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Toolkit: Easygenerator Impresses

by Joe Ganci

November 22, 2011

Column

by Joe Ganci

November 22, 2011

“You can really tell that easygenerator has gone through several versions. You don’t find the richness of the feature set in early versions of a tool. The ability to not only author courses, but create adaptive learning, make changes easily, and even have version control shows a mature product, one that has been through the paces and has had the kinks worked out of it.”

Two weeks ago I attended and taught at The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn conference. It was a fantastic event, and all with whom I spoke seemed to agree. Not only were there many industry experts present to share their knowledge, those who were new to the conference brought a fresh and important perspective as well.

This time I spent a lot more time investigating all the tools in the Expo than usual, so that I could report to you, my readers. Next month, I will write a synopsis of what I found in my research there.

This month, I will focus on a tool that has been in use in Europe for several years and that had its North American debut at DevLearn: easygenerator, version 8.

This month’s tool: easygenerator

The Netherlands has been a hotbed of eLearning activity for a long time. I have probably been to The Netherlands more times to present and teach than to any other country outside the United States, such is the level of interest in eLearning there. It is no surprise, then, that easygenerator originates in the little country with the big brain trust.

How it works

The easygenerator offering is a SaaS (Software as a Service), as are many other applications now. As such, you need install only a small Windows application on your computer (this is done automatically). However, you do need to access the easygenerator authoring environment using Internet Explorer (IE) version 7 or later. (Learners can access your published courses in any browser, however.) The company promises that future versions of the authoring tool will run in all browsers and operating systems.

Each author has one or more workspaces in which to work. Think of a workspace as a place where you collaborate on courses with fellow team members. On the left side of the screen, you can see all of your workspaces (courses) and expand them to each lower level, down to each page. At the page level, you can insert text and media elements by using the toolbar above, or by right-clicking on a page in the workspace list (easygenerator supports right-clicking everywhere).

The environment is simple and clean (see Figure 1). The staging area is WYSIWYG, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get. You can precisely place images, text, videos, and other elements exactly where you wish and the results are what the learner will see.

 


Figure 1. The easygenerator authoring environment

 

Master pages and templates

Figure 2. Workspaces

To create a new page, you can use one of several templates. There are templates for content pages and for question pages. You determine the look, feel, and functionality of a template by selecting a Master Page. Easygenerator comes out of the box with seven master pages and you can create more yourself. Each master page has a different layout and functionality. You can think of it as a skin, but it goes beyond the standard definition of a skin, in that you can also define navigation controls and other elements.

Once you create a page, starting with the master page closest to your vision, you can then customize the page ad infinitum: deleting, adding, moving, or modifying elements. Love the result? Name it and save it as your own template and share it with anyone you wish. You can set up as many templates as you like.

In Figure 2, you can see where Templates are stored, at the top of the Workspaces.

Versions and rollbacks

One of the features I like most about easygenerator is the ability to roll back changes you’ve made to any version you generated within the past month. Let’s say that you’ve been working on a course and have generated 48 batches of changes and updates. You can see in Figure 3 that each version is numbered, the latest version residing at the top of the list.

 

 

Figure 3. Versions and Rollbacks


Now you’ve determined that you would like to roll back to version 46. In so doing, you do not lose versions 47 and 48. Rather, a copy of version 46 becomes version 49 so you can now work safely in that version without eliminating any of the changes you’ve made prior. That is cool.

By the way, the versions are stored on easygenerator’s servers so you need not worry about running out of room on your hard drive.

Content reuse and adaptability

Another remarkable feature I was not expecting to see is the ability to copy and paste pages in various ways.

For instance, you can copy a page and then paste it as a page link, which means that any changes you make to the actual content, or the placement of that content, in the linked page will be reflected in the original page. That much is not unexpected. However, you also have the ability to paste it as a content link. This option lets you make changes to the placement of the content in the linked page without changing the placement in the original page.

Why is that important? Let’s say that you create a page for a standard browser layout. Now you want to create a mobile version of that page. You need not create a new page; just create a content link to the original page and move the elements to make them fit in a mobile browser’s portrait mode, for instance. This is a very nice feature. You can even save the mobile version as a Template if you wish. This way, if you need to change the content in the original page, you will see it updated as well in the linked page, but the placement of each will not change.

In Figure 4, note how you don’t see the part of the image that is partially outside the portrait-oriented staging area. This makes it clear what part you will see and what you will not see.

 

 

Figure 4. Portrait mode

 

Working with content

When you insert content, easygenerator organizes it for you automatically. Text is stored directly on the page in which you place it, but every other element, including images, sounds, videos, and Flash animations are automatically stored in the Repository. That allows you to reuse elements as often as you want on any other page.

You can update media in the Repository whenever you wish. Of course, you can also delete anything in your Repository, but only if it isn’t being used somewhere in your courses. Easygenerator lets you see a list of all the locations that are using any media element, so you are not left in the dark.

Easygenerator does not include editors for images or other media types. Rather, when you choose to edit an element, it will open automatically in your default editor.

Question pages

You can include a good range of question types in your courses in easygenerator. All of the types you’d expect are included, and then some. In Figure 5, you can see the context menu that you use to create new question pages based on the standard templates.

 

Figure 5. Question Types


The questions all work in a similar manner. You create the page and then set all the behaviors and properties for the question in its properties panel.

You can randomize answers, and, in many cases, you can allow multiple responses. You can determine whether you want to show feedback, allow for partial scoring, or whether to show the correct answers after a question is answered incorrectly.

You even can create a study prescription based on the results of a question (when it is not part of an assessment). You can use the study prescription to navigate a learner to a specific page.

Hot-spot questions and drag-and-drop questions have a graphical interface, so it is relatively easy to create these.

A special type is the Flash question. You can embed a Flash object you created yourself in a question of any type. The reason this is special is that you can set the variables for this Flash element in easygenerator and the question becomes part of the sco (the results sent to a SCORM-compliant learning management system), meaning that the score of the question will be recorded and calculated in the course results.

Importing and exporting

Easygenerator includes the ability to import and export courses you or others have created. You can export courses to XML files, which will then allow you translate courses to other languages much more easily. Not only can you manually make changes in the XML file, there are also automated language translation services that work with XML files.

You can also import PowerPoint slides into easygenerator. All text in the slides becomes editable text fields while images are imported, placed on the stage, and stored in the Repository. It does not import any interactivity you may have in PowerPoint.

Adaptive courses

A feature rarely found in other tools is that, in easygenerator, it is easier to create courses that adapt themselves to the learner. An adaptive course is built around learning objectives and always starts with a pre-assessment. Based on the outcome of the pre-assessment, easygenerator will present the learner with a study guide prescription, pointing her to those areas of the course she hasn’t mastered yet, or even to sources outside the course. See Figure 6.

Figure 6. A Study Guide Prescription

 

Next to the guide, the learner can see her progress per objective in the Objectives dialog, along with a progress bar. The guide shows the overall course progress and the target score, as seen in Figure 7.

 

 

Figure 7. Objectives Progress

 

When a learner clicks on a specific objective, he or she sees the related pages in the table of contents using symbols, as seen on the left in Figure 8.

 

 

Figure 8. Objectives Progress

 

  1. A light bulb indicates that there are related pages to the objective in that folder.
  2. A question mark indicates a question you either haven’t answered or haven’t answered correctly.
  3. A checkmark indicates you’ve answered a question correctly or viewed a non-question page.
  4. The information symbol indicates an optional, but recommended, content page.

This guides the learner to the specific pages she has to read and the questions she has to answer in order to achieve her objectives.

In the authoring environment, the author can manage all this from one place, called the objective dashboard, seen in Figure 9.

 

 

Figure 9. Objectives Progress

 

In this dashboard, the author defines the objectives and manages the related pages. In the related pages part, you see the complete table of contents of the course, which you can expand and collapse. By clicking on a page or a folder, you can add pages to the objective. Whenever a page (question) affects the progress of the course, you see a number indicating the weight of the question. You see the total weight of all selected pages behind the learning objective in the left part of the screen. This way the author has oversight over the whole course structure, objectives, related pages, and how the pages affect the progress. This is something different than page progress (which is also possible with easygenerator).

The rules that build a study prescription are set at the assessment level, called a question pool (see Figure 10). You determine a certain percentage of the outcome on an objective. For instance:

  • If the learner achieves a score or page progress under 50%, you can link the learner to those pages that will help fill in the gaps, the missed questions.
  • In addition, if the learner achieves a score or page progress between 40% and 70%, you can set up yet another prescription.

Using the above rules, when the learner achieves an actual outcome of 47% in the course, both prescriptions are added to the learner’s study guide. Think of it as a Venn diagram (if you can remember high school math!).

 

Figure 10. Objectives Progress

 

External reviews

You can enable reviewers to check and comment on your work in easygenerator. Reviewers do not need an easygenerator subscription, just any browser (not just Internet Explorer) and any operating system.

An author starts the review process from easygenerator, inviting an external reviewer. From easygenerator he sends an e-mail. In this e-mail there is a link to an HTML version of the course (no e-mail attachments). The reviewer will see a fully functional course with one addition: the extra area added at the bottom of the screen where the reviewer can create comments. The cool thing is that these comments are fed back to the workflow part of easygenerator, where they are shown in the context of the page to which they are related. An author can make the proposed changes, and then set the comment to processed. She can even reply to it.

When the external reviewer refreshes the browser, the reviewer will see the updated course with the author’s remarks included. This way you can work together with an external reviewer in an easy way and at no extra cost.

When an author returns to a course after reviewers have added comments, a small notepad symbol appears on that page. See the line test course LO in Figure 2.

You can think of comments as to-dos. In the next version of easygenerator, they promise a central comments area wherein you can see all comments in one place, each linked to the page on which it’s found.

Workflow

Furthermore, easygenerator offers a very simple but effective workflow facility. It consists of one window with three tabs. See Figure 11.

 

 

Figure 11. Workflow


The first tab gives the possibility of writing comments on a page, for yourself or for one of your coauthors, in essence creating your own review comments or to-do items.

The second tab lets you create a task. You can assign this task to anyone who has access rights to the workspace, including yourself.

The third tab will give you an overview of all the tasks that are assigned to you. Clicking on a task will navigate you to the page in question.

Subscription fees

As mentioned, easygenerator is a SaaS solution so you don’t buy a license; you buy a yearly subscription. A named subscription for an author costs $1,250 per year. This fee includes hosting, support, updates, fixes, use of master pages, and everything else. When you buy more subscriptions, the price per subscription drops.

Limitations

  1. Every tool strikes a balance between ease of use and power features. Easygenerator does a good job of allowing nonprogrammers to create eLearning that looks great and that addresses most instructional design needs. However, to extend functionality of Master Pages and access easygenerator’s most powerful features, you will need to be comfortable with XML and JavaScript.
  2. Easygenerator is a Web-based authoring environment that runs only in IE 7 and higher in Windows. For all practical purposes this shuts out Mac users unless they are running Windows in VMWare or Parallels. In addition, like any SaaS application, some organizations may have firewalls that prevent easy access. This is especially true for secure government facilities. To address this, easygenerator includes a login screen where the user can choose proxy settings that will allow the tool to adapt to the security policy of the organization. As a last resort, you can also install easygenerator behind your firewall.
  3. There are no alignment tools in easygenerator. However, you don’t have to eyeball objects to align them. You can open each object’s properties and set the x and y positions to align objects.  This is a slower process, though, than being able to select multiple objects and then choosing to align them in various ways.
  4. No timeline exists for a page (though it’s in the works). Everything associated with a page appears at the same time. While most people don’t necessarily need to time elements to appear or disappear in a certain order, for those times that you do, it’s unfortunate that this capability does not exist.

Conclusion

You can really tell that easygenerator has gone through several versions. You don’t find the richness of the feature set in early versions of a tool. The ability to not only author courses, but create adaptive learning, make changes easily, and even have version control shows a mature product, one that has been through the paces and has had the kinks worked out of it.

While no tool can accommodate everyone’s needs, for a variety of reasons, easygenerator is well worth a look. It made quite a splash at DevLearn, and I predict that it will have as much success in North America, now that it has been introduced there, as it has in Europe.


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The adaptation functionality is really interesting. It's like a mini, closed webquest.
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