The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for August, 2010

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - How to organize your course files

I was on the phone with someone who had problems with her elearning course.  It seemed that nothing was working right.  As I dug a little deeper, it turned out that she was deleting some of her files.  She told me she did so to keep her files organized.  Apparently the folders were looking a bit messy.  What she didn’t realize was that all of those files she was moving and deleting actually broke her course.

My advice to her was to leave the published folders alone.  In addition, we had a great conversation about file management in general.  And I shared with her a few ideas so that she didn’t feel like her folders were disorganized.

Part of what I shared was that there are many ways to organize your folders and manage the elearning content.  It all depends on your personal work preference, what you need to do with the files, and if you share your work with others.

Create Separate Master Folders

I like to start with a project folder that has all of my notes, resources, and production files.  For example, the folder includes all PowerPoint, Quizmaker, and Engage files.  I also include all of the original material from my subject matter experts.

However, I like to keep the assets (like videos and images) in separate master folders.  The master folders hold all of the assets regardless of the projects they belong to.  I do the same for my published courses.  I like to have all of my assets and published courses in master folders so it’s easy for me to find them.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - simple course folder structure

I do this because I do a lot of product and course demos.  I need quick access to course assets and the published output.  I don’t work with my production folders as frequently.  I also don’t share my files much, so this workflow works fine for me.

But what works for me, probably doesn’t work for most people.  So here’s another idea.

Keep All of the Files Together

This next approach is one that probably works best for most people.  Create a single folder for each project.  And inside that folder, place all of the files needed for your course.  This includes your assets and published output.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - keep all of the course files together

With this approach, everything’s in one place, making it easy to manage and share files.  In addition, products like Picasa and Windows Live Gallery allow you to tag and search for the media assets on your computer.  You can also tag files in Windows Explorer.  So my goal of keeping similar assets in a master folder is no longer relevant.  I can just tag the assets and do a search of the tags.

Create a Generic Folder Structure

Regardless of the approach you use, it’s important to be consistent.  This is especially true if you share your files with others.  In fact, in a recent team meeting with the Articulate community team, we had a conversation about how we want to manage our production folders going forward since we share our files.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of a generic course folder

We opted for the all-in-one option above because it’s easier to manage and share files.  We also decided on using a generic folder structure like the image above.  We start with a pre-built folder structure that includes all of the key folders.  When we start a project, we copy the generic folder structure, rename it, and then add our project files.

Using a consistent process means that as we collaborate and share files, we’ll always know where things are.  Below is a quick tutorial that walks through the basic process we’ll be using.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - tutorial on creating a generic elearning folder

Click here to view the elearning demo.

If you want additional ideas, check out Kevin Thorn’s post where he shares six tips for managing elearning courses.  He covers how he manages his elearning courses and includes a quick tutorial.

Keep in mind that there’s not a right or wrong way to manage your course files.  So you have the freedom to do what’s best for you.  However, there are things you want to consider.

The main thing is who else gets to see and work with your files?  If it’s just you, then whatever works for you is probably fine.  But if you make the files available to others, then you need to consider a workflow that has more universal appeal.  Not everyone can bear with our idiosyncrasies.  Personally, I like a simple structure that’s not so rigid that I spend more time managing workflow than building courses.

How do you structure your folders and files?  Do you have a generic folder structure to start?  Share your thoughts and any tips 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 - tour of player interface

In the late ‘90s the company I worked for was installing a new network in anticipation of the Y2K bug.  I was responsible for training how to use the computers on the network.

Back then most people didn’t have computers.  So before we could teach them how to use the computers, we had to teach simple things like using a mouse.  I recall a few people who actually waved the mouse in front of the monitor hoping to get it to work.

E-learning has a similar history.  Because it was new and there wasn’t a lot of consistency around interface design, most courses started with a “how to navigate this course” course.  It made sense back then.

I’m not sure if it makes much sense today because most people are familiar with computers; so figuring out how to click a play button or forward arrow isn’t too hard.  And besides, many elearning courses use a similar layout which makes it easy to know what to do.  Because of this, it’s probably not necessary to have a mini course on how to navigate the course within your course.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - this is a play button

With that said, the majority of the courses I see do offer the mini course.  I think that in most cases they can be eliminated or at least simplified.  Here’s an example from a recent course I previewed:

This is the volume button.  Some slides may or may not have audio.  Those that do have audio can be adjusted using the volume control button.  If you want to increase the volume, place your mouse over the volume control.  To turn the volume up, drag the mouse to the right.  To turn the volume down, drag the mouse to the left.  Find a volume level that is comfortable for you.

Do I really need a thirty second explanation of the volume control?  This same course continued through explanations of all of the player features.  They even went on to explain the logo panel.  It probably took about 5 minutes just to get through the user interface.  I’m not sure exactly, because I fell asleep.

Obviously, you want to let the user know how to get around the course.  However, in many instances the navigation is obvious and needs no instruction, or just something real simple.  They definitely don’t need a full course on how to navigate the course.

The goal is to create a frictionless experience.  A mini course on navigation impedes the flow and pacing of your course.  So here are a few tips:

  • Get rid of the navigation instructions. When you watched your first YouTube video, did you have problems figuring out how to get it to play?  If your course player follows convention, then it’s usually not hard to figure out what’s a play button and what’s a back arrow.
  • Follow conventions and don’t customize every course you build.  It’s more fun to create a custom look and feel for your elearning courses.  But, there’s a lot of value in having a consistent player structure.  It means people know where things are and where to look for help.  This lets them focus on the content and not how to navigate the course.
  • Provide clear instructions if you do have unconventional navigation. Ideally, the interface should be comfortable and intuitive…and shouldn’t require a lot of instruction.  But if you do violate some conventions, then be sure to provide clear instructions.  Something to keep in mind is that if you have to offer a lot of navigation tips, you may want to rethink how you built the interface.
  • Offer just-in-time prompts.  Instead of throwing all of the navigation tips out at once, just offer them at the point where they need to be used.  For example, the first time you want them to click play, just add a “click play now” prompt.  After the first time, they should get it.  This is a better approach than offering 30 navigation tips and a long, boring tour of the interface upfront.  Most people won’t even remember all of that stuff, anyway.
  • Create a “voluntary” player tour.  You may not be comfortable offering no navigation tips.  And some clients will demand it anyway.  So instead of forcing everyone to go through the tour at the front end, just add a help section where they can get some tips if they’re stuck. Many people who use Articulate Engage will create a drop down tab with detailed instructions for those who need them.
  • Consider your audience.  Personally, my choice is to avoid building the “how to take the course” tour.  But I still have to think about the audience needs.  If you work with a pool of people who are not familiar with computers or seem intimidated by taking a course online, then you want to do everything you can to make it easy for them.  This is where convention and just in time prompts are valuable.
  • Don’t hire people who can’t figure out how to press a play button.  It’s one thing if the elearning course has some novel interface that is a bit confusing.  But most elearning courses have the same basic structure.  If the person can’t figure out how to advance the screen without help, they might not be the right person for the job. 🙂

Below is a quick demo with a few different ideas on how you can approach the slide navigation instructions.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - examples of different navigation tips

Click here to view the tutorial.

There are a lot of ways to build navigation tips and prompts into your elearning course.  There’s really no right or wrong way.  In fact, in reviewing the recent Articulate Guru Awards, it’s interesting to see some of the ways this is dealt with.  I’ll share more later.

How do you deal with this in your elearning courses?  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.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog

In last week’s post, I offered some tips for building rapid elearning courses when you’re short on time and resources.  In today’s post, I’ll discuss some of the production techniques we used.  I especially got a lot of emails about how we used Engage, so I’ll cover that as well as discuss how to do a quick pilot test and rework your objectives list.

Here’s a link to the original course, if you haven’t seen it yet.  Check it out and then read the rest of the post.

Step Away from the Default Solution

Software companies build software with specific features.  You’re not required to use the software as prescribed.  The trick is to understand what you can do with the software and then find your own uses.

For example, we chose to build all of the technology pieces in Engage because it’s a form-based elearning tool.  They’re easy to create and maintain.  But we didn’t want the built-in title bar that’s part of the Engage player design.  And we wanted to give the learners freedom in choosing the interaction they wanted to see and not have to go through them one slide at a time.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - insert Articulate Engage as a .swf

Our Solution

We were able to use PowerPoint’s hyperlinking for the free navigation.  However, when you publish Engage using the default method, the interactions sits on the top layer and blocks the hyperlinks.

Our solution was to publish Engage outside of the course.  Then insert the engage.swf as a Flash file on the slide.  After doing that, we moved the .swf up and uncovered the PowerPoint hyperlinks.

  • After you publish the course, you need to move the engage contents folder over to the same location as the inserted .swf.  Here are some screencasts that explain how to add Engage as a Flash file and working with multiple Engage files.
  • To keep the .swfs aligned, figure out how far up you need to move it.  Then add a visual stopper on your master slide.  This way to don’t need to worry about alignment issues across multiple slides.  Here’s a quick tutorial that shows how to do so.
  • David has a detailed thread in the community on how we created the hyperlinked menu bar on the bottom of the slide.  You can check it out here.

Regardless of the software you use, the key point is to not limit yourself to the default use of the tool.  By stepping away from the prescribed solution, you open the doors to more creativity and customization.

Pilot Test Your Course BEFORE Final Production

Between David and me, we’ve built hundreds of hours of elearning.  With that type of experience, we have a sense for what works and what doesn’t.  And for the most part, we’re right.

However, it’s easy to get comfortable to the point that you lose the user’s perspective.  What seems obvious and intuitive to you may not be the case for those who go through the actual elearning.  This is especially true for people who are less tech-savvy and not familiar with taking online courses.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to build a simple prototype that is the essence of your course.  Then run it through a quick review by the types of people who will use the course.  Just sit back and watch them navigate it.  Observe how they interact with the screen and what they do.  Also, time how long it takes them.  You may think a screen is simple and only requires a minute or so; but when observing the learner, you find that it takes much longer for them to get past the information.

Our Solution

We didn’t have a lot of time, so our pilot test was conducted in my family room with my wife as the volunteer (in between commercials during Top Chef).  She’s actually a good candidate because she had no vested interest in the course and doesn’t come with a lot of preconceived ideas about the way elearning courses should be designed.

As she made her way through the course, I watched what she read and where she was clicking.  There were a few places where she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. Or she kind of froze looking over the screen, not sure what to do next.

What’s funny is that to me everything seemed clear.  So my initial response to her was a bit condescending (as if the problem was hers and not the course design).  The reality though was that our instructions weren’t always clear and that caused some confusion.

We went back to the course and made some modifications.  We added better instructions.  Made sure the visual elements and how they were used was consistent.  And we compressed some of the screen content.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - modifications after pilot testing

The key point here is that even if all you have is one person review the course, you’re better off than no one reviewing it.  A few tips:

  • Build a quick prototype and get it tested.  Rapid elearning tools are great because you can build a course close to the final version quickly.
  • Recruit people who are like the learners.  Pull in people who have no vested interest in your course.  They’ll give good feedback from a different perspective.
  • Don’t recruit the subject matter experts (or IT people who think they know usability design).  They tend to overplay minor issues and focus on the wrong things.

Lose the Bullet Point Objectives

One thing many elearning courses have in common is the bullet-point list of objectives.  We wanted to step away from a list of objectives.  Besides, most people just click the next button when they see a list of objectives.

Ultimately the goal is to connect the learner to the course.  It’s to help them see how the course content is relevant to what they do. To accomplish this, you don’t need a bullet-point list of objectives.

Our Solution

Our objectives list could have looked like this:

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - stating objectives in an elearning course

Instead, we dropped the list and offered a simple statement that tied the objective of the course to the organization’s mission.  It told them what the course covers and why.  They’ll get the rest of the details as they go through the course.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - modified objectives

Even if you’re forced to create a bullet-point list of objectives, there’s no reason why you can’t offer a more compelling screen up front that invites them to learn more.  Start with a scenario that reveals a gap in understanding.  Or show an example of what happens without the course information.

I like the way e-Mersion states the objectives in this CPR demo.  It’s starts with a little drama and then reveals the objectives.  It’s a simple way to offer a compelling reason why the course is important and what is being covered.

Like many courses, there’s a lot more to share from what we learned during this project.  I haven’t even covered how to work with virtual teams or what we did to quickly implement changes.  I’ll work some of that into future conference presentations.

When you’re under pressure to deliver a good course with limited time and resources, what tips do you have?  Feel free to share 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.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - deconstructing the LINGOs course

In December, LINGOs announced the first global giveback campaign, which paired elearning developers with humanitarian organizations that needed some elearning courses produced.  Like many of you, David Anderson and I took up the challenge and volunteered to create a course for Christian Aid.

For this project, we had no budget with limited time and resources.  So I thought I’d share a little about how we built the course and some of the decisions we made because they’re common to many rapid elearning courses.

Check out the course we built and then look at my notes below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Christian Aid course

Click here to view the Christian Aid demo.

Course Structure

We only had a couple of weeks to work on the course.  This didn’t leave a lot of time for production.  Typically this type of constraint dictates a simple course like a linear, click-and-read.  But we wanted to have some interactivity.  The approach we took was to offer two tracks.  One was information specific, and the other was a bit more interactive and learner-centric.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - two tracks for elearning

  • Information track: Some people just want information and prefer a linear flow.  So on one track we offered the core information.  But we freed it up so they only had to click on the information they needed and not go through each piece.
  • Interactive track: This track was designed to present the information technology through some simple interactive decision-making scenarios.  The choices they had to make were similar to the choices they’d make at the organization.  It didn’t require that the person know anything about the technology.  We gave them the additional information as feedback.  To take away some risk, we also provided an option of reviewing the technology before making a choice.  

Essentially both tracks were the same; they just presented the information in slightly different ways, giving the learner some options and freedom in navigation.

Tip: Give the learner as much control as possible in how they get their information.  On top of that, the approach we used is a good one if you want an interactive course, but your client wants an information dump.

Dry Content?

Our course content was about communication technology and probably not that interesting in comparison to Christian Aid’s core mission of humanitarian aid.  We felt that it was important to tie the course into the organization’s larger mission.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - tie course objectives to larger mission

So the course we designed was less about technology and more about making cost-effective choices that impacted the mission in the field.  In between the communication technology pieces, we added Christian Aid success stories.  It was an easy way to humanize the technology focus.

Tip: It’s important that the courses you build connect the learner to the overall mission or objectives.  It’s a reminder that they’re part of something bigger and a celebration of the organization’s accomplishments.

Reusability & Maintenance

One concern for us was how the client would maintain and edit the course after we were out of the picture. So we focused on easy maintenance and re-use of the content.  Here are a few things we did:

  • The course was built in a PowerPoint-based rapid elearning tool.  This meant that long after we were gone, they could easily update & repurpose the course.  To help them, we built a clean and easy-to-use template.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - PowerPoint is easy for editing and maintenance

  • All of the technology information pieces were built in Engage.  Engage is a form-based tool and requires no programming at all.  That makes them easy to maintain and edit.  In addition, all of the interactions could be pulled from the course and added to other web sites within the organization.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - form-based elearning example

  • The interactive track is a simple template structure that cycles through two core slides on the master layout, even though it looks more complex. That means if they wanted to add additional content, they could do so in minutes.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - master slides in PowerPoint

Tip: Create templates and models that can be reused.  It makes editing and maintaining the course easy.  It also makes your client feel empowered.  The more the client can do on their own later, the more time you save.  Also, don’t spend time building custom Flash pieces if a form-based tool can do the job faster.

Visual Design Ideas

Clean look and feel.  One concern is that many elearning courses get crowded out with too much visual data.  There are logos, buttons, boxes and instructions all over the place.  We had two goals with the visual design: lots of whitespace and non-technology look.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - visual design

  • We wanted a course that was clean and aesthetically appealing.  Definitely didn’t want anything that looked like a PowerPoint slide.  So we went with a lot of open space and white background.
  • We also didn’t want the course to look like a typical technology course.  We actually had one design treatment where everything was outside in a field.  It looked cool, but probably was a little too “out there” for this course.  We opted for a simple floor and wall background with nice clean icons.  It gives the screen depth, a consistent look, and seems richer than just a flat background.

Integrate the organization’s brand.  Branding is one of those frustrating parts of elearning design.  But it’s hard to get around it.  The temptation is to create screens with logos and bra
nded elements plastered all over the place.  But the trick is to incorporate the brand ideas without having to look like you’re entering the course in a NASCAR race.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - integrate branding

We chose a color scheme and design elements that integrated with Christian Aid’s brand.  For example, the orange and red colors come from the branded web site.  You’ll even notice that our direction arrow is tied to the Christian Aid logo.

Tip: Branding doesn’t mean you have to have a logo on every screen.  Instead, it’s more about associating the course with the organization’s visual identity.  Find ways to incorporate colors, fonts, and design elements into the course interface.

Course Navigation

Navigation.  The published course comes with the default player.  But there are times where we ask the learners to navigate by clicking on the screen instead.  Since it was different than the default player, we used animation to accentuate the navigation option.  We also clarified what the learner should do on the screen with explicit instructions.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - explicit navigation instructions

Tip: Make sure the navigation is clear and that you are consistent in how you use the screen elements.

The Christian Aid course is a good example course for us because of the tight timeline and lack of budget.  Are there things we could have done differently?  Probably.  But given the constraints, it demonstrates that you can still build effective and interactive elearning courses with limited resources and time.  And we actually learned some new production techniques which I’ll share in an upcoming post.


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 - abandoned airport terminal

Had a great time last week in Indianapolis presenting to the Central Indiana ASTD chapter.  David and I met some nice people and got to do some research to support a recent blog post.  we also discovered that Indianapolis has two airport terminals.  One is new and looks great.  The other one is shuttered with grass overtaking the parking lot.  Guess which one the PGS lead us to?  We felt like the Griswolds when they got to Wally World.

It really didn’t matter that we were detoured because thunderstorms in Chicago grounded my flight for the evening.  So I had time to kill and decided to pull together a free elearning template for the blog readers.

Here’s an example of the template with some placeholder content.  You can find the tutorials and source files below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example PowerPoint elearning template

Click here to view the elearning template

Notes on Creating the Template

Some people have innate design skills.  Most of us don’t.  It takes some practice.  If you want to succeed at rapid elearning, you have to develop your PowerPoint skills.  And there’s no better way than to find an inspiring design, then practice recreating it.

The first step is to replicate the design.  See what you can do with PowerPoint.  You’ll be surprised to find that PowerPoint’s a pretty capable graphics tool.  That’s how I created the envelope and television icons below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - use PowerPoint to build graphics

Once you have the steps down, start to play with the layout.  When it comes to elearning templates, I usually create a few core screens.  The first is a title or section screen, the second is one where I might combine text and graphics, and then I like an open screen with maximum real estate for multimedia.

There really are no rules, though.  You can create as many derivatives of the screen as you like.

PowerPoint Tips

  • Create in PowerPoint and then save the images as graphic files.  This way they’re easier to work with in your course.
  • Play around with the backgrounds.  I like to use the default color theme so I can easily apply a new theme.  But adding an image, like a wood panel in this demo, looks really nice.
  • Incorporate some animated elements.  What would it look like to have the note slide out from the bottom?  Or have the cards animate in?
  • Try to get as many of the elements on the master slide as you can.  This saves time in production and speeds up publishing.

Here are some tutorials that show how I created the template with some additional tips.  You can view them via the Screenr links or in the course below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - tutorial on how to build the PowerPoint elearning template

Click here to view the template tutorials.

Screenr tutorials:

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - download the source files here

Click here to download the PowerPoint files in pptx and ppt versions.

How would you modify the template?  Feel free to download it and make your own changes.  Share what you create 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.