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Toolkit: ZebraZapps is Ready!

by Joe Ganci

January 24, 2012

Column

by Joe Ganci

January 24, 2012

“ZebraZapps is a leap ahead to modern times while trying to address the same need as Authorware did: allowing instructional designers, subject matter experts, and others the ability to create highly effective eLearning without the need to program. Most ZebraZapps users with whom I’ve spoken find the product not only powerful, but fun to use too.”

For two years, Allen Interactions has been talking about ZebraZapps and showing it at various conferences and other venues. The beta has been available for over a year. It was worth the wait. While this may be the first version of ZebraZapps, it appears to be a mature and polished product.

I have long taught of the difficulty for eLearning development tool vendors to strike a balance between making their tools both powerful and easy to use. Simply put, the more powerful a tool, the more time it takes to become a master at it (think Adobe Flash or Photoshop). However, in many cases, buyers make the mistake of thinking that if a tool doesn’t require scripting or programming that it must be easy to use. This is not the case. The more features a tool has, the more powerful it is, and the more time it takes to learn.

ZebraZapps is the best tool I’ve seen to date that allows you a huge amount of freedom in developing almost any instructional design you wish without the need to learn how to write scripts (such as JavaScript). It has a tremendous amount of functionality built into an interface that can be a lot of fun to use. However, while you can start creating eLearning applications rather quickly, you will want to set aside some time to dig deeper into its many features.

Every tool has its limitations and ZebraZapps is no exception. I’ll address those elements that I find lacking too.

Playing in ZebraZapps

As is true of more and more applications now, ZebraZapps is a Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) product, meaning that you will need Internet access to use it. There is nothing to install on your computer and you can use any Flash-enabled browser. You can stop work in your office, fly to another country and pick up from where you left off. Work is automatically saved. Of course, this means that you won’t be able to work directly in ZebraZapps if you’re on a flight that doesn’t offer Internet access.

What you see

The interface starts out clean and provides the standard stage and toolbox. (Figure 1) While this runs in a browser, you’ll forget about that almost immediately, as it feels very much as if you’re running off your local drive, unless you have slow Internet access. Because it is in a browser, you can resize the app to any size you wish, up to your screen resolution.

 

Figure 1. The ZebraZapps interface

An overview of the toolbox

You can immediately start building your design, or you can experiment with different approaches. Take a look at the toolbox in Figure 2.

Figure 2.
The ZebraZapps
Toolbox

ZebraZapps’ toolbox contains all of the expected tools plus some that surprised me.

 Across the top, you can see three tools used for controlling elements already on the screen: the arrow tool to select objects, the magnify tool to zoom in and out, and the move tool to move the stage around the screen.

In the middle section of the tool, there are five drawing tools and the text tool.

In the bottom section are most of the interaction and media tools. The interaction objects you can use include regular buttons, radio buttons, and checkboxes.  These can be set up as button sets too, so that all the buttons in the set work together. There is also a text input object that you can use to let learners enter text in answer to questions or for other reasons.  The last interaction object is slider, which lets you create customizable interactive gauge sliders.

What about drag-and-drop interactions? Interestingly, there is no separate tool for these interactions because the capability is built into almost all other objects. (You’ll see that later in this article in Figure 5 with the Movable property.)

The other tools include a running clock, which you can use to help control the timing of other elements. There are audio and video objects, of course, and also a map object, which you can use to tie to live Google maps, defining the location to show. Similarly, the Web link object lets you show a live Web link embedded on the screen or in its own window.

The next two objects are interesting and useful. The arena object sets up paging structures with built-in navigation. You can have as many arena objects as you like so as to be able to separate different arenas for different reasons. The calculator lets you create expressions that you can then use for further controlling what happens in your lessons.

The last three objects are the most powerful – they eliminate a great deal of the reason why scripting (programming) is necessary in many other tools. They are three table objects, called truth, answer and state. Using these tables allows you to easily have elements in your learning be change-dependent on the values of multiple properties. You can set up multiple conditions, or check a learner’s answer against many different possibilities without programming a line of code.

Properties

Every object you place on the stage has a panel associated with it. The panel has three sections, called In, Properties, and Out.

Figure 3.
The Oval Properties

Properties refers to all the different values associated with an object that you can see and change. For instance, let’s look at the properties associated with a simple oval object (Figure 3).

ZebraZapps uses the name ribbon to describe each line you see in the box below the oval in Figure 3. A ribbon includes the name and value of the property along with the symbol you see on either side, usually a dot or a square, called a port. Ports are used to tie together properties of the same or of different objects, something we’ll discuss in the next section. 

Each property group can be expanded and collapsed. The Oval property groups include Visibility, Actions, Geometry, Align, Appearance, Effects, and Notes. Some of these property groups you’ll find in all objects. Others are specific to the object with which they’re associated.

Expand each of the property groups for the oval and you’ll see Figures 4 through 9.

You can instantly see the enormous number of properties that you can manipulate for just an oval! In every case, you can change the value simply by clicking or typing, but you can also, if you wish, use variables in most properties to customize your lessons even further.

Other objects may have many more properties. It all depends on what makes sense for a chosen object.

Figure 4 - Visibility Properties Figure 5 - Actions Properties Figure 6 - Geometry Properties
Figure 7 - Align Properties Figure 8 - Actions Properties Figure 8 - Appearance Properties

 

In and Out – tying objects together

So what about the In and Out areas? Let’s take a close look at those too. This is where a lot of the power of ZebraZapps comes in. Notice in the figures above that there is a red In arrow and a gold Out arrow. You can tie the gold Out arrow of one object to the red In arrow of another object, or even within the same object. You can also tie a property directly to another property. For instance, look at Figure 10, wherein we’ve set up a path on the stage and have placed the figure of a person on the path. As the learner moves the person up and down the path, the figure becomes larger and smaller, respectively. On the left, the person is further down on the path and appears smaller. On the right, we’ve moved the person up the path and it has enlarged.

Figure 10. Changing Values Figure 11. Tying properties

 

You accomplish this simply by tying the path property to the zoom property, within the same object. (See Figure 11.) We also changed the Movable property to True and set the Path-name to the line path we had created. This is so that the learner can drag the person up and down on the path. The whole process took less than a minute. Tying the two properties is as simple as clicking the port to the left or right of Path % and attaching the subsequent wire that appears to the Zoom % port.

While this shows how an object property can affect a different property of the same object, we can also control what happens to other objects as well. For example, let’s make this a real learning example by showing how much an eye chart blurs the farther away the person stands. See Figure 12, in which the person is far from the chart and the chart appears very blurry, but when the learner has dragged the person to the top of the path, the chart becomes crystal clear. In fact, the eye chart becomes clearer or blurrier as the learner moves the position of the person viewing the chart.

 

Figure 12. Position of person affects blurriness of chart

How is this done? Tying the property of one object to another is all it takes. See Figure 13.

Figure 13. Wiring two objects together

 

So far we have seen how we can wire properties together, either within the same object or between objects. However, there are many cases where you will want to tie the Out of one object to the In of another.

For instance, let’s say that we want to have a text message appear when the learner moves the person on the path to the very top. When the learner moves the person back down the path, the text should of course disappear. See Figure 14.

Figure 14. A text message appears automatically.

In Figure 15, you can see how I tied Out triggers from the slider to In actions on the text. One trigger indicates that when we hit the end value (the top of the path), we will show the text. The other trigger has an expression
"# > 0 & # < 30" that, when true, hides the text. Notice too that we have set Hide on Run to true so that the text does not appear until we want it to show.

 

Figure 15. Wiring Out to In

It doesn’t take long to get the hang of this. In fact, this is a much simpler process than learning how to free-form script to create such an interaction.

Using arenas

You can set up an arena at any size you wish on the stage. This paging mechanism allows learners to move through an arena by using a navigation bar if you wish, or you can have the pages play automatically, or both. You can see an example of how you might use an arena in Figure 16.

 

Figure 16. A typical arena

You can manipulate arenas in a number of ways and have them appear when you wish or when a learner requests them.

Gadgets

Along the left edge of ZebraZapps is a cloud symbol, which you click to see a set of gadgets, either your own or all those in the GadgetShopp. Gadgets can be anything from a simple image to a full lesson that you want to share with others, either at no cost or at a price you set. (Figure 17)

Figure 17. The ZebraZapps GadgetShopp

Resource Library

The third option on the left is the Resource Library. Whenever you bring media into your learning, that media becomes part of the Resource Library so that you can access that media whenever you wish.  You can also filter library items to focus on specific types of resources, such as text, video, audio, and so on.

Iterative development

One of the features I like the best in ZebraZapps is that you can develop your lesson, and along the way switch between run and edit modes. You can pause at any time, make changes, and then you can immediately resume. This is a much faster process than in most other tools.

Publishing

A published Zapp (a lesson you create in ZebraZapps) can be quickly shared through a number of online formats:

  • Sending e-mails with URLs
  • iframe code for Blogs and Web Sites
  • Facebook Pages
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

You can also play Zapps in Articulate, PowerPoint, Lectora, and Captivate through their individual Web-link objects.

Limitations

  1. Some ZebraZapps users dislike the fact that ZebraZapps is a SaaS application, as this requires an Internet connection. More importantly, some organizations have draconian IT departments that limit what you can see online.
  2. Currently, there is no option for outputting to Apple mobile devices or to HTML5. I’m told this is coming in the future.
  3. Those who are accustomed to development tools that use slide metaphors, such as Adobe Captivate, may find themselves needing to adjust to a different environment at first.
  4. While it’s possible to have elements appear and disappear according to instances in time using the clock object or a state table, a timeline, such as that used in Adobe Captivate, may be welcome to some. I’m told that this is in the works.
  5. There are two enhanced ZebraZapps applications that will be available later this year. The first is the Professional version, which will incorporate SCORM compliancy and other features, such as dynamic branching. Currently, there is no LMS connectivity, which is a big limitation for some. There will also be an Enterprise version, which will allow organizations to install ZebraZapps on their own servers, a welcome addition for those that need this option.
  6. At the moment, any videos you use need to be uploaded to YouTube, where you can set up your own private account free. A planned version will have the ability to store videos directly on the ZebraZapps server. While this is not necessary a limitation, it is worth noting.

Conclusion

Michael Allen is the brainchild behind ZebraZapps, the same Michael Allen who created Authorware over 20 years ago, a product that was beloved by many eLearning developers for many years. ZebraZapps is a leap ahead to modern times while trying to address the same need as Authorware did: allowing instructional designers, subject matter experts, and others the ability to create highly effective eLearning without the need to program. Most ZebraZapps users with whom I’ve spoken find the product not only powerful but fun to use too.

You can try ZebraZapps free for 60 days. After that, to continue using it, you need pay only $8.99 a month. The site is www.zebrazapps.com, where you can also see examples of applications created in ZebraZapps. It is worth trying ZebraZapps to see what the buzz is all about. You may very well become enamored with it.



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