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Learning Is Like Spaghetti Sauce July 27, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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I saw a post on the Random Walk in Learning blog that really caught my interest today. It shows a video of a presentation put on by Malcolm Gladwell in February, 2004. Malcolm tells the story of a consultant who makes a surprising discovery about people’s tastes and preferences, and the lesson can be applied across multiple domains – including learning. Check out the video below, and think of it in terms of learning preferences.

If you haven’t heard of Malcolm Gladwell, you’re missing out. I highly recommend his books, The Tipping Point and Blink.

By the way, this presentation was from one of the TED conferences. Here’s a description of TED, from the ted.com web site:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

I’ve seen some unbelievably amazing presentations on the TED web site. Spend some time there, if you haven’t already.

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Narration in eLearning July 20, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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I often use narration in my eLearning courses because I think it adds an additional element of interest, and also because there’s evidence that “presenting words in audio rather than onscreen text results in significant learning gains.”1 However, I ran into some issues recently that made me reconsider how I obtain the narration audio in the first place. Below is a recap of what happened, and what I decided to do about it.

I was in the habit of asking (begging) co-workers to record audio for eLearning courses. We would usually go into a conference room, record audio using a microphone and Audacity, and then I would import the audio files into Flash, Captivate, or whatever eLearning development tool I was using. This worked well, but I eventually ran into problems. First, if content changed a few days later, we would have to re-record the audio. There’s only so many times you can ask a favor from a co-worker before it becomes an issue. Second, our voices are more inconsistent than we realize; they change depending on the time of day, if you’re getting over a cold, etc. Our audio recordings would often sound like two different people (when it was only one person), especially if we recorded with several days in between sessions. Third, the process takes longer than I would like. If tiny content changes had to be made, it often took an hour or two to work through the process. Finally, I was concerned about turn-over. If I have a co-worker record hours of voiceover work, and then they leave the company, I would probably have to re-record an entire course’s audio the next time changes were made. I decided to look for other options.

I discovered several text-to-speech programs, and they seem like they will do the trick for me. These programs allow you to enter (type in) text and then they output audio files of a person (the computer) reading the text out loud. These programs generally aren’t very expensive, and they output to .wav and/or .mp3 format.

A few text-to-speech programs (most have free demos on their web site):

The programs above come with a standard set of voices, but you can purchase higher-quality voices and plug them into your text-to-speech program:

Voices are generally available for these languages: U.S. English, U.K. English, Spanish, Canadian French, Parisian French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.

I did notice some oddities when it comes to pronunciation. Every once in a while the text-to-speech program would stumble on a word, or pronounce a word different that what I wanted. To remedy this, try spelling words phonetically or just try to think differently about pronunciation in general. For example, I had the year "1939" in one of my courses, and the text-to-speech program read it as "one thousand, nine hundred thirty-nine." That’s not what I wanted. So, I changed "1939" to "19 39" (adding a space between the numbers), and it read it properly after that ("nineteen thirty-nine").

I doubt that these programs will ever be able to output speech that sounds as natural as a real (live) person. However, considering how much time they save and how easy they are to use, it is a pretty good solution. Give them a shot if you’re ever in a similar situation.

1 From e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, by Ruth Clark and Richard E. Mayer, page 83.

Using Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional for eLearning July 13, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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We recently implemented Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional at work. We have employees located in all 50 states, and our department needed a way to conduct training via virtual classroom. I thought I’d write a little about our experience with the application, how we use it, and discuss some of its pros and cons in terms of eLearning.

What is it Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional?

I’ll let Adobe give you the long definition:

Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional is the complete web communications solution that enables live online meetings, virtual classes, and group collaboration, allowing organizations to effectively share a wide range of content, including Microsoft® PowerPoint slides, live and recorded video, Adobe Flash® content, live screen-sharing, application sharing, audio, and multiuser text chat.

I would simply say that it’s a robust web conferencing tool that can also be used to administer virtual classroom sessions.

What’s in a Name?

Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional was originally called Macromedia Breeze. Then Adobe purchased Macromedia and began integrating Breeze with their Acrobat product line. I think Adobe Connect would have been a great name, but instead they went with Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional. Seriously – 4 words? Can you imagine Toyota introducing a car called the Toyota Camry Avalon Turbo? Seems like a bit much. Luckily, the product stands up really well. So I’ll get past the naming issue. 🙂

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional has a clean, simple, and flexible interface; you can create different layouts (we call them ‘rooms’) and then arrange a variety of pods in each room. There are chat pods, file/screen sharing pods, survey pods, note pods, and more.
  • LDAP integration allows us to use our company’s single sign-on system, so we don’t have to manage additional usernames and passwords.
  • It is very easy to schedule meetings.
  • Wonderful phone conferencing integration is possible with Premiere Global Services. Users can opt to have the system call their phone to join the phone conference, and then they can adjust their audio settings (volume, muting, etc.) using on-screen controls. The facilitator can also mute participants and control other aspects of phone conferencing (ex. dial-out to other users).
  • As a facilitator, you can share your screen (desktop) and even give control to a participant. So you can have somebody else "drive" the session for you.

Cons:

  • This product is very expensive, especially if you host it in-house.
  • If you decide to host it in-house, you’ll most likely need to go through a third-party to get it implemented. Anticipate the extra expense. We used GetConnect and had a good experience.
  • It’s tricky to integrate Acrobat Connect Professional with your learning management system (LMS). Here’s our current workflow: First, learners register for a course in our LMS. Next, we hold our virtual classroom sessions and the learners attend. Finally, we go back to the LMS and indicate which learners attended and what score they achieved (if applicable).

The Toughest Part

The toughest part about a system like this is learning how to use it effectively for learning / training. Ultimately, your facilitators will have to push themselves to identify new ways to engage learners using this delivery method. Here are a few resources to help facilitators jump into virtual classroom training:

Give it a shot

If you’re evaluating web conferencing or virtual classroom products, check out Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional. It’s a great product that’ll make it easier for you to deliver effective training. Our users agree, too. We’ve heard nothing but great feedback from them. They tell us that it was a breeze (get it?) to attend, and they enjoyed the interaction during the sessions.

More information on Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional can be found in this PDF data sheet.

Using Social Networks for Learning July 6, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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There’s a new video available from CommonCraft called “Social Networking in Plain English.” I highly recommend that you give it a watch (see below). The video explains the power of networks and how people can benefit from them (ex. finding a job from a friend, finding a mate, etc.). Then it goes into detail about social networks and how they work.

After you watch the video, take the concept a step further and think of social networking in terms of learners and subject matter experts. As an eLearning professional, I always look for ways to help people find the information they need either before they need it or in real-time (as they need it). How can we create social networks for learning? How can we more directly connect people of a particular trade or job function via social network? LinkedIn is the closest example I’ve seen of this, particularly the LinkedIn Answers service. I think this is the start of something very cool.

I highly recommend the other videos available from CommonCraft. Wikis in Plain English and RSS in Plain English are excellent, especially for people new to these technologies.