As the speed of business accelerates, so does the need to decrease the time it takes for knowledge from a subject-matter expert (SME) to reach the learner. In typical learning design and development processes, the SME provides content to an instructional designer, who then adapts the content into a format suitable for learning.
Now, the inclination is moving toward having the SME develop e-learning content for learners’ direct consumption. Rapid e-learning is seen as a way to satisfy this business objective.
Rapid e-learning is basically the quick development of e-learning by SMEs, using tools and templates that are already instructionally designed. The instructional designer is not totally removed from this process but, in fact, plays an essential role in creating the templates and assisting the SME.
This approach certainly is vulnerable to criticism for being a short cut in the instructional design process, however, the business need to educate employees quickly on new and changing products and services typically far outweighs concerns about quality. This creates a challenge for training professionals: to implement the most effective tools and templates for SMEs to develop e-learning faster, better and cheaper.
The key to shortening the development cycle while producing highly effective e-learning is to use a framework that is easy for SMEs to use and is designed to have much of this process already completed.
Using the Tools
There are many rapid e-learning tools already available, and these tools address ease of use. For example, BrainVisa’s RapideL tool uses Microsoft Word storyboard templates to create an e-learning course, and it uses macros to dynamically generate Flash-based modules. The templates include fields that are clearly defined for such content as the page title, on-screen text and media. It is easy to insert text, graphics and even audio using the Insert menu in Microsoft Word. Therefore, the content is up to the SME and as with any other application, it is wide open to whatever the author decides to include.
Software Engineering Basics
Creating e-learning is very much like creating a software program. Applying some software engineering principles to rapid e-learning can help produce prompt and consistent results while attaining the goal of faster, better, cheaper.
The primary goal of software engineering is to produce a result that solves a problem. The software-design process follows the basic steps of defining requirements, producing a design, developing the code, testing the solution and releasing it to users. The instructional design process is similar: defining objectives, producing an outline or storyboard, developing the materials, piloting the training and releasing it to learners.
So, applying software engineering principles (in addition to instructional design basics) to the framework can ensure the quality of the e-learning without compromising the speed of creating the course. These include clearly defining requirements, establishing coding standards, and testing usability and functionality. The combination of these principles can lead to engineering “learnability” right into each deliverable to quickly generate effective e-learning.
This simple yet important principle frees SMEs from worrying about what they should write, and it allows them to simply focus on sharing the necessary knowledge. Defining a clear path for them can accelerate the process and shorten the link between expert and learner.
This is where the instructional designer assumes an important role in establishing the e-learning framework. The designer can define standards for the look and feel of an e-learning course and integrate it into the framework, enabling SMEs to develop their content with guidance from the standard.
For example, some authoring tools allow for alternative navigation options such as links to navigate to a glossary, the help page or other supplemental information. Experience in developing several e-learning courses with several tools consistently showed that users are confused by nonlinear navigation scenarios. This can be avoided by establishing a standard navigation that allows the learner to traverse forward or backward linearly, one screen at a time, while also allowing help, glossary or other information to be presented in a pop-up window.
Audio, video, graphics and animation can be extremely helpful in the learning process — but not necessarily all at the same time. Each additional element provides another focal point for the learner, so it needs to be kept within the relevant context. Establishing guidelines on usage can help eliminate distractions and keep all content relevant.
Consider the use of audio for guiding learners through the content. Retaining the attention of the learner with narration can be challenging when the learner cannot control it, pause it, read it or randomly access it. Providing some of these controls and an accompanying transcript can address the issue while enabling learners at different levels to streamline their learning experience. There is a caveat to this, however: Combining narration with transcript text can produce additional distracters that impede learning. One solution is to make them mutually exclusive by allowing only one or the other to be active.
It does take time to record narration audio and in some cases, it quickly can wear out with learners. Establishing a coding guideline by which audio is provided only when needed (such as to support a visual or animated representation of a concept) can reduce the development time and enhance learning effectiveness. Coding guidelines also can address sustaining learner engagement. Defining some interactive assessment or quiz every three to five screens or ensuring every element used on the screen is relevant to the topic are just two examples.
Conducting testing on common functionality of the framework itself can eliminate unneeded testing for each individual e-learning course developed using the framework. It is still important to do some minimal testing on each course, not only to check that it works but also to validate the effectiveness of the training. This small investment can help maintain the quality of the training while developing it quickly.
There are two types of testing that are important to rapid e-learning.
1. Usability testing demonstrates the e-learning course structure is easy to navigate and delivers the content clearly. An e-learning course will impede learning if users are constantly confused by the objects on the screen or unable to hear or see multimedia clearly. Therefore, the purpose of usability testing is to ensure users will be able to learn from the framework on which the e-learning course was built. Testing the framework for usability can be accomplished best with an approach known as user acceptance testing (UAT), which involves a group representing the target audience of the e-learning and a questionnaire targeting specific usability issues, as well as open-ended comments.
The questionnaire can be organized into several key issues with a rating scale and space for additional comments. The sheet would be repeated for each screen and include some unique identifier such as a screen title or screen number. The questionnaire also can provide suggestions on the types of comments and feedback to provide to identify the key functions that should be addressed. An example of a questionnaire grid is shown in Table 1.
2. Functionality testing is used in software engineering for validating the program works as intended and meets all the requirements. In e-learning engineering, functionality testing would address not only that the learning course technically functions properly but also that the framework supports rather than hampers learning.
Functionality testing can be conducted with a checklist that accounts for as many functionality requirements as possible. It validates the functional features of the rapid e-learning tool and documents any nonfunctional features that need to be corrected. It also allows SMEs to focus on conveying their knowledge rather than investing time trying to make the technology work properly. Some examples of functionality items that could be on a checklist are shown in Table 2.
Putting It All Together
The main purpose behind any process is to simplify tasks and make things more efficient, but the process also needs to be thorough to eliminate potential oversights. Applying these engineering principles to rapid e-learning is like a marriage between instructional design and software development.
Clearly defining requirements keeps the focus on the learning objectives and maintains the quality of the e-learning course. Defining coding guidelines helps maintain the tone of the e-learning deliverable and guides the SME in developing the most effective e-learning course while maintaining speed.
It also can prevent implementing too many bells and whistles that distract from learning. Testing ensures a quality e-learning course is delivered to learners.
Integrating these principles into existing learning development processes will vary from organization to organization, so it is important to look at each principle and where it best fits in the process. It will be important that there is complete agreement on the value of applying these principles in developing rapid e-learning, as well as how to integrate them into processes.
Rapid e-learning provides opportunities for keeping up with the speed of business while meeting the challenge of balancing fast development with quality learning outcomes. Applying the engineering principles of clearly defined requirements, coding guidelines and testing can assist in achieving that balance.
Pat Alvarado is the learning and technology professional at E-Learning Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.