Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Approaches to Interactivity Building in eLearning

We all know that adding meaningful interactivity into eLearning courses allows learners to participate in the learning process, thus creating an enhanced learning environment. But building interactivities can be challenging if you don’t have the right resources, time, or money. In general, there are two ways to build interactions: 1) use a skill-based team, or 2) use a rapid interactivity builder with your authoring tool. Each method has tradeoffs and what you choose depends largely on the type of training you are developing and how important interactivity is in your course.

How to build interactions?

Use a traditional skill-based approach

Traditionally, companies have used the skill-based team approach to create most eLearning projects. Some training groups use this approach because they are required to build complex custom scenarios. A skill-based team consists of an instructional designer, a graphic artist, and a programmer/ developer that work together to create eLearning courses and interactions.

Here is an example of how they work together to build a course with interactive animations: The security group needs a new course to teach employees the importance of security. The instructional designer designs the course and the team comes together and identifies content areas where they would like to build some interactivity. The instructional designer decides she wants a series of simulated situations with images and text and an assessment with audio/visual questions that evaluates learners. The team visualizes and designs how the interactions work and then finally the developer builds them.

At the end of the process, the instructional designer uses an authoring tool—such as Captivate or Articulate—to combine the custom created interactions, with the content, graphics and media, and turn it into one complete course.

Use a Rapid Interactivity Builder

On the other hand, in some companies the eLearning development group is small and consists of instructional designers. In this case, the instructional designers have to rely on rapid development software tools to build their eLearning courses. One such category of tools is called Interactivity Builders, which enables designers to build interactivity effectively and efficiently for their courses. An interactivity builder has a library of pre-built interactions that users can view and use in existing eLearning courses.  While using such tools, a user selects an interaction design template, inputs content and media, publishes the finished interaction in the desired format, and inserts it into eLearning content, whether that is in an authoring tool or just plain PowerPoint. Since many companies have smaller training groups because of the economic downturn, they are using these tools more and more to add interactivity into their eLearning. That is because interactivity builder tools save time and programming effort that would otherwise be required to custom develop each interaction. These tools are created with reuse in mind, which also makes them cost effective.

Here is an example of how one instructional designer with an authoring tool may use an interactivity builder. The security group needs a new course to teach employees the importance of security. The instructional designer works with the security group to define the learning objectives. The designer creates the content and decides she needs three interactions in the course. She browses the interactivity builder library, chooses a simulated situation template with images and text and an assessment with audio/visual questions, and then simply customizes it with her own content and media assets. The instructional designer then imports the interactions to the authoring tool and builds the rest of the course.

Interactivity Building Tradeoffs

As you can see, the two methods of creating interactions are very different and each may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances. Below is a list of tradeoffs and advantages for using either a skill-based team or an interactivity builder to create interactions.

Use a skill-based team

There are a number of challenges when using a skill-based team to create interactions, including:

  • Resources—if you have a team in place, great! Unfortunately, not all companies keep a diverse training team onsite. If you go with this option, you will spend time reviewing and hiring trained professionals and maintaining the larger team.

  • Time – designing and developing custom interactions is a very time consuming process and can take months.

  • Cost—building and testing interactions requires a lot of development time, which adds more expense.

  • Less or no interactivity –when teams are short staffed or working against tight deadlines, they often find themselves focusing on just getting the course done and out the door, thereby eliminating interactivity that may enhance learning. This is a huge risk because interactivity is too important to omit!
  • Custom designs—working together, the team can create a fresh, new design.

  • Custom design variety--the developer can create a variety of custom interactions to build interest.
Flexibility and control--for interactions that are very specific to the course or type of training, a skill based approach provides more flexibility and control in terms of the functionality. (For example, you need to design a customized decision-making scenario to look like a graphic novel. This will be used to strengthen soldiers’ cross-cultural and peacekeeping skills.)

Use a Rapid Interactivity Builder

There are a number of tradeoffs when using an interactivity builder to create interactions, including:

Trade offs
  • Less control and flexibility- the interactions are pre-built as compared to programming custom interactions. Although a great deal of customization capability is built in, when compared to using a programming language for custom developing to specifications, it may appear limited.
  • Time—less time spent developing interactions, so a Flash developer’s time can focus on building custom technical pieces for the course website instead.

  • Cost—lower development costs. A large staff is not needed and, generally, courses are developed more quickly.

  • Reuse – The interaction design templates can be easily reused and customized to suit your content

    • Productivity—team productivity increases. Subject matter experts and instructional designers can create an interaction and insert it themselves.
Quality interactions are essential to engage learners. However, how you create them depends on your resources, budget, time, or need for a specific custom scenario. A skill-based team may be appropriate, if you have the resources and your company requires custom-build interactions. However, as often times is the case, if you have limited resources but need interactivity in your courses, then an interactivity builder is a good choice, because it enables you to do more with less.