eLearning modules -- multimedia modules that provide students information in an interactive, multimedia-rich way -- can be an interesting way to teach staff or constituents. But how do you create them? There's a whole class of software packages that help you create the core elements like text, graphics, narration, animation, and interactivity.
Just as technology has made it possible for employees to work remotely by replacing the traditional workspace with a laptop and mobile phone, it has also changed the way people access educational opportunities and information. Technology has opened the door to seemingly endless possibilities for eLearning, an umbrella term for any instructional method in which technology takes the place of the traditional classroom setting.
eLearning lessons are delivered remotely—for example, via the Internet, in-house on an organization’s servers, or by CD-ROM or DVD. They can also be delivered live, by an instructor, or pre-recorded to be completed at the student’s convenience via video or online module, often complete with interactive elements and quizzes.
In the past, eLearning was often a complicated affair that used detailed interactive case studies to provide rich feedback for students. Called “traditional eLearning,” this approach allowed for a wide range of lessons, but required substantial time, expense and expertise to develop. Often created from scratch by course developers and programmers, it was beyond the reach of most nonprofits.
But these days, modules are more quickly developed and deployed using a “rapid” eLearning approach that’s generally geared toward the delivery of specific information, or teaching technical skills. There’s a whole set of software tools designed to facilitate the development of lessons, which means an organization’s content experts can create them rather than contracting highly specialized eLearning consultants.
This article focuses on this kind of rapid approach, and looks at the different types of modules and features available to organizations looking to create eLearning modules.
Live Lessons or Learning On-Demand?
Rapid eLearning sessions can be either synchronous—delivered in real-time by an instructor—or asynchronous, which means they’re recorded and accessed by learners on-demand.
Examples of synchronous eLearning include live Webinars and presentations that use collaborative learning software. (For more information about these tools, check out Idealware’s seminar, “Getting Started with Online Conferencing and Seminar Tools.”) Examples of asynchronous tools include prerecorded Webinars, or Flash-, text- or video-based courses.
Synchronous eLearning sessions have the advantage of timeliness and immediacy, as well as the presence of a live instructor who can respond to questions. But the scheduling requirements mean they’re not as convenient as on-demand sessions for large numbers of learners—especially if the audience is spread out in different time zones.
Asynchronous sessions pose a different set of challenges. Certain modules—especially those that are technology related—can quickly become stale or outdated, and the lack of a live instructor means learners may have difficulty finding help or getting their questions answered. They’re also easier to avoid or ignore than scheduled “live” sessions.
Their advantages are significant, though. Because a large number of people can access content at their convenience, it’s easy to reach a large, geographically diverse audience. Recorded content is also more consistent, since all users get the same experience, and more convenient for developers—once the course is authored, it’s done.
Creating Content and Interface
eLearning courses can vary a huge amount in terms of look and complexity. Simple modules can include a few pages of text, with buttons to advance the pages and a short multiple-choice quiz to test for comprehension. More complex modules can include immersive content, like teaching users a schematic and then quizzing them on its parts, or use branching logic to provide different course content based on how the student answers certain questions.
The complexity and richness of the courses depends only on the amount of time allowed for development, the experience of the developer and the software used to create them.
A number of software tools designed to create rapid eLearning modules – like CourseLab
, Adobe Captivate
, and SmartBuilder
-- will help develop the content and the interface with which the students will interact. These software packages guide developers through the creation of core elements like text, graphics and narration, and help add embellishments like animation and interactivity that can engage learners and enhance the overall experience. What are the features that you might look for in an eLearning software package to help?
- PowerPoint integration. Most course-authoring tools let you convert existing PowerPoint slide decks to eLearning content, to varying degrees—some let you import decks and building modules around them, while others require that you first build much of the course in PowerPoint.
- Assessment tools. Some course-authoring packages include quiz-building tools to add interactivity and value to the experience while assessing students’ progress, while others offer them as add-ons. Assessments can vary in complexity from simple multiple-choice quizzes to graphical simulations—for example, a quiz could require the user to click on the correct button of a control panel to operate a piece of equipment. Some tools also offer options for quizzes that ask different questions based on right/wrong answers to previous questions. They may also track students’ results, or require a certain score to let them progress to the next module.
- Audio tools. Most tools offer integrated audio-recording to let you create voice-over narration, though the editing functionality varies. Other useful features include synchronizing audio to slide animation and annotations.
- Animation capabilities. Animation can be useful to demonstrate processes, emphasize key points or simply boost the “production value” of presentations and make them more engaging. Some course-authoring software can simplify and streamline the animation process for even non-technical users. Explore the capabilities of various packages, and carefully assess your needs for these features—generally, the more powerful the tool, the steeper the learning curve, but basic animation is quite accessible.
- Navigation scheme. If you want to go beyond the linear “beginning to end” model of eLearning, some authoring tools can map out complex “paths” for the user to experience. For certain lessons, this is a good way to let learners explore concepts at their own pace. Branched learning experiences can also introduce choice and consequence to the lesson, adapting it to each learner’s input.
- Interactive content options. Interactivity can provide users with a more tactile experience. Some authoring packages let you create features like roll-over highlights, mini-games and interactive illustrations. Media Integration—Not all packages support all media formats, so if multimedia is important to you, make sure your formats—like Flash, video and audio files—will work. Note that support for a format is not necessarily sufficient, and that it’s also important to find out what a tool lets you do. For example, some tools include screen-casting—essentially, a video screen capture, often with voice-over narration—while others don’t, so make sure the tool you choose supports the content creation that interests you.
- Updating Content. One of the advantages of rapid eLearning development is that ability to quickly create courses to keep the information up-to-date and relevant. Once a course is developed, you may want to update the material to keep the information fresh. To do so, look for software that allows you to easily change small pieces of the module without needing to redo everything.
- Templates. Some tools provide formatting and design templates to speed up the development process. Look through them to decide if they will meet your needs. If you are trying to achieve a particular look in your eLearning courses, this may not be as important—instead, find a package that makes it easy to build your own.
Presenting Your Modules to Students
The best-designed modules are of no use if you can’t deliver them to students. As you consider tools to create them, make sure you think through how the students will access them.
You might plan to use a Learning Management System (LMS), a package that helps guide students through multiple eLearning modules. It lets administrators track and grade their progress and define access privileges to different information, which can be useful when administering certification programs or measuring targets for learning programs. An LMS might include tools for students to communicate with instructors and with each other, like instant messaging or chat features, and can also help manage records, distribute lessons, allow for collaboration, or track requirements for student assessment. You don’t need an LMS for eLearning, but if students are accessing multiple modules rather than a single lesson, using an LMS can make the experience easier and more effective.
If you are using a LMS, you’ll want to make sure that the modules you create will work with it. The standard used in this space is called SCORM, which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model; it ensures that your modules can easily be integrated into almost any LMS. Most software packages for creating eLearning modules are capable of producing SCORM-compliant content, but if you’re planning to use a LMS, check to make sure.
If you won’t be using a LMS, you’ll still need to present the content to the user—how will it be delivered? Common formats include HTML pages, Flash files or CD-ROM packages for kiosk use. Think through what your students will be most able to access and use, and what they’re most likely to find interesting and dynamic.
Wrapping it Up
Once you’ve decided to provide eLearning content, the possibilities are nearly limitless. Define your content and identify your audience, and determine how best to deliver lessons to the people who will be accessing them. Then decide which features are important to you, and choose the course-authoring software that best meets all your needs.
You don’t need to be a professional course developer or a tech-savvy programmer to deliver effective and informative eLearning anymore. The right tools and a good plan can move learning out of the classroom and into your hands, letting you reach and engage students to educate them in an informative, interactive way.
For More Information
The eLearning Guild is a community for course developers. The provide insightful research and publications, many of which are free. They also publish Learning Solutions Magazine, which focuses on eLearning strategy, news, and technology.
Software vendor Articulate's blog includes frequently helpful advice on developing course content, shortcuts, and new design approaches. They provide many examples and usually allow you to download the source files to try them out on your own. Despite being hosted by a vendor, the advice is reasonably software-neutral and applicable across most systems.
Colin Pizarek is a Americorp VISTA member working with Idealware to research and create multimedia rich eLearning modules. Chris Bernard is Idealware's Senior Editor. Many thanks to the Transmission Projec t for their support of Idealware's eLearning program. This article was also made possible through the Idealware Research Fund with the support of Idealware readers like you. Thank you!
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