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My Wish Lists for Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate

Captivate 6 Retail Box Storyline Retail Box

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Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate 6 have both been on the eLearning rapid development tool market for the better part of a year now. And because both products are so strong, they’re forcing each other to up their game. That’s a win for everyone.  Do you need both?  Not necessarily. But both have strengths and weaknesses that have come to light since their release.  And both are missing things that I think should be a given. So, as impressive as both products truly are, now that they’ve been out for a while, I thought this might be a good time to take another look, and also compile a wish list of some desirable features.  Here’s hoping Articulate and Adobe are listening.

The first key area both companies need to address is the utter inequality in they way they treat developers who use Macs instead of Windows-based laptops.  After 25 years on Windows, when my frustrating Vista laptop began failing in 2012, I decided to switch to a Mac despite the fact that I would need to spend some extra money and use a virtual environment software (I chose Parallels) to run any Windows-based software. It’s hugely disappointing to me that Articulate doesn’t yet offer a native Mac version of Storyline. I’m equally dismayed that while Adobe does offer a Mac version of its eLearning Suite (which includes Captivate), the Mac version doesn’t include Adobe Presenter!  So if you’re a Mac user, Adobe is happy to charge you the same price as a Windows user and give you one program less for your money. I have a real problem with that.  In fact, it so annoys me that I haven’t yet upgraded from Adobe’s eLearning Suite 2.5. Like most people, I vote with my wallet.

As to evolving functionality of the two products, here’s some background on my perspective: I participated in the initial Betas of both Storyline and Captivate 6. I did purchase Storyline, despite its steep $1500 price tag compared to Captivate’s list price of $900.  I like Storyline that much. I was disappointed with some aspects of Captivate 6 in its Beta, most notably the uneven HTML5 output, and the continued absence of native drag and drop functionality. But I’ve kept tabs on Captivate’s reception and progress since the release of version 6 and will say more on that, shortly.  Both companies offer a starting set of interactive templates, but don’t count on them all playing equally well in pure HTML5 output. Both supply a gallery of characters, but both need improvement. Storyline ships with a robust set of illustrated avatar characters in a broad range of poses.  But there is only one photo set included; an Asian businesswoman.  Speaking as a male voiceover artist, this is awfully limiting.  For that hefty $1500 price tag, at the very least, a male character photo set should have been included, as well.  And, additional photo sets are pricy.  I’m also a professional actor, and I can pretty much guarantee that the actors were paid a modest flat sum to pose for these photo sets; the rest of the cost is mostly vendor markup.  Captivate 6 ships with a good selection of photo characters, but in fewer poses, and it offers no illustrated avatar characters at all. And so it goes, back and forth between the two products.

Now, regarding updates since initial release: Storyline has addressed some issues and added some enhancements. Yet something as basic as offering more than one style of bullet point still doesn’t exist.  Given the impressive creativity displayed by Articulate’s developers in creating Storyline, this seems very odd.   And there are a few other lingering minor bugs, like occasional misbehavior of the “Undo” button.  One important update Articulate released adds Tin Can protocol passback capability to their already very nice (and free) Mobile Player app.  Adobe recently released an important update to Captivate, as well.  It purports to enhance Captivate 6’s lackluster HTML5 performance and finally, finally adds native drag and drop functionality after years of leaving users to buy widgets from other vendors to fill that glaring gap.  Excellent, flexible drag and drop functionality was present in Storyline when it launched.  Adobe also just released an update for (ahem) Presenter.  Cause for rejoicing, right?  Not exactly.  Adobe is making these updates available right now only to those who bought into their annual support plan (which an Adobe sales rep just told me is being phased out), or who pay for a monthly subscription to use the software. So if you paid full price but didn’t buy into the support plan, you’re out of luck until you upgrade to the next version of Captivate, whenever that comes out.  Granted, Articulate has a similar approach, and they don’t offer a monthly pricing model yet.   But in my opinion these particular Adobe updates are really just plugging existing, painful holes in their product.  In my opinion, these features should have been in Captivate before version 6 was released, and all current license holders of the latest Captivate and eLearning Suite should receive these particular enhancements gratis.

In addition, when Adobe released the new version of the eLearning Suite, they didn’t make it available as part of their new, much-hyped Creative Cloud, even though there are clearly some Adobe Cloud applications that eLearning (and especially mobile learning) developers would want to leverage.  When Adobe launched their Cloud, they offered existing Creative Suite 5 license holders a significantly discounted monthly rate to access the Cloud for the first 12 months.  The eLearning Suite should be part of the Creative Cloud, and existing suite license holders should receive a similar pricing deal. If you agree with me, let your Adobe rep know!  If social media has taught us anything, it has reminded us of the power of voices speaking up in unison to obtain fair treatment.

As to the future: So far, neither product has accomplished the holy grail of “responsive design,” i.e., automating the process of repurposing content for your choice of pc, tablet, or smartphone. That’s where we all need to be heading in the eLearning rapid development market.  Adobe recently created Edge, a nifty tool for generating HTML5 animations, and now they have a set of related tools–including the in-development Edge Reflow, which offers responsive design.  But currently the Edge toolset is on the Creative Cloud, so it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take before responsive design trickles down to the apparently earthbound eLearning Suite, and to Captivate in particular.  That challenging but essential feature remains on my wish list from both companies, along with a standing request for more templates.  And of course, I’m still waiting for some seriously overdue respect for us Mac users.

Impressive as both products are, here are my wish lists for enhancements:

Storyline

  • Need a native version for Mac!
  • Should ship with at least one male photo set; other photo sets need to be less expensive
  • Need a variety of bullet point styles
  • Need an Assets Library (which Captivate has) to allow easy repurposing of elements between projects
  • Make the Lightbox feature resizable
  • Preview mode should show working media & linked content
  • Need a Local Web Object: PDF embedding on a slide should just be an option button the Insert menu
  • Separate out the Play/Pause button and the Replay button from the Seekbar/Status Bar, so that the Seekbar can be hidden, if desired, without losing the other buttons
  • Make the Seekbar/Status Bar lockable so that it shows progress but learner can’t use it to skip ahead
  • Offer a choice of editable styles for the playbar buttons
  • Offer export of just Slide # and Notes to create a Voiceover Script in a Word table
  • Adapt current Word export to a better-looking Storyboard format for easy client review and commenting (including making on-slide text editable in Word)
  • Allow ability to right-click and merge objects with background for any given layer, as we can do with Captivate
  • Ability to right-click and easily edit or swap out background image on slides (Really needed for quick updates, anonymization, and localization of simulation screen shots.)
  • More free templates
  • Better HTML5 performance (outside of the Mobile Player)
  • Responsive design (templates & publishing): including pcs, tablets, smartphone

Captivate (and Adobe in general)

  • Improved attitude toward customers:
    • Provide the latest drag and drop and HTML5 enhancements free for all current license holders, not just for monthly subscribers/annual support plan only
    • Adobe Presenter should be included in Mac version of eLearning Suite, or Mac pricing should be lower
    • Make eLearning Suite part of Creative Cloud and give eLearning Suite license holders a real discount for the first year, like CS5 suite users
    • 30-day trials should start when customer installs and runs the software for the first time, not the day they download it
  • More interaction templates, all with full HTML5 support
  • More, and more comprehensive, photo sets, and some avatar sets
  • Offer export of just Slide # and CC text to create a Voiceover Script in a Word table
  • Adapt current Word export to a better-looking Storyboard format for easy client review and commenting (including making on-slide text editable in Word)
  • New C6 interface should be applied to all levels, not just the main one (I am one of the people begging them to get away from the cryptic pale gray interface of earlier Adobe products; they took a step, but need to follow through)
  • Responsive design (templates & publishing): including pcs, tablets, smartphone

New eLearning Samples Page Is Now Available!

Onboarding SampleI’m delighted to announce that I’ve added an eLearning Samples page to this site.  On this new page, you will be able to launch and view any brief eLearning courseware samples that I make available from time to time.  Currently, I have two samples available: an eLearning Process Overview, and just completed: a New Hire Onboarding introductory module.  You can view these on your PC, or read the job aid I provide on that page to learn how you can also launch them on your iPad with the free Articulate Mobile Player app.  I’ve even made them available for download to your iPad, so you can play with them even when you’re not connected to the internet, which is pretty cool.  Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Leaving ADDIE for SAM at ASTD-NY January eLearning SIG Meeting

041282.Addie for Sam BC.inddOn Wednesday evening, January 23rd, Dale Carnegie Training kindly hosted ASTD-NY’s January eLearning Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting.  Guest speaker Richard Sites, Ed.D, Vice President of Client Services for Allen Interactions, was a gracious, amusing, and interesting presenter.  Richard took time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about the new book he worked on with his boss Michael Allen (creator of Authorware and well-known learning guru), provocatively titled Leaving ADDIE for SAM.  Richard explained that when ASTD Press approached Michael about writing a new book, Allen Interactions had been evolving its own alternative to the traditional instructional design process model of Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate (ADDIE).  So it seemed the perfect topic to explore at length in a new publication.  Their goal was to set forth and make the case for their own process, the Successive Approximation Model (SAM).  The main goals of SAM are to provide a cycle that works faster, and gets to the “true voice” of the learning content more effectively, than a traditional linear interpretation of the ADDIE process might allow.  Another stated goal for SAM is to provide “the highest probability for performance change”–a goal we all share regardless of our preferred process.  Richard cited the book’s robust sales since its publication in September 2012 as a clear indicator that we in the eLearning industry are always seeking process improvement, even to long-standing models like ADDIE.

Richard cited four common challenges or misconceptions that often haunt the eLearning instructional design process:

1) “Skillful execution of a process guarantees a quality product.”  Of course it doesn’t, because there are always so many variables.  There is not necessarily a direct correlation between process and product.
2) “Accurate information is the key to an effective learning experience.”  Accuracy is important, of course, but let’s face it–on its own, it doesn’t guarantee engagement or retention.
3) “The environment in which we work does not affect the design of the learning experience we create.”  We all know that ivory tower instructional design isn’t likely to speak to a real-world target audience.  We need to be in the trenches with our client and their audience.
4) “Because you went to school, you know what makes a good learning experience.”  Richard allowed that people who have had an education will of course have opinions about what makes good (and bad) learning, and they’re entitled to express those opinions.  But it doesn’t make them experts in the learning field, especially not in the area of eLearning.

Richard provided a quote from Michael Allen that highlights a key reason they created SAM: “It’s too early to define a process unless you’ve defined the product you want it to produce.”  Richard offered the Allen Interactions view that a traditional, rigid interpretation of ADDIE “doesn’t have a product expectation.”  To play devil’s advocate, I’d have to say that I have always seen establishing that clear expectation of end product and desired outcomes as a fundamental part of a successful Analysis phase in ADDIE.  But as with laws, I find a lot of this dialogue can often boil down to semantics and individual interpretation.  SAM is also built on Allen Interactions’ “3M” Design Principles: Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational–i.e., relevant to current job responsibilities, engaging enough to encourage knowledge transfer, and inspiring enhanced performance from learners. Again, nothing to argue with there!  So what are the SAM phases, then?  There are only three main ones.  But note that the second and third have mini-cycles within them:

  • Preparation Phase: Background and Information Collecting; End product: a preliminary form of Design Document
  • Iterative Design Phase: Prototype, Review, and Design in an iterative cycle as needed (goal: Max of 3 cycles);  End product: a Design Proof
  • Iterative Development Phase: Develop, Implement, Evaluate, in an iterative cycle (again, with a limit to cycles);  End product: the finished eLearning course

Richard said that at Allen Interactions, they do not create traditional Storyboards per se; instead, they prefer to put together a series of simple prototypes (created with anything from MSWord to Articulate Storyline to Flash) to “sculpt” the course iteratively with the client’s input as they go.  Their SAM process means showing these visual and interactive elements to clients during their second phase, arguably a phase sooner than ADDIE.  In my experience, a proof of concept (a real hands-on taste of what the target audience will see) very early on is always important to ensure that you and your client are on the same conceptual page.  So I certainly agree with Richard here–although again I think only the most rigid, linear interpretation of ADDIE would preclude that being an early part of the process.  But if eLearning content creators out there aren’t offering their clients an early functioning proof of concept  before the Develop phase of ADDIE, then the SAM methodology may help make the need for that more clear.

“Challenge-based design” is what SAM is meant to encourage, through what Allen Interactions calls their CCAF model: Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback.  Richard’s example: a line of people at Starbucks are trying to grab a cup of coffee quickly so they can all get to work on time.  The Barista sees the context (long line of clients in a hurry) and the challenge (getting the orders done right, quickly).  The activity is filling the orders efficiently, and the feedback is the customer’s response (satisfied or not).  SIG co-chair Enid Crystal pointed out that these are the same elements typically discussed in the creation of gaming software, and Richard readily agreed.  I think most of us would agree that we live by these basic principles when designing our interactive eLearning.  Richard noted that he might want to change “Feedback” to  “Consequence” to in their model; I would suggest perhaps “Results” or “Outcome” as to my ear “Consequence” has a slightly pejorative ring to it.

With regard to outcome, Richard provided an appropriate quote from Michael Allen:  “Good learning experiences aren’t just about facts, they are about becoming a more proficient, capable, and valuable person.” I couldn’t agree more.   As someone who has never taken the ADDIE model too literally, the SAM approach makes perfect sense to me.  I suggested, and Richard agreed, that for those of us who have always viewed ADDIE as a high-level guide rather than a rigid, lock-step process, SAM could be considered a more in-depth depiction of what really goes on “under the hood” in ADDIE when working with clients.  I would even suggest that rather than being a “giant killer” alternative that leaves ADDIE dead in the dust, SAM might be considered ADDIE’s transgendered alter ego!  When queried by some of the attendees, Richard did note that while there is no formal separate “E” (evaluation) phase listed in their model, evaluation is of course always part of the initial discussion with the client.  He rightly noted that in reality, most performance evaluation follow-through lives or dies in the hands of the client.  We can encourage it, but at the end of the day, the client must want it and own it, as the learning process continues back on the job long after the eLearning course has been completed.

Richard left us with the following equation to sum up their approach:
(SAM + CCAF) x Partnership & Communication = Meaningful, Memorable & Motivational Learning Experiences

If you have followed the ADDIE process rigidly until now (for instance, only introducing proof of concept and visual elements in the Development phase, and disallowing minor internal iterations), then Michael and Richard’s new book may serve as an important awakening for you, or at least some meaty food for thought.  Otherwise, you may see it as a potentially clearer way of expressing what you’re already doing.  I do think that the high-level steps of ADDIE may be simpler to explain to a client than SAM for discussion purposes, and I still reference ADDIE freely on my own web site for that reason.  But in my experience, the SAM approach is more what real-world eLearning project cycles look like behind the scenes, and both Richard and Michael deserve a lot of credit for sharing SAM with the learning community.  If you have the opportunity to hear Richard Sites speak at other functions, you should go.  He is an excellent presenter, and a good listener, with an obvious love of learning, and an in-depth understanding of what it takes to create memorable, transformative eLearning.  Thanks again to Dale Carnegie Training for hosting this invigorating event, and to eLearning SIG co-chairs Enid Crystal and John Galto for arranging another valuable session.

Brewing Up Same Day Training Success

I was recently invited by one of my former students to visit her company, a major coffee and coffee products corporation.  Laura brought me in to teach the same full-day course she took with me back at the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions 2010 conference: How to Create and Deliver eLearning Voiceovers Like a Pro.  In addition, she engaged me for a day of one-on-one Presentation Skills coaching for others at her company.

I love teaching and coaching, and I had terrific students both days.  The results were fantastic.  Working with people so enthusiastic about learning and trying new things, and seeing major improvement in their work by the end of the session, is always incredibly gratifying.  I was genuinely impressed with the talent on display at this company.

For the full-day voiceovers program, I had almost 20 eager participants, with varying degrees of comfort in front of a microphone.  The audience for this particular program is Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who need to create their own eLearning for their team or department, including crafting the voiceover script, recording the voiceover, and editing it to make it ready for use in an eLearning module.  I introduce the key concepts, then let my students play hands-on, and provide guidance and feedback along the way.  Throughout the day, participants share their results in a supportive environment.  Nothing beats learning by doing, and my students used every minute of the day to experiment and improve.  I encouraged them to explore scenarios “outside the box” in creating their scripts, and to consider the use of humor when appropriate.  The creativity each person displayed encouraged even more creativity in the others, and everyone had a great time while learning a lot and producing some truly memorable learning moments.  When the students presented their final projects at the end of the 8-hour day, every single one showed major improvement, and everyone in the room heard the indisputable proof.  There’s going to be some great eLearning coming from these folks.  One of the students wrote to me afterwards:

Thank you for the informative and inspiring class you taught last Thursday! I’m very excited to begin implementing all the new things I’ve learned.

Thanks, Lori!  I also had a great experience with each of my Presentation Skills clients.  At the end of each one-hour session, the client was able to deliver their content with far greater assurance and impact.  Each was excellent at taking in and working with my comments and suggestions.  It was great to see each person grow in skills and confidence so markedly in such a short space of time.  Laura sent around a satisfaction survey afterward, and told me the feedback was terrific.  Here is what one of my Presentation Skills clients wrote:

I gained an appreciation for the importance of bringing conviction and passion into presentations, including those that seem mundane (e.g. regular updates). Most times as a presenter, you know more about that particular topic than anyone in the room. Over the course of 60 minutes, Andrew reminded me of this point and helped me experience the impact of speaking from the heart with focus and energy. Despite the same slides and message, my presentation of the material at the end of the session was much more powerful (and literally felt better) than my handling of the same content at the start.  

Thanks, Tom!  I really appreciate the feedback.  And my thanks again to Laura for inviting me to work with the talented folks at her company.  These students strongly reinforced my longstanding belief that coaching and gardening (one of my other loves) have a lot in common.  If you provide good people with the right conditions and an encouraging environment, great and even remarkable things will grow out of it.  Or, to embrace a coffee metaphor, if you put quality ingredients in the cup, and stir it up, you’re going to create something everyone wants.  I look forward to my next visit!

2012 eLearning Tools Landscape: The Rise of HTML5

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APPLE.  IN THE LIBRARY.  WITH A LEAD PIPE.  If life was like the classic board game “Clue,” that might well have been the headline in all our eLearning journals at the end of 2011.  In place of the unfortunate Mr. Boddy, the crime scene photograph would have shown a white chalk outline in the shape of Adobe Flash.  There’s a semi-happy ending to this news report, though: to paraphrase a certain Monty Python plague victim, Flash isn’t dead yet.

But by the same token, the late Steve Jobs and his Apple team dealt Adobe a crippling blow when it refused to support Flash Player on their iPhone and iPad devices, citing heavy resource requirements and potential security vulnerabilities.  (And for a moment, let’s ignore the fact that even without playing Flash on it, I need to recharge my iPhone 4 once or twice a day!)  So, is Flash dead, or dying?  Not in the immediate future.  Think of all the legacy content out there.  But last November, when Adobe finally raised the white flag and announced that it was abandoning its development of the Flash Mobile platform, it became clear to everyone in eLearning that the development tool landscape is beginning a tectonic shift due to the growing importance of mobile learning, or mLearning.

If Flash is the Giant, then the young Giantkiller with the slingshot and the great aim is HTML5.  And there’s a certain irony here: it’s not even a clearly codified, formalized markup language yet.  In fact, bearing in mind the reality that “change is the only constant,” HTML5 may well end up being a freeform, organically expanding entity for a number of years to come, as new codes and capabilities are added.  We may need to start calling it something catchy like “HTML Universe” (in a techie nod to the Stargate franchise) or “HTML Utopia,” or some other name that will represent an ever-evolving entity.  Because let’s face it: do we really want to find ourselves talking about HTML16 or 156 anytime soon?  I know I don’t.  It’s true that right now, HTML5 still can’t do all the things that Flash can.  But it can do a lot of them.  Flash’s sun is setting, and HTML5 is the new sun rising on our eLearning horizon.  At least for this rotation.

So how are the eLearning development tools we use today evolving to meet our need for engaging, interactive eLearning content that can play on any website or any mobile device?  If you’re an eLearning Guild member you should download and read Nick Floro’s new tools report for 2012.  It’s an excellent snapshot of where we all were at the end of 2011.  (And if you’re not a member of the eLearning Guild by now, you really should be!)  I’m going to take a closer look at the HTML5-readiness question for 2012, based on some hands-on Beta testing that I’ve been doing with both Adobe and Articulate.

For some year now, many of us have been using Adobe Captivate for our eLearning projects.  The current build, Captivate 5.5, incorporates widgets and other programmer-friendly tools to expand the interactive capabilities of your eLearning course.  But Captivate now also sports a spartan new gray Photoshop-style interface that I find is challenging to many corporate Subject Matter Experts (or SMEs).  And it doesn’t publish to HTML5.  I’ve been participating in testing of Adobe’s standalone HTML5 Converter tool, which is extremely simple to operate.  With each new test version, more interactive features are being included.  But as of this writing, there are still many Captivate features that cannot be converted.  Adobe has also just started Alpha testing for Captivate 6.  What’s the bottom line?  By the time it hits the shelves, Captivate 6 will need to include seamless and comprehensive HTML5 publishing as one of its standard options.  Anything less at this point would would give the competition too much of an advantage.

I’ve also been taking a look at Adobe’s new animation tool, Edge, which is in a pre-Beta Preview.  Edge offers a clean (but again somewhat cryptic and SME-unfriendly) interface for creating animations using a combination of HTML, scripting, and cascading style sheets (CSS) instead of Flash.  I went to Adobe’s Edge Preview launch here in NY in the summer of 2011 and worked with version 1 briefly at that time, but it did not yet offer interactivity or the ability to include audio and video.  Preview version 4 was released on January 19th, and includes the first interactive features, so I look forward to checking that out.  But audio/video is still not part of the package, and Adobe is well aware that the tool will not be ready for the public until those features are included.   While Adobe seems to be positioning Edge as a standalone tool, for my money, it should also be included in the next releases of both their Creative Suite and the eLearning Suite.  To not do that when so many customers have partnered with Adobe to help make it happen would seem both ungrateful and unwise.  How Edge fares in the market will depend on the final list of features, its ease of use, how it’s packaged, and what tools the competition puts out in the meantime.

Adobe has undoubtedly felt heavy breathing on its neck over the past year from Articulate’s upcoming tool, Storyline.  I’m participating in the Beta of this tool as well, so I am not allowed to say much at this time.  It’s not divulging any secret, however, to say that per its name, Storyline includes a library of poseable characters, and is designed for the creation of story or scenario-based learning.  That’s a long-awaited feature right there.  I can also say that the tool is designed with the SME in mind, with an extremely user-friendly interface.  Articulate intends to make Storyline content publishable to your choice of Flash or HTML5 by the time it launches later this year.  Its screen capture feature can’t do everything that Captivate does at this point.  But Adobe should  be extremely concerned about the competition shaping up here, both in terms of product vision and functional design.  Again, all will depend on the final list of features, and the price point.  Articulate is saying that Storyline will be priced comparably to their other suite components, so we’ll see.  If they keep the price low enough, I foresee this tool being a genuine game-changer for the eLearning marketplace.

Of course, competition is great for everyone because it brings out the best and brightest from each company, and makes each tool better.  That’s good news for those of us who can’t afford to buy them all.  And I’m discussing only a handful of tools!  There are of course a lot more out there, including tools at higher and lower price points, and also cloud-based development suites offering HTML5 publishing. So let’s have a vision moment: what should be happening as we move forward?  Ultimately, the applications that come out on top will need to be affordable and offer the ability to enter your content once, then simply apply a desktop or mobile template with the click of a button. Whoever can design applications that publish to your choice of Flash or HTML5 and minimize the need for rework when publishing to different devices will carry the day.  At this point, products that publish only to Flash are basically writing their own obituaries, and will rapidly fade from the market as mobile learning becomes a more popular delivery method.

What will we be saying about 2012 a year from now?  Perhaps not even Professor Plum or Miss Scarlet can figure that out.  By then, HTML5 may have met its match.  But when we eLearning professionals look back on this year, chances are we’re going to remember it as the year we discovered a body in the library.  And the game changed again.

Agree?  Disagree?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a comment!

 

Words, Words, Words! (and How to Use Them in eLearning)

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LORD POLONIUS  What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET  Words, words, words.
LORD POLONIUS  What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET  Between who?
LORD POLONIUS  I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
HAMLET  Slanders, sir….

This odd exchange between the king’s advisor Polonius and the supposedly mad prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy came to mind as I read a thought-provoking blog post by my friend Angel Green, a wonderful instructional strategist.  In her article, my friend half-seriously states that she hates words in eLearning, dubbing them a “necessary evil.”

But of course, we all know that blaming words is like blaming the messenger.  Words can engender great good or great harm–ask any advertising executive, playwright, or politician.  It’s all in how we use them.  Or, to my friend’s point, misuse them.  Think of all those Twitter and Facebook posts you really don’t need to see.  All those eLearning screens that are simply walls of words, not keys to knowledge, understanding, and change.

Let me put it in a more Shakepearean metaphor: words are seeds.  They need the right exposure and room to grow.  If you plant too many of them too closely together, they’ll vie with each other for the sunlight (i.e., the audience’s attention), and the end result will be a scraggly bed of weeds that people avoid, not the well-manicured garden an audience will enjoy exploring.  But the carefully-planted, memorable phrasing is money in the bank.  The right words presented in the right way at the right time will take root in our audience’s minds–and grow.

Once you’ve whittled down your course’s words to the meaningful ones, in many cases you can greatly enhance their delivery by selecting the right voiceover talent to convincingly share the story and “sell” the script you’ve written (and of course, remember to include a Closed-Captioning option).  Take the time to find a voice that matches your story’s character(s), and that sounds like someone talking naturally to the learner. Even a neutral narrator can have some personality, and should subtly communicate an eagerness to share the information for the learner’s benefit.  Using quality voiceover talent pays for itself: suddenly your words take on a whole new life in your learner’s ear.  Your course can now reach the auditory learners as well as the visual ones.  Add some nifty, meaningful interactions for the kinesthetically-inclined, and you’ve got a course that will make a lasting impression on everyone!

When it comes to including particularly dry text, sometimes editing isn’t a choice; the language may be a regulatory requirement or even part of a court settlement.  But in most cases, I’ve had success convincing legal teams that it’s best to put legalese into a pop-up window or take-away item behind a clickable shiny medallion, charming character or other appealing graphic.  Use that icon consistently throughout the course to alert the audience to such material.  Make the legalese a resource, not part of the main flow, and give its presentation some class.  That way the information has been treated with respect–without bogging down the learner, who mostly just wants to get on with the course.

Impressive as they can be these days, interactive elements shouldn’t be the only “good stuff” in an eLearning course.  Even when it’s a course your audience is required to take, they’ll respond to real engagement in any form.  The right words are good stuff.  They promote mental interaction.  Used with theatrical flair, they can be great on their own.  Ask Shakespeare.  Or, they can play their part brilliantly right alongside the interactive techno-bells and whistles available to us today.  More people are finally catching on to scenario-based courses as the most natural approach to memorable learning: Good stories stay with us.  Put your learners in a situation they’ll recognize, one that will prompt an emotional connection.  Maybe start them “in medias res”–in the middle of the story–so they have to hit the ground running, and think on their feet.  Then give them a few tools, just enough information and guidance, and encourage them to put it all together themselves as they go through your eLearning course.  Don’t do it all for them.  Use words to tease, surprise, amuse.  Regardless of the type of content: involve them, and make it entertaining!  If no one on your team is a wordsmith–hire one.  It’s worth it.

It would be nice if our clients and corporate lawyers better understood how words need to be used in eLearning–but in truth it’s not their job.  Even though they share your goal of getting the course’s message across, words mean something different to them.  A contract is not a meeting memo–and neither of them is eLearning.  Lawyers use words to define and regulate; business clients use words to communicate and record.  We–meaning instructional designers, strategists, and performance consultants–use words to inspire and enable change.  And of course we use images in the same way.  We’re the ad agency of the eLearning team.  We’re the storytellers.  We help translate and simplify, until only the essential words remain.  The ones that learners will remember.

Words, images, and interactive elements need to exist in an organic, symbiotic balance within your eLearning courseware.  Logorrhea is not a disease your eLearning course can afford to catch.  But to return to Hamlet, Polonius, and the messenger metaphor: if your eLearning course materials aren’t written in an engaging way right now, don’t stab the old man behind the curtain.  Go back and have a serious talk about words with the king.  He started it!

If you have a great example of use or misuse of words in eLearning, I hope you’ll share it in the Comments.

Emerging Trends and Roles in eLearning

On the evening of February 1st, I attended an ASTD-NY eLearning Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting kindly hosted by Visiting Nurse Service of NY, and SIG co-chairs Enid Crystal and John Galto.  The guest speaker was Ross Squire, the man behind the well-respected eLearning staffing and consulting agency, Knowledgestaff.  I heard Ross speak at an ASTD event a couple of years ago and found him to be great at “reading the waters” of the eLearning business.  I like Ross because he’s clear-headed, thoughtful, and tells it like it is.  This session was no exception.

Ross’s evaluation of the current climate matches what I’m seeing, point for point.  Companies who cut staff as a result of the 2008 Wall Street fiasco and subsequent deep recession are not restaffing in the patterns we’ve seen in prior recessions.  Instead, in many cases, they are content making their fewer remaining staff members do more work.  After all, it enhances their bottom line.  Only if they really can’t get the work done in house are they looking outside–and then, frequently offshore.  When companies do go looking for new workers today, according to Ross, they are seeking renaissance workers more than ever, people who have a strong skillset across a variety of disciplines, rather than specializing in just one area.  Yet, interestingly, the promising spurt of client inquiries his firm has had in the last month is mostly for full-time staff positions, rather than freelance consultants.  We’ll see if that trend continues!

According to a survey conducted by Ross’s company, the emerging trends in eLearning are:

  • Social learning
  • User-generated content (wikis, etc.)
  • Mobile learning
  • Outsources services

None of these is likely to be a surprise to you.  The writing is on the virtual wall.  Ross also reports that New York area learning executives have unanimously identified the following emerging roles as essential going forward:

  • Performance consultants
  • Community engagement managers (gatekeepers for social media, etc.)
  • Talent management/human capital specialists
  • Content librarians (to maintain data storage and access)
  • Project/program managers (with global and language skills)

Ross’s talk also included his “annual tune-up” tips: a lot of sound advice about how those of us in eLearning should manage our careers in the face of the the current economy.  I was very glad to hear him include a segment on investing in yourself.  More than ever, it’s essential to stay on top of trends, and also just to give yourself time and opportunity to grow and learn.  After all, regardless of the economic climate, you’re worth it!

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Ross speak, I urge you to attend.  He’s an engaging and deeply knowledgeable speaker, and he’s genuinely there to help.  You’ll be glad you went.  To view his materials from the session, click here.  And if you live in the NY area and you’re not already a member of ASTD’s New York chapter, I urge you to join; there’s a lot of great information being shared at their events.  You can click their logo on this post to visit the ASTDNY site.

Great Video Recap of Learning Solutions 2011

I had a great time at the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions 2010 conference, as teacher (voiceover skills, and presentation skills) and as attendee.  And I remember being interviewed at the time about my impressions of the conference.  So I was pleased to come across this video clip that gives a recap of the highlights, and features some of my comments.  It really was an excellent conference.  Click the image on this post to view the brief video on Vimeo.  And start making plans to attend Learning Solutions 2012!

 

My eLearning Guild Online Forum Session About Voiceovers is Now Available For Free!

I was delighted to receive a note today from Chris Benz, Director of Online Events for the eLearning Guild, letting me know that they’ve selected my presentation from last week’s Online Forum as their latest free sample of the kind of quality content that comes with Guild membership.  I’m thrilled that my session was so well received, and am very glad that now you can watch and share this session even if you’re not yet a member of the eLearning Guild.  Of course, if you’re in the eLearning industry, I would strongly encourage you not just to join the Guild, but to become an active member and share your own interests and expertise as well.  I’ve found each of my experiences with the Guild to be great fun, and as always, my students/audience teach me something as well.

The session I presented last week was the opening keynote talk for the Guild’s Online Forum about incorporating Audio and Video in eLearning.  My session touches on the basics of how you can use quality voiceovers to add that powerful “Human Factor” to self-paced learning content, as well as on how and when you might consider using human versus synthetic (or automated text to speech) voiceovers.

The recorded session is 75 minutes, including the various polls and chats, which are an organic and important part of the content, as that’s how attendees participated and shared their own great and thoughtful input.  To view the session, click the Guild logo on this post, and you’ll find a link toward the bottom of that landing page.  I hope you enjoy the session, and I hope you’ll come back to this site and share your own ideas and suggestions as comments to this blog post!  My thanks again to Chris for inviting me to speak, and to Karen Hyder for her excellent support throughout the process.

I’m Giving the Opening Keynote Talk at the eLearning Guild Online Forum on July 21st!

Sorry not to have posted this before now, but it’s been a surprisingly busy summer!  I’m very pleased to announce that the eLearning Guild has asked me to be the keynote speaker at the opening of next week’s Online Forum about media in eLearning.  My talk will be 11:30 AM Eastern, and then they have two days of great sessions about best uses of audio and video in eLearning courseware.  My talk is entitled The Human Factor: Making the Case for Voiceovers in eLearning.  I discuss the importance of the human voice in online training, and how much or how little to use.  I also explore the pros and cons of voiceovers created by real people (whether professional actors like me, or subject matter experts) versus the new wave of enhanced synthetic text-to-speech voices available in today’s marketplace.

If you’re in eLearning and not already signed up for the Forum, I urge you to click the image on this post, and explore all the offerings that you won’t want to miss.  I’m very eager to sit in on the other presentations over the two days, as using media effectively in eLearning is more important than ever.

I hope I’ll “see” you online next week! 😀