Archive for May, 2009

As part of the development team at Saffron we see lots of new technologies and frameworks emerging on a weekly basis and it can sometimes be hard to pick out which of these new offerings will be the one that you want to experiment with next, but since the launch of the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) we’ve been itching for the right project to come along that will allow us to get our toes wet and create an application for the desktop. For us, that project was our Assessment Workbench tool that had recently been made available to download on our website.

The original version of the Workbench was designed to be editable using Microsoft InfoPath, and although this was fine for most of our clients, we now wanted to make the Workbench available as a free download and for this to work it made more sense for the Workbench to be editable without having to purchase any supporting software. So, after exploring our options, we decided to start working with AIR to create a desktop editor for the Workbench.

We began working on few application prototypes to try and work out some of the obstacles we knew we would face when creating the editor. Some of these challenges are listed below:

Selecting an assessment package

From the start, we imagined that the editor would operate as a stand-alone application working outside of the actual assessment package. And to achieve this we needed a process for selecting a valid package located on the user’s PC. To do this we created a new file inside the assessment package with a custom file extension (.awkb). This file would be our handle into the assessment package allowing us to validate the package and find the relevant files needed to edit an assessment.

Saving the package

Editing the original version of the Workbench was a little disorientating as there were various different files that needed to be updated for different sections of the tool and this was something we wanted to tackle with the new editor. We decided that rather than saving the various files individually it would better to save the changes as a package. We were also able update the LMS manifest files at the same time.

Installing the editor

Our last obstacle to overcome was the install process. The initial prospect of having to download and install the runtime, then download and install the editor seemed a little longer than it needed to be for us. Thankfully there are a few install options available from Adobe when it comes to installing your application. We chose to use the badge-install method because it will check whether it needs to install the runtime before installing the application. In addition to this we also added a link to the homepage of the editor that allows you to download a fresh Workbench package to your PC so that you can create a new assessment whenever you want.

Now that we had a collection of prototypes ready and working, the final task was to start putting everything together into one finished application. If you are interested in seeing the finished product you can download the editor by registering on our Assessment Workbench homepage. And if you’ve not yet used AIR, come back next week to find out why I’m such a fan!

On 8 May, two of our people spoke at the eLearning Network event about creating effective and engaging learning content. We talked about how important it is to give people an excellent first impression of e-learning, and how to go about getting it right first time. We then looked at what good learning content really looks like – how do you create something that’s engaging, relevant and effective? And finally – because we at Saffron don’t believe in settling for ‘good’ – we considered what you can do to turn something good into something great. Our presentation slides can be downloaded here.

Exam season is upon us again. My youngest sister is embarking on her second year university exams, my primary school age brother is enjoying his half term holiday having just taken the annual series of practice SATs, and my other sister is soon to become a teacher and is therefore set to be facing ‘exam term’ every year for the foreseeable future. My own exam days are over, but I am working towards a masters which is entirely coursework assessed and therefore much more up my street.

All this has got me thinking – what can we learn from the world of academic learning and assessment, and what issues cross from that world into ours, the world of online learning?

Over the next few weeks, thousands of students of all ages will be preparing for and taking exams. Some of those students will have worked with those exams, and the coursework throughout the year, in mind since September. Some will have devised and hopefully stuck to structured revision plans since Easter. Some will wait for study leave to begin their revision in earnest. And some will be enjoying the sunshine while it’s here and cramming 24 hours before each exam.

Each of those methods has its pros and cons and none guarantees success above the others – despite what teachers would have their students believe, some people do perfectly well on the basis of a last minute cram (although I’m not sure that it necessarily yields results in terms of lasting knowledge or comprehensive understanding). But without going into these arguments in detail, what’s important is that people do learn, work and prepare in different ways.

We all have our own learning preferences, and – certainly by the time we reach the workplace, if not at school – we know what works best for us. Our job as learning designers is to cater to those learning styles as far as possible. This means being prepared to move away from the ‘traditional’ model of linear training courses that are taken in one sitting. It means building on the idea of blended learning so that we don’t simply offer a prescribed mix of delivery methods but also offer learners a degree of choice over the way they learn. It means looking at the way in which people relate to technology and information and creating training that replicates those relationships.

For instance, one of the most striking effects of the internet is that we now expect to be able to find exactly what we need or want precisely when we need or want it. Not only that, but we don’t want to have to trawl through pages of related but less critically relevant information to find the bit that matters – we want bite sized chunks of information at our finger tips. We’ve also become adept at combining information from different sources and seeking out the most appropriate source on each occasion – we may still read a daily newspaper for lengthy analyses and expert opinion on key issues, but we might turn to the internet for updates on breaking news stories or those strange little stories that don’t tend to appear in The Times. Likewise, there are times when we don’t have access to the internet or time to browse a newspaper, and it’s at times like these that we might turn to our iPhones for real time travel information or cinema showing times.

You could argue that technology has made us selfish in this way – we expect to be able to find anything, any time, via the route that’s most convenient for us. But whether this is a good or bad thing, we need to accept that workflow learning is what many people want in this day and age, and cater to this in the provision of learning and training. Increasingly we’re looking at creating banks or packages of resources on a particular subject. This is likely to include some element of formal e-learning as we know it, although probably in smaller chunks that can be accessed individually as well as part of a longer online session. But it’s also likely to include additional elements such as file sharing sites where videos can be stored and informal discussion between learners can be facilitated and monitored. Perhaps, for subjects such as compliance training, those yearly retakes of the same course can be replaced by more targeted update training, including a diagnostic assessment to identify which areas of knowledge need to be refreshed. For those people who prefer not to sit at their computer to learn, we might offer more audio based training chunks – podcasts or i-Cast segments – or video based sessions that can be accessed via mobile devices.

The possibilities, though perhaps not endless, are rapidly increasing as technology becomes ever more advanced – and it’s our job to keep up with those advances. When designing a training solution it’s always useful to take a step back before automatically doing what you always do. We’ve all been students at one time or another – whether that’s at school, university or in a professional context – so we’ve all got valuable experience to draw on in terms of teaching methods and learning styles. That’s not to say you should design a course tailored to your own preferences, but that you should be aware of the range of learning preferences, teaching methods and technological possibilities out there and create something that, as far as possible, offers the learner some degree of choice in the way they learn.

There are many examples that I could put forward relating to my title ‘learning on the go’ – such as the time I was ruthlessly knocked off my bike by a BMW. I won’t bore you with the details as most people who know me will have switched off by now, thinking that I’m going to try and drum up sympathy votes. Suffice to say that what I have learnt from my accident is that if you are going to get run over then it’s best done at the start of the week in the morning (as opposed to Friday evening), but more importantly I’ve learnt that you should always wear a helmet and never second guess what other people are thinking.

On a more topical subject my title clearly relates to my role at Saffron, and after more than 15 months at Saffron I’m still learning from my colleagues. It never fails to (pleasantly) surprise me how knowledgeable my fellow colleagues are in this industry, from those with just a couple of months’ experience to those who have worked in the industry for years. One of my colleagues and I presented at the last e-Learning Network event (Creating effective and engaging content), and together we wrote a presentation that I was proud to present next to her. If I was to do the presentation on my own then I would have missed out important elements that can only come from reaching out for someone else’s experience and knowledge. As an individual trying to make a mark on the company it’s often hard to ask people for help but what I’m constantly learning is that adopting a collaborative approach is the best way forward, especially when working in a fast paced environment in such turbulent times. Allowing yourself to learn from others is important for the success of a company as well as personal development. We all have a range of different skills, and a new perspective or a fresh pair of eyes can without a doubt turn a proposal into a winning proposal and an e-learning module into a great e-learning module.

Tom Sant recently stated on his Messages that Matter blog that ‘people instinctively want to make the decision that gives them the best ROI for their effort’. This is clearly a double barrelled logic and can relate to the work we do internally as much as with clients. By working together internally to develop an outstanding piece of work, we are more likely to engage the client and develop a trusting and long standing relationship, thereby providing us with more work as well as energising the team and keeping them focused to carry on with the high level of work – it’s a win win situation all round.

Failing to work together and allow yourself to learn from others is like riding your bike with no helmet on – it might not get you very far very successfully.

e-Learning design is about serious stuff like transforming information into a format that really teaches people and helps them to retain it. Building effective interfaces and graphical representations for this purpose involves a good dose of dealing with content and data. But this doesn’t mean your design has to be dull and serious. The end learner wants to be engaged and so do you.

Deadly dull e-learning is more or less a thing of the past and now, more then ever, designers who work in this field are inclined to look for innovative ways to meet the changing objectives and expectations of clients and users. New technologies and fresh approaches mean our horizons are broadening in this branch of design and so I want to share some of what I have learned so far working in this growing world.

Define a hierarchy

It is crucial to create a sense of order and equilibrium in representing and communicating information. Without a clear visual hierarchy, different pieces of information fight for attention. Elements within an effective visual narrative should be arranged by order of importance, improving usability by grouping information into meaningful elements and sequences. A balanced architecture not only provides a clear way for recognising and understanding information, it also helps unify the different elements within a layout into an organic unity.

Make content king

You must create a design that serves its defined purpose and meets the defined scope, and that presents information in line with its objective. The most important task of e-learning design is to optimise the function, designing the user interface and visual elements to suit learner needs, and to maximise the learning experience. Using simplicity designers can clearly communicate ideas through the rational organisation of content and imagery. That’s why we have to organise the space instead of filling it out with fancy graphics and our aesthetic ego. The bottom line is that in e-learning we are focused on information design rather than on graphic design.

Remember, good design is innovative design

Technological developments keep offering new chances for innovative e-learning solutions. e-Learning designers have got now the opportunity to take advantage of fresh ways to manage and explore large and complex amounts of information and content. Although the devil in that is the risk of abusing of these brand new exciting tools just because they exist. What we need to do is take advantage of the right mature technology that is appropriate for each project’s scope and not just for the sake it. Again looking in-depth at the goals, needs, and contexts of the users remains the best approach.

Take an aesthetic view

Aesthetic quality in design always deals with details: subtle shades, harmony and the balance of a whole variety of visual elements. e-Learning design often applies this quality just to the containers and wrappers, leaving the individual visual elements free to float without the same level of quality. The challenge is to dress all the components with consistency, sacrificing maybe the variety for a standardised level of overall aesthetic quality. This doesn’t mean you have to pigeon hole your design, and remember that all good looking products work best when the functionality is consistent.

Add a little colour to the information

Confusion and clutter are the two main failures of e-learning design. Among the most powerful tools for reducing confusion and enriching the display is the technique of separation and stratification, visually layering various aspects of the content. In this, the use of colors is crucial. Colors can be the guide to drive the audience through a clear path for recognising and understanding information, and also help unify the disparate elements within a layout into a visual organisation. Accessibility is also particularly important in defining colours, considering that one in 12 people have some sort of color vision deficiency.

Make the logo smaller

e-Learning is maybe one among a few markets in which branding strategy is not so important. Usually companies ensure the impact and visibility of their brands are strong in order to increase sales and build customer loyalty. In e-learning, companies don’t need to advertise themselves in the same way. So while there are always brand guidelines to be considered, e-learning designers have a bit of freedom to make the logo smaller and the content bigger.

I have been thinking more and more lately about the general economic conditions we are working in, and what businesses need to be doing to survive and thrive in today’s changing and challenging environment. We hear a lot about the importance of being agile but what does this really mean and why is it so critically important?

It was over a hundred years ago that Charles Darwin declared that ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,’ but it seems that this could equally apply to the modern day business world. I read recently that successful businesses will be those that capitalise on their strategic agility, that are capable of responding with speed and flexibility, and that can quickly change direction in response to a rapidly evolving international market place.

So, what does this mean for us at Saffron? Well, we need to move quickly too, to continue to exploit new technologies and then use these to offer our clients and end users a truly individualised and personal service. Our reputation and our promise to deliver extra value are not built around bold statements but on our ability to always think about tomorrow as if it were today, to deliver a speed of response that is second to none and to be the best at what we do – all the time, every time.

Agility is not just about our internal culture; it’s about how we interact with and really get to know our customers. It’s about innovation and creativity, responding to customers’ needs before they even know themselves what these are and thus giving them a reason to come back, time and again. Agility is about competitive edge, and maintaining that edge by making sense of the future even though we can’t always be sure quite what it will look like. It’s about remaining fiercely committed to delivering the most positive experience possible, whatever form that might take, and never allowing complacency to set in.

When you’re creating an e-learning course, where do you start? You might begin by creating the overall theme or concept. The ‘look and feel’ and design mock ups are probably developed fairly early on. You write your storyboard content and this leads on to decisions about functionality and technology. Soon after this you might select your voiceover artists or video actors.

But what about the assessment or knowledge test? This might come after everything else in the course but this is no reason for it to come after everything else in the development process.

The knowledge test is usually a fairly critical element of an e-learning course. It gives the organisation information about how effective the learning is. Of course, it only does that if the test itself is effective. And the test is only effective if the instructional designer has devoted time to creating questions that genuinely do test the learner and tie in to the learning objectives.

In fact, it’s not just the questions in the end of unit test that need this level of attention. Anyone who’s reasonably familiar with Saffron probably knows that we’re fans of what we call the ‘test and tell’ theory. It’s a pretty simple technique based on pretty simple observations about how people learn – in a nutshell, information is much more likely to ‘stick’ if you’ve had to think about it and work it out yourself than if you’ve just been told it. So rather than just telling learners something and then a few minutes later asking them a question on it, we turn it around – we ask them what they think first.

So – regardless of where the question appears in the course – how do you make it a good one? Take a look at Cathy Moore’s blog for a brilliant illustration of how not to write questions, and keep in mind these top tips:

  • Focus on behaviour – The very best e-learning changes behaviour; enabling your people to actually do the right thing is far more important than enabling them to simply repeat facts and figures they’ve recently read. Make sure each one of your questions relates to one of your behavioural learning outcomes and to what the learners do every day.
  • Challenge the learner – Run your question past someone who isn’t at all familiar with the subject matter; if they get the answer right, your question probably isn’t hard enough. Most likely, the right answer is three times as long as the wrong answers or the wrong answers are more likely to make the learner laugh than think (I know, I know – coming up with plausible wrong answers is harder than it sounds, but it’s worth the effort).
  • Don’t trick the learner – Now run the question past someone who knows the material inside out; if they get the answer wrong, your question is probably too hard. Negative questions or options that are identical except for one word are not the fairest or most effective way to test your learners. Nor is asking a question on something that wasn’t actually covered in the course.
  • Avoid ‘yes/no’ questions – Giving the learner a 50% chance of simply guessing the right answer isn’t really great question writing. If you do need to include a yes/no type of question, make it a bit more challenging by adding a couple more options and qualifying the answers (“Yes, because….”). That way, even if the learner guesses the answer is ‘yes’, they still have to know why and choose between the two ‘yes’ options.
  • Avoid ‘all of the above’ answers – Again, if the learner sees this as an option, they’d usually assume this is the correct answer – and they’d usually be right. Coming up with wrong answers might be more challenging for you, but ultimately it’s more challenging for the learner – and therefore a more effective question.

A few months ago, intrigued as to what all the fuss was about, I signed up to Twitter to find out why on earth it appeared to be taking over our lives and taking up countless newspaper columns. Since then, its popularity certainly hasn’t died down and recently, even more celebrities have been tweeting, whether it’s Barack Obama drumming up support for his election campaign, Oprah sending her first Tweet live on air or Demi Moore expressing her love for Britain’s Got Talent’s singing sensation Susan Boyle. There definitely seems to be a link between Twitter and recognition, reputation or status – it was a clever move of Obama’s to exploit it for publicity purposes and no doubt Demi’s declaration of appreciation for the surprise star increased YouTube’s hits on the video of that particular episode and therefore the singer’s popularity. And it works both ways: the traffic to Twitter increased by 43% thanks to thousands of viewers watching Oprah become hooked right before their very eyes. 

Twitter’s use has also broadened into mass journalism. News of the emergency landing of a plane into the Hudson River actually broke on Twitter with an eye-witness uploading a photo onto TwitPic within seconds. Demonstrators against the G20 summit used Twitter alerts to communicate with each other and stay one step ahead of the massive police operation that took place to control any riots. The police, meanwhile, also monitored the demonstrators’ activity via social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Regardless of the occasional negativity that surrounds Twitter (and my own personal cynicism), there’s no denying that Twitter increases communication and awareness beyond anyone’s expectation.

Most noticeably, Twitter has changed the way businesses market and communicate with their customers. Many companies have created Twitter profiles as part of their communications strategies, much like corporate blogs. They Tweet about business accomplishments, distribute links to press releases or promotional web sites and respond to other Tweeters comments about their brand. However, there’s a warning with this method of promotion – Twitter could open up companies to more criticism and uninteresting or blatantly self-serving Tweets could hinder a company’s brand image. But nevertheless, Samsung keeps its customers updated with their product news on Twitter, Ford offers internal business information and Starbucks promotes new offers. But is this enhanced visibility actually making the organisations money? offers the power of connecting businesses with customers and gives Twitter users a place to find products or services. Although not affiliated with Twitter, users can sign up in the same way and add their business, attaching tags and links to help people find them. Over 10,870 businesses are now being advertised on so it appears companies are taking advantage of the free publicity. But to establish the quality of their services and products would certainly require more research and who knows whether it’s really increasing the number of their uniques and conversions, and ultimately bringing in new customers. Regardless, it’s likely that the use of Twitter will continue to grow and that more and more companies will take advantage of sites such as Twibs. Whether Saffron decides to adopt the Twitter lifestyle though depends on whether it can enhance the services and value we offer. And could Tweeting aid learning? Perhaps this is a question to think about another time…

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