The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for May, 2010

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - 10 rules to create engaging elearning

At the recent ASTD conference, I was asked how to create engaging elearning.  If you’ve been reading the Rapid E-Learning Blog for a while, then you know I’ve tackled this subject before.  I decided to pull ten ideas that are fundamental to building good elearning courses.

Rule 1: Don’t Create the Course

This is probably not the advice your client wants to hear.  But let’s face it; there’s quite a bit of elearning that’s just a big waste of time.  If the course isn’t tied to real performance improvements, it might not be worth building.  During the initial project meetings, I try to get the client to tie the course to real performance goals.  If they can’t, then I suggest that a course might not be the best option.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - is your coruse a waste of time

Besides, many of the courses we create are just sharing information that’s already available in other places like the organization’s intranet or via job aids. Why build an elearning course that rehashes information available elsewhere?  If anything, build a course that teaches people how to find the resources already available to them.

Rule 2: The Course Needs to be Relevant to the Learner

Most boring courses are the result of the content not being relevant to the learner.  Even if you build simple compliance training, there’s a way to make it relevant.  Talk to your learners and find out how they use the compliance information.  Then place the course in a context where it makes sense for the learner.

Also, consider that not all learners are created equal.  They come to the courses with different levels of experience and knowledge.  By creating a learner-centric course, you can accommodate their diverse needs.

The key to interactive courses is not multimedia, rollovers, or drag-and-drop interactions.  Instead, it’s how the learner will interact with the content.  Create courses where the learner doesn’t just passively receive information.  Instead give them opportunities to reflect on and use the information to make decisions and get feedback.

Rule 3: Understand Your Objectives

If all you’re trying to do is share information and track completion before December 31, then build a course that’s appropriate for those objectives.  The best bet might be to make it easy for the learners to find the information, complete the course, and get back to productive work.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - what type of course are you building

On the other hand, if you’re building a course where you desire to change behaviors, an information dump is not going to work.  In that case, you want a course that builds the skills the learner will need to meet the performance goals.

Rule 4: Free Up the Navigation

In a recent article on iPad usability, Jakob Nielsen had this to say:

Using the Web has given people an appreciation for freedom and control, and they’re unlikely to happily revert to a linear experience.

In the same sense, people like the freedom to review and scan information in the elearning course.  Nothing is more frustrating than locked navigation where control is stripped from the person who’s supposed to be doing the learning.

Here are a few things that bug the learners:

  • People like to explore and experiment.  It helps them build context.  Locked navigation doesn’t allow this.
  • We can read faster than the narration.  Don’t make people wait for the narrator to advance if you give them the option to read.
  • You have a screen that’s 5 minutes long.  At 4:18, the learner misses a key point.  Because the navigation is locked he can’t rewind a few seconds.  Instead he has to go back (if he can) and repeat the first four minutes.

Many times the navigation is locked for fear the learner will just click through the course.  If that’s the case, see Rules 2 and 5.  Instead of locking the navigation, control their movement through the course via decision-making.  This gives them the freedom to move around and odds are you make the course more engaging.

Rule 5: Don’t Push, Let the Learner Pull

Many courses are designed to push information out.  But that’s not best for learning.  You’re better off if you can create an environment where the learner has to pull information in.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - give the learner a reason to use the information

Instead of a series of click-and-read screens, give the learner a problem to solve.  Then provide all of the information that you would normally have pushed by creating access to additional, just-in-time resources.  As the learner attempts to solve the problem, she’ll pull the information she needs.

Rule 6: Consider the Pacing & Flow

Learning is like eating.  You don’t just shovel spoonful after spoonful of food into your mouth, at least not normally (unless it involves Nutella).  Instead, you take in a spoonful of food; chew it up to break it into smaller pieces; and then swallow it so that it can be processed further down the digestive tract.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - remove teh strain and train teh brain

In the same way, you can’t expect to shovel new information on top of new information in the brain.  You have to pace it.  Take in new information; reflect on it (maybe practice using it); and then send it to other parts of the brain for processing.

Avoid shoveling too much information by working on the pacing and flow of the course.  With new information provide opportunities to use it.  On a side note, I don’t advocate the classic 5 screens of information and then a knowledge check approach.  Try something more creative.

Rule 7: Look for Inspiration Outside of E-Learning

Sometimes in the elearning industry we tend to become so idealistic about what real elearning is or isn’t that all we do is complain o
r force all sorts of instructional design rules that diminish creativity.  There’s a good chance that if you listen to elearning people you’ll end up with a course that does a great job avoiding cognitive load but little to engage the learner. 🙂

Seth Godin made an interesting point about finding good ideas.

The best ideas come out of the corner of our eye, the edge of our consciousness, in a flash. They are the result of misdirection and random collisions, not a grinding corporate onslaught. And yet we waste billions of dollars in time looking for them where they’re not.

Put yourself in a position where things can randomly collide.  Media Journalism is a field that is similar to elearning.  Every day they have to crank out all sorts of interactive multimedia.  Why not be inspired by that industry?  Follow David Anderson in Twitter.  He does a great job collecting good examples.

Personally, I like to review design sites and the advertising industry.  I focus on how they structure the message and layout the screens.  Those are ideas I can use in my courses.

Rule 8: Create a Course That is Visually Appealing

Unless you’re doing a sleep study with a group of insomniacs, most likely a white screen full of bullet points won’t attract their attention.  People are attracted to things that look interesting.  Compare the two images below.  Which one gets your attention?The Rapid E-Learning Blog - visual design and themes are key

If you want to engage learners, start by crafting a visual theme that is visually interesting, relevant to the content, and immerses the learner into the course.

Rule 9: There’s a Place for Novelty

While we don’t want to go overboard with superfluous navigation or rollovers, there is a place for novel design.  There are times I’ll think a game or some whiz bang effect in a course is lame.  But I’ll debrief some of the learners and they’ll mention how much they liked it (or appreciated that the course didn’t look like the rest of the courses).  Thus, a novel approach or design to your course can be critical to engaging the learner.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - email based elearning interaction

Here’s a mock up I did for creating a course that looks like an email exchange for a previous post on mimicking the real world in your courses.  Something like this is different than a typical course and could be a fun.

Just remember that what’s novel at the beginning of a course can quickly become annoying.  So you want to balance it with good design and probably look at giving the learner an alternative, or a more traditional, means of getting information.

Rule 10: Commit to Engaging E-Learning

It’s easy to rant and rave about PowerPoint and rapid elearning, and then place the blame for bad elearning on those tools.  But the real reason that a lot of elearning is no good is that there’s no real commitment to make it more engaging.  And that falls on the shoulders of those who build the courses, whether the client, subject matter expert, or instructional designer.

Regardless of the tools you use, you can create effective elearning.  Step away from the information dump and focus on the learner.  Then find creative ways to place the course content in a context that is relevant to the learner.  If you do these two things, you’re on your way to creating effective and engaging elearning.

There are more than enough resources out there to help you build better elearning.  In addition to this blog, I like what Cathy Moore has to share.  Her action mapping is a straightforward approach to building effective courses.

As far as books, I usually recommend the standards that cover everything from graphic design to presentations to elearning.  Here are a few that I think are worth owning if you don’t already own them (the links to Amazon produce a small commission):

Those are ten rules to help you get started.  Your next step is to start applying them.  What else would you add to the rapid elearning developer who’s just getting started?  Any other books that you’d recommend?

Share your thoughts 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.

Many of the blog’s subscribers are new to elearning.  Because of this I get a lot of questions and many of them are similar.  So today I’m going to do a recap of a few of the more common questions.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - What type of microphone do you use?

What mic I use is the most frequent question I get.  There are all sorts of good mics out there.  I can’t speak to all of them, but I can share my experiences.  I used to use a headset mic, but I didn’t like that it was more susceptible to picking up the “popping p” sound.  So I switched to a desktop mic and haven’t looked back. 

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Samson CO1U and Samson Go Mic

I’ve been using a Samson CO1U for the past three years.  But I just bought a Samson Go Mic from Amazon for about $50 (about half of what I paid for the CO1U).  I really like it.  I’ll probably make it my default microphone because it’s much smaller, sounds great, and it gives me three audio recording modes.

Here’s what I like about desktop microphones.  They tend to produce a richer sound; and you can share them.  I don’t know how you feel about this, but I don’t want someone else’s spit on my mic.  You also have more control over recording because you can position the microphone where you want for the best sound.

Some people run their audio through a mixer.  Not me.  I just plug the mics into my computer and record.  In fact, here’s my audio set up.  Pretty simple, huh?  Fortunately, the Essential Articulate Studio ‘09 is such a well-documented book, because its size makes the perfect portable mic stand. 🙂

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - adjustable mic stand

For those who want to hear the difference, 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.  There are also a few community members who also shared what they use and recorded some demos

I like my Samson mics, but there are a lot of other affordable options.  The key point is that your audio should sound good.  And you really hurt your elearning course it if looks great but sounds bad.  If you do a lot of narration, then a desktop mic is the way to go.

Related links:

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - How cna I make my courses look different?There are a few common issues when working with rapid elearning tools.  A form-based application makes creating your course real easy.  But since it’s a form, you’re locked into a distinct look.  Think of it like a Jell-O mold.  You get what the mold is designed to give you.

Typically, with a form-based tool, you have limited customizations outside of changing the template colors and fonts.  But, with some creativity you can make the output appear different.  For example, in the LINGOs course we built, we inserted the Engage interactions as Flash files and then moved the .SWF up to hide the black title bar.  If you use Quizmaker ‘09, make sure to take advantage of the Slide View feature.  This lets you break the standard form look and create a product that can be very rich-looking, like the example below.  This lets you be as creative as possible.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Quizmaker example Click here to view demo.

Another issue is when working with PowerPoint.  We tend to gravitate towards the templates and placeholder structure that PowerPoint provides.  While it’s fast to assemble content, the trade off is that you get stuck in that dreaded “PowerPoint” look. 

The first thing I recommend is to get rid of the templates and placeholders, and start with a blank slide.  Then I suggest getting inspiration from web design sites.  These are great places to get ideas for color schemes and page layout.  That’s where I got the ideas for these free PowerPoint templates.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - template idea

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - template idea

After you do a few of these types of designs, you’ll start to get a better feel for how to move past bullet-point elearning and start to work on something more creative.

Related links:

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - How do I add Screenr vidoes to my elearning

Screenr’s a great product for quick tutorials.  In fact, since it launched a few months ago there are already a few hundred free elearning-related tutorials that cover all sorts of topics.  While it’s not an option for everybody, if you can use Screenr videos for your training here are a few ideas: 

  • You can insert the Screenr video in PowerPoint using the developer tab and inserting the .SWF link from the embed code.  Here’s a tutorial that shows how.  This works fine if you are working in PowerPoint only.  If you’re publishing your course to Flash, follow the steps below.
  • Insert the tutorial as a web object.  Screenr gives you an embed code.  Use that embed code to insert the video as a web object.  Here’s an example of what it looks like.  This tutorial explains the two ways to use the web object feature with Screenr
  • Download the video as an .MP4.  The first two options require that the learners have Internet access.  By downloading the .MP4 video file and inserting the video into the slide, the learner won’t need Internet access.  Screenr has some preset record options.  720×540 is the 4:3 ratio of PowerPoint slides.  You can also record at 980×560 and insert the video using the no sidebar option in Articulate Presenter.  That’s what I did in this demo.

Concerned about the 5 minute limit and lack of editing in Screenr?  That’s easy enough to fix.  Just record your video in chunks.  Don’t worry about edits or the time limit.  Then download the .MP4s and edit them in Microsoft MovieMaker.  It’s free and easy.  Plus you get all of the advantages of editing video applications like cool transitions, inserting additional audio, and adding titles and captions.  Here’s a tutorial that show you how to edit the Screenr videos in MovieMaker.  

Related links:

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Show off your elearning super powers

Good question.  We just announced the 2010 Articulate Guru Awards.  It’s a great way to show off your rapid elearning skills.  If you don’t have a real course to work on, create a fake one.  Do one on setting goals or how to make toast.  The content really doesn’t matter.

Now’s the time to show the world what you can do.  As I tell some of my friends, “Quit your belly achin’ about what’s wrong with elearning! And show me what YOU can do.”

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Articulate Guru Awards 2010

If you have any specific questions or things you’d like to see covered in the blog, let me know.  I’ll see if I can work them in.


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 - top secrets to becoming a rapid elearning pro

It would be great if elearning was just about learning and building the perfect course.  Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  Much of your success hinges less on the actual course and more on the process you go through to create it.  And much of that centers on the relationship you have with your customer.

In a previous post, I offered seven techniques to keep your customer happy, today I’d like to offer a few tips to help manage the expectations and relationship you have with your customers.  That will help keep you happy.

Who’s the Decider?

Here’s a problem I’ve run into quite a few times.  I spend three months working on a project.  Right before it goes live, the proud customer invites her boss to look at the new course.  The boss who was never involved in the process reviews it, offers some opinions, and wants to make changes.

Find out who has final say.  And then find out what they said. 

You can save a lot of heartache by finding out who will approve the final course.  You want to know who signs the dotted line.  If you run the risk that a “boss” is going to throw a wrench into the process, then get that boss involved when you’re still prototyping the course.  Don’t wait until it’s too late or time-consuming to make changes.

Also, create an agreement that specifies deliverables and due dates.  If the customer wants to make changes, then request to make changes to the agreement so that you’re not held to expectations that were created prior to additional requests.

Clarify Desired Results

There’s usually a reason that the client wants to build an elearning course.  With that reason comes some desired results.  Find out what those are and then build your course to meet their expectations.

I had a client once who wanted an IT security course to teach employees how to protect themselves (and the organization) while using the organization’s technology (Internet, laptops, etc.).  However, when I drilled down for more information, their real issue wasn’t security.  Instead, too many people were surfing the web and visiting inappropriate sites.  They wanted that to stop.

In that instance, the course on IT security was not the right solution.  They needed to focus on appropriate use of the organization’s resources.  Unfortunately they opted for the first course and saw no significant improvement.  Fortunately, they were oblivious to the futility of the elearning course and our team didn’t take the blame.  But I’ve worked on similar projects that didn’t produce results because of the client’s demands and in those cases the client had no problem blaming the training group.

Get Access to All Relevant Resources

There’s a lot that goes into building a course.  Make sure you get access to the right people and resources.  Who can review the content? Who can provide assets like logos, images, and documentation?  How will you connect with the potential learners? Who will review or pilot the course?  What’s the implementation strategy?  What type of IT support or technology do you need?

You need the right assets and you need the right collaborators.  Make sure you have access to what you need including the subject matter experts, learners, and IT group.

If you’re to work with others on the client’s team, it’s a good idea to have them pulled into the process early.  I usually ask the client to invite the person, explaining the project and expectations of how that person will support it.  It helps define roles and expectations, especially when you run into roadblocks.

Set a Budget

If you’re a vendor and working for an external client, setting a budget is a given because you expect to get paid.  However, if you’re building elearning courses for an internal group, budgets are rarely discussed.

It’s a good idea to ask for a small budget for additional assets like stock images or even custom development.  But set that expectation up front.  Tell the client you’ll need $200 and see what they say.  If they say they don’t have $200, tell them you need $500.  When they see prices going up, they’ll be inclined to give you $200.

In all seriousness, it doesn’t hurt to ask for some money.  The worst they can say is no.  It’s a lot easier to negotiate a small budget upfront than it is to come back halfway through the project requesting some money or worst case being stuck with the same old PowerPoint clip art images.

Determine How You’re Going to Measure Success

In an ideal world, all elearning courses are performance-based with very clear goals.  Then you can measure performance before and after the course.  However, sometimes performance isn’t the only goal.  Other measures of success might include:

  • Lower costs. What was the cost of training prior to elearning?  Did you reduce travel costs?  Are your services less expensive than alternatives?  One organization I talked to was paying $15,000 per course.  By doing their own production, they reduced the cost to about $3000 per course.
  • Convenience. People like instant access to elearning courses and being able to take the course when it fits their schedules, especially when they’re trying to balance their workload with surfing the web. 
  • Satisfying service level agreements.  I have my clients document expectations around key milestones and deliverables.  Then I aim to beat those.  At the end of the course, I solicit feedback from the customer based on the agreement.  Sometimes the customer rates your performance based on imaginary agreements.  By crafting a service level agreement you’re able to establish a clear understanding of expected outcomes and whether or not you met those rather than some undisclosed expectation the customer may have had.

There are other ways to measure success besides performance improvement.  The key is to determine if the course has performance goals or not.  If not, don’t fight trying to come up with some mystical ROI.  Just find a different way to determine the value you bring to the client.

Ultimately, your success hinges on two things.  The first is good communication between  your client and yourself.  Don’t make assumptions; clarify everything that you’re not sure about.  Also don’t wait until the end to show what you’re doing.  It’s a good idea to schedule regular meetings to review your progress and prototype ideas to get immediate feedback.  The second success factor is action.  Do the things you promised to do by the date promised.  You’re client will be happy and so will you.

What are some tips that you’d offer to make elearning courses a success?  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.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - 12 free elearning tutorials

It’s a fact that you CAN build effective elearning with rapid elearning tools.  You’re not locked into linear, click and read content.  All it requires is that you craft a sound learning strategy and get the most out of your tools.

To demonstrate this, I deconstructed an effective elearning course originally built in Flash and then built a mock up in PowerPoint.  In a previous post I shared how to create the graphic elements for that course in PowerPoint.

In today’s post, we’ll look at how to assemble the course and some of the production techniques I used.  While you may never build one exactly like this course, you can still learn a lot about how to build elearning courses using PowerPoint and your rapid elearning tools. 

While the tutorials give you a quick tour of what I did to build the prototype, your best bet is to download the PowerPoint file and break it apart to see how it was assembled.  So let’s get started by looking at the general course structure.

Deconstruct the Course Structure

The course places you in a situation where you determine the threat level of various employees.  The goal is to find the most threatening person.  When you look at the course elements you have three basic stages: review, interview, and refer.  Let’s look at them in more detail.


The first stage is the overhead office where you review the threat level of all of the characters. The actions are to review the statements and then select a person that is sent to the office for an assessment interview.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - review security threat

Production notes:

  • Clicking on the text bubble links you to another slide with the character’s text on it.
  • Clicking on the person links you to a slide with a feedback box.  The feedback box has a link that either takes you to the next step (correct) or back to the scene to make a different choice (incorrect).


The second stage is the office interview, where your goal is to determine how much of a threat the person is.  The actions are to click on interview questions and then determine to refer or not.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - interview employee

Production notes:

  • When you make a correct choice, you are advanced to a slide where you can select interview questions.
  • Clicking the “ask” button links to different slides that provide answers. 
  • Clicking on the two black buttons link to different feedback slides.


The third stage is to refer the threatening person to the best department.  You actions are to review the departments and make the appropriate selection.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - refer to an office

Production notes:

  • Clicking on the green dots links you to a slide with information about that group.
  • Clicking on the office links to a slide where the character (using a motion path animation) moves to the office for feedback.

As you break down the PowerPoint file, you’ll notice that while the learner only sees one screen, you might actually be linking to a number of screens that look the same.  The interview questions are a good example of this.  It’s made up of seven slides, but when the learner reviews the questions it only looks like one slide.

Leverage the Master Slides & Layouts

You can decrease production time and make it easier to maintain and update the course by using master slides and layouts.  The first thing is to consider what content is persistent across the slides.  That’s the content you want to place on the master slides.  Keep in mind; you can have as many masters as you want.  You’ll notice that I have a few different layouts.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - use master slides in PowerPoint

Click here to view the tutorial.

Use the Slide Titles to Identify Slides

I like to move the slide title up and off the screen.  Then I can use it to identify the slide and add notes.  This comes in handy when I have to add hyperlinks and work with slides that all look the same.  It also makes it easy to work with groups when you’re building scenarios because you can quickly scan the slides in outline mode.

Because it’s off screen, the learner will never see the notes and titles.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - use titles for meta data

Click here to view the tutorial.

Think of Slides as Layers

The original course had rollovers.  Since this isn’t possible in PowerPoint-to-Flash, I used hyperlinks to branch to slides that looked the same, but had different data.  This was used in a number of plac
es.  Doing this lets you create a trigger that can reveal new information or animations. 

I used it in the first stage where you click the text bubbles or the people, as in the image below.  I also used it when you click on the interview questions to get the employee’s answers.

You can hide the layer slides so that the learner never sees them in the menu (if you use one).  In Articulate Presenter, you can do this via the slide properties manager.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - think layers not linear

Click here to view the tutorial.

Create Reusable Content

When you break the course into chunks you can see that there are a lot of areas where you can reuse the content or structure.  The interactions with the characters are a good example.  Each character has a series of events:

  • Click on text bubble.
  • Click to choose.
  • Interview character.
  • Send character to the office.

When you review the PowerPoint file you’ll see that once I built the first character slides, all I had to do was copy them, change the slide titles, and swap out the character-specific details and content to have a series of slides and interactions specific to the character.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - create reusable content

Click here to view the tutorial.

Adding a new character to the module would only take a few minutes.  The key is to map out what you want to do first and then build the content so it’s easily reused.  Another consideration is building an infrastructure you can use in other courses by just copying and pasting the slides.  It takes a little practice, but once you build that way you’ll find that it’ll save you time.  It also helps you build more interactive content because you’ll know how.

Here are some other tutorials that help you learn some of the production techniques used in the prototype:

Building these types of courses is not difficult.  But you’re not going to develop the skills to do so if you don’t practice.  Go through the tutorials, break down the PowerPoint file, and play around with your own ideas.

Since the questions about some of the production techniques might be a little bit more involved, we started a thread in the community forums. It allows for better discussion than the blog 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.