy.

Firefly Publisher

I attended a webinar for this product, so did not try it myself. Publisher is a server-based development tool that requires no installation on the client computer. It is entirely web-based. I love web-based applications. I hate software licensing based on an installation. I loathe having to drag my laptop home from work because that is were my apps are installed. Web based applications offer several distinct advantages over traditional install-based apps, especially if your organization has very strict IT policies. For me it means the data is backed-up and if my laptop dies or get stolen (which just happened at my workplace), my projects are not lost.

Firefly Publisher was specifically designed for team based authoring, without all the overhead of a full-blown LCMS. It includes a lot of useful team based tools, like creating tasks and workflow management, but doesn’t burden you with a complex administration scheme or interface. It is designed for people who actually create eLearning, not people who manage it or administer it.

In the authoring tool market, there are great tools for individual developers and some good enterprise wide LCMS tools, but nothing in the middle. Firefly is that product in the middle. Small to medium sized organizations can really benefit from Firefly Publisher. The authoring environment is flexible and simple enough for novices, but robust enough for experienced developers.

Some of the features I particularly liked:

  • SME Review – You can have people review courses, but you don’t need a license for them. You only need a license for developers.
  • Task Management – A simple tool for adding tasks to screens, like “Replace graphic” or “redo audio”. It’s basically a “To Do” list for each screen, something I maintain manually now. You can run a report for an entire project to get the global picture.
  • Repository – All assets (text, audio, interactions) are stored in a media repository and can be reused.
  • Remote linking for assets – You don’t have store them in the library, you can point to a URL.
  • HTML Editing – Allows you to edit HTML, and won’t step on it. You can add HTML to the theme, so it’s available on every page.

The version I looked at didn’t have a PowerPoint import, but it was in development. It also didn’t support CSS, but you could put it in the HTML for a theme and it would work. So, even though the software had a gap (in my opinion), there was a simple work around.

My bottom line – I want this tool.

Since this post is getting long, I’ll talk about Firefly Simulation developer in the next blog post.

As always, please let me know if you questions, comments, or a different opinion.

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.