In short – learn as many tools as you can! Sarcastic, yes but let’s explore that for a minute. My guess if you’re reading this you have at least one tool in your home that does only one thing. Like the tool that pulls a plug of dirt out of the ground to plant bulbs. Or a corkscrew that only has one job to pull the cork out of a wine bottle. If you think about it, our lives are scattered with multiple tools that do one thing. To get the job done right, it’s best to have all the right tools on hand, right? So why do we think one tool is going to be our one-all eLearning development tool? Building eLearning is more than just one tool…you need a toolbox!
I graduated with a BS degree in Information Technology Management. It is not quite a computer science degree, a technology degree nor a business management degree. It was an extended (10 semesters) degree that dealt with how to manage information through technology in business. We studied everything from C++ programming to Marketing and our capstone project was to build an eCommerce website complete with an inventory database and marketing campaign. Why? Today’s businesses cannot survive on traditional business practices anymore and must integrate (and stay abreast) with technology. Same with eLearning.
That said, eLearning in my view is the same way. Honestly, I think the undergraduate Instructional Design programs in universities today should be tossed in the river! They do a great job teaching the latest methodology, but do very little in terms of technology and the tools to get things done. It should reformatted and actually be called “eLearning Technology Management” degrees.
Think about it. How nice would it be to simply work with a SME and write the content into a storyboard and pass it on? The next person gets to do all the design, development, and get the eLearning course to behave properly on whatever LMS is used. Or how nice would it be to be handed a well-thought out and detailed storyboard and simply build all the pieces around it? Well, if you’re fortunate to work on a large team you may have that luxury. However, most of the people I know in this industry are on small teams and many are one-person show development houses. Everything from project management, writing, voice recording, designing graphics, developing the eLearning interface, publishing to SCORM for use on an LMS, and finally course tracking and analysis through reporting. There are a lot of tools in that mix!
Being cursed…er, um…excited to be part of that world, in my view here are the top 10 categories of tools anyone working in the eLearning industry need to learn:
1. Project Management
Project management is often overlooked and although it may not be an official member of the eLearning world, not understanding how to manage your projects is the biggest gap I see with new folks. Whether you use the most sophisticated and complex PM tool or simply map out your project in MS Excel, understanding Project Management is an essential tool. The last thing you want to find out when you’re ready to publish and meet a deadline is your bilingual Spanish translation is not done. Understanding milestones and critical paths are a huge part of the eLearning development process.
Simply put, if you’re building eLearning you are going to need graphics. There is nothing more frustrating that spending half a day hunting for that just right image through endless databases on the internet. Knowing how to use graphic editing tools and being able to create your own graphics is essential. I’m not going to offer endorsement of any specific tool here because they all have their pros and cons and learning curves. It is however imperative to understand the differences between a GIF and JPG, vector vs. raster, and transparency vs. flattened. For more information on graphics, visit my resources page.
I don’t want to get into the Flash debate here but let’s face it; the .swf output file is here to stay for a long time. You can sit around and wait for who wins the HTML5 argument or you can learn Flash. I will admit it is a bit more of an intimidating learning curve, but if you take it bite-size chunks you can build simple interactions and animations in no time. A few companies are building and selling pre-packaged interactions like Raptivity and the eLearning Brothers.
A note on the word “Games” as it still has a negative connotation in the workplace. I’ve heard it replaced with the phrase “Immersive Learning” but that seems like a mouthful to hide the truth. It’s a game people! As my 12 year old stepdaughter would say, “Build a bridge…get over it!” There is an insurmountable amount of research and proof that games are the best for learning online. Karl Kapp, Clark Quinn, Clark Aldrich are leaders in this space and have loads of info. Koreen Olbrish with Tandem Learning just posted a great thought on the subject, too titled “The Play is the Thing.”
Whether you ever get into actually building a game for learning, the future is moving toward them. It’s best to at least understand how it fits in our space and who knows…you may even get a chance to build one in the next five years.
4. HTML/HTML5 and Web Programming
Not all eLearning has Audio and/or Video, but you may end up on a project one day that requires it. If the need is not that often, it’s easy to hire out the voice recordings or the video production. In the end however, you’ll still need to embed or incorporate the files into your eLearning course. Whether you ever record your own voice scripts or get into the mechanics of video production, it serves best knowing the tools your ‘vendors’ are using. You still may need to tweak and edit the audio or video files in some way. There are a wide variety of Audio and Video editing tools available, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with the more popular ones like Audacity, Adobe Soundbooth, and SoundForge for Audio. For video, Movie Maker, Adobe Premiere Elements, and iMovie (Mac) are favorites.
6. eLearning Development
One can learn all the above five (5) categories to build eLearning from scratch, or jump into the really hot market of eLearning development tools that take away all the programming. Some are referred to as “Rapid” where others are more complex. Some are great at building scenarios and simulations while others are really great and screen capturing/recording.
I’ll be the first to say that all the hype around which one is better is a useless argument. Creative instructional design is first and always will be the source of good eLearning. I use many of the popular and several not so well-known tools, and each of them have their strengths and weaknesses. I will jump in the first argument about eLearning is about design first and not the tool. Just because I have the latest and greatest hammer, doesn’t mean I know how to build a garage!
Q: Which ones should you learn?
A: As many as you can get your hands on.
Lectora, Articulate, Captivate, Rapid Intake ProForm, and many others are great tools. All of them have really great support communities to help you get started and all of them have trial periods to get your feet wet. Also, Adobe has the Adobe eLearning Suite 2 which has everything you need to build eLearning all in one package.
In the early days or eLearning you couldn’t publish a course with any basic amount of tracking unless you “wrapped” your course with the SCORM standards. As early as a couple years ago, several tools were on the market that allowed you to upload all your html files and assets and it would spit out a crude SCORM package. Better than hand-coding the whole thing for sure, but still required digging through the imsmanifest.xml file and the SCORM Content Package.
If your LMS has any meat under the hood, it will be SCORM conformant, compliant, and certified (explained here). Today’s eLearning development tools have come a long way and I can honestly say they do a great job and packaging the course with one click of the publish button. It is still a good idea to be familiar with and understand the SCORM standards and the direction it is going. Two of the best resources on the subject can be found at SCORM.com by Rustici Software and SCORMsoft.com by JCA Solutions.
Ah yes, the Learning Management System – User management, Roles, Reports, IDP, Succession Planning, Instructor/Facilitator and Classroom management, and oh yeah…eLearning or content management system. It may be a ‘system’ by definition but any good LMS is chocked full of tools to help manage the whole learning process. Some even have eLearning development tools built right in!
This is another subject of much debate as the LMS we know and love today may not even be around in five years. Nevertheless, there will be some kind of system or infrared-hallucinogenic-algorithmic-dreamscape to manage learning! It’s a good idea to stay on top of that industries direction too. Two really good resources are: Brandon Hall Research and Bersin & Associates
9. Social Networking/Bookmarking
This is not so much a tool as it is a cultural shift in how we communicate and share. One of the biggest discussions in the last couple of years is around informal learning or social learning. How that plays into your business model or your companies learning strategy depends on you. If you intend on being in this industry in the next five years, my guess is your company will either lead the way in social learning events, or you’ll be the one asked why your company is not participating yet. Goes without saying…get immersed in social networking. Get a Twitter account and join the conversation. Join Facebook and LinkedIN groups. Follow and comment on blogs. Start your own blog. Create a bookmarking site and share it. Create a Wiki for team collaboration like PBWorks. Get connected!
Tools in this arena vary widely and if your company is interested in creating their own social site, my suggestion would be to crawl first. Start with a service like Yammer or Ning to control the audience.
10. Live Tools
Live tools are referred to as delivering live meetings, screen sharing, video conferencing, and/or participating in virtual worlds. As companies tighten the belt on travel, reach larger learner audiences, and require one person to the job, live tools are essential for any toolbox. Fundamentally, eLearning is asynchronous most of the time, but at times there is need to conduct synchronous training. That’s when Live Tools come into play. We’re all familiar with WebEx and GoToMeeting, but to really engage your online audience, Adobe Connect leads the way. Jane Hart’s Tool Zone listed below has a great list of Live Tools.
I’m a tinkerer by nature. I like tools. I have a garage full – some for working on my vehicles, some for repairs on the house, some for landscaping and yard work, and a bunch of odd tools that only do one job. I have a kitchen full – some for cooking, some for preparing, and some for serving. I have a studio full – some for drawing, some for painting, and a bunch of techno gadgets for all things in between. The Training and Learning & Development field is no difference. There are a lot of tools and it is essential your toolbox is outfitted properly!
Karl Kapp: Gadgets, Games, and Gizmos for Learning
Ruth Clark: eLearning and Science of Instruction
Michael Allen: Guide to eLearning
Michael Allen: Designing Successful eLearning
Patti Shank: Essential Articulate Studio ‘09
Patti Shank: The Online Learning Idea Book
Clark Aldrich: Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds
Chris Georgenes: How to Cheat in Adobe Flash: The Art of Design and Animation