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An e-Learning Tool Revolution

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategistby Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Many e-learning professionals gathered in San Francisco November 3-5 for the DevLearn 2010 Conference.  I was there making a couple presentations and working in the Allen Interactions booth in the expo hall.  It was especially gratifying to meet so many people who let me know that they are regular readers of this blog; it’s great to be able to be aware directly of where these opinions end up.  Allen Interactions had a highly visible presence at the conference, announcing the official Private Beta Program for a new authoring system, currently under development and code-named Zebra. 

Without getting into too many details, the core idea that drives the system is that every single defining property for objects, including the logical and dependent relationships between the objects, are unified in a display that also includes the visible components.  When authoring, a designer can deal with the graphical elements and the logical elements concurrently without any obstructions.  While this description is accurate, I don’t expect you to fully imagine what this really means until you get a chance to see it in action.  But believe me when I say that it offers a level of control and power to non-programmers that is unprecedented.


The experience of using it has really illustrated for me in a fresh way why current authoring systems always fall so short. The challenge of designing instruction for computer delivery is how to craft an experience that engages the learner and creates unique opportunities for that learner to solve challenges.  Instructional interactivity is at the core of this design process.  Ideally, an authoring tool ought to put the designer at the center of manipulating interactivity.

But thinking of the tradition of authoring systems over the last couple decades, it’s clear how they fail to focus the designer on actual interactivity.  Authorware, one of my favorite design tools that is sadly no longer supported, allowed the designer great flexibility, but the central metaphor of the flowline was about sequence and branching.  Authorware programs were often masterpieces of intricate branching, but it still could be a challenge to really orchestrate intricate concurrent interactive elements.  The core of Flash focuses on linear animation, so Flash e-learning often has a preponderance of effects and smooth display elements existing within relatively simplistic structures.  Enhancing that involves highly-technical Action Script programming which ends up sacrificing “design” to “programming structure.”  Articulate is mainly about inserting questions into PowerPoint presentations, and thus the design process often reduces to writing test questions and manipulating superficial presentation aspects within PowerPoint.   Both Captivate and Lectora provide a great deal of flexibility, but the interactions tend to be more of the question-asking variety than creating interactivity as many of the basic building blocks are really about questions and how to answer them.  Tools that simply focus on adding high end media elements on top of simplistic structures often end up with e-learning that isn’t really that interesting but has a feel of having been “bedazzled.”

All this is a roundabout way of acknowledging the basic problem that regardless of our good intentions we end up using a tool to just do more of what it is good at producing.  Since none of these tools really let the designer operate at the level of interactive experience, it often seems to be the interactivity that falls short of ideal.  What is so exciting to me about the possibilities that Zebra suggests is that for the first time in my recollection designers will be able to directly and easily manipulate those design elements that define instructional interactivity--Context, Challenge, Activity, and Feedback--in a seamless design environment.  Of course, we’re just beginning this journey and there is much unknown about the significance that Zebra might have, but for the first time in a long time, I feel optimistic about authoring potential, which has been rather stalled in its tracks for almost 15 years.  I can imagine this dramatically increasing the influence that instructional designers can have in the overall creating of outstanding e-learning applications.

For any of you who were not in attendance at DevLearn and would like to know more, visit www.joinzebra.com for more information about the project and the possibility of serving as an initial Beta tester.