This article was originally published in the 2013 Q2 issue of the STC IDeaL newsletter.
About a year ago, my high-tech company put together a small team to create an eLearning version of the instructor-led classroom training they’d offered for a decade. The training is crucial because technicians must be certified before they can work on our products. The new eLearning certification course was developed and launched in just three months to coincide with the new software release.
After a slow start, enrollment steadily increased until revenue from the eLearning courses approximated the instructor-led training by the end of the year. Not only the certification course, but also the optional end-user training took off as word of mouth spread. One of our key clients volunteered:
“I have taken lots of industry training, including Microsoft, and [this] training is one of the best.”
That feedback was warmly appreciated, as we’d basically started from scratch.
What We Had
Previous versions of eLearning courses took the form of PowerPoint slides featuring floating bullet points summarizing the classroom content, with the occasional graphic dropped in. Audio consisted of an instructor reading the bullet points into an often-noisy headset microphone. We included some software demos, but the player was quite basic and the quiz capability extremely limited.
Our primary learners are technicians who, as in many other industries, fall into two main groups: very hands-on, mechanically capable people (“cable pullers”) with limited computer experience, and computer super-users who know every keyboard shortcut coded in the software. Our challenge was to design eLearning that wouldn’t bore our super-users and wouldn’t intimidate the more computer-wary students, yet included the crucial content that would ensure an eLearning student could acquire the same skills required for certification as one who attended an instructor-led course. Further, our technicians are typically reluctant readers. Simply shortening the text wouldn’t help; even good readers find it difficult to comprehend text that says one thing while the soundtrack is saying another.
A New Approach
During the planning phase of the project, I attended a presentation hosted by the Denver Metro E-Learning Developers group. During the demo, I was struck by how little text appeared on the slides. Often a slide was simply a picture and perhaps one caption, with the audio supplying the relevant content. I thought a purely visual presentation would map well to my audience’s needs, as well as simplify localization of the content, as there would be far less text and to update and resize in the target language.
I therefore proposed to our management: let me do an entire module with no text at all, just pictures. The audio will carry the content, and the pictures will reinforce the concepts. After years of bullet-point presentations, they couldn’t envision what this might look like. So I mocked-up a module over the weekend that used PowerPoint animation to complement the audio track. I played this simple movie to the full team that Monday—and had a roomful of converts. Text was officially out.
Despite the tight deadline, management wanted the new eLearning product to be a world-class effort. The Marketing department was engaged to design a professional look and provide good-quality graphics. An eLearning developer from another division introduced us to iSpring, a PowerPoint add-in tool with a built-in viewer that we customized with user support features and our company colors. PowerPoint provided our screen animations; the iSpring add-in supported video demos in Flash and MP4. iSpring also gave us a powerful quiz tool with a dozen graded question types and various feedback options. A random subset of questions could be imported into a timed final exam in a randomized order, to discourage students from sharing answers.
Good audio was recorded professionally in a local studio. We used both in-house and professional voice-over talent, and ultimately decided the in-house worked better, because a knowledgeable speaker could give the appropriate weight and phrasing to the technical content. I scripted each module in advance to ensure clear, efficient phrasing and receive technical sign-off before committing to the time and expense of audio and video recording.
For each software application demo, I’d rehearse the procedure while I developed the script, bearing in mind that the demo could show far more than the words alone. For example, the simple phrase “This tab is available in all application modes” is made memorable when the companion video actually shows the tab persisting while I click through multiple application modes. We turned on cursor highlighting to make it clear when we were actually clicking or right-clicking an object. We used pan and zoom techniques to emphasize the on-screen action and improve legibility within the electronic viewer.
The power of a demo cannot be emphasized enough. I turned a 250-page manual (which no technicians read) into one hour of video demos. The video presentation is far more effective than any book description, as demonstrated by the growing sales of the end-user training.
Conscious of my text bias, I examined every slide to find ways to make it more visually interesting. A static screen becomes boring after about 15 seconds. When I was synching audio to the module, if the screen stayed static too long, I went back and added more animations. A variety of entrance and exit effects, and movement of on-screen elements, help focus the learner on the content and sustain interest.
I was particularly gratified to receive this feedback from a customer who was also a professional trainer:
“The online Certification training course was very engaging and had lots of useful information. I like the way it was laid out with the quizzes at the end. The format ensures the student’s attention and I especially enjoyed the female voice.”
We are on the brink of launching an updated course with more animations, a concurrent practice lab, and improved information chunking. Future plans include support of mobile users and increased student interaction.