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eLearning Thought Leaders: Eric Bort of Clearly Trained January 18, 2011

Posted by Eric Matas in eLearning, Interview.
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Clearly Trained Flash Character

What Can You Learn from This Guy?

If you haven’t heard of Eric Bort, or don’t follow him on Twitter, don’t be surprised. He’s not ubiquitous online like other thought leaders. But his elearning has been seen by millions and it speaks for itself.

This interview, perhaps more than any other we’ve done, will appeal to small business owners or those who are thinking about striking out on their own. The elearning industry is ripe for the entrepreneur, but running a successful business is still challenging, so the experiences and tips Eric Bort shares in this interview should be very helpful — after all, his elearning business is thriving in Louisville, Kentucky.

eLearning Weekly Interview — with Eric Bort, President, Clearly Trained LLC

eLW: I am amazed that more than 80 million people have seen your elearning and you have several big-name clients, and yet most people have not heard of Eric Bort and you do not do any sales — how is that possible?

EB: I think it’s one of those situations where the work speaks for itself. We have just enough high-profile projects out there with a link pointing to our site. That coupled with some great SEO and what I consider to be a strong portfolio of work has larger new clients calling us. We like to form a close relationship with a few high quality clients as opposed to the typical approach which is to take on any and every job to meet payroll. I’ve always loved the idea of delivering something no other company could, in a time line and budget that keeps everything realistic & reasonable.

I may only have an art school background (no business or finance experience), but something I’ve learned about business is that if you’re honest above all else, put passion in your work, and actually care about your projects, not profit, success and profits will follow. When a company like Lowe’s cold calls you and you’re able to have your project manager at Starbucks vouch for your company, you’re doing something marginally right!

Regarding twelve years without a sales person, we’re also focused on diversifying. Being a part of Edheads.org, which brings in around 70,000 visitors a day and exposes our work to over 1.5+ million people per month has always been a nice credibility boost. When clients know you can start from nothing and make something amazing in two weeks flat, projects can sell themselves.

Literacy eLearning Project by Clearly Trained

Screenshot of eLearning by Clearly Trained LLC

eLW: In elearning circles, there is often a debate between Flash development and using rapid authoring tools–as a Flash developer, are you finding that clients must cut costs by using their own development tools or out-sourcing Flash development overseas?
EB: In our area of expertise (custom development) a more common issue like budget is resolved by lowering the level of complexity or total seat time of a completed course. Rapid development environments aren’t out of the question, but honestly – we develop much faster from scratch than we do in the constraints of a template based or automated system. I’ve found clients are either all about rapid elearning development, or never mention it at all. Either that or it’s a department based need. Some departments just don’t need high-end creative work – for others, it’s the only way to train.

For the sake of marketing our company and having a focus, we chose the elearning path – but in the end of the day we’re all Flash developers, programmers, graphic designers and animators. A lot can be done with those skill sets that solve a variety of issues for our clients.

One pattern I have noticed in companies who outsource or take on development internally is that they can end up working against themselves. For the same reason I don’t sew my own pants or rebuild my transmission, the best choice for most companies is to focus on what they do best and leave the other needs to vendors.

eLW: Why do you like working in Flash?
EB:Flash has got to be the most adaptable, creative environment I’ve ever worked in. Where else can you create an interactive game that records user data, streams video, talks to other applications and can handle traditional frame by frame animation in the same program. It’s all very user interface centric with a little something for everyone.

Flash has its shortcomings, like typography (seriously, how come I can’t make bullets.. any basic text editor has the option to make bullets) – it’s nothing we can’t work around though.

eLW: You run a successful elearning company, and we have many readers who run their own company or who might want to start one–can you share three key bits of advice for running an elearning company?
EB:  elearning is a broad area – and I’m pretty sure there’s room for everyone to get into this business. The trick for us was (like a lot of companies) specialization – we really only focus on high-end and custom flash development. Some companies start to dilute themselves – going with the general media company approach (print, video, web, flash, etc.). Sticking to ‘corporate elearning’ has been one of the best decisions we’ve made.

Another thing to consider is having a professional write for your web site. We don’t have a sales person, but we treat our site like a sales tool. Everything from SEO (search engine optimization) to casual writing style were considered to set the right tone – we like working with large companies who are interested in doing something other than glorified PowerPoint style training. We may only get 150 people a day through the site, but so far we’ve started working with over 12 Fortune 100 companies who found us through clearlytrained.com.

Finally, the heart of any company is the employees – hiring the right people, seeking collaboration, ideas and hopefully getting everyone excited about their project is key. I always feel that I get more quality & results from each of my employees that a larger company would get out of 4 or 5 employees. Hopefully it says something when a company with five people and four contractors can handle some of the largest companies in the US as their clients. We’re not into mass production of low quality work – my employees know the next project will be something entirely different, so it’s rare that the job ever goes stale. You might be pulling stock photos one day, animating a character another day, programming a quiz, then working on a virtual tonsillectomy surgery. It’s not that they don’t ever do anything boring, but hopefully the exciting stuff hits often enough to keep everyone happy and involved.

eLW: What does a day of work look like at Clearly Trained?
EB: We show up kind of late — starting at 9:30. When you’re the boss and you like spending time with your family in the morning, it’s nice to have a fairly relaxed starting time. I don’t know anyone whose brain is very creative at 8am after a 40 minute commute.

If we know what we’re working on everyone moves forward and keeps production going. Apparently I’m addicted to buying whiteboards — I think I’m up to five 3×4 whiteboards, two calendar whiteboards, and one giant whiteboard where I write out anything from a schedule and concept designs to basic slide by slide to do lists. They tend to migrate throughout the office but mostly reside in a central location. This is my way of not bogging anyone down with meetings (I think we’re up to one official meeting per year at this point). Everyone knows what project they’re on — and I snoop around the office throughout the day with a surprise attack critique to make sure the overall project’s look and feel are headed in the same direction.

Photos of Eric Bort and Clearly Trained Office

Clearly Trained LLC

As a small business owner I’m not just the creative director, I handle the phones, client relations, coffee making and toilet paper restocking. It’s the little things that count — and playing support team and motivator for everyone else is top on my list. I’m probably one of the more annoying bosses out there, constantly coming up with new ideas — contradicting myself, pushing time lines before they need to be pushed, but you have to have a sense of humor. I’m not opposed to anyone rolling their eyes at me – it’s the end result that’s important above all else. Treat the clients right and do your absolute best, that’s what I ask. I need each employee to have a brain and use it. If your idea is better than mine by all means let me know – it’s definitely a group effort with each project.

Our day winds down at 5:30. I’m pretty sincere about getting out at 5:30 — if you can’t get something done in a 40 hour work week you’re probably doing something wrong. Either that or your employees are spending too much time on Facebook. That’s the nice thing about having great clients and interesting projects – it keeps everyone on their toes trying new things, from design to programming to usability. Nothing really gets stale around here, and that’s how I like it.

eLW: Can you tell me about SurgerySquad.com and what you are doing there?
EB: Surgery Squad is a concept that’s been rolling around in my head for around 7 years — virtual surgery games, short and to the point — that the average person could explore to learn more about a condition before going under the knife. Some people find it entertaining, some people throw up or pass out, but either way we’re out to create a unique, community driven experience. The real background to SurgerySquad.com is to give my team a place to push themselves. Imagine not having a client and being able to do as you please — do something amazing or never seen before with no real development boundaries. Surgery Squad is a bit of a proving ground for us — where we push ourselves to create in one week a full surgery interaction from start to finish, and launch it live on the site. So far we’ve had a great response with over 100,000 unique visitors in around 3 months, a 6+ minute average stay time and low bounce rates. Our only problem is that we can’t launch new surgeries fast enough for the fans of the site. We’re currently adding to our staff to help address this so we can get in position to grow quite a bit in 2011. My hope is to some day soon hit the 100 surgery mark on the site to have a little something for everyone.
And I thought learning was supposed to make people throw up! Now for a few personal questions that will really give readers a chance to get to know you.

eLW: You are a dad with incredible flash programming skills–do your kids know about that–have you ever made elearning or Flash movies for your kids?
EB: My daughter (3) always asks me to play the robot game (simple machines on http://www.edheads.org) that I programmed and did the robot voice for. She probably just thinks of what I do as fun games but has no concept that I did them. I do tend to slip my kids, friends and other interesting names and easter egg type references into our projects. Hopefully some day she’ll drag me into school for a show and tell session, I would love to make something just for her!
eLW: I know you are not a big cell phone guy, but is there some gadget or appliance or something techy that you can’t live without?
EB: Seeing I thought about this for five minutes or so and couldn’t come up with a single thing, I’m going to say no. That’s probably going to be interesting though these days — someone not into social networking, email at nights, smart phones or touching a computer over the weekend. Now that’s cutting edge! In all honesty, I spend all day every day on a computer — any device that lets people get in touch with me easier any time of the day takes away from my family time. And I love nothing more than spending time with my kids. That might be sappy sounding, but, it’s what I need after staring at a monitor 40 hours a week.
eLW: What is the best movie you’ve seen in a theatre recently?
EB:The fact that I’ve recently seen a movie at all is what amazes me. Between work, newborn baby, and a 3-year-old I’m generally stuck to Netflix at best. I went out by myself and saw Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows the other week.. so by default it was the best movie I’ve seen recently.
eLW: Where is the craziest place you’ve been on earth?
EB:Crazy might not be the word for it, but the most amazing place I’ve ever been was Maui, Hawaii. Swimming with giant sea turtles, amazing views, volcanoes, great coffee, and everything that’s not in Louisville, Kentucky. I’d love to go back there, but it would have to be for longer than a week which is how long the jet lag lasted.
eLW: Thank you, Eric. One last question for our readers who like networking: will you be attending any conferences, or where can people find you online?
EB: I’m a bit of a homebody… willing to travel if asked but the last conference I spoke at was in 2004, so it’s been a while. I would love to attend the eLearning Guild conference this year — so I’m looking into that. For now though the best place to find me is at ClearlyTrained.com.

Be sure to check out many of Bort’s elearning modules for free at Clearly Trained.


Quick and Dirty Video Production August 21, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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I’ve become a big fan of the site, readitfor.me, which provides "the world’s most engaging book summaries" in video form. My friend (and incredible business/leadership consultant), John Spence, told me about this site and I’ve been glued to it ever since. Essentially, Steve Cunningham reads mainstream business books and then produces a short, entertaining video summarizing his take on the book. (Note: The image below links to a large version of one of the videos.)

Here Comes Everybody

You can see that this is a simple yet highly effective way to get a message across to your users / learners. Steve’s style reminds me of CommonCraft videos, which use pseudo-animation and paper cut-outs to communicate a message. Here’s an example:

Both styles use an informal, relaxed approach along with seemingly low-budget, low-quality video production. To be clear, I mean that in a good way. Essentially, these aren’t polished productions.

I wanted to show these examples and bring up the fact that video production is getting easier and the tools are getting cheaper every day. It’s now much more conceivable to create videos to help communicate concepts to our learners, rather than using typical eLearning consisting of bullet points, static text, and images. I also think it’s important to show these videos because they prove that visual perfection is not required; content is king, and you’ll be fine as long as the content is accurate (and entertaining). You can create videos like this using only a shoestring budget and a little imagination.

Here are some tools to consider for quick and dirty video projects:

  • Flip video camcorders are around $200 and I keep hearing that they do a wonderful job.
  • Jing is a screen-capture and screencasting tool that I’ve mentioned before. The basic version is free and I can’t say enough about how much I love Jing.
  • Captivate and Camtasia can help you assemble more complicated projects that include video, text, images, audio clips, etc. Once finished, you can export your project as a .swf (Flash file) and embed it on any web page.
  • Audacity can be used for editing audio. It’s free.
  • If you want to get fancy, there are a few YouTube-like systems you can set up at your organization to house video: PHPMotion (open source) and ClipShare are two examples.

What tips / tools have I left off? Have you attempted anything similar at your organization? If so, I’d love to hear about it…

DevLearn 2008 – Day 2 Recap November 14, 2008

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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I kicked off Day 2 at DevLearn by facilitating a Breakfast Byte session on DevLearn Live!, which is the collection of Web 2.0 apps we’re using regularly this week. Not many people showed up, but Wendy Wickham, Matt Wolf, and I spent the time well by discussing our current projects, our impressions of DevLearn, favorite technologies / tools, and more. It was a great way to start the day.

Next, I went to the keynote by Dan Roam, author of  The Back of the Napkin. Here’s a summary of my notes from the keynote:

  • We can solve nearly all problems with pictures. Once we start to think from a visual perspective, things become more clear.
  • Whoever best describes the problem is the one most likely to solve it.
  • Whoever draws the best picture gets the funding.
  • Always be thinking: “How can I explain this situation in a simple drawing or a napkin sketch?”
  • The more human your picture, the more human your reponse. The mind likes to look at pictures that map to the way we see the world.
  • Any problem can be broken down into six pieces:
    1. Who/what (Draw using a portrait)
    2. How much (Draw using a chart)
    3. Where (Draw using a map)
    4. When (Draw using a timeline)
    5. How (Draw using a flowchart)
    6. Why (Draw using a multi-variable plot / graph)
  • Southwest Airlines was started on the back of a napkin in Texas. Two entrepreneurs said they would create an airline that would fly between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. They drew a triangle on a napkin to represent the flight pattern. They started simple and they succeeded. And if you fly Southwest today, you’ll see that they still print their flight routes on their cocktail napkins. Nice homage.
  • When it comes to visual thinking, there are three types of people: Black pen (people), yellow pen (people), and red pen (people). Black pen people will jump up and run to the whiteboard to draw their thoughts (that’s me). Yellow pen people say, “I can’t draw” – but they’ll eventually draw. Red pen people say, “I’m not visual. I’m not going to draw anything.” They’ll only get up to draw when they’re pissed off. 🙂
  • If you’re having trouble getting started on a blank canvas, JUST DRAW. Getting over the inital mark on the page is the hardest part. Start with ‘Me’ and ‘My problem’.
  • Need to sketch something on your PC? PowerPoint’s presentation mode provides a great drawing tool that most people don’t know about!

Here are the sessions I attended today…

406 – Managing Learning in a Web 2.0 – and Beyond – World (Lance Dublin)

  • Slides available here.
  • Lance Dublin is great at asking uncomfortable questions to get everybody’s minds thinking differently. If you attend one of his sessions, it’s very likely that he’ll put you on the spot for something. (Ex. “How do you define eLearning?”).  I enjoy the challenge.
  • Web 2.0 and so-called Learning 2.0 has caused us to re-examine how we learn, but has it really changed  us?
  • Lance argued that learning hasn’t changed, only technology has changed. If we look at how humans learn – how we acquire, absorb, encode, and use information – the core skills haven’t changed much over time. Sure, we have fancy new tools to help us organize the information, but we are still learning the same.
  • Lance believes there should be an area of learning called ‘non-formal’ learning. This is when people intentionally learn information in an informal way. (He states that informal learning takes place unexpectedly in an informal way.) It’s an interesting idea, and I bet the concept is easier for upper management to understand; informal learning has always seemed a little too relaxed for some people to see as valuable. Then again, this could all juts be semantics.
  • Lance believes the Learning 2.0 movement consists of these elements:
    • Rapid
    • Mobile
    • Immersive
    • Collaborative
    • Non-formal (rather than informal)

508 – Global e-Learning: Overcoming the Obstacles (Maarten Fleurke and Paul T. Liotti)

  • Admittedly, I didn’t stay through this whole session. The content was decent, but I didn’t see myself applying it any time soon at work (if ever at all). It was a bit more specific than I expected; I was hoping to get bigger-picture strategies for planning global projects. No worries, though. The room was packed and everybody seemed to enjoy the session.
  • Use qualified linguists for translations; don’t shortcut the process by using friends, family, etc. True linguists will be much less likely to make grammatical and spelling mistakes. (Plus, mistakes are expensive to fix, especially if audio or video is involved.)
  • There are no quick fixes when it comes to localization/ translation.
  • 30-45% of a course’s budget could easily go to voice talent and translation expenses (wow).

605 – Using Flash CS3 and AIR to Build Desktop Applications (Dan Carr)

  • Dan was a very laid back presenter, but he definitely knows his stuff. I liked his style; it was easy for me to tune in and absorb lots of great Flash / AS3 / AIR info from him.
  • Building a basic AIR app (desktop Flash app) is much easier than I realized.
  • Dan walked through an example AIR application that could write to an XML file on the desktop. It was simple and straightforward. I believe he will post his example files here, so keep an eye out.

I ended the night by having dinner with Barbara Ludwig. Now, time for bed. DevLearn is wearing me out!

Flash Player Coming to the iPhone March 19, 2008

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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Well, here’s another reason why I may consider getting an iPhoneAdobe‘s CEO, Shantanu Narayen, recently spoke about developing a Flash player for the iPhone during the Adobe Q1 investor relations call. Narayen said:

“Well, you know, we really believe that Flash is synonymous with the Internet and frankly anybody who wants to browse the Web and experience the Web in all its glory really needs Flash support. I mean, we were very excited about the announcement from Windows mobile adoption of Flash on their devices and the fact that we’ve shipped a half billion devices now, non-PC devices — so we’re also committed to bringing the Flash experience to the iPhone and we’ll work with Apple. We’ve evaluated the SDK we can now start to develop the Flash Player ourselves. And, we think it benefits our joint customers so we want to work with Apple to bring that capability to the device.”

Now, I won’t claim the iPhone is the ultimate eLearning/mLearning tool, but the addition of the Flash player certainly gives it TONS more possibilities. I just hope they find a way to make it easy on developers (ex. no special licensing). And I hope it’s a full version of the Flash player, not a lite version.

Found via Silke’s blog. Read the full scoop at the Flash Devices blog.

Teacher Training Videos October 10, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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I ran across a great resource today: a web site that provides free tutorial movies that can help you better integrate learning and technology. The site is Teacher Training Videos, created by Russell Stannard. Russell is a principal lecturer at the University of Westminster.

Some of his tutorial movies include:

On the site, Russell says, “Look out for the new videos on Moodle, Facebook & social networks and 2nd Life.” I look forward to them. Thanks, Russell!