The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for June, 2008

A good scenario can make your elearning courses engaging and more real to your learners.  It’s a great way to get them to learn to use the course information and make the decisions you want.

Where I live, the threat of earthquakes is real so we were required to have a 72-hour emergency pack at our desks.  Needless to say not many of us did.  However, we always passed the online safety courses that required we have 72-hour packs.  Fortunately, we never had an earthquake that warranted using the 72-hour pack.

This example represents the challenge with a lot of our elearning.  Most courses have a purpose tied to real performance.  But they tend to focus on sharing information rather than performance.  One of the problems with the information dumps is we get so used to the mind numbing slide-after-slide of information, that the value of the information is lost and it renders the course useless.

A great way to counter this is to build scenarios where the learner uses the information.  In the example above, if the safety course started with an earthquake, I’d have to make decisions and get routed through the course based on the decisions I made.  For example, not having the 72-hour emergency pack might mean I die or suffer some other negative consequence.  It brings home the value of the pack more so than just a bullet point telling me to have one.

Using scenarios to share the information is an effective and engaging way to build your courses.  You can make them as simple or complex as you want.  They don’t need to be big Hollywood productions.  Build a little story around the course information and then get the learners to make decisions based on the type of performance you expect from them.  If they make the appropriate decisions move them on.  If not, then give them another little scenario or a screen with some remedial information.

So, that’s the case for using scenarios.  However, if you decide to build these sorts of scenarios, you need to have the right types of images.  In an earlier post, I showed you how to create your own characters using clip art.  Today, we’ll use a similar approach to build our own scenes.  This way you can stage your scenarios and never be at a loss for the right type of scene.

Find Images with Good Backdrops

The first step is to find a series of images.  When I look through my clip art, I’m always looking for interesting backgrounds.  I prefer to stay with the same clip art style, but the good thing is that you can typically choose any background from your clip art because you’re just using the backgrounds. 

Below are four images that have different backgrounds. 

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Four clip art images with different backgrounds

Clean Up the Clip Art to Create Distinct Backgrounds

Once I have an image, I ungroup it and pull out the people or other objects I don’t want.  You can learn more about how to do this in my post on working with ungrouped objects

This leaves me with a distinct background.  I’ll save the background for use in other projects.  If you save it as a vector image (.emf), you’ll be able to make modifications to the background later.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - People pulled out of the clip art image to make background images

Create More Interest by Varying Your Background Images

Now that you have a background image, you can place your characters in various scenes.  To make the scenes more interesting, change up how the background images are used.

For example, the image below shows some simple changes I’ve made to the same image.  Yet, I get three distinct looks.  Don’t be afraid to stretch the image outside of the PowerPoint slide.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Three variations of the same image

By using the backgrounds that come with your clip art, you’ll never be at a loss for the right type of background.  It will open the doors to all types of scenes and with that all sorts of possibilities.

If you’ve built any scenarios using these techniques, I’d love to see them.  Also, if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to add them to the comments section.


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If you listen to the pundits and some elearning experts, you’d think that only those expensive elearning courses custom built in Flash have any value.  While these people pay lip service to rapid elearning, they usually relegate it to low-level elearning.  This is really code for ineffective or boring, “click and read” elearning.  Some of them even look at rapid elearning with disdain.  And believe it or not, they think that many of you aren’t capable of building effective elearning courses.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Stinkin' Thinkin'

As my daughter would say, “That’s stinkin’ thinkin’!”  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that’s flat out wrong.  Of course, there are some poorly designed rapid elearning courses which appear to give credence to that argument.  But it won’t take much of a search to find just as many examples of poorly designed elearning built the non-rapid way.  In fact, poorly designed elearning was an art form years before the first rapid elearning course came to market.

Let me tell you why rapid elearning’s not only cool but here to stay.  In fact, it’s the future.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most people who build elearning aren’t the high profile vendors talking about $100,000 courses. At the recent ASTD conference in San Diego, I got to meet many of you and hear some of your stories.  Talking to you and getting your emails helps me keep my perspective real and focused on what’s practical for most people.  Here are three examples from conversations I had with some rapid elearning developers.  I think they represent many of the uses of rapid elearning software and demonstrate the value the tools bring to their organizations.

Subject Matter Experts Are Empowered

One training manager told me that they used to send their staff out to learn Flash programming.  However, they found that it just wasn’t effective because of Flash’s learning curve and their production needs.  So, they opted for a rapid elearning strategy instead.

He told me that it’s been highly successful.  In fact, they now train their subject matter experts (SME) to use the tools.  The SME are highly skilled and work in a very fast-paced environment.  Now that they know how to use the rapid elearning software, it’s routine for them to quickly build or modify their elearning courses with up-to-date information and have it ready for the following shifts.  By putting it online, they also are able to quickly develop and maintain their standard operating procedures. 

What’s really cool is that these aren’t just bullet point slide shows converted to Flash.  Instead, they’re media rich elearning with video and audio that trains people on very complex machinery and procedures. 

Blended E-learning That Meets Real Needs

A different manager said they combined rapid elearning modules with their facilitated sessions.  They use elearning to expedite the information sharing and some self-paced case studies.  Then, they have breakout sessions where the learners are able to discuss what they learned and work through case studies. 

Using rapid elearning proves effective on a number of levels.  First, they’re able to produce them in-house and save about $15,000 per course (as compared to when a vendor was building them). Because they control the production process, they can make changes on the fly.  In fact, they can make same day changes.  They’ll get feedback from class participants and during a break make changes to better reflect the needs of the learners. 

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - E-Learning Developer

Changing the World One Course at a Time

Another person I talked to was a one-person shop who is responsible for building elearning courses for a company that serves a number of organizations in developing nations.  They have a limited budget and few elearning resources.  Without rapid elearning tools, he’d be slow to build and deliver courses.  And in his case, there would literally be thousands of people in other countries who would not have access to the valuable information to help improve their communities. 

These are three examples from the dozens of people I talked to.  They’re a good reflection of how many organizations are leveraging elearning.  And they really speak to the power of the rapid elearning tools and how they bring real value.

Just a few years ago you couldn’t put a video in your elearning course without having a programmer build a player and the functionality.  As an instructional designer, you were always held hostage by your lack of programming resources or the complexity of attempting to add multimedia.  That’s not the case today.  You can easily drop in all sorts of multimedia.  Now, instead of being held back by your programming limitations, the rapid elearning software opens the door to all sorts of possibilities.

In the same sense, you weren’t able to quickly make edits to a Flash authored course.  Typically, you’d have to get a programmer and then put the project in a queue hoping that your project would get priority.  Not so any more.

In the example above, the trainer was able to quickly modify the elearning scenarios and case studies to build courses that better reflected the learner’s needs right at the point of contact.  Talk about just in time.

The last example is probably most typical of those who build rapid elearning.  It’s all about making the best of limited resources.  There’ll always be a place for the high profile $100,000 courses, but the reality is that those are in the minority.

The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades

Here’s the deal.  Rapid elearning is all about automating the elearning production process.  Once the process is automated, it puts more capability into the hands of creative people.  They don’t have to worry about programming constraints and can spend their efforts building better learning.

Today, the rapid elearning software has removed the barriers to incorporating multimedia.  However, now the issue for instructional designers is adding advanced interactivity and building more engaging learning environments.  For many, it still costs a lot or takes too much time to build the right type of interactivity.  Well, that’s changing, too. 

In the next generation elearning tools, you’ll be able to build Flash animations in what I like to call “PowerPoint comfort.”  This is the first step.  Soon all of the complex steps to building interactivity will be automated and for most, this will remove many of the technical barriers.  You’ll eliminate the need for to have Flash programmers build even your most complex courses.

What you see in some of those $100,000 courses today, you’ll be able to build yourself without the need for advanced programming skills.  Once those constraints are removed, you’ll be empowered to build the types of elearning courses you want and not be held back by expense or lack of capability.  And that’s the way it should be.  If I’m an instructional designer, I shouldn’t have to be a programmer to build a highly interactive elearning course.

Stay tuned. It’s going to get real exciting, real soon.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Feel free to add a comment.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.

Last week I told you to stop using templates for e-learning that were designed for presentations.  Presentation templates are designed for a different purpose.  Sure, you’re using PowerPoint to author the course, but you’re not building a presentation. You’re building an elearning course. So, different rules apply.

You had some lively feedback in the comments section and I also got a ton of email from you.  I didn’t realize how passionate people are about this issue.  Because of the comments, I thought it best to do a follow up.

The Branding Issue

A big issue with the presentation template is that they’re branded with logos or company brand elements.  They might work fine for a presentation, but they cause problems for elearning.

The logos and brand elements take up valuable screen real estate.  This leaves less room for your course content.  They have nothing to do with the learning and, in fact, are disruptive because they add irrelevant information.  They can even move the elearning towards a dry and formal tone.  But for best results, you usually want your courses to have a personal and conversational tone.

Templates keep you in a box and inhibit creativity.  While using this type of template might be easy for the organization to control its content, ultimately, it inhibits creative innovation.  And like a vampire, it sucks the life force out of all enterprising instructional designers. 🙂


  • You’re building an elearning course.  You’re not building a presentation, even if you are using PowerPoint to author the course.  Think like an instructional designer and focus on learning goals and not template design.  Form should follow function.
  • Step away from the presentation mind set of building a bullet-point structure.  View the slide area as a blank screen.  Your ultimate goal is to motivate and influence performance.  Is the template helping you do that?
  • Create a branded elearning player.  Some of you have to work within the confines of a template.  Talk to the template gatekeepers and see if they can arrange a meeting for you with the Illuminati (or whomever it is that creates these rules).  At the meeting discuss moving the logos and branding elements to the elearning player to create a "branded elearning player."

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Template collapses and leaves 1 dead!

Effective Use of Templates

There’s certainly a place for templates.  A good template can help guide the instructional design process.  So the goal is not to completely discount templates.  Instead, it’s to determine if and when a template should be used.

Separating effective from non-effective templates is a matter of identifying the template’s objectives.  If the template is just about colors, designs, and logos, then I’ll put it in the non-effective bucket.  However, if the template is designed to help someone structure their content or pull a course together, it goes in the effective bucket.

Another consideration is the experience of the instructional designer.  At this point in my career, I don’t rely on templates.  However, when I first got started, that wasn’t the case.  I was looking for any type of template or guidance I could get.  And that’s the case for many of my readers.

You have good software, but you’re short on experience.  Using a well designed template probably will help.  However, I’d consider such a template more like training wheels on a bike and work hard to be weaned from it.

As I review my early projects, I see templates as a Catch-22.  Sure they helped me get started and provided some guidance.  However, they were also my least creative and most boring courses.


  • The template guides the development process.  It is not about the design or brand.  Instead, focus on structuring the course content for effective learning.
  • Templates are better for beginners.  Because they provide guidance and a framework for the course design, templates can be effective.  The danger is relying too much on the template and not developing sound instructional design skills.
  • Templates represent principles and not rules.  I think this statement is at the heart of the issue for so many.  Having some guiding principles is good.  Because the learner needs to understand what the course is about and where it’s going, having clear objectives is critical.   And, this can be designed in a number of ways.  However, often the principle becomes a steadfast and unbreakable rule.  And now, it’s mandated that all courses have five detailed learning objectives listed in bullet points at the front of the course.

Moving Away From Templates

While I have issues with templates that are forced on me or that serve no real purpose other than to be the "official" template, I am not against the use of templates.  As I stated above, there is a place for them in elearning design.

My main concern is that templates inhibit the design of effective learning.  However, the reality is that many of you have to deal with this issue.  I hope that this series of posts spurs some talk in your organization about your templates and how they’re used in your elearning courses.

I also know that many of you are just getting started and looking for any type of help possible and a good template is just the right thing.  If it works for you, that’s great.

The trend with elearning is moving away from the presentation mindset that created the templates in the first place.  Initially we shifted our instruction techniques from classroom and lecture to online.  And the templates worked well.  However, we have new technologies and different thoughts about how to deliver information and craft better elearning.

We’re becoming less information-centered and more focused on performance.  Instead of asking what you need to know, we’re asking what you need to do.  This is leading us to focus more on crafting a story-like process and creating more real-world scenarios.  I’m not sure where the branded template fits in that world.

As a final thought, my perspective is that it’s not an either/or situation.  You have to do what works best for you, your learners, and you customer.  I just put out information to stimulate your thinking and give you some tips and tricks to build good elearning.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and look forward to your comments.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.

When it came to buying a car, Henry Ford always promised that you "can buy it in any color, as long as it is black."  That might have worked for Henry Ford, but it doesn’t really work for elearning.  Or it shouldn’t.

However, every week I get emails from blog readers that basically read like this:

"My company uses a branded PowerPoint template for presentations.  Now that we’re building elearning courses, we’re forced to use that same template.  And, it just doesn’t work for elearning!  What should I do?"

I feel the pain.  I once worked for an organization that took the Henry Ford approach to PowerPoint.  We could use any template we wanted as long as it was the one they approved.  And of course, there was only one approved template for the organization.

This type of policy is ridiculous on many levels.  The policy makers (whoever they are) see no distinction between presentations and elearning.  They just ignorantly apply a rule across the entire organization that impacts the way people do their work.  In our case, they even went so far as to limit it us to one official font.  To make matters worse, the font looked like something Lorne Greene might have used at the Ponderosa.  It was horrible and dated.  Yet, we were forced to use it.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Bonanza elearning example

As instructional designers, the "one template rule" has a negative impact on how we approach our elearning design.  We’re forced into a box that contributes to a lesser quality elearning product.  In some cases, the template rules also dictate what can and can’t be on a slide.  Some will even explicitly state that you have to have bullet points and can’t use any graphics.

Reasons for the Rules 

I can see why many organizations have these rules.  There are some really bad presentations being delivered to the public and the organization is trying to protect its brand and quality.

While that makes sense, I challenge the idea that you have to have a branded PowerPoint file to effectively communicate with the public.  In fact, when it comes to presentations, my guess is that a branded, one-size-fits-all approach is more a hindrance to effective communication than it is a help.  It forces your content into a box and potentially strips away what’s unique about that encounter with the public.  

To learn more about effective communication using slide presentations, check out the Presentation Zen and Beyond Bullet Point sites.  As you go through these two sites you’ll immediately see how forcing a bullet point template on your audience shuts down effective communication.  And that’s just on the presentation side of things.  Let’s look at it from the elearning perspective.

Use PowerPoint as a Freeform Authoring Tool

Elearning courses and live presentations are different processes and have different objectives, even if you use the same tool to create the core content.  No one says to the Flash developer, "Here is my PowerPoint template, I want the course to look just like a slide show."

No, the Flash developer starts with a blank screen and then uses Flash’s freeform authoring environment to create the elearning course.  And this is how we need to view PowerPoint authoring for elearning.

Look at the image below.  On one side you have PowerPoint and on the other Flash.  They’re different tools in terms of how you create your content, but essentially they’re the same when it comes to a starting point.  They both start with blank screens and give you a freeform environment to manipulate your objects.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - free form authoring

The rule makers need to step out of the "PowerPoint for presentations box."  They need to allow you to start in freeform with a blank screen, the same way you do in Flash or any other freeform authoring tool.

Remember your goal isn’t to produce a branded presentation.  Instead, your goal is to craft an online learning environment.  Branding is a secondary consideration.

There’s a Difference Between Internal & External Audiences

The case can be made that if you’re building content to be seen by those outside of your organization, you want to brand it with your organization’s identity.  That’s a valid point.

We typically think of the brand being a logo plastered on every slide.  However, a large part of branding is less the logo and color schemes and more the identity people attach to your organization.  And that’s why a cookie cutter approach could be more hindrance than help.  Whatever the case, branding for external customers makes sense at some level. 

Branding for internal employees is probably unnecessary or at least can be toned down quite a bit.  Basically, I know where I work.  I don’t need to be reminded on every slide of the elearning course.  You run the risk of diluting your brand or creating cynicism around it.  Plus, some of this corporate branding stuff can get a little creepy.  At one place I worked, I used to say "they put the cult in culture."

I like to start with a completely blank screen and want to get rid of the logo.  If I have to have the logo, then I prefer to take them out of the slide area and place them into the logo area in the player.  That frees up the screen real estate, quite a bit.

If you want to get rid of the logo, but your manager wants to keep it in, here’s a good compromise.  On every tenth slide, insert the slide below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Wake up and read your badge

Working with Branded E-Learning Slides

There are a number of ways you can approach the branding issue in your courses.  I’ve taken screen shots of some courses that I have access to. They’re from different organizations and show you various ways to brand and maximize your screen space.

In this first image, you can see the approach Reuters took.  They still have a branded PowerPoint slide, but they moved the branded element up and created a smaller heading banner.  If you’re going to add a branded element to your slide, something like this works because you can satisfy the organization’s need, but you also maximize the real estate.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Reuters example

This next image is a demo from Ah-Ha! Media.  What they did is move all of the branding out of the PowerPoint template and onto the player.  So the only place you see a logo is in the logo area.  What this does is free up all of the space on the slide for elearning content.  That’s what you’re shooting for.  You want as much freedom to work on the slide as possible.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Ah-Ha Media! example

In the imag
e below, you can see how Ignite applied their branding.  They used the logo panel for a very prominent logo.  There’s also a small logo on the bottom right.  However, they did free up most of the slide area for elearning content.  The other thing you see is that they colorized the player template to match the organization’s colors.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Ignite example

Here’s another nice approach.  CUNA Mutual used a branded PowerPoint template.  They have the logo in the top corner and the design element on the bottom.  This type of template is typical in a lot of organization.

It presents some challenges because you have to account for the right margins and spacing when adding content to the slides.  So the design elements consume space, and the margins between the elements and the course content takes up space.

CUNA’s approach works because they have a lot of white space and they went with really bold images and simple text.  They also colorized their player to match the organization’s color schemes.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - CUNA Mutual example

In an ideal world, you get a completely blank page to start.  So if there are any "rule makers" reading this post, my professional opinion is to dump the template altogether and start your slide from scratch.

However, for many that’s just not a reality.  And winning the branded PowerPoint template debate might not happen.  The images above reflect what is typical for many organizations and I think demonstrate some simple ways around the branding templates and still give you room on the slide to build your content.

Moving Towards 100% Freeform

The following images show why starting with a blank slide is ideal compared to starting with a branded PowerPoint template.

The image below is from a case study I did on compensation discussions.  It’s built entirely in PowerPoint.  As you can see, it doesn’t look like a PowerPoint slide.  And that’s the point.  I wanted to show the client that even though the course was authored in PowerPoint, it didn’t have to look like PowerPoint.  In this case, I completely disabled the player and created my own navigation using PowerPoint hyperlinks.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Compensation example

The SkyScan demo is one I created for a conference.  Again, it’s built entirely in PowerPoint, but doesn’t have that PowerPoint look.  Since it’s a fake company, I created the blue and green scheme as part of the company’s branded look.  So this demonstrates how you can build a brand identity in the colors and design elements and be less concerned with the logo plastered on the slides.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Skyscan example

Here’s a screen shot of a demo I’m working on for a future post.  It’s a copy of the popular frog dissection flash course that’s made its way around the Internet.  I was telling someone at a recent conference how that could easily be reproduced in PowerPoint.  The person didn’t believe me so I made the demo.  I’ll use it in an upcoming post.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - frog dissection example

The point in all of this is to show you that when you start with a blank screen you can focus on adding just the content that’s critical to your course.  The rest of that stuff is just noise and distracting.  

While you’re using PowerPoint, you’re not creating a PowerPoint presentation.  Instead, you’re using PowerPoint’s freeform authoring environment to create a media rich, Flash-based elearning course.  It’s really no different than if you started with Flash or Authorware.

In a future post, I’ll do a makeover and show you how to create a company branded template in PowerPoint that’s built around your elearning needs.  This will help you meet your branding needs and build something that meets your elearning needs, as well.

I’d love to hear your take on all of this.  Feel free to send comments to the blog.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.