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Authoring Tools, Ghosts, and Scared Programmers

by Joe Ganci

June 29, 2009


by Joe Ganci

June 29, 2009

If you've been an e-Learning practitioner for as long as ten years, you've seen a lot of change. If you've arrived here since the new millennium began, you're probably seen a little change. In either case, you're going to see a lot more. It's only human to wonder what is coming next, so here's a look at the next two to five years.

When I was pursuing my Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science, I had to take several classes that at the time I didn't think were very pertinent to my becoming a hotshot computer programmer. Among these classes I counted three in Calculus, three in Statistics, and three in Physics. I was sure that none of these subjects had anything to do with creating applications to manipulate databases, or with becoming a master bowler.

Well, of course, with time I found out that I was absolutely right. Not once have I ever had to use Calculus, Physics, or Statistics in my work. Was I smarter than those who had composed the curriculum? As a student, I knew I had to quench my own curiosity right away.

I made an appointment to see the Computer Science department chairman and asked him pointblank what any of these classes had to do with my future. He fixed me with unblinking eyes for a few seconds, surely mulling over my monumentally important question and not contemplating what to have for lunch later. Eventually, he decided to answer with complete honesty: “Well, not much.”

“Then why must I take these classes?” I asked, with no small degree of disdain and righteous indignation.

He then explained that the university only had enough room for two thousand students in the Computer Science department, but many more than that wanted to pursue a ComSci degree. Therefore, they had thrown in some classes that many of us would not find particularly appealing just to separate those who were sober about studying algorithmic approaches and Boolean searches from those who would shy away from such a rigorous study regimen because they were interested only in the millions per year we would be paid after graduation.  The wheat from the chaff, as it were. Was I to be wheat, perhaps one day to be baked into delicious aromatic bread, or chaff, to blow away in the wind or at best be fed to farm animals? Perhaps it wasn't the wheat or the chaff that was the issue. Perhaps it was that I suffered from pushing analogies too far.

Ah, but I was right about the classes! However, I was also wrong. There was a reason why those classes were included; it's just that it wasn't a logical reason. Logic didn't enter the equation, at least not my logic.

During my last semester before I graduated, I was sitting in an Advanced 3-D class (it was pretty cool!), thinking about how few days remained before I would receive my sheepskin (a lie, by the way; it felt like card stock to me), after I had worked so hard to obtain it. It was then that Professor Burton dropped a bomb on us.

He asked us a question: “How many of you are looking forward to a lifelong career in computer programming?” Most of us raised our hands high. We were all smiles; some of us high-fived each other. Finally, we would be paid to do what we loved!

Dr. Burton then said to us, “I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your days are numbered. There is a new type of application called an authoring tool that will put all of you out of business. Authoring tools will allow anyone, non-programmers included, to create applications quickly and easily. In fact, I'd be surprised if most of you won't have to change careers within five years.”

He could be somewhat calm about it; he was nearing retirement after all! However, as for the rest of us, the high-fives stopped, the smiles disappeared from our faces, and I'm sure some of us started wondering if we would not have been better off getting a degree in construction or cosmetology! After all, those at least had the promise of longevity.

Of course, he was right. Oh, and he was wrong. People are still programming computers in all sorts of ways. They're still using mainstream programming languages, you know the kind where you write scripts, string words together in strange and wondrous ways, and cause computers to do something you may actually want them to do (and often things you don't want them to do, at least until you've worked the bugs out).

However, those of us in the e-Learning field certainly know about authoring tools, those wonderful little applications that allow you to create e-Learning lessons without a lot of scripting involved. I'll write another article later about how the more dynamic you want your lesson to be, and the more maintainable and easy to update you want it, then the more likely you will have to do some scripting. But as some products have demonstrated, you can go a lot further now without needing to know the difference between an if-then expression and a do loop!

Along with the evolution I have seen in computer programming, I have also witnessed a series of changes in the way people design e-Learning courses. So let's look together at what has been happening in instructional design and where we may be heading. The seeds for the future are being planted now. Can we see ahead as to what will grow from those seeds?

George Santayana famously condemned those who don't remember the past to a life of repeated mistakes. Looking ahead means first looking back — to see how something has evolved; one must look first to where it started.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Instructional design is nothing new. Wherever groups (other than ad hoc gatherings) have formed to learn from experts, teachers have prepared lessons in advance. The classroom was the learning place for a long, long, long time. Instructional design meant preparing lessons for group environments. Naturally, groups are comprised of individuals. Individuals move at their own speed. Don't believe the naysayers who say, nayingly, that we are automatons trapped in a Matrix until Keanu Reeves saves us from our fate (I mean, really, Keanu Reeves?)! No, we all progress and learn according to a number of factors, none of which are exactly the same as the factors that apply to those sitting in the classroom with us.

Therefore, the gods of yore deemed that there would be another way. In this case, the gods were the National Science Foundation, who in the late 1960s, funded the beginnings of what would eventually spawn dozens of training systems, authoring tools, and many bored students.

Bored students?

OK, not all students were bored. Some, in fact, found what would become known as e-Learning to be quite engaging. However, so much of it was boring. Ever sit in a classroom with a very dull teacher? At least the teacher was flesh and blood.

However, the cold plastic of a computer keyboard did not inspire, especially when the e-Learning that was spewing from the screen was a linear presentation of text and clip art, with no interactivity, with no ability to test out of areas, nothing but screen after screen of … oh, my, I'm falling asleep just thinking of it! I have seen way too many of these courses, often proudly shown by their creators!

One thing about courses back then and even some today: they were very large. A typical course might comprise many hours of seat time, dozens of lessons, each lesson lasting thirty to sixty minutes. There were no common technologies: each authoring tool stood alone with no ability to communicate with any other. Once you got a tool, you were stuck with that tool ... forever, until you were dead, or switched jobs.

So, in short, in the past:

  • Courses were huge.
  • Lessons were long.
  • Many were boring.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Ah, the good news is that today there are no more boring e-Learning courses. All of them are extremely interesting, engaging, and speak directly to our hearts and minds. No? Believe you me not? Good, because you are certainly correct.

Boredom banished?

Here's a case in point. I recently spoke with a bank officer who asked me what my company did. When I told her we offer custom e-Learning services, she rolled her eyes to heaven and said “Oh, e-Learning. That is soooo boring! We are forced here to take e-Learning courses every year and I hate them.” I explained to her that I agreed, that in fact I would estimate that 80% of the e-Learning I have seen has been tedious, with little interactivity or engaging material. I told her that we try hard to avoid creating that kind of e-Learning, and in fact to make our e-Learning world-class. She responded that she certainly hoped so!

Boring e-Learning is a waste of money and time. It does not help learners acquire the skills and knowledge they need. However, it may help them get in a good nap in the middle of the day!

Savvier customers

I’ve seen one big change in the 26 years I've been working in this field: clients are more knowledgeable about e-Learning. Oh, sure, I still spend time talking to customers about what e-Learning really is. There are still those who overestimate what e-Learning can do, and underestimate the time and funding required to create the good stuff. However, I used to spend half my time in the past educating customers, and now it seems that many who call upon me already know quite a bit about e-Learning. They are even past the point of just being dangerous, to the point where they actually understand the difference between what it takes to create a PowerPoint presentation and what it takes to create a full-scale simulation. They are often knowledgeable instructional designers themselves! Oh, joy! We can speak the same language!

Recently, I was invited to sit in a presentation that was given by a company that sells an authoring tool. The presentation was for a small group sitting around a table in a meeting room, and I was one of the few in the room who didn't work for a specific government agency. The attendees were there to evaluate the tool from the presenter’s company, for use within their agency. I could tell that they knew the e-Learning field by the questions they were asking. My job was to sit there and listen, and then afterwards to give them my opinion of the presentation.

The presenter started by showing samples of e-Learning that had been created by his company's tool. It became pretty apparent in a short amount of time that we weren't looking at highly engaging material. I saw some of the government employees looking at each other with furrowed brows and ever-so-slight grimaces. I sat quietly watching the presenter who was oblivious to his audience, totally convinced that he was wowing them. However, it was evident to me that the audience was rediscovering the term “underwhelmed.”

Finally, one of the agency people raised her hand and asked the presenter, “Excuse me, could you show us some e-Learning created by your tool that demonstrates interactivity?”

He became excited. “Of course! Here, look at this. I can hit Next and Back to navigate. I can hit Glossary and see terms and their definitions. I can even hit Menu to jump out of a lesson in the middle!”

Oh, my. You could have heard a pin drop. I swear I heard some jaws drop. The presenter, still unaware of the giant egg he was laying, continued on willy-nilly, but he had totally lost his audience at that point.

Sure, a few years ago he could get away with that kind of presentation, but it's a rare opportunity now to engage an audience that isn't at least intuitively aware that what they are viewing is not good e-Learning.

So e-Learning in the present can still be as boring as it has in the past. Has nothing changed?

Shrinking courses

For one thing, courses have shrunk. It was not unusual in the past to have e-Learning courses that comprised ten hours of seat time, maybe even 20 or 30. Now it's unusual to see any that last more than two or three hours. Some measure a lot less than that.

Shrinking lessons

Within those courses, lessons now require time spans that may be a lot shorter than the twenty minutes that was typical in the past. Now lessons may last five minutes or less. Some are designed for learning in two minutes or less.

No More e-Learning Labs – JIT learning

It used to be that e-Learning was chosen as a means of avoiding travel time and too much time away from a learner's workplace. However, many learners didn't have computers on their desks, or if they did, they lacked audio or other capabilities necessary to run an e-Learning course. Instead, employees were sent to computer labs where they would sit for an hour or a week to take lessons.

That has changed. We now expect employees to take e-Learning right at their desks. Their computers are powerful now. They can run video and audio with no problem. They often have very good network connectivity. E-Learning labs are no longer in vogue. Learners are now expected to squeeze e-Learning in between other tasks. That is another one of the reasons why lessons have become shorter (besides the fact that everyone seems to have Attention Deficit Disorder now).

Learning has become more and more just-in-time (JIT). Many see JIT as being better than those old stodgy long courses. Why? Just as it's true that we retain very little of what we learned in the classroom, it is also true that we don't retain a big percentage of what we learn in a long e-Learning course, because too much time elapses between when we learn it and when we need to use it. If we learn something just before we need to do that thing, then we will likely remember it better afterwards. However, if an employee feels rushed by a deadline to complete a task, that employee may not be able to focus fully on learning what is needed, so the learner is anxious to get on with it.

A lot fewer canned lessons

Once upon a time, vendors who offered a thousand off-the-shelf e-Learning courses that all their employees could access for one low price delighted organizations. Economically, it seemed to make a lot of sense. For only a few dollars per employee, each worker could take advantage of a vast array of learning materials.

Ah, but the rub was that most of those lessons were ... say it with me now ... boring. Just as important, most had little relevance to the employee's day-to-day duties and so would not help boost productivity. Most employees would take one or two courses because they needed to be certified in a certain generic area, and the rest of the courses would be severely underused.

Most organizations have become wise to this. They now focus on spending money that will be used to create custom, needed learning, that speaks directly to what an employee needs to know to become more productive.

A lot more media

As the cost of creating audio and video and even 3-D images has decreased, so too has there been an inverse ratio to cost that has ramped up the amount of media being used in e-Learning. Done well, media can really help learners obtain a better understanding of what they need. Done poorly, media can detract from the learning that is supposed to be taking place.

Built-in learning

Learning has been built into many applications. Help systems have become little e-Learning delivery systems … sometimes employing video and audio, or at least a mighty annoying paper clip animation. No longer is e-Learning relegated to stand-alone courses.

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