The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for June, 2009

Last week was a tough one.  I’d been feeling a bit sluggish since getting back from the ASTD conference in Washington Dc, but figured it was just old fashioned fatigue.  However last Saturday everything came to a head with a full blown kidney infection.  I started to feel a bit queasy and by Sunday was lying in a pool of sweat, shivering with an extremely high fever. 

I’m not quick to go to the doctor because I don’t have the patience for sitting in the waiting room for an hour and then sitting in an empty exam room for another 45 minutes.  Fortunately, my wife insisted that I go to the urgent care clinic because had I waited an extra day, I’d probably be dead or laying in a hospital fighting for my life.

In either case, I did go.  I got my meds and after a few days of bed rest I’m feeling much better.  So there’s a lesson learned for me.  Don’t go to Washington DC.  It’ll make you sick (probably more so now than ever).  🙂

The Rapid E-Learning Blog  -Tom's sick stunt double

Actually, during my down time I got to spend some time reflecting on things.  So I thought I’d share a few of those reflections.

1. When You’re Interested in Something, You’re Motivated to Learn

Right now, my son is into the Lego Bionicles.  Because of this, he’s motivated to do all things Bionicle.  That means that he’s reading the comics, the mini novels, and playing on their website. 

I find it interesting to watch him learn to do something that he’s interested in.  This is especially true as he tries to navigate some of the web sites he likes.  He’ll do things that I could probably not get him to do if it were a “school” project, like reading difficult words or follow instructions.  If you’ve built some of those Lego models you know that they can be quite challenging.  It’s encouraging to watch him force himself to read words he doesn’t know and try things he’s not quite sure of because he’s motivated to do so.

I have to chuckle because I can watch this 8 year old click all over the screen to figure out how to navigate the games and puzzles.  And he seems to have no issue with it.  It’s just all part of the process.  Yet, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had adult learners freak out because they didn’t have explicit instructions on what the left and right facing arrows mean on the play bar.  As if the arrows were self destruct buttons or something.

In either case, there’s a lesson here for us.  What will make the course that you build interesting to them?  What is going to motivate your learners?  How can you tap into that motivation?   

2. Learning = Being Prepared to Try

A few years ago I was working on an essay about learning organizations.  I was wondering why it is that some people seem to do a better job learning.  Going to the previous point, children seem to be better at trying new things, which enables their ability to learn. 

Check out the TED video where Sugata Mitra talks about his “hole in the wall” experiment.  I love to see how the kids start slowly and then soon they’re teaching each other.  However, it all starts with that initial risk of trying something new. 

Too often, adults are reluctant to try for fear of negative consequences.  Who wants to look stupid or say the wrong things?  I’ve watched adults sit and stare at the computer screen because they weren’t sure what to do, afraid to click on a button, not sure where it would take them.  Or worry too much about whether the answer was right or wrong rather than enjoying the process of learning something new.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog  - confused adult learners

When we build our elearning courses, it’s important to create a safe environment that encourages "trying.”  Part of this involves giving the learner clear objectives and an understanding of what’s expected.  Another part involves letting them learn privately where they can fail without humiliation.  Does everything need to be a test or scored assessment?  Are you giving the learner the freedom to go back and try other solutions?  Are you letting them explore on their own and not locking down the navigation?  There are a lot of things you can do to set the stage that prepares your learners to try.  When they feel free to try, they’re then enabled to learn.

3. Being Biased Makes It Hard to Learn

Lying in bed and unable to read, I spent some time watching the political television shows on cable.  I’m a notorious channel surfer so I’d watch a little from the left and then watch a little from the right, then switch back to the left, and then back to the right.

What I found interesting is that there’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of listening.  Regardless of the political position, each had their talking points supporting why they were right and their points trashing the opposing views. 

This isn’t exclusive to political television shows, either.  It’s a reality for most of us.  We tend to form opinions and then do everything we can to draw in those things that agree with us and support our opinions.  Most of us don’t do a lot to step outside of the things we already believe.

I recall a professor who engaged us in conversation about a controversial topic and then began to trash our opinions on the matter.  I asked him if he had ever read any research to support the other side and he acknowledged that he hadn’t.  So I sent him a 30 page research paper, and about 10 minutes later I got a detailed email about its flaws. 🙂

Too often we approach things as an either-or proposition where we spend our time arguing for or against the things we believe, rather than exploring ideas posed by others.  While I love to learn, in many ways I’m also the worst student because I’m quick to be critical which can easily shut off exploring new ideas. 

Many of our learners come into the courses with certain predispositions.  If you challenge them, they can be quick to reject what you present.  How do you deal with this?  What can you do to help open the learner up to explore different ideas and broaden their understanding?

Bonus: Remember Quality Control

If you’re going to write a blog post on five common mistakes, you better not have three typos in the first paragraph (especially if your readers are all educators of sorts).  With 40,000 readers you can believe that the sort of miscreant who did commit this foul would be sure to get his share of hate mail.   

The Rapid E-Learning Blog  - Tom the typo king

Truth be told, I actually did catch the typos, but I forgot to save the changes in my haste to get it published.  Of course, I was dripping sweat and suffering from a brain swollen by a raging fever. 

On a side note, if you catch a typo, please feel free to let me know.  But please be graceful.  There’s no need to insult my intelligence or act as if I was the literary equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spilling oil all over the place.  It’s just a typo.  The world won’t end.  It’s not like you’re going to lose your equilibrium and can no longer drive.

So that’s it.  Remember that a good course starts with things like no typos and good grammar.  After that, make sure that you’ve found the right motivational hooks and created an environment that facilitates learning.  They’ll make your courses that much better.


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 was working with a student intern the other day.  We reviewed his first attempt at a rapid elearning course.  For this review, we focused on the course’s visual design.

Overall, he did a great job, especially for someone just starting out.  However, he made some mistakes that are common to many of the courses I see.  I thought I’d do a quick rundown of what they are and provide some tips on how to prevent them.

1. Not Considering the Impact of the Visual Design

Good elearning design is as much about visual communication as it instructional design and learning theory.

When I learned video production years ago, we were always told that everything in the frame means something.  It’s the same with the computer screen.  You’re building the screen and adding content.  Everything you add conveys a message, whether it’s your intention or not.

Look at a company like Apple.  They build good products.  But they also tell a compelling story.  There is a consistent message between the products they sell and the way they pack it visually.  It all adds to the Apple experience.

In the same sense, your course is a story.  The content design and structure is part of it.  But are you committed to a visual design that reinforces the key message and emotions?

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Apple is a good example of communicating with design.

It’s not about just making the screen look good.  Visual design sets the tone for the course and that shouldn’t happen by accident.  Everything on that screen communicates something.  It’s your job to make sure that it’s communicating what you want it to.

2. Lack of Unity

Your course has a central idea or objective and the visual design should be built around that.  In addition, where you place the elements on the screen should be consistent and related to one another.  You want the learner to recognize the placement and anticipate where the new information will be.  It gives everything a sense of order and continuity.  The visual design should complement the learning experience and not compete with it.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Click here to read a quick overview.

Many web designers will use a grid structure to map out the page design.  That’s a good way to plan how to place content on the screen.  For rapid elearning design, it’s a good idea to use a grid structure to design your PowerPoint template and the layout of your screen.  It’s a great way to maintain unity.  Here’s a good presentation about grids and how to use them.  It’s more about web design, but many of the principles are the same for elearning.

3. Graphics Don’t Match

The intern’s demo had some really nice use of photos to support the course.  However, there were some places where he used vector images and clip art.  While they weren’t superfluous and did fit the context of the course, they just didn’t seem to belong to it.

The first rule for using graphics in your elearning course is to make sure that they’re not just decorative.  They should contribute to the content on the screen.  This includes the learning experience as well as the look and feel of the course.  Again, it’s not all about the learning content.  There’s also the aesthetic consideration that is part of visual communication.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Avoid graphic designt hat is sloppy and confusing.

The second rule is to use graphics that belong together.  This ties into the previous point about unity.  It also conveys a sense of professionalism.  You want your graphics to look like they belong together and are part of a whole.

Even if you’re stuck using clip art, you can find images from a similar style and then modify them to fit together.  I show you how to do that in this post on creating your own custom characters out of clip art.

4. Confusing Use of Contrast

When it comes to visual communication, contrast is one of the most critical elements.  Your job is to help guide the learner’s attention.  Contrast allows you to do that because it highlights the differences.  People are drawn to the contrast naturally.

I get to look at quite a few courses and many people do a good job with adding contrast to their screens.  The only problem is that a lot of it is unintentional.  That means you could be distracting the learners or getting them to focus on the wrong things.

There are all sorts of ways to add contrast to your screens.  You can change the size or shape of elements.  Play around with colors or the placement of objects.  What fonts are you using?  How are you using their size and color to bring contrast?

Andrew Houle of My Ink Blog has a good example of contrast.  “Do the eye test on this site. What do you notice first? More than likely it’s the star on the box…they’ve created a focal point using a large image and limited color.”  Also notice the way they used the fonts?  This could just as easily be the design for an elearning course slide.  Check out this post from My Ink Blog for more good design tips.  And here’s another about contrast.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Contrast is a great way to draw attention to the screen's content.

5. Misuse of Fonts

I’ve seen some courses that must use about twenty different fonts.  As Arthur Fontsarelli would say, “That ain’t cool.”

Fonts serve a few purposes.  First, they’re used to display text for reading.  That means you have to consider which font style is going to work best on your screen.&#160
; It has to be the right type of font and the right size.  In most cases, a san serif font works best for the computer screen.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Heeeey...bad fonts ain't cool.

Fonts also should fit into the overall theme and design of your course.  If you’re doing a traditional or serious course, Comic Sans probably isn’t your best bet.  At the same time, if you want to set an informal tone, you’ll probably stay away from something like New Times Roman (unless you’re a financial analyst).

So you should view the fonts on the screen as text that is to be read AND as a graphic the communicates additional meaning.  To learn more about different fonts and their personalities, check out the Font Conference.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Font conference video.

  Click here to view Font Conference video.

There really is a lot more to say about visual design and elearning.  I’ll be doing some additional posts where I break down some of these ideas here and also explore some other ideas that I didn’t mention today.

What do you see as common visual design mistakes in elearning courses?  Click in the comments section to add your thoughts.  Also, what books would you recommend?

I’m a fan of Robin Williams and her two books, The Non-Designer’s Design & Type and Design Workshop.  They’re both good for learning the basics.  I’ve also enjoyed Slideology.  Nancy Duarte covers a lot of key design ideas with good examples.  Add your recommendations to the comments, as well.

If you liked this post, you might find these of value:


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.

You don’t need to be a professional audio engineer to record narration.  However, you do want to pay attention to what you’re doing and do the best job possible.  Last week, we looked at some basic tips to record high-quality audio.  Those tips leaned more on the technology.  Today we’ll look at what you can do to get the best narration.  I also added some tips from last week’s comments section.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - common mistakes recording narration

1. Place your microphone in the right position.

If you place the microphone too close, you get that distorted clipping sound; and if you have it too far from the narrator, you pick up more ambient noise with the audio being less discernible. 

By setting the microphone 6 to 12 inches from the narrator you’ll get a crisp clear voice.  Also, make sure the microphone’s not right next to the computer so it doesn’t pick up the fan noise.  Scooter also recommended keeping your mic cord away from your power cord.

2. Record a demo to make sure it all sounds right.

A few years ago I was videotaping one of our executives.  While he was rambling on I noticed that the mic was turned off.  After he was finished, I told that it sounded great and now we’d do it for real.  He wasn’t too happy.

Record a quick demo to make sure that everything is working as it should.   Also, I recommend shutting down other applications that are not necessary at that moment.  I’ve been doing this stuff for years and it never fails that when you work with multimedia you put a strain on your computer’s resources which can impact your recording session.  

3. Listen to the audio playback with headphones.

Headphones help isolate the audio and you’ll be able to hear any problems with the narration better than if you listen with speakers.  This is especially true if you’re using a laptop because their speakers tend to be subpar and kind of tinny.

4. Don’t get distracted with animations and annotations. 

If you’re recording your audio using the rapid elearning software odds are that you’re also syncing animations and annotations with it.  I tend to get distracted trying to time the animations with the narration and it is noticeable in my narration.

I usually record the narration first, and then go back and sync the animations.  This helps me focus on capturing the best narration possible without being distracted trying to time the animations.

5.  Make sure your script is conversational and easy to read.

Practice reading it a few times to make sure it flows right.  Look for words or phrases where you might stumble while recording.

As far as the actual script, some people read from the computer screen.  I prefer printing out the script.  If you do too, don’t squeeze everything into a tight paragraph with an 8 point font.  Leave enough white space so it’s easy on the eyes.  Also, make sure that the room is well lit so that the script can easily be read.

In the comments section, Dana Thomas makes a good point about where to place the script while recording.  That’s a major consideration, because you want to be comfortable while reading.

6.  Stand up while recording.

You’ll feel more energized and be able to breathe better.  If you do sit, don’t slouch.  Sit up straight and keep your chin out.  Don’t let it drop to your chest.

7.  Don’t ad-lib.

Stick to the script and don’t ad-lib.  Odds are that you’ll have to do multiple takes.  If you ad-lib, you’ll rarely have the same break points for editing.  Sticking with the script lets you follow along with the audio and find a common edit point on re-takes.

8.  Have plenty of liquids available.

Keep your vocal chords hydrated with clear liquids like water or a mild tea.  Someone once told me to keep it at room temperature rather than cold.  Avoid coffee, carbonated beverages, and milk products.

9.  Get rid of the plosives. 

Plosives are consonant sounds that create the famous "popping p’s."  You can buy shields that sit in front of your mic to block out the offending sound.  It’s easy enough to build one yourself using a wire ring and panty hose.  Here’s a great tutorial to build your own mic screen.

Kat Keesling has some good tips for getting rid of the plosives.  Many of the comments suggested that you speak over the mic rather into to avoid pushing air onto the mic.   

10.  Record 10 seconds of silence.

By recording some silence, you have a way to sample just the ambient noise and use a noise removal process to filter it out later.  If you happen to have ambient noise (like an air conditioner) you’ll be able to filter some of that out.  I’ve also used the ambient noise as a way to fill in gaps of silence so that the audio edits are a bit more seamless.

11.  Relax and don’t rush your words.

Practice reading the script.  Create a conversational tone.  Pretend like you’re talking to someone rather than just reading a script.  If you mess up, leave a noticeable pause and keep on going.  It’s easy enough to cut the error out of the audio.

12.  Mark your retakes.

If you do multiple takes or start and stop, leave some sort of marker.  A good simple way to do this is to leave about 5 seconds of silence (so that it’s easy to find when you look at the wave form) and then indicate what it is, like “slide four, take two…”

13.  Dampen the sound.

There were some good comments on dampening the sound behind the narrator to avoid the audio bouncing into the microphone rather than dampening the sound in front.  That makes sense to me.  Sonnie recommended using two pillows.  If it works for assassins who can quiet gunshots, there’s no reason it can’t work for you.

Shane also suggested the “foam-brero” to diffuse the ambient sound coming from behind you.  To assist Shane and those who might interested in giving this a shot, I have provided instructions on how to create your own foam somb

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - foambrero to diffuse sound waves behind you 

Other good resources and recommendations from the previous post’s comments section:

Two free applications that could come in handy:

  • Audacity for audio recording and editing.
  • Levelator to adjust the audio levels in your narration.

These tips will help you get started recording audio narration like a pro.  If you have any other suggestions or tips, 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.

Good audio is critical to your elearning success.  You might be a great instructional designer and create the most engaging courses possible.  But it all falls apart if the audio quality in your course is not very good.

In an earlier post we looked at when it makes sense to consider paying for professional narration.  If you have the money, this is a viable option.  However, many of you are like Old Mother Hubbard and your cupboard is bare.  If you do have a limited budget (or you want to do the narration yourself) then here are some tips to help you do the best job possible.

Today we’ll look at the microphone and recording environment.  And in a follow up post, we’ll explore ways to get the best sounding narration. All of the mic links go to Amazon, but you can purchase them anywhere.

1.  Invest in a good quality microphone

When it comes to microphones, you typically get what you pay for.  A good mic is going to give you good audio quality.  This isn’t to say that you can’t make do with an inexpensive microphone.  I’ve worked for plenty of organizations that had no money and forced me to buy my microphones at an unnamed electrical store.  For the most part, they worked fine, especially if you follow some of the tips below.

But the truth is that when you compare the acceptable low-quality audio with similar narration recorded with a better microphone, there is a noticeable difference.  The good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot to get a decent microphone for recording narration.  I’ve had success with a Plantronics headset and my Samson desktop mic.  I think the Blue Snowball mic looks cool and it has also gotten very good reviews from those I know who use it.

Personally, I prefer a desktop mic because it gives me more control over the audio quality.  Plus, I find it kind of gross sharing a headset mic if I have to record someone else.  But that’s just me.  Some of you grew up in the 60’s and probably don’t mind sharing mics. 🙂


When choosing a microphone, your best bet is to go with a unidirectional mic.  It records sound from one direction.  This is great for recording narration because it only picks up the sound coming from the narrator, so you won’t get a lot of the ambient noise.

I just recently purchased the Samson Go Mic (in the picture below).  I love it.  The audio quality is great.  It only costs about $50 and it had a three way recording switch so I can record omni- or uni-directional.  It’s definitely worth the price.

Samson Go Mic

Here’s a test I did of the Go Mic.  And here are a couple of demos that show the difference between a headset and desktop mic.

2.  Maintain a consistent environment.

In an ideal world, you have a recording studio where you can control all of the sound.  But since it’s hard to get your boss to fork over $5 for a stock image, you might not convince him to provide the money for a recording studio.  In that case, you’re going to have to get creative when you record.

The more you control the recording environment the better quality audio you can record.  One key is to develop a consistent routine for recording.  It never fails that you’ll have to do retakes at a different time.  By maintaining a consistent environment and procedures you’re better able to match the audio quality.

  • Try to use the same room and maintain the same settings on your computer and the microphone set up.
  • If you’re using a desktop microphone, use a mic stand and measure the recording distance so that the next time you record you have the same set up.
  • Use a screen to help prevent the popping p’s that plague so many amateur recording sessions.  You can even make your own in no time and little cost.


3.  Get rid of as much of the ambient noise as you can

Unless you’re a member of Quiet Riot, you want to get rid of the noise.  There’s very rarely a time when there is complete silence.  This will be very apparent as you listen to your recording and start pick up all sorts of noise.  In fact, there are some organizations that actually pipe in “white noise” to make it easier to concentrate and be less distracted by surrounding conversations.

In either case, you want to get rid of the noise you have control over.

  • Unplug office machines.  Turn off fans and air conditioners.
  • Place your microphone away from your computer.  You might not realize it, but your computer makes a lot of fan noise (not cheers as in celebration of you, but the actual fan that keeps the PC cooled).


  • Tell everyone around you to be quiet.  Put signs on the door.  Hire an airplane with one of those banners to fly by your office telling people to keep it down.  Do whatever you have to do to get rid of the noise.  If that doesn’t work, consider the Hume technique.  It’s based on actor Theodore Hume’s approach to quieting the recording environment.  It’s a subtle, yet effective approach.  It definitely gets the point across.

4.  Dampen the sound

In a recording studio, the walls are designed to absorb the sound waves.  You can do something similar.  In addition to sucking the life from your bones, cubicle walls are designed to absorb sound.  In fact, I’m generally pleased with my audio recordings and I just record it in my home office which has a small cubicle set up.

We once converted a storage closet into a makeshift recording room.  We placed rails on the walls and hung some blankets from them.  This also came in handy in case we were stuck in the building overnight.

I also know some people that built a portable studio using a PVC pip frame and curtains.  They could quickly assemble the frame and then hung the curtains to it using shower curtain rings.

sound booth

Another trick is to make a portable sound booth like the image above.  Of course, you could always buy a one for about $40 if you’re not comfortable with your knife handling skills.

Keep in mind, you’re building rapid elearning courses and not producing sound for a Hollywood production so you don’t need to be an audio expert.  But you should learn a enough about audio and how to record to do a good job.  This blog post is a good start, but it’s just the beginning.

Next week week we’ll look at how to do your own narration.  In the mean time, what are some other tips about microphones and the recording environment?  Also, what books or other resources would you recommend for those who wanted to learn more?  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.