Is eLearning the Next Blockbuster?

I walked past a Block Buster Video store a while ago. It had a big closed sign plastered over its window. It’s sad to see a business fail especially one that’s been around for so long but it’s just a very visible reminder of something that has been on my mind lately. It’s the idea that no matter what you do or how good you are today — you have to stay relevant to stay in business. Block Buster floundered when people started streaming movies at home. Practically over night nobody wanted their product anymore. They became irrelevant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about relevancy lately. Are eLearning Designers going to wake up one day to find there is no longer a market for their products? In one, two or three years will organizations still want or need eLearning as we offer it today? Steve Jobs once said:

“Some people say, give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.” 

Is this the approach we should be taking? — do we innovate or follow the trends? I just read an article that listed the top trends for eLearning for 2015. Here they are for what it’s worth:

    1. Gamification
    2. Corporate MOOCs
    3. Personalized Learning
    4. M-Learning and BYOD
    5. Augmented Learning
    6. APIs
    7. Cloud LMS
    8. Flash Html5 Conversion
    9. Wearable Learning
    10. Video Learning

I’m not going to get into what I think about this list — suffice it to say that some of the items (Augmented Learning, personalized learning for two) have been identified as the next big thing since at least 1995 — maybe longer.  And some — wearable Learning anyone? — are ridiculous. So I guess the big question is how do we filter out the chatter so that we can focus on the things that will take us to the level we need to stay in the game? How do we ensure that we make the cut? I’m just asking the questions today. I don’t have the answers but I’d love to here what you think.

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Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut – Sometimes You Don’t

I’ve been seeing a lot of debate lately in various online forums and discussion groups about the merits of using photographs vs illustrations for presenting characters in elearning courses.  Some people say illustrated characters are cheesy while others talk about  how difficult it is to find useful photos.

To be honest I don’t believe one is better than the other – both have a place in our elearning courses.  The trick is knowing when and how to use each type to its best advantage.  We’ve done projects using illustrated characters and photographs so thought I’d share with you how we go about deciding which type to use.


The first thing we do before starting any design work is determine the tone of  the course – formal, informal, intimate, sarcastic, solemn, somber, playful, serious or whatever (I particularly like whatever).

Some tones lend themselves nicely to the use of photos while others are great for illustrations.

Photographs work well when the tone is formal, serious or somber. In this project, we use a serious tone to depict problem gambling and the stock photos work perfectly to visually depict the tone.

Illustrations, on the other hand, are great when using informal, playful or sarcastic tones. This is not set in stone, however, because photos can be fun and illustrations can be somber and serious – it’s just a guideline that we use to get us started.  Sometimes the most engaging courses flip conventions on their head.

Now here is something to consider just to add a bit of confusion to the mix – just because a topic might be serious or formal doesn’t mean you have to present it using a serious or formal tone.

Here is an example we did recently using one of our illustrated characters (now available through our online store). In this case, our client wanted us to take a creative approach to present some dry management training (I won’t bother you with the details).

We presented the instruction as a game show and the illustrations where perfect for conveying the information in a fun and informal way.



Another thing we take into consideration before making our choice is how we plan to use the characters in our course. Do we just need a single shot of a person to convey a concept or do we plan to use the character in a story or scenario that will require multiple poses and expressions?

We often build our courses around a central story or narrative in which a character or set of characters appear in different situations throughout the course. When incorporating a narrative or storyline into our courses, we often use illustrations instead of photos because they provide more flexibility in how we present our characters.  We can position them any way we want, animate them to make it look like they are responding to on screen evens or decisions made by the learner.  We can even simulate it to make it look like they are talking.


The style (overall look and feel) of the course also plays a role in whether we use photos or illustrations. When it comes to style, there are two things that we take into consideration. First, we want to make sure that whatever images we use have a cohesive look and feel so that we don’t end up creating something that looks like it has been cobbled together like some kind of weird patchwork quilt.  Second, the style of images (whether photographs or illustrations) has to support the language and tone of any narration, text or any other elements on the screen.

One drawback when using photographs over illustrations is that it is often hard to find photos that have a consistent style. They may use different lighting techniques,  have different backgrounds, be shot at different distances and different angles.  Illustrations can also be problematic especially when relying on free images or clip art, but if you are lucky enough to have access to a good illustrator the sky is really the limit.  I know what you’re thinking – ya if only we had an illustrator. If you can, I’d suggest hiring a freelance illustrator – there is plenty of talent out there for hire. If this is not an option, more and more elearning companies (including Pinched Head) are starting to make available royalty free collections of characters designed for use in online training courses. We offer a set of illustrated characters we are calling Presenter People ( that come in multiple poses and with a wide range of facial expressions. Other organizations such as eLearning Art and elearning brothers also offer character packages.

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Tell No One. Visualizing Elearning (Part 2)

Chicken and Pig

Most of us have seen a blockbuster that has gone way overboard in terms of “visualization” — sacrificing both a comprehensible story line and any semblance of character development to the spectacle.   Sure these can be nice to look at, but, in the end, are as shallow as the latest Hollywood holographic teen idol.  Some are like a poorly made Fajita — lots of flash and sizzle but no real meat (or Tofu if you prefer) in the middle.

Having said that, as elearning developers, that’s probably not the problem most of us have to contend with. We usually have to work with budgets not big enough to buy a dozen donuts and a coffee.  Not only that, instead of creating a course on how the robots in the movie Transformers were made, we probably have to create a course on the workings of actual electrical transformers. Instead of explaining how the end of the world might come about in 2012, we are more likely to have to describe how “The International Financial Reporting Standards” put an end to old accounting practices in 2013. These are not subjects that motivate most people to reach for a bag of popcorn.

As a result, we need to figure out how to make our productions at least mildly engaging in order to hold our audience long enough that they actually learn something.  That means visualizing on a budget.

One way we can start, (and this might seem really trivial to some of you) is to use representative stock icons to replace or support onscreen text or narration.  Web sites like iStockphoto allow you to purchase some really nice 3D icon sets for your elearning projects.

Here are a few reasons to use icons:

1. They are cheap.  One set of 12 icons costs approximately $10 US. That’s not bad. You will probably have to buy more than one set to get all the images you need but still you can’t beat the price.

Piggy Bank

2. You can have a relatively uniform look and feel for your images. Since the artists usually create multiple sets of icons to cover a wide variety of areas such as multimedia, computers, environment, office icons etc., you will find many different images to represent things in roughly the same graphical style.  In addition, because these images are icons, they are usually very generic looking and can fit in with almost any project you might have.  It’s time to throw away that cheesy clip art!

Industry Icons

3. You can use one icon to represent a number of different concepts. One of the beautiful things about human beings is that they can understand abstract symbolism. Once you associate a concept with an image, people can make connection easily and immediately.

Doctor Icon

4. Icons are in vector format and can be re-sized without lose of quality and animated easily in programs like Adobe Flash.   We keep our library of icons in a Flash file as a kind of vector image library.  That way we can create little animated scenes for our projects or simply put them on the stage and export them in any number of formats and sizes.  It’s pretty handy.

To sum up, using icons allows you to “show” and not “tell” by representing concepts visually with simple, uniform, and high quality images.  They provide an inexpensive and easy way to enhance your elearning titles. You are not going to win any special-effects awards, but perhaps your project will be a little more effective and come in under budget.

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Tell No One: Visualizing elearning (Part 1)

Samurai Mouse

The End

Fade Out

…Oh Sorry about that. I just had to put the finishing touches on a proposal for an elearning project. Now comes the tough part: the waiting.

In the mean time, let’s get back to our topic on how to relate the “Show. Don’t tell” principle that get’s preached in screenwriting circles to our elearning projects.

One important mantra  related to “Show. Don’t tell” is: “Get in late. Get out early.” Besides being my philosophy for shopping at Wal-Mart, the idea here is that you want to get people into the action as soon as possible while, at the same time, providing context and back story in the most efficient way possible without “telling” too much—hence the “get out early” idea.

Have you ever seen a movie that takes too long to get into the meat of the story or watched a scene that was drawn-out to the point where you thought, “Ok, ok…we get it!”?  It’s painful. This type of thing is a sure recipe for a tuned-out audience because the story starts to drag.

Usually, writers of these scripts worry that the audience won’t get the back story or understand the subtle nuances of the character and so try and “tell” us what a character is like up front with lots of dialogue or flash backs before the story engages.  Sure, the set-up to a story is crucial, and the first ten pages are the most important of the entire script, but it has to be carefully crafted and very succinct. A writer should only give the audience enough information to get them started so that they can build on their knowledge later in the context of the story. The main job of the set-up is to provide a hook that propels us into the heart of the story.

Let me illustrate. Put up your hand if you’ve seen the original Karate Kid. (Come on! I’m sure you’ve tried that crane -kick-move more than once!) Despite its cheesiness, screen writers often use this movie to illustrate good screen play structure. When we first meet Mr Miyagi in the first few pages of the script, we don’t know much about him other than: a) he is the superintendent of the building that Daniel lives in, b) he seems to like Daniel right off the bat, c) he is a bit mysterious, and d) he has a dry sense of humor.

We don’t find out until much later that he was a pilot during the second world war, knows Karate, and still grieves the loss of his wife over a bottle of Saki (sorry for the spoiler). Here, at the beginning of the story, we only get enough information to know that he will be important later on. If the writer would have had Mr. Miyagi explain his whole sordid history on their first encounter with Daniel, we would have totally lost our engagement with the main character and it would have taken away from the big picture of the story.

Now let’s relate this to eLearning. Face it, a lot of  elearning titles are a little slow getting out of the gate. They take too long to get to the action, and by the time they do, we’ve lost interest in the content.  Often this comes in the form of a long-winded  introduction telling us what the course is about and the copious amount of  time (usually in the form of  text) spent describing  the objectives. It may also come in the form of instructions on how to navigate the course, use the help, how to exit, and how to avoid repetitive stress syndrome while clicking through the course intro.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for objectives and I am not saying that we shouldn’t do some of these things (or maybe I am) but we need to be careful about front-end loading our learning so that it takes a half an hour just to find out how to use a course. At the very least, we should not force people to sit through everything if they don’t want to.  We need to design our courses so that these things are self-evident. If we design for the ten percent who don’t know how to click a forward arrow, then we are in big trouble (and so is the ten percent). I think it’s always best to get our learners into the content early so that they can be hooked into it and get where they are going. If we don’t, we risk losing the ninety percent.

If you are wondering how to do this, go look at any popular kid’s video game and you will see some principles. The best ones, show kids how to use the interface while they actually do things in the game–while they are already engaged in the story. The designers of these games try their best not to take learning out of the context of the story in order to teach the kids how to do something. This takes some thought and solid user interface design but is worth it.

I have also come across elearning courses that teach how to use specialized software packages but spend more time up-front on how to navigate the software than on teaching how to use it to perform a job-related task (if they do at all). So first, you have to sit through pages on how to use the course, and then endure pages that teach you how to navigate the software. That’s just not a good use of time and it’s as boring as________. You fill in the blank. (You see what I did there? I made this blog posting interactive!)

I guess my point is, let’s teach people how to use the software to do their jobs and teach them how to use the “features” of the software in context of actually doing something. Let’s not always feel like we need to get in at the beginning, but rather, let’s get in late and get out early and maybe our learners will have some time left over to catch the next show.  Besides, personally, I find that all that front-loaded information presented out-of-context just tends to get lost in the eternal sunlight of my spotless mind.

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Tell No One: Visualizing elearning (Introduction)


You might not know this about me, or even care, but I’ve attempted to write a couple of screenplays and a couple of sit-com pilots. (I know, I know, delusions of grandeur. It’s true. But the Toronto International Film Festival is in town and I got Red Carpet fever) Actually, it’s more of a hobby than anything but it sure takes a lot of work in terms of getting to know how to write in this genre properly. From all the books I have read on screen writing, one message came out loud and clear:  when writing for the screen, we need to “Show. Don’t tell”. This is the screen writer’s mantra. I think as educators, elearning developers, and instructional designers, this, in general, should be ours as well.

The screen writer’s job is to use as few expository words as possible to convey as much information through the action and images on the screen. Dialogue or narration that explains too much simply gets in the way of a viewer’s emotional and intellectual engagement of the content. Wordy scripts often create talking-head movies that drag like The English Patient after a big meal. This might be fine for a particular niche of film, but it certainly is not accessible to the majority of people living in this age of attention deficit. We don’t simply have our character say something like “I’m tired and would really like to sit down, take my shoes off, and take a breather.” Instead, we have him slump into a chair like a rag doll, throw off his shoes and breathe a sigh as if he is trying to inflate the room with his own lung air. Each of these actions conveys a sense of how tired he is and, more importantly, what kind of tired he is. It’s richer than words because it engages our brain on more than one level. It draws us in, because we feel that we are part of an unfolding narrative that we can relate to on, not just an intellectual, but an emotional level.

Those of us who create online learning need to “Show. Don’t tell” as well.  But how can we do this when we have so much content to cover? Over the next couple of weeks, I will try and look at how we can do a better job of employing this principle and to think visually.

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What I learned about eLearning from The Master Chief

I remember fondly when I got my first Xbox. (I say “first” because I’ve had several since due to problems with the original one and the famous red-ring of death that plagued its successor). I also recall the intimidation I felt with the significant learning curve that faced me. My kids had been schooled in this technology from a young age but, you see, I was an old PC gamer from the days of “A Mind Forever Voyaging” and “Kings Quest” and couldn’t quite get a handle on the transition from mouse and keyboard to console controller.  As a good father, however, I was committed to this paradigm shift. I didn’t want to be like all those TV dads who were never there to blow stuff up with their kids.  I am proud to say that today, I am pretty comfortable with the console control scheme but I still tend to flail my arms around as if conducting an orchestra when playing more action oriented games. Consequently, I am not what you would call an elite player of console games.

The Master Chief

One of the most popular games of all time soon found a happy place in our home.  The Halo series by Bungie, featured an engrossing epic sci-fi story and iconic character called The Master Chief.  Even though in the real world I am more committed to peace than Ghandi, for a brief time, after cleaning the bathroom on a Saturday, I could be the Master Chief – a Spartan super soldier. He didn’t have to take out the garbage or separate the compost from the recyclables.  But, oh yes, he did take out the “trash” — in the form of our insidious galactic enemies.

Halo was a very popular game during its initial release, yet it wasn’t until after Bungie mastered the multiplayer aspect of the game in Halo 2 that it really took off.  Bungie and Microsoft, through Xbox Live enabled large amounts of players to get into “maps” and play together. They could talk to each other with microphone and a headset, add friends to a list, and collaborate online — yes and shoot each as well. My son, (gamer tag: killer_emu) was a virtuoso with a controller and quickly ascended very high up in the ranking system created for the game.  I remember watching him in awe while at the same time bemoaning the hand-eye coordination that age had pillaged from me.

Below is my fierce Gamer Tag

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What really got my attention, however, was when I noticed that my son and his online friends had suddenly abandoned the game as it was intended to be played and started to collaborate to do something completely new. To my amazement, they began to cooperate and take advantage of “glitches” in the system to do things the designers did not intend. These were not things you could accomplish on your own.  You would need to stop shooting each other, at least for a while, and work together.  Because the Halo 2 game mechanics were very physics-based, players could do some very creative and interesting things within the “sandbox” environment. They could get outside of the 3D map boundaries and get into and on top of places that they were not supposed to go. They found ways to fly across maps, perform amazing jumps with vehicles, and arrange spectacular acrobatic demonstrations complete with pyrotechnics.  Teams of gamers would get together and record movies in which they displayed their creative prowess and post them on the internet.  Some, like the people who did the Red VS Blue movies, even created short films using Halo as a Machinima tool.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this was necessarily a new phenomenon.  It had been done with other games before. But somehow I noticed it more.  Here are a couple things I learned that relate to online learning:

Freedom Fighters

Some people just like to break things — especially the rules.  For an online learning environment, this means that we need to be aware that some learners are not content to be driven “along the rails” of our learning environment. They want to get off the ride and explore on their own.  Sure, many will still follow the more linear narrative of our course like those who would play the single-player version of Halo; however, we also need to give them at least the opportunity to feel the freedom in some way.  Web 2.0 has the idea of flexibility at its core. People want a multi-faceted learning environment where they can get their own information and not necessarily be forced into single-sourcing their experience.

This means that we need to provide learners with interactivity options. We should provide the freedom to navigate around so that learners can focus on what interests them at the time instead of always driving them to a destination.  Obviously for some content, we want to make sure learners absorb critical information but we may provide branching paths or even the same information delivered in a different way to accommodate these freedom fighters. What it definitely means is that we need to be careful about forcing people to do stuff whether it’s forcing them to take multiple tries on a quiz before they can proceed, or forcing them to perform long “click this, type that” simulations in order to get to the next section.  I am not just saying we need to provide the latest cool innovation, sometimes it means scaling back our dreams for a more conservative audiences who like a simple text-based elearning course with clearly presented, accurate and succinct content.

The Principle of Accommodation

When Bungie and Microsoft saw this growing community of “glitchers,” instead of totally clamping down on this new way of playing, they decided to build the Forge system into their next release of the game. This allowed users to customize maps by changing variables in such a way that those hosting the game could create very unique game experiences. Even in Halo 2, there was a lot of customization but with Halo 3, Bungie upped the ante. Bungie responded to what was happening instead of forcing people to play it like they wanted it to be played. Game companies that fail to respond to the new ways the community thinks about their experience will quickly find themselves losing ground in the industry. Too often this still happens in education. We force people to listen to audio with no way around or crowd the screen with reams of text not essential to the learning. We don’t provide good enough navigation so users can’t find what they are immediately interested in and we sometimes don’t provide enough options for different types of learners.  Consequently learners tune out and miss some creative learning opportunities. I’m guilty of building this type of learning.

Community is King

A lot has been made of Social Networking these days. Many eLearning professionals are grappling with what this means for their training. The Master Chief taught me that people in community can accomplish things beyond what we can teach them through traditional methods.  Once gamers were given the means to collaborate online, they shared information, planned, learned and cooperated instead of competed. What I think helped was the fact that the game integrated the social networking technology. Users didn’t have to leave the game in order to learn.  They could just ask others how to do it or get them to show them. Users were involved in the material and could explore right then and there without going out of context.  For me, this means that social networking technologies must be as integrated as possible into our learning environments for those who need it. If I am doing an online course, I might want others who are taking the same course be available to chat with me if I had questions. I might want an expert available to me at set times to get more detailed information. Maybe people need to start taking elearning courses “together” in some way.  I’m not exactly sure how this would look given the various budgets and time constraints but it’s something to think about.

I realize that organizations often implement eLearning in order to cut costs and that having an online trainer available at all times might not work. But we must look for ways for people to learn from each other. When that happens, creative solutions arise. Learning should not be single-sourced.  Maybe, in large companies, we need to build in incentives for subject matter experts to share with others and the mechanism to make that possible. Maybe it’s regularly scheduled time to work on a Wiki, moderate a discussion forum, or conduct an online web seminar. Can we make teaching others part of everyone’s job instead of leaving it to the trainers?  Whatever way we can do it, we need in some way to provide that social aspect to learning for those who learn that way. Good software will enable this – but an organizational mindset that makes learning everyone’s responsibility is essential.

So these are a few things I learned from The Master Chief.

Now, anybody know what I can learn from Mario?

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