ELTM17: Empty Vessels and the Babbling Rabble

Content formats? Where should one start?

(As an aside, you may have noticed that the original blog has undergone mitosis with the eLearning content remaining at this URL and everything else moved over to the new Duck? Starfish? …But23 site. If you are a current follower of this blog and your interest is not primarily eLearning then you might consider switching your “follow” to the alter-ego site.)

Maybe a good first stop would be the Tower of Babel. Recall the story recorded in Genesis of how the ancient people’s arrogance in constructing a tower intended to reach the heavens themselves so angered the deity that he scrambled their speech, de-unifying the single language they once spoke so that, forevermore, they were destined to be scattered upon the face of the earth, never able to properly communicate.

How true that rings in the world of eLearning, but now it’s not so much about language but, rather about standards or more to the point, the lack of them. Years ago it was mainly about application-specific files. Remember the Word/WordPerfect/WordStar/etc. fun from the eighties and nineties? The dominant word processors never seemed too worried about making files that were inter-operable. It almost seemed that each gain was offered grudgingly, “we don’t really want you working with the other guy’s files but if you must we’ll get them to open but you can forget about the formatting being very useful.”

So, too, with eLearning; file formats, it seems, still have not really come very far. They all have their strengths but none, unfortunately, is an ideal for eLearning.

HTML and embedded graphics

This combination is fine for general usage but it has serious limitations. You can get it to depict anything that can be read on paper but there are always compromises. Math notation is particularly problematic. While there are solutions, most notably MathML, you still cannot get math notation, or for that matter anything besides text, to display consistently across browsers.

Besides, today’s consumers of online content have been conditioned to express extreme displeasure whenever they are confronted with something that does not allow interaction, show moving pictures or otherwise do things that move, distort or otherwise amuse. Complex prose, when subject to the whims of the semi- and fully-fledged-trolls who love to fill in the comment fields will ultimately fall victim to reams of complaints, most of which contain something like, “Holy wall of text, Batman!” or some other phrase they figure is unique and witty (which it is not; it is, more often, a pathetic admission of inability to grapple with complex thought).

Perhaps it’s best to consider this combination format as a good general purpose tool. A consideration of the audience is probably a good distinction point. For school-aged learners you need to acknowledge that (1) the reading ability and (2) the attention span have serious age-dependent limits. Limit both the length and depth of any given learning object paying particular attention to the age of the audience. Keep it as short as possible while still creating an age-appropriate degree of challenge. That is, strike a balance between easy & trivial and difficult & extended.

If this is a format you use often, be sure to obtain or create an appropriate css file and stick to it to ensure that the visual presentation is effective and consistent.

Video Formats such as MP4

Once shied away from, in general, owing to bandwidth restrictions it’s safe to say that these are now just fine for all but a very few applications, where even consumer-grade high-speed is unavailable. What’s more, even the most inexpensive hardware is now more than capable of doing the background work required to produce decent quality video-based learning objects. You can do a good enough job with even at $400 laptop or a smartphone, and using the software that typically comes free with any camera capable of doing video.

That said, there are still considerations that need to be attended to. Chief among these is the fact that there are few things more unpleasant than having to endure bad video. A video production using any combination of these flaws: shaky camera work, poor quality audio, choppy splicing and, most importantly, a poorly prepared storyboard and/or script is a total disaster.

Besides, those who read well can do so significantly faster than they can listen, so if the content does not expressly require the use of moving pictures you should consider at least supplementing the video presentation with either a transcript that can be quickly read or an audio file that can be listened to while exercising or commuting.

As a last comment it’s worth stating that while self-produced video now has every possibility of being of good quality there’s still no substitute for the degree of excellence that can come from a team-based approach. If you can find any way of funding the production using a professional crew go for it.

Adobe Flash (SWF)

This format is Compact and versatile and is, at least in theory, an ideal format for eLearning as it handles text, images, animation as well as sound and video. It does it all very well. Unfortunately it suffers from three fatal flaws: (1) it is proprietary, owned by Adobe and, as such, is subject to the whims of its owner; it requires an external plug-in/player. (2) SWF is inherently vulnerable, despite continuing efforts on behalf of its owner to plug the numerous security leaks and exploits, once discovered. And (3) Apple’s decision not to support the SWF on its IOS based (iPads, iPhones, IPods) devices means that use of this format in eLearning means it cannot be used by some of the most popular devices around; one step away from being a non-starter in public education if not private industry.

Notwithstanding the above complaints SWF continues to be a reliable workhorse (albeit something of an aging one). Adobe’s Flash product is still, hands down, the most versatile development platform from which to create powerful and creative interactive learning objects on a budget, assuming you have access to an appropriately trained multimedia professional. Yes, it is possible to learn how to “do it yourself” inasmuch as you can learn to play your own cello piece for your class introduction video. Just as most would find it much more efficient and, in the end, cheaper, to briefly engage a suitably trained musician for that task most instructors and instructional designers would judge it wise to do something similar.

But it turns out that if you choose to use Adobe Flash you don’t have to do that at all. Flash is not the only product that produces SWF files. Articulate’s Storyline and Studio (Around $1400 US each) as well as Adobe’s own Captivate ($20 US/month – subscription) can create SWF files either based on original content or from pre-existing content created in PowerPoint. All of these products are relatively easy to use by just about anyone—they can be learned in about a day of training and practice. In either case you can go as far as your current expertise and comfort level let you go. That is, after a couple of hours of training you can easily convert a PowerPoint presentation into a stand-alone presentation, including animations and narration, that a student can experience at a time of their choosing. With just a bit more training you can learn to add interactions (embedded questions, opportunities to do sorting and matching exercises and such) to the presentation.

The end result can be very professional and effective. In general, the result is as good as the content you have for it. For an experienced instructor, this is indeed a good option.

But there’s one big catch: SWF content cannot be properly viewed with iPhones and iPads. There are various web-based services that convert the SWF files, on the fly, to video which can be played but you generally lose the interactions—why you used SWF and not video in the first place—and the work-arounds are often sluggish and buggy. Still, if IOS compatibility is not an issue than SWF is an excellent choice.

HTML5

By using JavaScript to handle animation, this format offers, perhaps, the most hope for the future. Like SWF, HTML5 handles text, graphics, animations, audio and video very well but unlike SWF if does not necessarily require an external player and is not proprietary. It also runs on IOS based devices. Unfortunately it, too, suffers from serious flaws. (1) While it does not require a separate player it does require a modern, up-to-date browser. This means it will not run on older systems or on ones that, for corporate reasons, cannot use updated browsers. (2) HTML5 is not a “current” standard in that the project is still incomplete and will be in that state for several years to come. It short, HTML5 is still very much a moving target which brings us to (3) there is currently a lack of sophisticated, affordable development tools that can prepare content for this environment. It’s still very much limited to those who can either afford the expensive tools or who have programming skills and do not need them.

The aforementioned Articulate tools as well as Adobe Captivate, for example, do support HTML5. That is, they can produce HTML5 output. Unfortunately, at the time this was written (Feb. 2014) neither product fully supported the standard, Many of the interactions that the products supported could only be implemented when you output the file as SWF. If you choose, instead, to output your project as HTML5 you will only get a crippled version, one missing some of the interactions you designed in because the software cannot handle them yet in HTML5 format. In practical terms this means if you use those products you have to say either:
(1) Never mind HTML5, I will stick to SWF for now but may go back and republish as HTML5 if a later version supports what I need.
OR
(2) Never mind the complex interactions. I will remove them from the design and stick with a simpler, less interactive version of my design; one that is currently supported by the software.

In short, as I see it right now here is the situation with HTML5: There is a lot of hype and promise, both from the technical community developing the HTML5 standard and from the community of product providers, all anxious to be able to say, “our product does a GREAT job on HTML5.” Unfortunately, when you drill down and try do get some serious work done with it you will realize that to do the work properly either you will have to engage the services of highly trained professionals who can work with the expensive and complex tools that currently exist or you can dumb down your project to make it fit with the constraints that currently exist within the few user-friendly and affordable tools that currently exist.

Or you could wait 5 to 7 years for the technology to catch up. Just kidding.

In summary

So, where does that leave the instructor and developer? Unfortunately the answer is, “still very much up in the air.” No matter which way you turn you are faced with a world of compromises. The best advice is the following:

  • As always, focus first on the outcomes and on the learners. Take good stock of what it is you need the learners to be able to do at the end of the process.
  • Take a good hard look at the current content and strategies you have.
  • Make a judgment on how best to rework them for your online learners, given the constraints that have already been elaborated for each format, as well as the money, time and skills you can bring to the table.
  • Go ahead and develop with your best effort knowing full-well that we all live in a world of compromises. You can never do a perfect job—in fact; striving for perfection is an excellent way to stall completely in the here and now.
  • Put a mental time-stamp on your work. Give it a “best before” date. If you do that as you produce it you will be prepared—cognitively, emotionally and strategically—for the changes that will need to be made at some time in the future.
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ELTM16: The (Not So) Connected World

Where I live, connectivity is still far from ideal. My home (Newfoundland Labrador, CA) is twice the size of Great Britain, in area at least. The population is something else. At a little over a half-million people it doesn’t stack up very well against the 60 million that live in Great Britain. Think about it: less than one percent of the population lives in an area twice the size. That means lots of: almost impassable mountains, deep Fjords with no roads, wide open spaces between tiny communities, inhospitable coastlines, bogs, rivers and forests. My home is truly beautiful; a mostly unspoiled place where both flora and fauna are left to live away from the destructive meddlesome hand of humanity. We have a joke here: Q—How do you spot a Newfoundlander or Labradorian in heaven? A—they are the ones trying to get back home.

That’s just fine until you try to connect all of the communities with a single contiguous fibre –based digital network—essential infrastructure for a 21st century society and economy. Those mountains, rocks, bogs and rivers, coupled with the huge distances between subscribers don’t make for easy fibre-deployment. More importantly the relatively small number of subscribers could never hope to pay, straight up, for the cost. It doesn’t add up. Just take a look at two estimates, one worse than the other:

A conservative estimate for the cost of a said provincial network would be around $500 million just to build it, never mind run and maintain it. I’d estimate that the province would have around 100,000 subscribers so that’s a $5000 up-front cost for every subscriber if it’s to be a fee-for-service funding model. It gets worse, though. Roughly 350,000 of the people in the province live in cities or communities of a size where a provider might just be able to put together a business model for broadband, fibre-based connectivity. While it will not happen overnight it is reasonable to expect that it will happen in these places at roughly the same speed as it will happen in the rest of the rural sections of the developed world. That leaves roughly 150,000 people or roughly 35000 subscribers. Taking out the part of the build (roughly $100M) that is covered by the business case in the larger centres this means that the cost for the hard-to-reach subscribers now climbs to roughly $11,000 each. Amortized over 10 years, that would mean $140/mo per subscriber; significant;y more than the typical $50/mo charged! Expensive connectivity!

Granted, this is a simplistic model assuming a planned approach with few building compromises—a fast efficient network built for the long haul. We are not starting from scratch, though. All of the major internet Service Providers (ISPs) have partial fibre networks so if you wanted to get fibre everywhere you’d only have to concentrate on where it currently is not and work out an arrangement with the existing providers.

The ISPs also don’t have to structure their income in the way presented. Business customers have different needs from home consumers and can be expected to pay more for more.  Besides there’s always an argument that the information highway is a vital piece of public infrastructure to there’s a valid argument for tapping into our collective wealth—namely tax money—to subsidize this build and help make a proper business case.

There are, as I see it, several barriers to this. First, those in the larger centres already have access to fibre-based Internet at reasonable cost and do not want to subsidize the costs for those living in smaller, isolated communities. They don’t care that their fellow citizens have less access. “Why don’t they live here like I do?” they ask. Fair enough but those same people need to consider that many of the jobs in the larger centres do not grow the economy. Since they are retail and government based they (a) recycle existing wealth and (b) depend on those outport communities for the majority of their economy anyway. They also should consider that the jobs in the outports are, by contrast, ones that bring new money into the local economy. People in smaller centres either sell fish on the world market, work in mining, oil & gas which also exports to the world economy or commute to oil& gas jobs in places like Alberta, again bringing new money in to the province. Simply put, outport dollars are net contributors, not money recyclers. As such the people who live there deserve some sort of break.

Second, those in a position to do something about it (senior provincial and federal government officials and senior management at the ISPs) generally do not fully comprehend the real problem. Their blackberries work—that is they deliver voice and email—so the holders assume that all is, in fact, good enough. What’s more, the majority of them rarely, if ever, spend significant time in the communities where the problem exists. Here’s what they do not see: (a) just because you can get email does not mean that you have decent Internet—after all, you can get email over low-speed dialup (b) they’re not playing the right game anyway. Internet is not about downloading. Can I say that again? Internet is not about downloading.

Just the other day I had a conversation with a friend who is fairly influential and knowledgeable. (To my former colleagues—no this is not any of you nor is it about any of you.) (S)he said that things were looking up and that many of the more challenging schools and businesses would soon be guaranteed 5 megs (5 MBps)

I almost fell back. My cellphone gets around 50 megs on a bad day! My house has a 70 meg fibre line running into it and I often find it slow. There’s no way that 5 lousy megs can do what a school needs to be doing in this century.

It’s not about downloading. Get out of 1993! Sure, back then, people dialed in, downloaded their email and “surfed the web.” In both cases, here’s how that happened: the browser sent out a few small data packets containing your IP address and the URL of the “page” you wanted. It want to your ISPs centre where first the URL was looked-up and matched with its IP address and then it was routed (via a few hops; routers pass the packets along until they get to the right place) to the serving address. There, the server read your packets and assembled a few packets containing its IP, your IP and the data that comprised the page you wanted and then sent them back the same way. Simply put: you initiated a tiny burst of data packets and the server responded with another short burst. That was it. The two bursts only took a short time—sort of like automatic gunfire; you fired a couple of rounds and the opponent fired a few back. The majority—the VAST majority—of the time was silence. Yes you were connected for an hour or so but for the most of the time your computer would just periodically say “I’m still here” and the ISP’s server would respond “acknowledged.”

That’s not how it is now. When people connect now they have multiple channels open: Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, Pinterest, one or two online stores, a game or two and some sort of video-conference (Skype or Hangouts, maybe); probably multiple windows. It’s no longer a few bursts of packets. It’s more like a huge spray from a fire hose; a constant HUGE stream of data packets going to multiple destinations, both upstream and downstream.

And that’s just one user.

Look at the school situation. Ideally every single student is connected in this way all of the time. Perhaps it’s on a PC but it’s much more likely to be on multiple machines at the same time. The student is on a laptop but there’s also a cellphone or tablet nearby. At lunch time you can be sure that those devices will be joined by a slew of gaming machines (Sony PS/P and PS Vitas, Nintendo DSs, 3DSs and such) too.

And the oft-stated response? Either “They should not be doing that anyway,” or “There’s nothing we can do.”

Let’s be clear: this is not going away nor will it get any better. Students will not magically slack back on using digital equipment just because somebody says they should. Some—the rich ones—may find other ways: huge data plans, home based satellite systems and such. The less-well-off will, one supposes, be expected to just continue to exist in some decision-makers idea of how the Internet should be, namely the way in was in the 1990s when things were simply something else.

And that’s the way it is in my home province, a safe, secure and relatively prosperous place. I can only imagine how it is elsewhere.

So what should be done? Sadly, there is no simple solution. That’s fine, though, we should expect that complex problems should have equally complex solutions. A combination of these should help:

  • Smaller communities should band together, combine financial resources, hire consultants and apply for the provincial and federal grants that are available. They do exist at both levels but are not really utilized to the fullest potential. Both provincial and federal governments do have money available that can be used to upgrade local digital infrastructure.
  • As citizens we should continue to lobby politicians at all levels. While support is available it is still insufficient, especially for those in the most isolated regions such as Newfoundland’s south coast, and Northern Peninsula and most of Labrador.
  • Individuals should make themselves aware of other options that also exist. Perhaps it’s not possible to string fibre throughout a small community right now but if a single high-speed line could be brought in, perhaps a community-based Wi-Fi could be set up as a stop-gap until a full community build is feasible.
  • Finally, it’s high time that some of the larger providers and their shareholders stopped sanding all of the money away to the Caymans and, instead put some of it back to the communities from which it came.

As we roll further and further into the 21st Century we are becoming increasingly dependent on broadband services. The Internet is not an add-on, but, rather a vital part of everyday life, especially for our young people. Serious challenges posed by geography need to be met head-on with thoughtful deliberate efforts that balance equity with economy. Failure to do this will, in the end spell the death of the productive aspects of rural living. People will, in general, not settle for less than adequate connectivity and will, instead, choose to take their skills along with their social and economic contributions elsewhere.