Screencast Workflow Best Practices

Female hands typing on comuter keyboardWe recently created a number of screencasts for clients to support software training. As public-facing screencasts for enterprise software, the standards had to be very high. That meant 1 single person couldn’t do everything; we needed a professional voice actor, a software SME, and someone from our team to take care of instructional design and editing. While we’ve certainly created many screencasts, I looked online for workflow best practices for creating high-quality screencasts with multiple resources.

Unfortunately, very little guidance and a lot of complaints were all that I could find. For this type of screencast you can’t wing it; having the SME record the video and then building a script around it just doesn’t work. And getting the voiceover work done prematurely, without proper planning, tends to mean rework. So what’s the best approach?

While it might not work for every situation, we’ve developed an approach to screencasting that generally works well for Uncanny Owl. Here are the steps we follow:

  1. Plan everything. We start off by looking at the planned outcomes and objectives. What does the learner need to get out of the screencast? What’s the best way to achieve it using the software? This certainly requires a lot of collaboration with an SME and production of a draft script. We can have the software up on the screen and walk through exactly what the learner needs to see and how best to explain it.
  2. Record the video. The SME does the actual interaction with the software while someone from our team observes the recording to do initial script reconciliation and verifying that the pace is appropriate. With 2-3 good takes, there’s typically enough video to perform a more detailed reconciliation and to tailer the script as needed. If anything needs to be recaptured, it can be done almost immediately. It may even help to have someone read the script while the SME is performing the activities.
  3. Finalize the script. This needs to get as close as perfect as possible before it goes to the voice actor. Try recording it yourself and listen to it both with and without the video to make sure it flows well and is straightforward to learners.
  4. Record the audio track. Since the voice talent may not have the video context to work with, include directional cues in the script as required.
  5. Put everything together. Cut the audio up and add it to the video, syncing everything so it seems like the person interacting with the software is the same person speaking. Add or shorten the video as appropriate, and make sure any edits don’t hurt the pacing or cause problems with mouse movements. Once that’s all done, the screencast is ready for publishing!

That workflow has produced generally good results for us, but we’d love to hear your tips for better screencasts in the comments.

How to Save Money on eLearning Projects

Business reportSometimes the elearning solution you want costs more than you want to spend (or more than you can spend!). Balancing budget and scope is always a challenge, and the cost of elearning can vary widely depending on the context and requirements. According to a 2010 research report by the Chapman Alliance, the cost of a 1-hour elearning course might average as little as $10k for a basic, linear course with static media to as much as $50k for a highly interactive and dynamic program. In this article, we’ll look at some ways to keep your project costs lower when you work with elearning vendors.

Make sure your goals and objectives are clearly defined before including any outside parties in an elearning project. What do you really need and what are the expected outcomes? Risk and unknowns are going to increase quote costs and potentially lead to expensive rework late in the project. The more you can define and prepare up front, the less you’ll need to spend.

Keep everything as simple as possible. Use animation and interactivity sparingly to improve knowledge transfer, not just to look good. Think about what really needs to be custom and what existing resources can be leveraged.

Compile all of your subject material and organize it for easy hand-off. This step can  save a lot of time by eliminating expensive research and review cycles. Where material does exist, but may not be in a format suitable for easy incorporation into elearning, make improvements. Make everything as simple and straightforward for the vendor as possible (if they can see what will be provided up front to better assess their effort, they can lower the price accordingly).

Reduce review and testing requirements. Maybe 1 or 2 reviews with 3 people in a room is enough rather than 3 rounds with 6 people that’s conducted by email with updates in between. When it comes time to test the elearning, maybe testing on 3 platforms is enough with a handful of users rather than significant cross-platform testing and a large pilot group.

All of these ideas should help lower costs while not significantly changing the scope and outcomes of your project. Try doing whatever you can in-house and make the vendor experience as easy and straightforward as possible.

If you have any other tips, feel free to add them in the comments below!

WordPress the LMS: Working with LearnDash

LearnDash is a low-cost Learning Management System (LMS) plugin for WordPress.  Installing it adds LMS features to your WordPress instance, including courses, quizzes, certificates and progress reports.  In this post, I’ll review some of the ins and outs of working with LearnDash and how we used it to create Grade Hacks, our study skills program.

Installation

The WordPress admin menu after installing LearnDash.

The WordPress admin menu after installing LearnDash.

Installation of LearnDash is as straightforward as installing any plugin in WordPress.  You purchase the plugin at learndash.com, download the .zip file, and upload it to WordPress through the Plugins page.  Doing so adds new menu items to your WordPress admin panel including Lessons, Courses, Quizzes and Certificates and Advanced Quiz.

Setting up courses

Setting up your first course in LearnDash involves creating a course, then creating a lesson and associating it with the course.  If you wish to further divide your content you may create a topic and link it with a lesson*, or create a quiz and link it to a lesson.

Because the admin interface is organized by content type (course, lesson, topic, quiz) rather than by course, setting up a course is a bit of a disjointed process. You are constantly jumping between the the course, lesson, topic and quiz screens, linking them all together with course associations.  Many LMS platforms have you “select” or “enter” a course, with any subsequent actions you take applied automatically to that course.  It’s a more natural way of thinking and working because users tend to focus on one course at a time.  But due to the way LearnDash uses WordPress custom post types to implement the course, lesson, topic and quiz objects, creating that type of editing paradigm isn’t possible.

Thankfully, you eventually get used to jumping around and if you only have a few courses to develop it works quite well.  But if you intend to have many courses, with no way to filter lessons by course or topics by lesson, it could become tedious to find what you’re looking for.

After setting up a course, you must also  provide a way for users to access the course on the site’s front end, either through a menu or a link on some other page on your site.  You can link to the specific course or the default course list page (at /courses).

Creating content

A customized LearnDash lesson page.

A customized LearnDash lesson page.

Other than quizzes, LearnDash does not provide any content creation tools beyond the standard WordPress post/page authoring interface.  We leveraged the excellent Visual Composer plugin to set up some nice page layouts with sections to related resources and exercises.  We used Articulate Storyline to create content that provided a more immersive, interactive experience than static text and images.  Using shortcodes, we then embedded the Storyline content in several formats to target the various devices our users may be using to view the content.  On desktop and laptop, we instructed WordPress to display the Flash-based Storyline content, as this was “truest” to what we saw in the Storyline authoring environment.  On iPad, the content was displayed in the Articulate Player app, which provided a nice “native” experience for the learner. On other platforms, the system falls back to HTML5.

For quiz creation, LearnDash currently offers the most powerful assessment tools of any WordPress-based LMS, unfortunately wrapped in an awkward interface.  Functionality is accessed through standard or advanced quiz types, with standard being too basic for many applications and advanced offering a dizzying array of options.  Both types use  different interfaces for managing questions and you can’t switch between the two, so you may find yourself halfway through the creation of a standard quiz only to realize you need the functionality of an advanced quiz and have to start over.  The quiz UI could really use an overhaul that creates a single, unified quiz interface that exposes the most commonly used controls while hiding the rest for power users.

User Experience

The default course homepage using the "Twenty Fourteen" WordPress template.

The default course homepage using the “Twenty Fourteen” WordPress template.

Out of the box, the LearnDash user experience is quite good, providing an intuitive course/lesson/topic structure which works well for most situations.  Visually, course and lesson pages were redesigned in the version 1.5 release and now provide a simple, pleasing interface to the user.  You’ll run into small niggles here and there though; for example, after successfully completing a quiz, the learner must then click a button labeled “Click here to continue” for their progress to be recorded.  If they instead leave the quiz by some other method or close the window, their progress is lost and they are forced to retake the quiz.  The plugin author is aware of this issue and has promised a fix.

The experience of using WordPress as an LMS is also not without its quirks.  Logging into WordPress does not, by default, change the site’s menus or navigation, which means that logged-in users may have a hard time distinguishing between marketing pages and paid content.  We used the Nav Menu Roles plugin to display different menu items to logged-in users, which created the impression of a separate public site and learner portal.

Customizability

LearnDash provides a number of options for customizing your LMS, as well as shortcodes for outputting various types of LearnDash content on any page or widget.  Like most plugins, LearnDash can be customized through CSS overrides in your template files or a CSS plugin.  Advanced developers used to working with WordPress hooks, however, will be disappointed. LearnDash includes few actions and filters, and those that are included are poorly documented.  LearnDash also does not support template overrides, so for major customizations you’re stuck making changes to core files.

Support

The LearnDash plugin author, Justin Ferriman, is very responsive to customer feedback and maintains an active support forum available to paying customers only.  Users who post a question will usually receive a response within a day.

Conclusion

LearnDash is probably the most full-featured LMS plugin available for WordPress today.  It’s still early in its development, but it’s being updated quickly and once you get used to it you’ll find it’s capable of delivering a solid experience for your learners at a low cost.

In a future blog post we’ll cover the ins and outs of using LearnDash and WooCommerce to sell your courses online.

*In version 1.5.0.0, in addition to assigning topics to lessons you must also assign them to courses for them to be tracked properly.  This seems redundant since you assign topics to lessons, which are themselves assigned to courses, and will hopefully be updated in a future release.

What BYOD Means for eLearning

BYOD eLearningBring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies are quickly gaining enterprise support and many elearning programs aren’t ready. In the past, elearning professionals could design and test for a handful of devices and be confident that their materials would work. That’s all changing. A 2013 Cisco study revealed that 9 in 10 Americans currently use their phones for work purposes, and 62% of companies planned to support BYOD officially by the end of 2013.

In a recent article on eLearning Industry, I reflected on the effect BYOD will have on elearning. Design and testing will require significantly more attention, and testing tools like Sauce Labs and eLearningQA may soon become part of the elearning professional’s arsenal. Mobile and HTML5 will also figure heavily into BYOD elearning strategies.

To find out more, check out the full article .

First eLearning Project? Start Here

elearning projectA lot of our website visitors come from Google and are looking into elearning for the first time. I’m sure it’s the same for many elearning companies; new clients find you because they need web-based training, but they don’t necessarily know what’s involved or how projects work. We really want people to know we’re a trusted partner that’s looking out for their best interests, so we decided to put together some guidance to help businesses tackle their first elearning projects.

To help businesses, Uncanny Owl now offers a free 7-day email course to introduce businesses to elearning projects. We don’t want to mislead businesses or sell services that don’t add significant value, so the email program we created is simply to help businesses make informed choices, whether it’s with us or with someone else. We cover whether or not elearning is the right choice, how to prepare for elearning, how to promote success, how to choose a vendor, how to manage implementations and how to measure outcomes.

If you’re a business interested in elearning, sign up below to learn more about elearning projects!


If you’re another vendor reading this blog and want to create something similar, we’re happy to provide some technical details. The sign-up form is integrated into a few pages on our website with custom code, but there are great plugins available if you have room in your sidebar. The form is linked to a Mailchimp list, which is where we set up Autoresponders to deliver staggered emails. The course content is all original; if you offer something similar, please don’t steal our lessons! :)

We hope you enjoy the course!

Migrating Manuals to iPads & Tablets – Part 1

offline ipadThe request sounds simple enough: take paper-based training manuals and turn them into something that’s iPad-friendly. There are lots of iPad apps that support formats like Word, PDF and EPUB, so how difficult could it be? The problem is that very few apps provide all of the key benefits of going paperless, such as centralized syncing with offline viewing, version control, embedded audio and video, easy navigation and linked documents.

Here were the client’s requirements:

  • a simple development workflow that avoided complicated and expensive authoring tools
  • the ability to push out updated guides automatically
  • offline viewing when no internet connection was available
  • embedded videos
  • links between guides

First Attempt, First Failure

We started with a Word to Adobe Acrobat workflow. This lets authors create everything they need, publish to PDF and then add multimedia and hyperlinks in Acrobat with minimal training. To take care of automatic updates and offline syncing, we decided to use Dropbox. It pushes files out automatically when an internet connection is available and “favourite” files are available offline. Dropbox also supported embedded video (one of few PDF readers that did). Unfortunately, it didn’t support links between files, but that was identified as a non-critical requirement that we could work around.

This solution worked well until Dropbox released version 3.0 for iOS halfway through the project. Video capability was dropped. Where video used to be, a big white box now greeted users.

The Solution

The Dropbox update meant we had to find a new solution. Luckily we discovered Documents by Readdle, which supported syncing with Dropbox, video in PDFs, and, surprisingly, links between documents. Syncing worked, video worked, updates worked, and best of all, the app was completely free. Our Word to Acrobat to Dropbox to Readdle Documents solution worked and was well received by the client.

Of course, some tradeoffs had to be made to keep things simple and cost-effective. Content updates can be challenging because they require republishing Word files and adding multimedia and hyperlinks in Acrobat again. Our client expects very infrequent updates, so it works for our needs, but might not work for other situations. Syncing is also a bit cumbersome in that the Documents app has to be open for the sync to happen; it’s not as simple as just having the iPad within wireless range for updates to be pulled down. Someone has to open the app.

After developing this solution, we were asked to create an alternative for iPads that will always have an internet connection. Stay tuned for our solution!

Pitching eLearning to Small Businesses

small business elearningI’m still new to elearning consulting and marketing my business. My partner and I have a really broad set of skills, so we started off by saying we did “everything”, which of course meant that nobody knew what Uncanny Owl did. Worse, our networks aren’t that big (I was at the same company for 9 years) and we quickly discovered that all of the big corporate projects we could do in our sleep weren’t interested in an unknown company with a small team. Forget Google; they only found companies through word of mouth and existing relationships. Of course, even though we knew that, we continued to pitch to the big companies in big company language because that’s all we knew.

That changed a few days ago. I went to my first networking workshop hosted by our regional chamber of commerce. My original plan was to make an appearance and find out what they do, knowing that there are very few big companies in the region and even fewer doing elearning. How much benefit could there really be in talking to small business owners? So I started the morning talking about what I thought I did (“I create online training for large corporate audiences”) and had some awkward discussions. But I kept talking to people, and I kept listening to figure out if there was a way I could help them.

As it turned out, there was. The small business owners I met shared some similar traits: they had a lot of expertise, they wanted to grow, and they were open to new ideas. Some of them actually offered training and coaching locally. Others had products or services that weren’t easy to understand. These were all problems that we could help with! We can sell expertise and make things simple with elearning. Our big local competitors weren’t targeting this market at all and, as luck would have it, we’re one of the few companies with a lot of expertise in learning platforms that integrate an LMS with WordPress, which many small companies use for their websites.

So I changed my pitch. And now we have a few leads, a few new contacts, and some new opportunities to pursue. We even have a new services page to try to reach out to this market (we’re still tweaking it!). The projects and budgets may not be as big, but it’s an interesting market that not many elearning companies seem to be targeting.

Of course, maybe the other elearning companies know something that we don’t. We’re just hoping it’s the other way around.

Improving eLearning Usability

elearning usability testingWhat makes people want to use your elearning? How do you remove barriers to learning and make your programs accessible?

I recently examined these and other questions in an article on elearning usability published by trainingindustry.com. It’s available online at http://www.trainingindustry.com/learning-technologies/articles/improving-e-learning-usability.aspx.

It isn’t hard (or expensive) to make your elearning easy to use and engaging, but it is something that needs to be planned. Good elearning should consider the quality of the learning, the quality of teaching, the quality of the learning environment and the quality of interaction. If you create elearning that’s strong in all of those areas and is relevant, learners will get more out of it. Your learner’s time is valuable and should be spent learning the subject matter, not your system.

Testing for usability issues in elearning should also be on every learning professional’s radar. This is not something you and your team can do yourselves; you’re too close to the project, as are your other key stakeholders. Get testers who are representative of the audience, plan your testing, and make sure you observe rather than coach. For professional help with elearning usability testing, take a look at eLearningQA.com.

Introducing eLearningQA

eLearningQA

At Uncanny Owl, we like to experiment with new product ideas. Our latest is a service called eLearningQA and it’s targeted at elearning professionals.

In our experience, many elearning companies and designers don’t have a strong grasp of testing. Learners are rarely (or superficially) involved in the development process, even though their use of the elearning ultimately determines a project’s success of failure. Moreover, elearning professionals typically do technical testing themselves using platforms and devices that don’t necessarily reflect what their audiences are doing. With the rise of Bring Your Own Device environments, mobile learning and bigger audiences, robust testing is becoming even more important. Unfortunately, many companies don’t have the tools or expertise to perform testing themselves.

We created eLearningQA to try to address that gap. It focuses on 4 testing areas to improve elearning programs: usability testing (is it easy for the audience to use?), cross-platform testing (does it work for everyone?), load testing (will our LMS go down when the launch email goes out?) and expert feedback (is it actually a good program?). Most elearning companies can’t do these things themselves, especially with objectivity. They may not have the tools or people to perform neutral usability testing, but it’s essentially that they really know if their programs are easy to navigate and use before launch. And how many companies can perform both manual and automated testing to make sure their elearning works on the 20+ desktop and mobile platforms their learners use? Or see how their LMS holds up when 500 learners are in there at once? Even if companies can track down people and tools to support testing, few will understand how to interpret the results and take appropriate corrective action.

Once companies start realizing the importance of testing and see how much it can improve programs, we hope they turn to eLearningQA. We can perform or coordinate all of that testing, and even better, we can interpret the results and suggest practical and cost-effective strategies to make improvements. After all, if companies have the opportunity to spend 3% of their budget to deliver a better program that improves learning outcomes by 20%, wouldn’t they consider it? We hope so, and that’s why we’re testing the market to see if there’s a place for eLearningQA.

Cloud LMS Security

HackerThinking about using a cloud LMS? They’re convenient, easy to maintain and scalable. But how safe are they?

I recently wrote an article for eLearning Industry about the security practices of cloud LMS vendors. What I found wasn’t particularly reassuring. With few exceptions, cloud LMS providers don’t perform security audits, they don’t deliver your data over secure connections exclusively and they store all of your personal and learner data (except passwords) in plain text.

Using a cloud LMS product carries additional risk if you care about where your data is stored. One of our recent projects included a requirement that data not be stored in the U.S. Since all cloud LMS providers seem to host in the U.S., we couldn’t use any of them! Moreover, most providers use Content Delivery Networks to provide a better experience, which means they use servers close to your users to deliver your courseware and, as a result, your learning is potentially stored in dozens of countries.

When you’re shopping for a cloud LMS solution, make sure you do your homework and ask lots of questions. Are their security practices aligned with your expectations? Your clients trust you with their information; make sure you can put just as much trust in your LMS.

Check out the original article here: http://elearningindustry.com/cloud-based-lms-is-your-data-safe-in-the-cloud