by Michael Treser
The last few years have drastically changed the approach to how people interact with e-learning courses and how those courses are created. Modern trends supported by public opinion push e-learning authors towards producing something that is absolutely beyond our understanding about regular online courses.
Many innovations are fleeting, unable to stand the test of time.
Some new ideas, however, not only continue to grow into real life examples, but also find applications in day-to-day operations of many industries.
We started crafting Geenio because we urgently needed a convenient, easy-to-use solution to create our own courseware. But, we could not find software that would satisfy those requirements. At that time, half of our team worked as instructional designers and trainers, and the need to produce competitive learning materials and run education within the company at affordable costs and minimal efforts was a real driver for making yet another e-learning application. It was an alternative to lowering our requirements and working with the solutions available, and the fun fact is that the members of our team came to that conclusion at the same time independently of one another.
That said, we decided to build our own tool with blackjack and gamification: a tool that would allow us to benefit from the latest achievements of the industry and cover our usage scenarios. The one requirement was that the tool adhered to modern web application standards - we were all tired of the mid-90s-like software interfaces that we used at that time.
We developed the idea, and it gradually turned into a product model with software requirements. By that time, we already had our team, in which each person had a very clearly defined role and mission in the project. Software developers and designers jumped in and brought a lot of fancy and outstanding features to the product.
Initially, we were obsessed with the desire to add as many modules and functions into the product as possible. The reality, however, proved that it was not possible to do everything in the first version of the product. So, we decided to create functions to address only the main issues in the initial version of the product:
- Course authoring tool (The Editor)
- Assessment engine
- Learning management system
What are non-linear courses and what do we need those for?
We had a very special set of requirements for the course editor because we wanted to build non-linear courses that would adjust in complexity depending on the student’s abilities and change the way the student would go through the course. Our observations revealed that each student’s attitude and comfort were the cornerstones for a successful learning experience. Positive emotions helped the students to digest new information and later turn it into skills. An overly complicated course would demotivate students and the only result will be tiredness and dissatisfaction. An overly simplistic course, on the contrary, would make a learner bored. Such a learner would simply be clicking through the course, instead of gaining new skills. The main conclusion from these observations was the need to adapt the complexity of a course to the student’s level of knowledge.
The purpose of non-linear courses is to enable course authors to build varied complexity courses by modifying the presentation of materials in response to student performance and demonstrated level of knowledge.
That’s why we built the Pathboard. The Pathboard is the special course-authoring mode which can be used to add new pages, sets of pages (lessons), questions and sets of questions (tests) to your course, and interconnect those in any combination.
A course author always sees all possible learning paths and course branches because the Pathboard represents non-linear courses in an intuitive and easy-to-use visual manner.
The main idea behind the Pathboard is that there may be several parallel ways to go through the course. Initially, a student may start at the medium level of complexity and after few pages takes an assessment that gauges the current level of knowledge. As a result, we may redirect the user to a more advanced path, stay at the same level or even go to a more detailed explanation of basic things, depending on what the course author decides.
There is no limitation for your creativity while crafting a course - you may make knowledge checkpoints throughout the course and direct your audience to appropriate learning paths. Just be careful to avoid creating excessive entities.
Gamification. The downfall of many.
At the very beginning of our project we decided that gamification would be a mandatory component of our product.
Game mechanics built into the learning process appear to be one of a few elements that make courses really engaging. That, in turn, helps students make a breakthrough in gaining new skills and knowledge. A fascinating course by Kevin Werbach made our desire to implement gamification in Geenio even stronger.
Despite the popularity of gamification and the plenty of available materials, it appeared to be the most difficult part of the product engineering.
Not everyone knows that game elements provided by a service may not only be useless, but may also harm the learning process. There is a range of problems in gamification that are hidden or just ignored by many people. The most critical of those include:
- Game elements are not the same as the game itself. If you cross the thin red line, your learner may follow a mechanical game process and forget about the main purpose of the course - the learning. Even big companies face this issue, not to mention beginners in the industry. Moreover, it was specifically the wayward implementation of gamification by some software vendors that led to gamification not being taken seriously.
- Gamification must not be a self-contained module. It has to be an enhancement of the main product functions, an auxiliary facility for making the learning process a bit more entertaining and engaging, but not for replacing it.
- It is not sufficient to simply add dozens of different badges, scores and levels. All these components must have vivid logic that makes sense to students. The process of getting the recognition and its further transformation into something else must be carefully designed and well-justified to users.
- Badges, rewards and any other distinct credentials should be limited in availability; otherwise, those will lose value for students.
We tried to improve the gamification component several times using different approaches, but every time we crashed into one of the issues described above. Everything seemed just perfect in an SRS, but when applied to practice some implementations proved to be far-fetched, unnecessary and complicating the product.
The gamification SRS was the most arguable document in the company. We completely rewrote it five times! Eventually, we found the golden mean and decided to start off with basic and yet useful functions that we expected to develop further using feedback from our customers.
Our main conclusion about gamification is that one shouldn’t completely pass control over it to a course author. Who knows the required skill set and competence level of employees better than their manager? So, we decided to grant a privilege of creating badges to Geenio users who have the role of Manager. All the manager needs to do is to set the rule that would reward a badge to a user after completing a learning plan. For example, if an employee successfully completes courses on PHP, MySQL and HTML with positive results, then the system will assign a badge “Web programming specialist” to such a user. Or give a badge “Thorough Learner” to a person who completed the largest number of courses among the department.
With that said, a the manager now becomes a part of the learning process too, and the main role of the manager is to set the goal of education. In turn, users can see the badges available and this helps to motivate them to perform bette. Moreover, the course author also has access to ramification elements and may reward students with a more or less prestigious prize depending on the results demonstrated.
No one is missed; Everyone participates in the learning process.
Cloud Solutions in E-Learning
The cloud approach (SaaS) is still trending and these days it already dominates over the “traditional” on-premises software. Even such giants as SAP and Adobe participate in the great race of cloud solutions and they actively develop their own applications. Most experts predict the trend will remain unchanged and companies will continue moving to the cloud, because it’s easier, cheaper and requires less efforts from customers.
We evaluated available cloud solutions for e-learning and were impressed by the resulting picture.
We were attracted immediately to the solutions and the overall experience was promising. However, once we tried to create a complete course, we faced many issues, such as unexpected behaviours or simply non-working controls.
So, we understood that there is a demand for online course authoring software and new solutions of this kind are still required because existing apps cannot completely satisfy customers.
We decided not to reinvent the wheel or compete with such applications as Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline that were already the de-facto standard in the market, especially considering the existing market of SaaS education software.
We, the Internet Generation, could not imagine another way to deliver our product because of the following reasons:
- We needed a lightweight and fast service that is available from anywhere.
- With a broad audience to publish the course to, we didn’t want to worry about place or platform - it had to be a one-click action.
- We wanted to continue editing the course with a tablet, while sitting at the airport or on the train.
- We were attracted by the idea of collaboration within the software, with the author getting feedback right in the course and improving it on the fly.
All these concerns made the decision very simple - just provide the product via SaaS. As a result, we were able to address all the issues listed above and even more than that, we added some other functions that became possible.
For example, we added a useful feature that allows you to insert a picture not only from your local computer, but also from the Internet using the Google Images service, right in your Geenio editor. The same thing with videos - why not drag and drop a Youtube file into your course you find it in the built-in search menu?
One can hardly determine the real value of a trend unless the trend is applied in real life. And that is what we did while developing Geenio.
Some trends turned out to be ineffective, and we rejected those without any regrets. Others proved to be so useful and natural that we wondered how those hadn’t become a standard in the industry.
We want to advise our readers not to swear by new trends and test them out to going to production. Many trends are soap bubbles and if you cannot justify the use of a trendy and fancy feature, then you probably don’t really need it. At least it may not be completely applicable for your company and its business needs. Try and make your own decisions, and don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd while defending your choices.
Remember that the goal of e-learning is still the same - help your students gain new knowledge.