A How-To Guide On Creating E-Learning Content Without Programming
By Dr. Allen Partridge
For many learning professionals, initially creating content for computer-based training presentations is an adventure that they didn’t sign up for — that they were sort of “roughed” into. So it’s incredibly common that some of the most successful e-learning authors and developers are people who didn’t necessarily train for education or train for instructional design. In fact, many trainers excelled more at being face-to-face communicators, learning from others on specific topics in their field.
So for these people, it is usually an unexpected surprise to suddenly become the individual who’s responsible for creating training content — content that is often persistent, because the materials are lasting, and people will be exposed to them for a long time.
The moment comes where, before you take the plunge, you ask the question, “How do I do this? How do I make a decision about which kind of e-learning tool is right for me in my situation?”
There are many different kinds of e-learning content that can range from a simple application capture (like imparting information) to the complex (like scenario-based training where you’re trying to create a representation of the real world with the hope of changing people’s behavior patterns).
It’s really a wide-open world where you can create all kinds of different e-learning content that will allow you to address the varying needs of the people in your organization who are trying to learn the topics that you’re trying to teach in that specific area. So the basics as you’re getting started with your first project are really the same basics that you must confront with any project.
The confusion is that the overall course itself suggests that it’s meant to help you make your e-learning “legendary,” one that’s a great experience for both: you, as a trainer and, most importantly, for your learners.
Begin With The End In Mind
One of my first education teachers told us that it often helps to invert the whole paradigm; to think about what should come last.
As you begin to build your project out — as you begin to think about what your project should be — it can be quite helpful to focus on the end objective, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced creator of e-learning content. Focusing on the objective will help ensure that the opening content you create will be successful in the end for different users. We trainers often try to help people understand information by just dropping it on them. But if we ultimately want to achieve a goal of changing the behavior or changing the way that the learner actually performs his or her job function or performs some duty, then a more sophisticated approach is required.
Audience And Content
Whether you are making the transition to e-learning from in-person instructor-led or webinar-type training or you’re new to elearning development altogether, there are two things to keep in mind:
1. Never lose sight of your training audience and their learning needs.
2. Be the master of your content — don’t let the content own you.
Creating e-learning is not just about the mechanics of importing a classroom slide presentation into a design program and publishing it for mobile. You must consider how your learners will access and consume the content, how much time they can spare on learning, and what they need to eventually get out of the training. Your responsibility as an e-learning author is to consider these needs when presenting the content — and no tool will do that for you. Once you take care of these things, you can move forward with creating your course.
The Design Stage
Your first problem is how to very quickly deliver tight little messages to learners who need some kind of overview instruction on a basic concept. And if that basic concept can be represented by videos on a screen, or by looking at a piece of software, or by looking at a slide deck that supports the information, then Adobe Presenter might be a good option. It comes as a plug-in that you install into your Microsoft PowerPoint. One of the tools in Presenter is a creator of clean, quick videos of subject-matter experts giving instruction that can be dropped into the training package as an MP4 video.
Another hint: Try to avoid putting big positions or placements of logos within the master slide, because you often want your presentation to be slightly different from slide to slide. The biggest tip that I can share with you about creating these background experiences with slides is that it’s much more effective if you think “simple, simple, simple.”
Another common problem for beginners is how to obtain the appropriate “art” (photos, charts, illustrations, etc.) for your new presentations. Stock photos are almost always going to cost some money — but be very aware that it would cost you a lot more if you use photos illegally. Your digital camera is also a great option. You can get great photos on-site, in your space. You often can get a more appropriate photo (to the content) than you would have gotten on a stock site, anyway. So never hesitate to grab your camera and just try for a photo, which may be of people or places that are immediately recognizable to learners.
One other thing that a lot of professional trainers are just beginning to understand is that very clean, consistent color palettes make a big difference in how effectively the content is regarded by learners. It’s one of the simplest tricks in the world, but it works.
The content itself should be broken down into a series of “decision points,” so scenario-based training can give you an opportunity to effectively deal with managerial content that requires thinking about how people relate and interact. It helps you, the trainer, to approach content in a way that learners are challenged to think more deeply about what is being communicated, to evaluate, and then to make complex decisions. The nice thing about scenarios is that they play a little bit like games, so learners often feel compelled to try it again and again and again until they get it right. So learners are actually learning a lot, both by seeing the correct answers and by seeing the incorrect answers and evaluating why one might be right or wrong.
Taking this kind of content to the next level involves making it interactive and having discussion, comments and tweets for your learners. And that’s really that next step of adding social learning to the mix: computer-based “conversation,” working within an environment, sometimes working with discussion threads, and getting people immersed in more collaborative kinds of decisions. We know, because the research shows us that this sort of learning approach — especially when you add in the ability to converse, discuss and debate what the right answers were and weren’t — will have the most long-term impact, the most staying power. Such content will be remembered the most clearly, and it’s the most likely to create a behavioral change in the learner.
So simulations or scenarios should be similar to real-life situations. Of course, the scenarios should not be taken to extremes. Aliens are in no way similar to real life, but prisoner-of-war camps can be. The point is that you can have some fun deciding what kind of scenarios to use. Ideally, the best solution is one that is the most directly parallel to the life experience of your learning audience.
A piece of content that lets the learner interact with it always works better than a static piece of content. When you allow your learners to interact, they are automatically more interested and eventually more engaged. You can add interactivity such as drag-and-drop games, quizzes, characters in different postures, learning interactions such as jigsaw, hangman, etc., to make your content come alive. You can add these interactions using either Adobe Presenter or Adobe Captivate.
The Responsive Design
A responsive course is an online class module that will reshape and resize itself dynamically to fit on virtually any screen, either horizontally or vertically. Let’s face it: there is a huge difference between looking at a course on a Web page in a laptop browser and looking at the same course on a tiny mobile phone screen.
With the proper tools, instructional designers can create multi-page, multichapter, multi-display resolution courses from a single, intuitive interface. By using page breaks, similar to other responsive design tools, you can influence and tweak the design of content as it is displayed for desktop, tablet and mobile phone displays, adding the dimensions of interactivity and time by including both custom and built-in learning interactions.
You can give your users native support for natural gestures, enabling things like pinch and zoom, click to view the table of contents, and swipe to navigate to next and previous pages. And thanks to GPS/location- based learning, your e-learning can deliver the most appropriate content, at the best possible time, to the person learning in a specific location.
Combined, all of these mobile learning enhancements are staggering, as they give developers the first-ever opportunity to create authentic mobile learning content and courses without any need for programming.
If you’ve been building e-learning for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with the idea that we can control the onscreen position of images, text and interactions by choosing that position — with a reference to the number of pixels the item is to the right of and below the upper left corner of the screen. But responsive projects change their layout dynamically — even sometimes change them on the fly as people resize a browser. Because of this, responsive projects have different ways to describe where something is on the screen. A typical example of this is that if something is in the middle, you might instruct the item in responsive design to set the horizontal position of the item to 50 percent. This would cause the item to display at about halfway, regardless of which device you were using to view the course.
By itself, that would be an easy new idea to master. Unfortunately, tablets and phones and desktops aren’t just different size variations of the same rectangle. They are all different screen ratios (meaning that the width and height of each screen rectangle is different; they aren’t boxes that could just be scaled; they are different shape boxes).
On top of that, sometimes the boxes are horizontal, and sometimes the boxes are vertical. In short, this means that you cannot simply shrink or grow the course to fit different devices; you need to create variations that fit different box types and orientations.
An added feature of advanced design tools is that they can deliver the right version of the course automatically. It doesn’t matter if your learners are using your courses on desktops or mobile devices, it can take care of the content delivery and report to your learning management solution — even if learners change from one device to another while working their way through a course.
There are a couple of great new enhancements to shared actions in the new version of Adobe Captivate. They’re fairly simple to understand. You now can take the shared action directly from the library and drag it onto a basic button. Start by going to “Project” and then pulling up the “Advanced Actions.” Save your Advanced Action as a Shared Action, and rename it so you know that it’s the Shared Action.
Next, you have the option to actually allow the use of these parameters. You can use this function to do things like store flags and pass them across projects so you don’t have to recreate them. All of these parameters are things that you can store inside your Captivate project.
Finally, once you’re done, hit the little Return key on the edge of each, and then click, “Save.” What you’ve done is to create a shared action based on an advanced action — and it includes all of the materials, even the parameters that were in the original. In order to apply that, find it in your library and just drag it over and drop it on the button.
Just like that, you’re ready to create your variable and/or pull up any other variables that exist in the system. You can change them and/or reset them.
The resulting shared action(s) can be used and reused throughout all of your projects.
—Dr. Partridge is a senior e-learning evangelist for Adobe Systems. He has written several books and articles on e-learning, immersive learning, games, 3D and simulations.