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The Next Generation of Learning Management Systems October 31, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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A recent post by Clive Shepherd references an interesting activity done by the eLearning Network at their recent Next Generation Learning Management event. According to Clive’s post, the event was attended by a cross-section of members: private and public sector users, LMS and content vendors, consultants, and others. In the activity, participants identified requirements for learning management systems for the 21st century. (Great idea!) You can download a PDF containing the results of the activity. It’s worth checking out.

I’ve written about the future of LMSs before (see "Have LMSs Jumped The Shark?"). I still believe major changes need to be made, but I find it fascinating to keep an eye on the market and watch the different approaches companies are taking. Some LMS vendors are choosing to integrate Learning 2.0/Web 2.0 functionality (ex. wikis, blogs, micro-blogging, etc.) into their systems. Others are choosing to integrate with HR systems (ex. talent management, development planning, etc.). Some people see LMSs as systems with a front-end for users, while others see LMSs as back-end systems that users should never see. I don’t know which approaches will prevail, but activities like the one above are a great way to get everyone working together to advance our industry. (And I hope LMS vendors are listening out there…)


Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition October 22, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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This article, by Eric Matas, is the third of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. (The first post is Cognitive Load vs. Load Time and the second post is Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain.) Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!

I grew up in a colonial Tudor house built in the 1880s in Pelham, NY. It was a house with a front and back porch that ran the width of the house. By the time we moved in (in the 1980s), the back porch had been enclosed to create a family room. The family room was therefore long and skinny like a porch, creating a decorating challenge worthy of today’s HGTV gurus.

What happened was a split. One half of the room was dedicated to the TV with couch, chairs and beanbag chairs aimed at the screen. (Yes, beanbag chairs.) The other half of the family room was dedicated to a game table. A perfectly square table with four chairs and a bar chandelier hanging above.

I spent a lot of time at that game table.

I didn’t know it then, but that game table prepared me for elearning development. (Yes, elearning was not around in the early 80s, but the game table knew.) Here’s how it prepared me:

Unlike the TV area of the family room, where people were observers of a screen, the game area put people in the middle of the action. Elearning should put learners in the middle of the action. Elearning should be game-focused. And that is the extreme makeover. I say stop trying to sneak little games into an already packed module. Instead, make the entire module a game.

In literature classes, we use the Latin in medias res to describe a story that begins in the middle of things. The best stories do that: they don’t slowly start “Once upon a time…” or by setting the back story. Elearning needs to implement in medias res. If elearning starts in the middle of things, learners will benefit in three ways.

  1. Curiosity Pinged: as with any game, players tap into the best kid-like qualities. They want to just start instead of going over all the rules, and their natural curiosity, essential for learning, goes into overdrive as they play and learn the rules at the same time.
  2. Intelligence Acknowledged: I have done it as a learner; I start an elearning module and get fed-up with the introductory material. I am perturbed by all the direction, which seems like unnecessary hand-holding. So, right from the start I am a learner with a bad attitude, judging the elearning: in short, not prepared to learn. So, do the opposite. Avoid the intro matter and avoid learners with bad attitudes. Instead, learners feel respected like they are intelligent and capable of engaging with the learning. As a learner, feeling this way is not really noticeable—but without copping an attitude, learners just get into the material.
  3. Cognition Activated: With curiosity up and attitude down, learners can learn. Games put learners in a position to think. In contrast to the position of observer at a screen, games put learners in the position of actor. Learners must act and interact to move forward or succeed. The psychology of their thinking includes an excited desire to figure out what to do next, a competitive desire to get it right, and a contemplative curiosity to determine how the game teaches them.

I would also say that designers benefit through saved bandwidth by omitting most of the front matter that is typical of information-based CBTs, but for the type of learners who need to know the big picture, it is wise to have instructions and overview statements somewhere for learners to find. I like a simple question mark icon that branches to instructions, which I can place off in a corner—and throw a hint pop-up for added color.

Just as gamers jump into new video games and just start playing, elearners play along. Certainly, some will complain that a game was difficult to figure out or that they couldn’t get a high score because of how the game was set-up. But won’t those people complain about any elearning?

How about a challenge? Try it and see.

If you have information people should know, let them play a trivia game; if you have behaviors people should learn, let them practice in a role-playing game; if you have processes people should understand, let them build a conveyor belt to simulate the process. Being curious and engaged, learners will have fun and think while playing the games.

Still, using “games” in training makes eyebrows raise with a “Games! Here in the office?” type of objection. Understandably, people still think games and think teenager alone in the basement. (For hours at a time.) It is certainly not easy to avoid that defamation. I’ve seen the grimaced faces in meetings when designers suggest using games in elearning.

Perhaps we need to be as creative when pitching elearning to our business connections as we are when designing. We need to wordsmith our way around the word games until the grimacing faces recognize the semantic shift that word has undergone.

I had less time for specific tips in this post due to a bout with H1N1, which I won! I hope some readers can comment about games they have made whether completely successful or not.

About the Author

Eric Matas designs elearning, teaches college composition, and writes for several blogs like Kidundated! and Blah Blah Bleric. He welcomes you to meet him on Twitter by following @tweric.

Are you interested in writing for eLearning Weekly?

Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain October 15, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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This article, by Eric Matas, is the second of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. (The first post is Cognitive Load vs. Load Time.) Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!

Ah, yes, my title alludes to the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Revered and feared, he was just one trainer like you. He hid in his little cubicle but made magic for Dorothy and her fellow learners. Truly, though, most tricks—the bells and whistles of his wizardry—were simple. He made some smoke, fire, and thunder. The Wizard did most of his work with the stage. His stage set the, well, stage for his audience to expect shock and awe. Elearning developers can do the same, working the templates and backgrounds to do the work often allocated to text boxes and narration.

To really squeeze all the juice out of templates so you can reduce assets and thereby file size, think visual conditioning. It is possible, even helpful, to use color and template cues to condition viewers’ expectations. Most likely, you use such conditioning already, creating consistent text box styles, for example. I suggest that you maximize this effect to reduce redundant assets.

Let me explain the psychology using grammar. My background is teaching English, and the psychology of reading correlates to the psychology of learning. This quick grammar analogy makes the conditioning clear. When we use a subordinate clause, we create expectation. Look at how that last sentence starts:

    When we use a subordinate clause,

That is a subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause. Readers experience a natural expectation reading such clauses because they know the clause is incomplete—grammar conditions readers to anticipate the completion of that thought:

     …we create expectation.

Templates create similar expectations, which is why designers make headings consistent in font and font size. Consistent choices say, in effect, “Hey learner, this is the header for this screen.” A smart template can say a lot.

Slide Style

Start with a lean template. You’ll need a course title slide and a section title slide, which get used rarely. As for body slides, I have found that one is used extensively, and having a couple alternate options breaks monotony and signals to learners that something special is happening. I made a short Screenr video that shows a simple template for scenario training:

Keep scenarios simple. Tom Kuhlman writes The Rapid Elearning Blog focused on Articulate and great tips for PowerPoint. One excellent post shares how to keep elearning scenarios to three simple steps.


You can find characters to play the narrator in many places. I found the images of this female character in various poses from Kuhlman’s blog. He offers free templates too that you are free to use or edit.

Female Character Group of 5

To avoid boredom, pose the character for different expressions. Use one pose consistently to express something normally narrated. A good expression of delight, for example, will say, “Congratulations, you got it right.” for you. That saves narration or allows you to use narration for more valuable information like reinforcement of the key take-away. Besides some free character sets, you can buy them. I met Bryan Jones on Twitter (@elearningart), and he offers many tools including affordable characters at elearningart.com.

My favorite way to get characters—and to get all the shots I want and need—is to corral a colleague. Many will be willing, and in 1/2 hour in a conference room you can have excellent digital photos showing the 10 facial expressions you want most. One last tip: the character pic does NOT need to appear on every screen. Once learners have “met” her in early screens, they suspend their disbelief on screens that only offer her narration. It saves kilobytes!

Warning Triangle

Colors and Sounds

Learners expect specific types of content on slides of the same color. Make a smart template to say what it can for you. Section title slides are obvious. You rarely emphasize the new section with other assets because the section title slide screams out, “You are starting a new section called…”

Besides the color choices I mention in the Screenr video, you can do a lot with color-coordinated street signs. An orange triangle could indicate an important point and green circle, with a question mark, could prompt learners to answer a question.

One reason templates condition viewers is that viewers are getting more used to seeing elearning. In other words, learners progress with less hand-holding and prompting. Color themes are unobtrusive and still effective at establishing expectations.

Sounds make great signals. I made a demo of a very busy software. As the demo progressed, text boxes popped open with guiding tips. But, the software also had windows popping open. It was confusing. What did I do? Before the demo started, I added a happy little ting sound to my text boxes as they opened. That conditioned learners to expect a text box with important information when they heard that ting.

It may sound (no pun) simple, but that little sound helped—on those busy demo screens, that ting made learners scan for the text pop-up. It’s a little like Pavlov’s dog, which can seem controlling, but in the hands of responsible educators, it will only serve for good.

In the first of these three posts (Cognitive Load vs. Load Time), I shared tips on eliminating redundancy. So many redundancies are automatically avoided by starting with a carefully planned template. If your background prompts learners, you will not need a narrator or a text box to explain. Your elearning module will be leaner and more agile for the impatient learners.

In the next post, I propose a more radical design change. Look for it soon:

     #3 – Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition

About the Author

Eric Matas designs elearning, teaches college composition, and writes for several blogs like Kidundated! and Blah Blah Bleric. He welcomes you to meet him on Twitter by following @tweric.

Are you interested in writing for eLearning Weekly?

Cognitive Load vs. Load Time October 9, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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This article, by Eric Matas, is the first of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!

Designers love a little cognitive load theory. Any glimpse into the brains of learners sparks a trainer’s curiosity. It makes sense: if you want to influence brains with new knowledge, it helps to know how brains function best while learning.

Cognitive psychology certainly aims to give trainers such a look inside the brain.

Cognitive load theory inspires designers to influence various neural systems so attention is focused and retention is optimal. Influencing different neural systems means developing different events. And using different events in elearning means a multimedia approach. Recently, wired with cognitive load theory, I made the perfect elearning course in Captivate.

It was beautiful.

But I write that with a sigh because it never worked. It blended narration, text and image; it encouraged, nay, required interaction—more meaningful than simply clicking to advance; and it matched learning events to attention spans, appealing to different parts of the brain. Colors were lovely. Fonts were harmonious. And hover-over sidelets opened without causing visual disturbance.

I won’t go on. As you know, it failed. When we tested out of the LMS, we saw some strange effects but wrote them off: surely the great and powerful LMS would handle the files more seamlessly. Yeah, no.

Bottom line, the sheer size of the files was too much to handle. Cognitive psychology ran smack into the hard wall of file size. In the LMS, we heard strange sound reverberation, and load times were unbearable. The lesson? To develop multimedia elearning that succeeds, juggle image, sound and text without creating long load times.

By reducing (and reducing) until the CBT would run, I learned valuable tips for running on fewer kilobytes. Three design tips stand out, curiously titled:

  1. Necessity is the Gender Nonspecific Parent of Invention
  2. Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain
  3. Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition

In this post, I list the three and explain the first with examples. I explore the others in two follow-up posts so I can convey real, tangible tips without one blog taking too much bandwidth.

#1 – Necessity is the Gender Nonspecific Parent of Invention: Do what I did—just go for it. Make it big, as theory and SMEs dictate. Then cut, cut and cut some more. I got creative when reducing. So will you. Letting go of original designs is too hard, so you will make that thing work on a kilobyte budget.

In creative writing courses I’ve taught, we call it sculpting. First, get all the clay you want or the biggest hunk of stone. Then sculpt. Remove, chisel and scrape to the essential statue within. In developing elearning, you sculpt by removing redundant assets, cutting images or narration and combining everything possible.

First, some no-brainers—I include them, however obvious they seem, because I didn’t always know! With software like Captivate, you finish with superfluous background material and images. Just by deleting unused items in your library, file size shrinks significantly. In PowerPoint-driven tools like Articulate, take advantage of the master slide templates to reduce. Find instances of a similar asset appearing on multiple slides, and then consolidate, creating a new template that only uses the image once.

Remove Redundancy

I’ve read many evaluations that express venomous hatred for text on the screen that is also narrated. I read them right after I wrote them. Since narration is probably preferred, remove the redundant text, especially if narration is available in closed captioning or notes. Occasionally, keep some text, using only key words to augment the narration, not mimic it. Sometimes, an image is titled by a text box: ask yourself if that’s necessary, and if not, cut the title box. The best images show viewers what they are. (I have special tips on reducing redundancy in post 2 of this 3 part series.)

Cut Images and Narration

Images devour megabytes. I love images, but they are expensive when bytes are the currency. A quick, democratic decision: reduce all images by ¼ inch. Smaller is smaller. But deleting images will free up megabytes faster. Don’t be afraid to link to a website instead of using a picture of the site—just set the website to open in a new window, keep your elearning open for learners.

Narration can be cut several ways. We originally recorded very personal, casual narration to warm up the elearning. In other words, it was wordy. I found that I could cut unneeded words with Captivate’s editing tool, and it still seemed personal because of the tone. Be careful: the audio can become bizarre when cutting certain words—save the original. I also saved megabytes by cutting silence out of the narration: at the start and end but also within the narration.


Everything from sentences to text boxes can be combined. Long paragraphs are not a learner’s favorite thing to see. You can shorten them by combining sentences. Wait—let me combine those last two sentences: Combine sentences to shorten annoying paragraphs.

I’ve grouped text and photos in PowerPoint and saved as a single asset (.png) to reduce. Even bigger, you can combine slides.
In my beautiful (failure) project, the seven sections each had a title slide with brief narration announcing the section. The next slide was an objectives slide. But the title slide did the announcing with text and had plenty of room for learning objectives, so I cut the narrative announcement and deleted the 2nd slide, moving the objectives to the 1st slide. This fix I liked better than the original (the objectives appeared after a few seconds to give that title its glory).

eLearning Weekly Combine Screens Example

I hope you return for more tips in parts two and three of this series on winning the battle between cognitive load and load time. The next two posts offer specific tips to reduce file size while still getting what you want in the design. Look for these posts:

     #2 – Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain
     #3 – Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition

About the Author

Eric Matas designs elearning, teaches college composition, and writes for several blogs like Kidundated! and Blah Blah Bleric. He welcomes you to meet him on Twitter by following @tweric.

Are you interested in writing for eLearning Weekly?

I’m speaking at DevLearn 2009! October 7, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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Ok, I’ll admit it: I only wrote this blog post to show off my snazzy new DevLearn 2009 badge:

DevLearn 2009 Badge

But, since we’re here, I’ll go ahead and let you know that I’ll be presenting two sessions next month at DevLearn:

I will be co-presenting these sessions with John Polaschek, who also works at Qualcomm. Please drop by and say hello if you’re there!

I should mention that I have a beard now, so just imagine a hairier version of the picture above. 🙂