The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for February, 2011

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - inspired by flght magazine

When it comes to graphic design, it’s important to continually find inspiration from other sources.  One of the main reasons for this is because over time, you develop a distinct visual style.  And when you’re the only one working on your elearning courses, eventually they all start to look the same.

I’ve discussed this in previous posts:

A great place to look for design ideas is in magazines.  On a recent trip I was looking through one of those airline magazines they have in the seat pockets.  One of the illustrations in the magazine caught my attention.  I thought that the way it was designed would work great in an elearning course.

So I continued through the magazine, challenging myself to find at least 10 graphic design ideas I could use in an elearning course.

Here’s a link to the issue I was looking at.  And following are the tips.  I also created some tutorials to show how to create some of the effects in PowerPoint.

Layout Ideas

What I find most valuable is coming up with new ways to layout the screen content.  There are a bunch of good ideas that you can glean from the magazine.  For example, I liked the colors and general layout of this page below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - original layout

It could be the inspiration for a safety training module, like the example below.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - demo course layout

There are a lot more cool layouts that could help bring a fresh perspective to the way you design your screen content.


I noticed that the magazine had all sorts of call outs and markers that you could also use in your elearning courses.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - markers and callouts

I counted at least ten different markers and callouts used in this issue.  All of them could find their way into an elearning screen.  Build out a few ideas, and then save them as images.  This way you always have some different markers and callouts available to use.

Filled Shape

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - filled shapes

You’ll notice that in several places they use circles filled with images.  This is easy enough to do in PowerPoint.  And if you have a lot of straight lines, using an occasional organic line helps to break up the content and adds some good contrast to the screen elements.

Click here to view the tutorial.

Once you learn to do the effect, you’re not limited to just using circles.  In fact, Stephanie Harnett had a good follow-up tutorial to one of my PowerPoint templates, and used the fill effect to add more pizzazz to the template.

Organic Lines

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - organic lines

Adding organic elements to your content area is a great way to add contrast and draw attention to parts of the screen.  I discussed this a bit in the post on adding personality to your courses.

Creating the non-straight lines is easy enough.  Use the drawing tools that come with PowerPoint.  In most cases, I’d probably use the curved tools rather than the scribble because the lines look better.  But if you have a tabletPC or Wacom tablet, then you can draw your own.

Of course, you could always download all of the hand drawn objects from this post, Here’s a Boatload of Free Hand-Drawn Graphics.  That makes it a lot easier.  We also have some additional hand-drawn shapes in the user community.

Organic Shapes

As I mentioned above, organic shapes are effective in creating contrast that you can use to draw the learner’s attention.  The magazine also used a few organic shapes throughout.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - organic shapes

They used them as titles and in highlights.  I like the look of the layout on the titles.  Here’s a quick tutorial where I walk through how to create the shape and a quick layout.  I also created a quick tutorial to show how easy it is to create highlights for your text boxes.

It’s all about consistent design.

There’s really a lot more to mine from that issue.  One of the most important things to consider when building the look and feel of your course is creating a unifying design theme.

As you page through the magazine, look at how certain visual elements are used throughout.  Those are the things that tie everything together.  Then when you build your courses, do the same thing.  Make a li
st of the screen elements that you normally have and then design them with a consistent look so that they tie the course together.

Here’s a challenge for you.  Design a template around one of these layouts.  If you do, share it with me and I’ll be sure to make it available for others to use.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - layout challenge


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 - debate value of instructional design degree

There’s a lot of debate about instructional design and whether or not you need a formal education to create effective elearning.  We looked at that in a previous post (which includes some good discussion in the comments section).

Today I want to explore some elements of instructional design and why it’s important when building an elearning course.

Learning Happens

I’ve been in the training industry for over twenty years.  And sometimes we act as if people would just sit around in a vegetative state and not know what to do until we built a course.  But the reality is whether or not we build courses, people still learn what they need to learn.

That’s because learning happens.  It doesn’t happen because you decide to build a course.  It just happens.  We learn all the time.  We are continually learning as we take in information, explore and solve problems, and interact with people.  It’s just how we’re wired.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - always be learning

It’s as if Mitch and Murray sent Blake into our heads to remind us to “A-B-L…Always Be Learning.”  There’s never a point where we turn off the ability to learn.  Our brains just keep on working, whether we plan it or not (unless of course you’re at an Emo Phillips show).

Instructional Design

Good instructional design can make learning happen faster and more efficiently than what might happen more organically.  Instructional design is the process of assessing the learning needs and then applying the appropriate learning strategy to meet them.

I’ve always seen instructional design as an intrusive process.  It’s a manufactured attempt to make learning more efficient and effective as it intrudes on our natural learning process.  Ideally, this intrusion is beneficial and helps us learn better.

In a simple sense, there are three core components to instructional design:

  • Understand how people learn
  • Construct learning activities based on how people learn
  • Measure the effectiveness of the learning activities

Understanding How People Learn

You don’t need to be an expert on every theory, but you should be familiar with the main ideas so that you understand how people learn. Because this understanding is the foundation of how you design the elearning course to meet the instructional needs.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - instructional design and clown school

There are plenty of good instructional design books from which to learn.  We started a list in the user community.  I also think that Don Clark does a nice job collecting instructional design resources, if you want to do it on the cheap.  And of course, it makes sense to improve your craft with continued education and practice.

In either case, it’s important to learn more about how we learn so that you can develop the right instructional methodology for the courses you design.

Do you have some good book recommendations? Add them the to the comments list.

Construct Learning Activities

Armed with an understanding of how people learn, you’re able to construct effective and efficient learning activities.  Unfortunately, much of what we call elearning today falls flat; mainly because we take a very narrow approach to instructional design.

First, we treat the event of elearning as the total learning process.  But the reality is that the elearning course is just part of the learning process.  Instructional design considerations can be broader than just the immediate elearning course.  I discussed this a bit in this post on effective elearning.  Ideally, the instructional design considers the big picture including ongoing performance support outside of the elearning course.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - instructional design is more than the elearning course

The other issue with many elearning courses is that they are typically limited to presenting information with a quick assessment to determine recall.  This is instructional design at the simplest level.

Considering how people learn, there is a lot more we can do in the design of our courses.  An obvious step is to switch from info-centric design to one that is more focused on the learner.  With the learner in mind, we can create more meaningful activities that have a real impact and tap into the learner’s motivations.

Measure the Effectiveness of the Learning Activities

How do you know that what you’re doing is improving their learning? Are they able to demonstrate the level of understanding you desire? Are you using the most effective approach?  Ultimately, you want to ensure that the theory-inspired activities produce the results you desire.

For example, it takes a person two weeks to learn a task without any training.  You design a program that lets them learn it in one week.  You want to show that the learning intervention proved valuable both from a learning perspective and from an economic perspective.  You may have compressed the learning time, but at the same time introduced a negative impact on production while the person was away from their job.

I’ve worked on projects where our approach was instructionally sound, but the process didn’t work best for our learners. So we had to modify what we were doing to make the course work better for the people who actually had to go through it.

They also need to be timely and make sense based on your resources and technology.  The strategy you use with two weeks’ notice is going to be different than one if you have ninety days to plan.

Another time, I worked in a production environment where a machine operator had to do task X three times a day.  This was a critical task in the production process, so only the most proficient were allowed to do it.  When they trained new operators, they didn’t even let them do task X until about the third week because they didn’t want them messing things up.

As we were designing the training, I recommended that they learn task X right away.  This let them practice it as much as possible (part of how people learn).  Within a few days they were proficient at the task. The old way required that they wait three weeks to even start.  However with the new approach, by the third week they would have already had at least 30 repetitions on the task.  In addition, they took away some
of the dread they inserted into the process by not letting them learn it initially.

By compressing some of the daily activities and increasing their opportunities for practice we were able to decrease the time it took to train new operators from 90 days to less than three weeks.

This is a good example of how the instructional design process helped the business meet its learning goals and business objectives.  We created an artificial environment that provided more opportunities for practice in a shorter period of time.

Action Plan

If this is all new to you, I’ve included a few ideas to help you get going:

  • Grab an instructional design book.  Find a book that interests you.  Read it and then plan on applying what you read to your next course.
  • Start small.  Build mini modules on simple topics, like how to make toast.  Play around with some ideas.  Keep it simple so it’s not overwhelming and it’s easy to modify.
  • Solicit feedback.  Create a portfolio page or blog where you can host your modules.  Jump into the user community and ask for feedback.  Write simple blog posts on what you tried and how it worked for you.
  • Be proactive.  Unfortunately many times we’re stuck doing projects the way the client wants them because we’re invited into the process too late.  Figure out how to get in on the process early.  This gives you a place at the table to share ideas on better instructional design.
  • Don’t worry about being perfect.  I look at some of the courses I did early in my career and they’re not very good.  That’s OK.  Over time, I got better.  So will you.

If you want to build effective elearning, you have to learn more about how we learn and then how to combine this understanding with the courses you create.  What are you doing today to make your elearning courses instructionally sound?


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 - do you need an instructional design degree

Just finished back-to-back conferences in San Jose and San Diego.  As always, it’s fun getting to meet the blog readers and Articulate customers.  Many of them are working with limited resources and it’s interesting to see how they approach their work.  I also get lots of good questions.

One of the most frequent questions asked is whether or not they need instructional design degrees.  I get this question quite a bit and it seems I’m getting it more frequently.

If I hire someone, I put less emphasis on the formal education they have and focus more on their tangible skills.  I’m interested in seeing a portfolio of work that represents their technical skills as well as their instructional design skills.  I don’t care if they acquired the skills in a formal or informal setting. I’m just concerned with them having the skills.

However, I do appreciate what it takes to get a degree in instructional design and know that what’s learned is valuable and can only enhance a person’s base of knowledge.  Because of this, I usually tell people “No, they don’t,” and “Yes, they do.”

You DON’T Need an Instructional Design Degree

You don’t need a formal degree to learn the skills required to build good elearning courses.  There are many books and resources available that will provide the same information you’d get in any formal program.  Combine that with the easy authoring tools and rich informal learning networks available today and you’re all set. Besides many people with degrees tell me they didn’t learn how to apply what they learned in their programs.

If you do want to forego a formal education, here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Read books and apply what you learn to your projects. If you can’t apply them to real projects, create little mini modules where you practice different techniques.  Add them to your portfolio with an explanation of what you did and why.
  • Connect with others so you’re always exposed to new ideas and challenged in your thinking.  One of the great things about social media is the access you have to all sorts of expertise.  Be prepared to connect in a genuine way.  People will tune you out if all you do is take.
  • Develop a portfolio that demonstrates your understanding of instructional design.  I also recommend combining your portfolio with a blog.  The portfolio could be the formal environment to display your work.  Whereas the blog is like the sandbox where you can flesh out ideas.

The key to success if you go this route is to continually practice your craft.  It’s not easy staying on top of your learning.  I recommend looking over the descriptions of some instructional design programs and then mapping out a plan of your own.  Expose yourself to the same books and topics and just do them at your own pace.

You DO Need an Instructional Design Degree

The reality is that many employers require an advance instructional design degree.  If all things are equal, the person with the degree will probably always be considered first.

Whether you like it or not, you’re competing in the marketplace with other qualified instructional designers.  So you want to make sure that your skills and qualifications are equitable.  That means if you don’t have a degree you might never be considered for different jobs.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - you do need an instructional design degree

Keep in mind, that many applications aren’t screened by the hiring managers.  There’s usually some HR assistant who quickly skims resumes and the one who doesn’t meet the minimum requirements goes to the bottom of the pile.

That’s the pragmatic reason for getting a degree.  Here are some other reasons:

  • Broaden your horizon.  You’ll be exposed to resources you may never ever consider or bother reading.  It’s easy to say that you can read the book on your own, but HAVING to read and think through a book is completely different.  The degree programs will force you to think, write, and apply what you’re learning.
  • Challenge your thinking.  You’ll connect with others who probably don’t think like you (and they may even be people you don’t like).  You may not agree with others but wrestling with their ideas and debating different instructional concepts will help solidify what you know and give you a broader perspective on things.  Besides, you may meet some lifelong friends through the program.  Either way, it’s important to test what you think you know.
  • Do new things.  You can be an elearning developer with ten year’s experience who basically does the same type of course over and over again.  Or you can be an elearning developer with three years, who’s worked on 10 diverse projects.  Which one has the deeper understanding?  In a formal program you’ll get to work on diverse projects and you never know where they’ll take you.  One of the reasons for my employment with Articulate is because I was working on a communities of practice research project.  That forced me to be more intentional about my involvement with the Articulate community, and eventually led to my job.

Getting Started.

If you are asking this question about instructional design degrees here’s what I‘d do:

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - comparing desirable skills to current skill set

  • Look at current job listings.  Go to industry job boards or sites like and look for instructional design positions.  What are they looking for?
  • Make a line item list of skills and qualifications.  Next to each item, add details based on your current skills and experience.  Compare what’s desired and how well you meet those needs.  You’ll see where you have skills and where you have gaps.
  • Make a plan to fill the gaps.  This can be a formal approach like an instructional design program or something informal.  Either way determines what you need to learn and work towards learning it.
  • Connect with others.  Jump into an elearning user community and ask what others have done.  Find out what they’re reading.  Ask questions and exchange ideas.  Whether you choose a formal education or not, much of your future success depends on your network.

There are a lot more reasons why you may or may not need a formal instructional design degree.  Whatever you do, you have to continue to push your development to stay competitive and to continue building effective elearning courses.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to share them in the comments section.  If you do an instructional design degree or certificate, tell us where you went and what you see as the most valuable reason to do what you did.


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 - the rapid elearning story defined

Here’s what I find typical of people who do rapid elearning.  Their organization needs to take existing content (usually a bunch of PowerPoint files) and get it online as soon as possible.  So they buy an authoring tool and quickly convert the content.

Once it’s online, they realize that many of the courses look like PowerPoint slides.  So they start focusing on how to make the screens look better.  Voila!  In no time at all, they’ve got great looking courses.

The more courses they create, the more they realize they need to craft better learning experiences.  So the focus shifts towards creating interactive and engaging courses for the learners.

I call this the rapid elearning story because it’s a story many people relate to.  It’s also a great framework for learning to build courses.  I shared more detail in the post on building a roadmap to better rapid elearning.

Here’s a brief summary:

  • Focus on the basics like organizing the content and some simple graphic design concepts you find in books like the Non-Designer’s Design Book.  Couple this with learning how to use the software.
  • Once you feel comfortable using the software, shift to creating the right type of look for your course.  This isn’t about eye-candy.  It’s a combination of aesthetic, context, and visual communication.
  • As you develop expertise building courses and get things to look the way you want, focus on what makes the course most meaningful.  And that’s crafting a good learning experience.

Of course these steps aren’t necessarily linear or exclusive of each other.  It’s just a simple way to look at the evolution of building a course.

Beyond Getting Started

Most people I talk to are one or two person teams.  They tend to work by themselves and have to be project manager, instructional designer, graphic designer, multimedia developer, and IT technician.  That’s a lot to cover and there aren’t many places to get help, especially when you’re by yourself.

So here are a few things to consider about what it takes to get your rapid elearning production off the ground.  I like to keep things simple, so I broke it into three groups: authoring, assets, and instructional design.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - big picture rapid elearning

Rapid Authoring

There’s not a right or wrong tool set.  They all have different features; so you want the tools that work best for your needs.  The mistake a lot of people make when looking for elearning software is to create a list of features which they use to compare the tools.

While comparing similar features is fine, the problem is that each feature is given equal weight on the checklist.  However some features have more value than others and even similar features may present a different workflow that could determine how long it takes to build a course.  A simple checklist won’t reflect those things.

When shopping for tools I recommend that instead of looking at a list of features, you build the same mini module with each tool.  Then you can test three things:

  • Software:  Using the same basic module for each application allows you to do a better “apples-to-apples” comparison.  You’ll get a sense of how the applications work and what type of workflow exists.
  • Support: Since the software is new to you and you won’t be completely familiar with it, you’ll have many questions and may need some help.  This is a great time to test the customer support.  Buying software is one thing; getting support after you buy, is another.  You may save money on the software purchase and end up spending a lot more down the road trying to get help.
  • Community: Software vendors make software, but real users will come up with the workarounds and best practices.  That’s why you want to connect with the user community.  It’s like having an elearning team in your cubicle.  Check to see how active the software’s user community is.  Post some questions and see how long it takes to get answers.  An active user community is critical to your success.

Here are a couple of posts I did that explains a bit more about rapid elearning and the strategic approach I’ve taken at other organizations.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - develop an elearning strategy

While there are a lot of choices out there, there is no right or wrong solution.  The applications are just tools to help you do your job.  You need to know which one is best for you considering your budget, time, and resources.

Rapid Assets

Rapid elearning is attractive because you can create effective elearning courses with little or no programming required.  That’s great for the programming part of the course.  But what about everything else?  Who’s going to design the look and feel?  Where will you get your graphics and any of the other assets you need for the course?

In the same way, rapid authoring helps you not be a programmer, rapid assets is about acquiring the multimedia assets you need without being a multimedia developer or graphics artist.

Here are a few resources and ideas to help you with the assets:

  • Microsoft Office Online.  If you’re a licensed user of the Microsoft products you have free access to the many templates and media assets they make available.  This is a good place to start especially since they’ve recently updated the site.
  • Stock Image Sites.  There are a dozens of stock image sites where you can buy low cost images.  For elearning courses, you don’t need to buy the high resolution images.  I usually buy the $1-$3 versions and they work fine.  I covered this in more detail in a previous post.
  • Free Assets.  There are many sites that give away open source content or images under creative commons licenses.  I’m sure others will post links to the sites they use.  The key is to understand the agreements so that you can make sure that free use is really free use, especially for commercial products.
  • Interactive Web Sites: Today you can find all sorts of free content creation tools online.  They’ll provide an embed code that you can place in your courses.  I like to paste the code into an HTML page and insert via the web object feature.  That means I ca
    n leverage the multimedia assets from the other service.  Here’s a cool example where the Qwiki site is inserted into an elearning module.
  • Connect with the Community.  A great resource for free content is by connecting with your user community.  I can’t speak for other communities, but I can tell you that the Articulate user community is quite generous.  There are many who freely share what they’ve created with others.  For example, James Kingsely, one of the Articulate MVPs, does a lot of custom programming and hacks.  Many times he gives away what he does (or sells them at a very reasonable price).  And he’s not the only one.  So take advantage of your user community.
  • Create Your Own.  You can modify the clip art images or take your own photos.  If you have advanced skills you can use illustrator or even PowerPoint to create your own media assets.  If you do have some skills, consider sharing with others in the community.  They’ll appreciate it.

These are a few resources to get you started.  Here are some previous posts that may help, as well.  I’m sure that others will chime in with links to some really good free resources.  Be sure to check out the comments.

Rapid Instructional Design

Building courses is becoming easier.  And finding the right assets to build them is becoming easier.  However, these by themselves don’t build effective elearning.  You still need to apply some sort of instructional design.  And that’s not always easy.

The challenge for many tasked with building elearning courses is that they don’t have the formal instructional design background.  So what are they to do?

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - rapid instructional design models help you build good courses quickly

A while back I watched this video about deploying inflatable concrete shelters.  What struck me is that the person who set the structure up didn’t need to be an engineer.  Basically, all he needed was a way to move, inflate, and hydrate it.  An engineer designed the structure for rapid deployment.  But someone else actually deployed it.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of an inflatable concrete structure

Seems we could do the same for instructional design.  Build a few instructional design models that people can use to build their courses.  Treat them like modular pieces that can be moved around and assembled.  They won’t build flight simulator training with these models, but they’ll be able to build decent elearning courses that will be more than click-and-read.

To test it out, I’ve been working on a few ideas.  And they work.  In fact, when David Anderson and I volunteered to build the Christian Aid course for LINGOs we wanted to test a couple of the models: the Gilligan and the RSI.

They allowed us to quickly determine the course structure and then assemble the content.  The course itself is simple, but using the rapid instruction model is one of the reasons we were able to build the course in just a few days.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - combining two rapid instructional desing models to quickly build an elearning course

I’ll cover some of these models in upcoming blog posts, but the main point is that there’s no reason why you need to be a trained instructional designer to use a pre-determined ID model to help you build your elearning courses.  This is especially true for those just getting started.  As you gain experience building elearning courses, you’ll get time to learn more about instructional design and apply what you learn.

It’s a lot easier to deliver an elearning course today than it was a few years ago.  But it also puts a lot more pressure on individuals to do more with less.  If you pick the right tools, get access to some low cost assets, and predetermine some of your course structure, you’ll be on your way to success.


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.