Ethan Edwardsby Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Testing is inexplicably bound to our experiences with teaching and learning.  And standardized test formats have become the model for most e-learning interactions.  Four-option multiple choice questions (press a, b, c, or d) and True/False statements (press t or f) are the basic building blocks all the authoring tools provide the e-learning author.  Even when formats are expanded to provide more variety, it is surprising how limited the questions remain.  The templates for hot-spot interactions where the learner can click on an image instead of selecting a lettered response often require four images that must be identically sized and positioned in preset locations—hardly different than a standard multiple choice.

But it’s a real shame that these sorts of questions have become the standard for e-learning interactivity.  We need to remember that these formats didn’t arise because anyone thought they were good teaching methods; instead, it was because they were easier to grade on a large scale than other methods of questioning.

And even when we grade a learner as passing these questions, what does it tell us?  There are any number of reasons unrelated to the purpose of the question that might account for the student’s response (random guessing, educated guessing, misreading a question, responding to irrelevant aspects of the question [i.e., “the longest choice is always correct”], or simple user error [i.e., “My finger slipped”]. 

And besides, we know it takes rich experiences to actually facilitate learning.  I am a big fan of the practical significance of what M. David Merrill introduced as the First Principles of Instruction. In a nutshell, these principles state that instruction must be problem-centered, prior knowledge must be activated, expected outcomes must be demonstrated, learners must be given an opportunity to apply the knowledge, and then the new knowledge/skills should be integrated into everyday life.  Sadly, standard interactions that rely on simple recall and superficial question-answering behaviors (“press a”) do little to facilitate these necessary steps.

So what do we need instead?  We need interactions that present challenges that relate to real world performance.  We need activities where performance and repetition will encourage transfer to work environments.  We need rich simulated contextual environments where learners work toward solving meaningful problems.  We need immersive situations in which learners attend to intrinsic feedback to shape desired competencies.

There are many impediments to achieving this kind of learning, but most disappointingly, a critical failure is that the authoring tools available to designers and developers of e-learning are largely unsuited for facilitating learning.  Most are optimized to make it really easy to create the sort of e-learning that no one will benefit from.

It is this vein of thinking that is motivating my colleagues here at Allen Interactions in developing ZebraZapps. As this authoring and publishing platform continues to develop, it becomes more and more obvious how transforming this tool has the potential to be.  The significance of the old saying that “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is becoming obvious.  With most traditional authoring tools, everything looks like an opportunity to give a PowerPoint-like presentation and then ask simplistic test questions.  With ZebraZapps, the world looks like a place that demands meaningful, interactive environments with learners meaningfully engaged in manipulating objects, experimenting, and exploring, because that’s what it does most easily.

The video below shows an accelerated process of creating an interesting simulation about vision and eye function in ZebraZapps.  You can see that there’s nothing hidden or especially complicated; the designer/developer creates interactivity just by connecting properties with wires and adjusting values. Of course logic and good design are still needed, but there aren’t technical impediments.  And it’s fast!

If you’ve not looked at ZebraZapps, or if you just haven’t looked at it in awhile, I encourage you to go to and check it out.  You can still create a login that provides you free personal use of the system, and there are a number of great new enhancements being rolled out in conjunction with the ASTD ICE event in Denver in a couple weeks that extend the authoring and also make it a viable enterprise solution.

And whether interested in ZebraZapps or not, if you are attending ASTD ICE, please be sure to stop by the Allen Interactions booth 215 in the Expo Hall to say “Hello.” Register today for a free Expo Only registration or register for $100 off a Full Conference registration.