The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for July, 2008

Because a large part of elearning involves the learner viewing the screen, it’s critical that the visual elements you choose enhance the learning experience.

Today, I’ll touch on three graphic design principles for instructional designers.  They will help you build visuals that support your design and help you build more effective courses.

Use layouts to convey meaning and relationships.

When you place text and graphics on a screen, you can’t assume that the learner automatically understands what it means.  Your job is to create relationships and guide the learner’s understanding.

Look at the image below.  Without explanation, you’re left to wonder what the relationship is between the characters.

The Rapid E-learning Blog - Group of five people

Now, look at the next image.  Same characters, only they’re organized better.  Because of proximity and spacing, you’re able to imply relationships without even presenting other information.  This helps guide the learners with less explanation.

However, the reverse can also be true.  Through poor design, you can imply relationships between information on the screen that doesn’t exist.

The Rapid E-learning Blog - Four against one

Use patterns and repetition to organize your content.

Since you’re introducing new ideas, you can assist the learning process by using repetitive elements and patterns.  They help organize the content and bring a sense of unity to the course.

For example, there’s a lot of information in the image below.  However, it’s not easy to understand it because it’s all chunked together.  I get tired just looking at all of that text and I have no inclination to explore more.  In addition, because of the way it’s presented, I don’t know what the information is and what it means to me.

The Rapid E-learning Blog - This text makes no sense

Give the learner visual cues so that they’re able to follow the course content and understand how it all fits together.  This is especially true for online courses because people have developed web surfing habits, where they quickly scan the screen for information.

If you look at the image below, you’ll notice that by using some repetitive elements the information is easier to process.  In this example, bold headline means title and underlined text represents sections.  As you can see, the learner can quickly scan the information and determine where it fits into the scheme of things.  By repeating something like the underlined text, the learner intuitively knows that those things are related.

 The Rapid E-learning Blog - Add repetitive elements to the text to help organize its meaning

You’re not limited to text.  You can also do the same thing with the graphic elements.  Whatever you design should help the learner sort the information and create a sense of comfort with knowing how the content on the screen is related to each other and the overall objective of the course.

Use just the right images.  No more.

Whether you use text or graphics, all of it needs to support the objectives of the course.  If it’s on the screen, then it should contribute and not detract from your course.  This includes the visual style, fonts, colors, and symbols.  They all contribute to the communication process.  Make sure that they’re contributing to your message in the right way.

Suppose you’re watching an elearning course on public parks and you see the image below on the screen.  What does that image tell you?  If you’re like me, you’re expecting something about the environment or litter in the park.

The Rapid E-learning Blog - Girl in the park picking up litter

Without communicating anything else, the image is already starting to tell you something.  That’s how you want to use images, symbols, or any other graphics on your screen.  You want them to contribute to the course.

On the flip side, there’s a tendency to put decorative images on the screen to fill in blank spots.  Or sometimes, the client wants to “jazz things up a bit.”  Avoid that.  Don’t litter the screen with useless elements.  Some studies show that decorative graphics can negatively impact how learners process the information.  So you run the risk that you are actually impeding the learning process.  Not only that, but like the image above, if the image communicates information and it is not related to the course content, you end up confusing the learner.

You don’t need to be a Photoshop pro or a professional graphic designer.  However, to craft an effective elearning course it’s important to understand the principles of graphic design.  I touched on a few in this post, but there’s a lot more to learn.

If you’re looking for a good book to get started, I highly recommend The Non-Designer’s Design Book.  The book covers the basics of visual design.  It has great examples and is easy to get through.

An important part of instructional design is the use and layout of your visual elements. How you design your screen tells your learners where to look and what’s most important.  And you want the information on the screen to support the learning objectives of the course.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to share them by clicking on the comments link.


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.

In an earlier post, we looked at how to build better courses by trimming out some of the content.  Many of the follow-up comments and questions speak to your role as an instructional designer.  In fact, it’s a question I was asked in a recent email:

What is the role of the instructional designer?  And how do I convey that to my clients and subject matter experts?

As I was contemplating a response, I stumbled upon this video that does a great job illustrating the value of instructional design.  Watch the video first and then I’ve got a few observations.  If you don’t have access to YouTube, click the link below the video.

Articulate Rapid E-learning blog- bear instructional design example

Click here to watch video.

As humans, we’re wired to learn and we’re always learning.  There’s really not a time where we’re not learning.  Learning is just what we do.  And we have a natural way of learning that is not dependent on taking a formal course.

Learning happens through our experiences and through the things we see and hear.  We learn in our quiet moments as we reflect on life.  And we learn in our social interactions and conversations with others.  And sometimes we even learn through elearning courses. 🙂

A formal course intrudes on the learner’s natural learning path.  This intrusion is neither good nor bad.  Essentially, we’re just circumventing the natural learning process by not waiting for the learner to stumble upon what we need them to know or do.  So we manufacture a learning experience.  And in that sense, the role of the instructional designer is to help the learners make sense of the new information they get.

The video above is an excellent illustration of some key points concerning instructional design.  Imagine the video was the content of an elearning course.  There’s a lot of information and a lot going.  If you sat the learner down in front of the video and offered no guidance, who knows what they’d focus on?

Some might try to understand the big picture and spend time figuring out where they’re at and why they’re in two teams.  Some might just observe the basketball skills.  Still others might try to pick up clues listening in on the conversations.

There’s a lot going on and if you just left it up to the learner to figure out, you’d waste a lot of time and probably won’t get the results you need.  So, instructional design is more than just an information dump.  Instead it’s about helping the learners make sense of the information.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Instructional design is more than just putting information in front of the learners.

Fortunately, as you watch the video, the narrator does offer some guidance.  He provides a basic objective: “This is an awareness test.”  And he gives some direction to look for passes by the team in white.  That’s easy enough to do.

For the moment, let’s discount the bear and just look at what happened.  There’s so much activity and information that without clear instructions you’d focus on the wrong things.  Because he gives clear instructions, you’re able to answer his question.  In fact, while the moonwalking bear is obviously intended to catch you off guard, the reality is that the clarity of the instructions helped you see past the bear and focus on the goal of counting the passes.  You were able to do what he asked despite the distractions of all of the other activity.

And that’s one of the critical pieces of instructional design.  Because you’re manufacturing a learning experience, you don’t want the learners focused on twenty things.  Instead, you’re trying to get them focused on very specific pieces of information.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Instructional design has clear goals and gets you learners focused on the right things.

Now let’s flip it around a little.  Admit it.  Unless you already saw this video, it was kind of shocking to think that something as obvious as a moonwalking bear could have passed before your eyes with you completely unaware.

There’s a lesson in there for us all.  We can become so intently focused on our perspective that we miss the “moonwalking bear.”  This is true of our clients, our managers, our subject matter experts, and even us.  We don’t know what we don’t know.

This is why collaboration and good analysis comes in handy.  It helps expose us to multiple perspectives and keeps us from counting passes, when the critical information is walking right passed us.  And we’re able to pass that on to our learners.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Instructional design provides context and perspective. 

Make a mental list of everything that is going on in the scene.  How many people are there?  How many teams?  What type of ball?  What are the people saying?  What is the ethnic makeup of the people? Is that a police siren or ambulance? Which team has the best ball handling skills?  The list could go on.  And as you can see, there’s really a lot of information to collect and process.

Without instructional design, the learner might or might not get the information they need.  Because of instructional design, you can get the learners to cut through a lot of extraneous information and get right to the important stuff.

What you do as an instructional designer is take the information and expertise of a tenured subject matter expert and deliver it to the learner.  And in doing so, you compress the learning process saving time and money.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Instructional design compresses the learning process.

Now let’s look at the video in its entirety.  It’s clever.  I’ve watched it a few times and I’ve shared it with others.  I’ve reflected on how to use the video as an illustration for this post.  I’ve also used it in conversations with my kids and some friends.  So the video makers have done a great job engaging me.

There something for us to learn here: good design engages us.  When we’re mentally engaged, we’re more apt to remember and learn.  And as you can see from the video, it’s not interactive.  Yet it is effective.

Not all of our content can be cleverly packaged like this video.  In fact, most people would rather have clarity than cleverness to start.  And that is the first step in engaging your learners.  The information needs to be clear and have real meaning and purpose for the learners.  Once they understand why it’s important to them, they’ll
be more apt to have a meaningful learning experience.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Instructional design engages learners with clear and meaningful content.

Learning is a complex process and there’s a lot more to be said about instructional design.  The key point is that instructional designers provide value when they’re able to pull the content together to craft courses that are focused and meaningful.  What do you think?  Feel free to add your ideas by clicking on the comments link.


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.

I once had a client who was adamant about never using “cartoons” (as she called all illustrations) in her elearning projects. For her, we either used pictures of real people or we didn’t use graphics at all.  This caused some problems for us because we didn’t have a lot of images of real people with which to work.  On top of that, we didn’t have a large budget that allowed us to buy want we needed.

This issue wasn’t new to me, and from what I gather from the emails I receive, it’s pretty common.  Over the years, I’ve learned to work with tight budgets and limited resources.  In a previous post, I shared how I use stock photos to create characters for my elearning courses.  Today, I share some tips and tricks on how to find free or inexpensive stock images.

Multi-task and put on your photographer’s hat.

Get a digital camera and take your own images.  With some practice and basic understanding of photography, this is a very viable option.  In addition, people like to see themselves and their friends in the courses.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - woman with camera

I’ve also found that using this approach offers some side benefits.  As you recruit subjects for your photos, it’s a good way to show that a new training program is being developed.  You can leverage this as a way to get some buy-in for the project from your future learners.

At one place I worked they called us trainers the “upstairs people.”  Culturally they did not see us as part of them. The fact that some of the learners can help with the construction of the course goes a long way in them accepting it.  I’ve found this especially true in the production environments where the learning departments are separated from the day-to-day grind.

Obviously, shooting your own photos doesn’t work for everyone or all elearning projects.  However, it is a cost effective approach and with some practice very viable.  Besides, you can always use a graphics program to fix you bad photos later.  🙂

Find free images.

When it comes to working with limited resources, my mentor, Dr. Werner says, “Before you spend a dime, invest the time.”  With a little searching you’ll find that there are all sorts of places to get free images.  Here are some of my favorite options.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Miscellaneous stock images

  • Microsoft Office Online.  Microsoft offers quite a few really nice images.  For example, just do a search of “business people” to start.  If you’re like Bono and still can’t find what you’re looking for, then click around on the picture’s key words to get ideas for more images.
  • Stock.xchng.  This is a good blend of free images and links to relatively inexpensive stock images.  They even have some interesting tutorials for aspiring photographers and graphic artists.  You might find the tutorials relevant to editing your images.
  • Flickr.  There are many photo community sites like Flickr where people upload their photos for use based on the Creative Commons license.  Here’s a link to learn more about Flickr’s Creative Common agreements.  While the quality for these images is “hit or miss,” as you can see from the link, there are over 7 million images that are available by attribution, where all you have to do is give credit for the image.  Compfight is a great site that makes searching Flickr easier.

Free is good, especially if you have more time than money.  However, free also offers some challenges such as image quality and easy access to just the right images.  You also run the risk that eventually you run out of pictures and your sexual harasser also has to play the role of senior manager.  While this might work in some cases, this probably isn’t preferable.

Use inexpensive stock photo sites.

There are a number of inexpensive alternatives to the free sites.  Typically you can pre-buy credits and then just download images when you need them.  If I do an external client project, I’ll budget in the cost of stock images and go that route rather than the free alternatives.  It ends up saving time and you get better quality.  Plus, you avoid licensing and copyright issues.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Example from stock image site

The stock photo sites are generally easy to navigate and not only can you find the right images, you can usually find them as a series.  This comes in handy when you want an image of the same people in various poses or environments.  You can also download watermarked images to use while you’re building your course before you make the commitment to buy.

I’ll look for a certain style and then click on the photographer’s profile to find more from that photographer.  Sometimes you can also contact the photographers and have them shoot specific photos for you at a reduced price.  It just depends on how “starving” the artist is.

You can always find inexpensive stock photo subscriptions. In fact Graphic Stock (which has a good selection) regularly runs a $99/year subscription with unlimited downloads. They also have a video  and audio service that is reasonably priced.

Paid stock images typically are better quality and offer more choices.  The challenge with them can be the licensing and royalty agreements.  Make sure that you read the license before you download and use the images.

When you look for images, you can end up spending a lot of time.  Make sure you budget that time into your projects.  Sometimes, I’ll make a list of the images we need and let the client do the leg work.

Here are links to some additional sites that were recommended by blog readers.

This should help you get started with the next elearning course where you have to use more than clip art.  If you know of any good resources or have additional tips and tricks on getting access to free or low-cost stock images please share them with the community by clicking on the comments link.


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.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog

“Help! My client just dumped a 200-slide PowerPoint file on my desk and wants me to turn it into an elearning course.  What do I do?”

Do you feel his pain?  If you’ve been building elearning courses for any length of time, then you know exactly what he’s going through.  In fact, this is one of the questions I’m asked the most.  Everyone wants to know how to weed through all of the text and data that the client wants to throw into the course and still make it a good course.

In this post, I’ll go through a few considerations when you’re reviewing the course content and give you some ideas on how to weed out the unnecessary data.

Define the Objectives

Your client wants an elearning course for a reason and your job is to figure out what that is.  I put courses in one of two buckets.  The course objective is to change behaviors for performance improvement or the objective is to share information.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Is it performance or information-based?

Performance-based courses have some sort of measurable goal that lets you know if behaviors have changed and what impact it had on performance.  Information-based courses are a little trickier.  Typically, the objective is to share the information without explicit behavioral change and the measure of success is a report of completion.  This is typical of compulsory training.

By identifying the objectives of the course, you’re able to figure out what content you need to meet them.

If It Doesn’t Help Meet the Objective, Take it Out of the Course

Your subject matter experts will always give you more information than you need.  But, you don’t need every piece of information they have to share.  As an instructional designer, your job is to determine what to keep and what to leave out?  These three questions help you make that determination.

1. What’s the learner supposed to do?

Design the course from the learners’ perspective.  What are they supposed to do at the end of the course?  Typically the learners are expected to accomplish a specific task or be able to solve certain problems.

Training focused on just sharing information gets tricky because the focus is less on doing so the measurable expectations are not as evident.  In those cases you need to ask how the learner is expected to use the information in the course.  This helps you shift the compliance content out of the information bucket and into the performance bucket to make it relevant to the learner’s performance expectations.

2. What course content will help the learner meet the course objectives? 

Once you understand the objectives and performance expectations, sort the the course content and identify what information the learner needs to meet the course goals?

For example, I once did an elearning project for a financial institution where the learners were trained on completing a financial form.  However the training not only covered the process of completing the form, it also covered the whole history of the financial industry through a series of Congressional reforms and various regulations.

While the background information was important, it wasn’t critical when it came to the performance expectations of completing the form accurately.  And that’s the key point.  You’re trying to find the content that is critical to meeting the objectives.  The rest of it is just extra information.  There’s a place for it, just not as the essential course content.

3. How will the learner use this in the real world?

Effective elearning connects the course’s information to the learner’s world.  Knowing what that connection is will help you build the right course and sort through the pages of subject matter information.

Why does the learner need to know this information?  Which situations does the learner experience in the real world that requires knowing the course content?  How will the learner use the information?

Going back to the lending course, unless Alex Trebek shows up to get a loan, most likely the learner only needs to know how to collect the right information from the borrowers to accurately complete the form.  And, that’s what the course content should focus on.  All of the contextual information about the industry and the various regulations can be added as resource data to augment the course, but it’s not critical to completing the form.  So in that case, you’d build an elearning course that mirrors the lending process so that the learner understands why the course is relevant to meeting performance expectations.

Put the Course Content into the Learner’s World

As you sort the content, you’ll end up with two piles.  One pile has “need to know” information and the other pile has “nice to know.”  The “need to know” is used to build learning activities to help change the learner’s behaviors.  The “nice to know” is resource data to provide additional information if the learner wants or needs it.


Have the learner use the “need to know” information in a real world context.  Instead of doing an information dump with multiple slides of bullet points and text, create a situation where the learner needs to use the new information.  Generally, you’d do something like this to share the information with the learners:

  • Set up the real-world scenario and then provide critical background information.
  • The learner will go through a decision-making process.  At that point you can provide additional information.
  • After the learner makes a decision, you can provide even more information as feedback.

As you can see, this simple approach gives you three ways to pump information into the course that you might have previously just put on a few screens with bullet points.

Use the “nice to know” information as a way to augment the course content.  Some learners like to know more before they make decisions.  They’ll want some of the information you pulled out of the course.

There are a number of ways you can provide access to the additional content without dragging down the course or interfering with the learning process.  Here are a few ideas.

  • Link to a help line.  This could be a link to an intranet site or if you want to get creative you can create a virtual helper like an HR assistant who can provide more information.  It could be as simple as a clip art image of “Sally the HR Manager” that links to a screen with additional information.
  • Compress the data into resource tabs.  For example, using an Engage interaction you can build FAQs or a Glossary that can easily hold all of the contextual information that you weeded out of the main course content.  They sit on the top of the player as drop down tabs and whenever you need more information, you can click on them without losing your place in the course.
  • Create additional documentation that the user can access.  You can put it online as a simple web page or publish a PDF that the learner can download a
    nd use as a resource later.

You’re always going to have more information than you need for the course.  Clear learning objectives (tied to performance expectations) provide a framework for filtering out the critical information from all of the extra information.  Keep focused on how the learners use the course content and build activities that let them get the information in a way that’s real to their world.  In this way, you’ll streamline your course content and build courses that have a positive impact on your organization.

I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.  Feel free to add them by clicking on the comments link.


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.

At a recent conference, I was showing people how to build interactive scenarios using illustrated clip art characters.  Someone asked how I would build a scenario with people from photos because some people don’t like using the illustrations.

Essentially, you can do the same thing with people in photos that you can with illustrated clip art people.  However, photos present a few challenges.  The first is finding the right images.  And the second is pulling the people out of the background.  The good news is that you can find a lot of images in the package that comes with Microsoft Office.

In addition, there are a number of resources online where you can buy PC quality images for about $1 each.

Find Your Photos

If you’re using PowerPoint to build your courses, you have access to Microsoft’s online resources.  There are a number of images that you can use. You can always find inexpensive stock photo subscriptions. In fact Graphic Stock (which has a good selection) regularly runs a $99/year subscription with unlimited downloads. They also have a video  and audio service that is reasonably priced. I’ve found that in most cases, the lower resolution images work since I’m only using the images online and not for print.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - search for images on Microsoft Online

I start by doing a search for “people.”  Since I’m going to separate the people from the background, I’m not concerned about the backgrounds or context of the images as much as I am about getting the right type of person.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of image search

When I find an image that’s interesting, I’ll look at its properties to find similar images using the keywords.  To do so, just click on the image and look at the words that are used to tag it.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - using keywords when doing an image search

Pull People out of the Photos

Finding the photos is pretty easy.  Here’s the part that is a little trickier.  It requires that you use an image editor to separate the people from the background.  There are a number of ways you can do this.  Some applications like Photoshop have ways to easily extract images.  At the least, you can use an erase tool.

Here are some tutorials on how to do this.  Even if you don’t have the same software as the tutorials, you’ll get the essence of the process.  If you have some good tips or tricks that will help others, feel free to share them in the comments section.

You’ll need to set the background to transparent so that you can put the image on top of another image.  I prefer to save the image as a .PNG file to preserve the image quality and the background transparency.

When I look for images, I don’t really care much about the original photo and what’s in it, as long as I have good images of the types of people I need for my screen.

The image below is of two women that appear to be in an architectural context.  I don’t care.  All I want is the women.  I cut both of them out and can use them in different contexts.  And, I don’t need to use them together.  So, in this case, the single photo gives me two people.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - cutting people out of the images for use in an elearning course

Put them on Backgrounds

Once you separate the people from the original image, you have the freedom to combine them with any background.  You can do a search for the types of background photos you need.  For example, do a search for “factory” or “office” to get some interesting images.

In the example below, the two women from the image above are now characters for a scenario that plays itself out in an office environment.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of images used in elearning course

As you can see, with a new background the images represent something completely different.  To change them up a little, you’ll notice that I just flipped the first woman and scooted her a little off screen.  For the second woman, I increased the size of the image and hid the books she’s holding.  It seems to change her posture a little.  Add the images to your elearning course and you’re on your way to building a custom scenario.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - modified image used in elearning course demo

While this approach does take a little practice, once you master it, you’ll have all sorts of characters to use in your courses.  Keep in mind that this technique isn’t limited to scenarios.  I use it all the time to create just the right images.  Sometimes I have the right person but the wrong background.  I’ll quickly cut out the person and then find a background that better fits my needs.

I will say that one of my pet peeves with stock images is that it seems all of the people are posed and staring at the camera.  This can present some challenges when trying to build scenarios where the characters are interacting.

I’d love to have a stock site that sorts the people by groups like the clip art styles and where the characters look more candid rather than smiling at the camera like a virtual Stepford wife.  If you know of one, let me know.  Also, if you have some practical tips or ideas, feel free to share them with the rest of us in the comments section.


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.