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Using RWD uPerform to Rapidly Design and Develop E-Learning

by Nicholas Bird

May 14, 2007


by Nicholas Bird

May 14, 2007

A common mistake made during the review process is assuming your SME knows what you want. Clearly setting expectations with a SME is vital to a quality review. Communicating the amount of time available for the review, the areas of the course the SME should be reviewing, and what constitutes a quality review comment, are all critical expectations.

Whether you are working for an internal or external customer, your goal is the same: to create instructionally-sound content with a consistent approach. Training budgets are never limitless and requests for training often come at the last moment. So how do you adapt to constant demands to work faster while reducing the cost? Do your solutions always involve trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? I am going to show you, if you are willing to do a little bit of reading, how I have learned to rapidly design and develop e-Learning in uPerform.

First, though, what do I mean when I say, “rapid instructional design?”

For the purposes of this article, rapid instructional design is simply the hastening of e-Learning content development using tools, templates, and processes. I don’t intend to validate or defend the values of rapid instructional design, or to compare rapid design to traditional instructional design methodologies. The risks attached to rapid design are well known and concerns about them are valid.

With that in mind, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of being able to quickly create e-Learning content while maintaining instructional soundness. The process of getting information from a subject matter expert (SME) into an online form that a student can learn from can be daunting, to say the least. The right combination of tools, templates, and processes can be a catalyst for rapid design.

So what should you expect from this article?

The quality of the tools you are using has a direct link to the speed at which you can design training. In the past you’ve probably read articles about using Microsoft Word as a storyboarding tool and rightfully so. Microsoft Word, when used properly, is a solid tool for writing and reviewing content. In an article published in the June, 2005 issue of Learning Solutions e-Magazine, “Using Microsoft Word for Rapid Storyboard Development,” Cynthia Holmes-Radner does a wonderful job of presenting a solid approach for using Microsoft Word, AutoText, and a custom toolbar to create storyboards rapidly. More recently, Maria Leggett wrote a detailed article about using Microsoft InfoPath and really leveraging the value of XML. There are benefits and challenges associated with each of these approaches.

This article will show you how I am using a new tool (RWD uPerform) in combination with instructional design processes that have been around for years. I intend to demonstrate how to use the e-Learning portion of the uPerform tool to rapidly design and develop e-Learning by leveraging the concept of stencils. In addition I will share lessons learned from years of using various instructional design tools for clients, and some pros and cons of each.

The inspiration

For years I have been using Microsoft Word as a storyboarding tool and raving about the capabilities and simplicity of it. The beauty of using Word is similar to the beauty of creating Flash-based e-Learning. Word, like Flash, is on practically every corporate desktop. This means that my clients can easily review any courses I storyboard in Word. Consider the features that Word offers when used as a rapid design tool:

  • Templates to govern the types of screens created and the organization of content on those screens
  • Quick access to templates to add new content screens
  • Text formatting features to ensure consistency
  • A quick way to receive, track, collate, and respond to client review comments
  • Spelling and grammar checking
  • Layout, alignment, text spacing, and other formatting features
  • Table of contents that allows for organization and movement of topics in the course
  • Ease of use for clients to review and add comments

However, not all clients can see the big picture and one of the limitations of Word is its inability to effectively manage file size when the course designer adds images. As a result, storyboards in Word are generally not image-intensive.

Some of our clients requested that we create storyboards in PowerPoint so their SMEs could better visualize the final product. Our initial response to this request was to take the lessons we had learned from long experience using Word and to apply them to PowerPoint. This adjustment eventually led us to create RWD uPerform.

uPerform differs from our previous methods. It eliminates the storyboards from the process, with content written directly into an alpha course. The idea was to provide our IDs (Instructional Designers) with an environment to write in, and our clients with a look at the actual course layout as early in the process as possible.

There is always an adjustment period as you adopt a tool or process. Although our process did change slightly, the underlying concept remained the same. Previously, our IDs would:

  • Take a course outline,
  • Build a storyboard,
  • Submit the document to the client for review in electronic or paper form,
  • Incorporate comments as needed from client SME(s),
  • Develop a beta e-Learning course complete with graphics, interactions, audio, etc.,
  • Resubmit to client for beta comments,
  • Incorporate client beta comments, and
  • Submit final course for client to place on their training system.

This process required us to manage Flash- and non-Flash-based files that inevitably got out of sync with each other as we moved through each review. Client comments often came in via notes, e-mails, text changes in the storyboard (documented and not), and through conversations with SMEs. Without explicit control of the storyboard templates, the content from one project to another could differ as to the types of screens the designers were building. Lack of control could also lead to a need to develop a number of one-off Flash screens. Even though we streamlined the process, the designers and developers had to manually manage addition of the user interface, logos, colors, and SCORM content.

Overview of the uPerform process

Our new process focuses on presenting the content for a course in a way that provides SMEs with a clear picture, and an easy method for adding content and comments that the designers can track. The process culminates in the publishing of SCORM-conformant Flash output. Figure 1 shows the four primary phases of the process.

Figure 1 Rapid design and development process using RWD uPerform


Basic concepts for building a course in uPerform

With this process, we build, review, and update new courses entirely in uPerform, using the Course object to rapidly design and develop e-Learning content. The Course file contains all the content for each page, including images and hotspots, and PowerPoint or Flash files. But understanding stencils and their use is the key to understanding how uPerform works.


Most e-Learning courses use specific types of screens. A stencil provides a rough layout of a screen that the designer can insert where needed. Stencils can help to define overview screens, content screens, knowledge checks, assessment questions, and more. Using stencils enforces design standards, ensures coordination between instructional designers and integrators and, most importantly, increases the speed with which designers and SMEs create e-Learning courses.

Depending on the stencil she selects when she begins to build a page, an instructional designer has a number of different content options. Each stencil designates fixed areas for the page title, text, and image. The instructional designer updates the title, enters the text, and adds an image (or a description of the image that a graphic artist will create later). The stencils available to the designer will vary based on the type of page. For example, an Introduction page will have certain stencils available for use, and an Assessment page will have a different set of stencils available.

I will demonstrate this by showing how to select a stencil for the Introduction page of a course. Each page that RWD uPerform generates is a construct of a predefined stencil. As the designer begins, the first stencil she will select will be for the Introduction page of the course. Figure 2 on shows an example of the stencil selection screen that uPerform presents to the designer for the Introduction page.


Figure 2 Introduction page stencil choices


Each time the designer adds a page, lesson, knowledge check, etc., she must fill out fields based on the type of stencil she has added. For this example, I picked the Standard – Half – Left stencil and named the page uPerform Article (see Figure 2). The next step is to insert a page title, the content for the page, and a picture to display (See Figure 3). With a completed course introduction page, the designer is ready to begin rapidly creating the rest of the e-Learning solution.


Figure 3 Course Introduction page

Views in uPerform and the Course Layout Pane

While each stencil is different, the process of inserting a page and editing or updating content is the same. Beyond the basic page stencil concept, there are two additional important features of the uPerform environment that help the designer and facilitate rapid design.

First, uPerform offers three views for the content.

The three views are Editor, Audio, and Preview.

  • Editor – This is the default view for all the work of designing the course.
  • Audio – This allows the designer to link an audio file to the page, listen to the audio file, and add transcript information for that page. The designer can also check the transcript against the audio in this window.
  • Preview – This presents the content as it will appear in the finished course.

The designer can display the course objects he has already created in the Course Layout Pane (see Figure 4). As the designer builds the course, he will add pages, delete pages, and will sometimes need to change their order. In uPerform the designer can rearrange content by simply clicking and dragging a course object to a new place in the sequence. She can reorganize entire lessons with a click of the mouse. By contrast, when using Word in conjunction with Flash under our old process, it might take hours for a designer to update the storyboard, communicate the changes to the development team, and then update the Flash source files.


Figure 4. Course Layout Pane

The View Annotations Feature

The editable regions for each stencil let the designer define what the learner will see on the screen. But designers do not work alone, and they must communicate many of the details to others on the team who will produce content. The Instructional Designer can use the View Annotations area to document client requests, communicate image details to a graphic artist, or identify which PowerPoint file to import into the course. This area can also be an ideal location to track other important information:

  • The terminal and enabling objective that this screen addresses;
  • Any type of custom Flash SWF files that a developer needs to create;
  • Information about the on-screen image and the alternative text;
  • Information about audio that the designer may want linked to this screen; and
  • Any notes for a Client/SME as they perform a review.

Figure 5 shows what the designer sees while actually creating content; the stencil with its inserted content is on the left, the Course Layout Pane is on the right, and the View Annotations area is at the bottom of the screen. This is a Course Introduction page that I created with the Standard Image stencil for a course on effective searching. The designer can hide the View Annotations area when she does not need it, to allow for a larger viewing area. To toggle the View Annotations area open or closed, the developer selects or deselects ViewView Annotations from the menu bar at the top of the screen.


Figure 5 The uPerform designer interface, showing a Standard Image stencil with inserted content, the Course Layout Pane, and the View Annotation area.

To add an annotation, the designer clicks the Click here to create a new Annotation Set link in the View Annotations area. Each annotation set displays as a tab in the View Annotations area. Add more annotation sets by right-clicking on one of the tabs.

Each annotation set displays across all pages in the course, but the content added for a particular page displays only for that page. As such, a best practice would be to use generic names for the annotation sets like Course Objectives, Graphic Notes, etc.

Building a course

To begin building a course in uPerform you should have an approved course outline, as much source material as you can assemble, and any image files that you intend to include in the course. It is a good idea to begin by building the infrastructure of the course. It is easy to add, move, or delete individual pages, so you can revise and reorganize the course content as needed at any time. Insert a lesson page for each lesson you will have in the course, and an assessment page for the course. Add any annotation sets and incorporate the content for these pages. This will provide the structure and identify objectives for each lesson.

Suppose you want to create a 15-minute course on the basics of performing an effective search. Figure 5 actually shows what you might see as you use uPerform to put this together. I will walk you through the complete construction of the course. I'll also show you the development of the first lesson of the course, Search Tools, which discusses the types of search tools, which categories the search tools fall into, and the proper search tool to use.

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