Rapid development! We have all heard this buzzword over and over again for the past several years. Everyone, it seems, is looking for a way to develop e-Learning quickly in order to meet the demand of customers in this just-in-time environment. But how can you implement rapid development without a mechanism for rapid design?
What’s more, there really aren’t any generally-accepted standards for instructional documentation. As a result, each organization creates documentation applicable to its particular product(s) or learning culture. That might be fine for in-house e-Learning programs, but what if you plan to expand your training audience to external customers, suppliers, or vendors? Must you start all over?
Now try to take that instructional design document, most likely created in Microsoft Word, turn it into a storyboard, and then develop it into e-Learning. Between copying from one document and pasting it into another, keeping track of multiple versions, and converting design concepts into online media (including the whole range from HTML, to Flash, to Captivate), how rapid is your design process going to be?
In this article, my main purpose is to introduce you to Microsoft InfoPath, an XML editor meant for professionals who just need to get a job done, without learning XML. You’ll get a tutorial on how to use InfoPath to set up a reusable template for your design process. I’ll also sketch for you the way that I’m using InfoPath to go from SME input, to design, to production, to organize the work of the development team, and to manage version control.
Overview of rapid design with XML
Do my first three opening paragraphs pretty much describe your design nightmares? Well, don’t despair. There is a great solution for all of these problems: eXtensible Markup Language (XML). With this platform- independent technology, designers can create reusable instructional design templates to expedite the design process. Since most development software tools (such as Flash and Dreamweaver) use XML, all of these tools can access your content.
Worried by what you’ve heard about the challenges of learning XML? Don’t want to learn to write XML? There’s no budget for a programmer? What you need is an XML editor program that will handle the details from within a familiar “what you see is what you get” interface.
But first, in case it’s new to you, let me offer some XML basics from the instructional designer’s perspective. Programmers, and those who are already well versed in XML and XML transformations, may want to skip ahead to “What InfoPath does for the designer.”
A brief look at XML
XML is all the rage these days, and for good reason. XML, like HTML and XHTML, is a way to mark up content, using “tags.”
However, HTML and XHTML are computer languages that define the display of content as a Web page. A browser can interpret HTML, and display content in specific ways: bold text, italicized text, formatted with bullets or paragraph styles, different fonts or colors, with various types of graphics, and so on.
XML, on the other hand, gives structure to data. Strictly speaking, and in spite of its name, XML is not a markup language. It has no fixed vocabulary or grammar. What it does do is give you a system with which you can create your own markup language matched to the job you are doing. Not only that, the markup language you build using XML’s rules will work within any generic XML tool you use later. Documents that you create with this markup language will be flexible and reusable, and you will be able to transform them into XHTML or HTML documents for display on the Web, or even into Portable Document Format (PDF) for printing. (Note, though, I won’t be covering conversion to PDF.) As you will see in this article, this creates tremendous advantages for you as an e-Learning designer.
An XML document contains data and markup that provides structure for the content. The data in an XML document is like the data in any other computer document, but most of the time, the documents are “narrative” — containing information in letters, numbers, and symbols meant for humans to use once the information is put into an appropriate form. The markup looks, on the surface, much like HTML markup: letters, numbers, and symbols enclosed in angle brackets. We call these combinations “tags.”
But there is an important difference. In HTML, markup tags are predefined. You can look up any given tag and know that a browser will always interpret it as a specific display instruction. XML does not have a defined set of tags. Instead, you create markup tags that apply to the content you are trying to catalog.
An XML markup tag consists of
elements such as
The XML schema and the designer’s vision
Quality control of all the content and the markup tags in an XML document is critical to success. An XML schema document gives you a way to control the details of your document content and markup. The schema document contains the descriptions of the types of content and the structure the XML document can have, and it contains any constraints on the data types and display. This is important to you as an instructional designer because it allows you to create a template that someone else can use to enter data into your XML document, and this template will only allow the other person to enter what you intended, the way that you intended. The XML schema, if you will, is a set of rules — and they are rules that you write, for your particular project. Figure 1 shows how this works. The capture process (often a Subject Matter Expert, or SME, creating a Microsoft Word document) collects content, the XML template, powered by the schema, filters and conform it, and the resulting valid XML resides in a document, ready for retrieval and use.
Figure 1 The XML schema document acts as a template to ensure the validity of your XML data.
The combination of tags that describe your data, and the schema, which sets the rules for the description, structure, and constraints, gives you another powerful benefit. It makes your data reusable. In my earlier example, instead of having to make a new set of tags for each translation, the writer only needs to change the language attribute. Furthermore, by determining the data you want to capture you can use the XML schema as the standard for future XML documents that need to describe the same type of data. Think of a schema as a Microsoft Word template. The data fields are already in place each time you create a new document from the template.
Transforming your data for the rest of the team with XSLT
XML makes it easy to store and retrieve data, especially if the data is the kind that you don’t need to be able to search randomly. Instructional content is generally sequential, so it’s a good candidate for XML. XML also supports transformation of data into different formats, to make it easier to use for different tasks. This means that you can use the same XML data source repeatedly, but only show each user the specific information he or she requires for the job at hand.
XML uses a language called XSLT (eXtensible Style Language Transformation) to take data elements apart, sort and select or delete them, rearrange the results, and transform them into another document in a presentation format, such as an HTML or XHTML file. Without going into the mechanics too far, you (or your XML editor software) create transformation instructions written in XSLT — essentially a style sheet — for each view, and link these to the XML document. Any XSLT-compliant Web browser (and that is most of them) will then transform the XML into HTML or XHTML according to the instructions.
In fact, transformation simply gives you another view of the data in the original XML file, and you can use XML and XSLT to create as many different views of any part of that data as you need. The data in the original file is unchanged. Figure 2 is a graphic representation of this process.
Figure 2 XML uses XSLT to transform data into specific views for different users.
Don’t worry, that’s as technical as it gets because now here’s the good stuff! You don’t have to be a programmer to create an XML schema or an XML document, or to generate the XSLT transformations. The XML editor software will do all the hard work for you. What you do need is instructional design knowledge, understanding of usability principles, and a vision for reusability and templates. For more advanced options, particularly when exporting XML out to e-Learning development tools, you will need some knowledge of XSLT. You may also need some knowledge of the larger eXtensible Stylesheet Language (XSL), of which XSLT is one part. However, for streamlining your instructional design process and documentation, an XML editor will be all you need. If you want to learn more about XML and XSLT, W3 Schools has an excellent tutorial to get you started. (http://www.w3schools.com)