History and Advantages of Template-Based e-Learning Authoring

My last response on Responsive Web Design with Exam Engine and Training Studio got me to thinking about the advantages of templates in e-Learning. I first wrote on the subject in 1999 with the paper “Extended” Page Templates for Speeding Up CBT Development.  We later included it in 2001’s The ToolBook Companion. The idea behind that paper was the work we did in ToolBook to copy in “template pages” that are already configured rather than creating them by hand or haphazardly copying and pasting pages. We used this successfully in large custom training development efforts for companies like Baker-Hughes Inteq. Here is the dialog box for selecting a template:

ToolBookTemplateDialog

Here was my “advantages and disadvantages” statement:

Although there was quite a bit of up-front time to do this, we believe that it paid off nicely later in the project. The biggest advantages in the end were consistency and faster screen creation. Consistency refers to the fact that individual developers can’t introduce bugs on individual pages. They may expose bugs in the shared scripts or editors, but once these are fixed you know that all of the pages work correctly. This reduces the testing burden and allows the developers to focus on the content rather than the programming. The main disadvantage of the approach was the development time and skill needed to create a new extended page template. It wasn’t too bad for a page that was going to be used a number of times, but it was too much work for a unique page. Another disadvantage was more from a business perspective. Although the “Wellbore” approach worked very well for its specific project, it didn’t “scale up” that well to a general authoring solution. The shared scripts and editors were so optimized for efficient screen creation as to be of little use for developers outside of Platte Canyon. Since our focus is on products, we saw this as a disadvantage.

We had some thoughts of making a template-based ToolBook product, but the market looked questionable.

The next time templates came up was late 2002 when I ran an training class for the U.S. Army MANSCEN Schools based on my then new VBTrain.Net book. I quickly found out that their main interest was writing an editor to connect to an Access database. They had “storyboard” contractors that were entering content that was then used by the e-Learning developers. Rather than copying and pasting it, they wanted the content to read directly from the database. The rest of the weeklong class turned into me designing the database structure, writing the editor, and then writing the ToolBook side (templates and ADO code to populate the templates from the database). They were very happy with the solution as it boosted productivity considerably. But what invariably happened was that developers would edit the ToolBook files after populating them from the database. This caused the content to get out of sync with the database. Plus, the content had to published to DHTML each time a change was made.

In the meantime, we had created our .NET Question control and Exam Engine product (2003). The Army brought me back to create an ASP.NET solution that read the storyboard databases directly and dynamically brought in the images and media. Here is a screen shot:

ManscenScreen

This was a big step up, but the need for ASP.NET was problematic. Technically that kept the resulting training from being SCORM-compliant, since the SCORM package was supposed to be self-contained and an ASP.NET solution would not work on a non-Windows server or without a virtual directory being created.

We went back to the drawing board and created a Flash-based prototype using a more general database structure (similar to what we had created for Exam Engine). This product would become Training Studio in 2007, but before we could finish it, the Army awarded us a GSA contract in 2006 to create a complete set of editors and Flash templates for their same set of databases. Last we heard, they were still using this system.

As our Exam Engine also suffered from the disadvantages of being ASP.NET-based, we created a Silverlight version in early 2009 and a Flex/Flash version in late 2010. We quickly followed that up with a Flex version of Training Studio in 2010. Both products used our own question implementation (the original Training Studio used the Flash ActionScript 2 Question objects).

These products did fairly well, but like most Flash-based authoring tools, the writing was on the wall from the fact that that iPhone and iPad would not support Flash. So we rewrote both products from scratch, releasing version 4 of Exam Engine in May 2012 and version 3 of Training Studio in July 2012. Both of these were completely HTML/JavaScript/jQuery/CSS.

So why the big history lesson? Today we released version 4.5 of Exam Engine and 3.5 of Training Studio. The big change is the introduction of Responsive Web Design. It occurred to me that this ability was one more huge advantage of template-based authoring. So here is an overall list:

Advantages of Template-Based Authoring

  1. Content is independent of your display engine. We have Exam Engine customers who created their questions and media back in version 1 and have successfully updated it with minimal effort through these technologies: ASP.NET, Silverlight, Flash, and HTML. Since images and media are outside the authoring tool, they are easily updated without re-publishing your content. This is similar in concept to what Doc-To-Help offers for help authoring.
  2. e-Learning can be interactive yet still be created by non-programmers. Subject matter experts pick templates and fill in forms for the content. A “guru” can edit or create templates as needed.
  3. Localization is much easier since all content and images/media are stored externally and only brought together at runtime. The same editors used for content creation can also be used for localization.
  4. Pages are consistent. With traditional page-based authoring, authors tend to move titles and other items around. This can be distracting to the end user.
  5. Responsive Web Design is much easier. Imagine a training course of 5 lessons of 50 pages each. In most authoring tools, adjusting the content to the size of the browser is impossible. But even if it were possible, think of having to create CSS media queries for each unique page (potentially 250 pages in our example). That is such a huge job as to not being feasible. Instead, imagine that you are using templates. Even if you used all 30 Training Studio templates or 16 Exam Engine templates, creating/editing the CSS media queries is much more manageable.

For consistency, we should look at the disadvantages as well.

Disadvantages of Template-Based Authoring

  1. Not suited for lots of unique screen designs. To the extent that most screens are unique, creating templates to match can be a lot of work. Templates work best when you have consistent types of interactions such as image on the left and content on right, hotspots down the left side of the page, a video that fills the screen, etc.
  2. Different mindset. Authoring with templates can be frustrating to those authors who like to get it and “fiddle” with each page. As someone who has managed teams of e-Learning developers, I actually like keeping the authors out of the source as creative people tend to want to spend hours on a questionable animation rather than cranking out another five pages of training.
  3. Some technical expertise required. While template-based authoring is good for non-programmers, someone in the organization needs to have some HTML, JavaScript, and/or CSS experience in order to update and edit templates. Without this capability, a traditional authoring tool might be a better fit.

Thanks for sticking around for the history lesson!

Responsive Web Design with Exam Engine and Training Studio

Responsive Web Design is a fairly new concept with the idea being that we want our web content to adjust to different browser capabilities and, in particular, viewport or screen sizes. So rather redirecting to a different set of content when accesses by an iPhone, iPad, or Android device with a smaller screen, we adjust our content accordingly. Ethan Marcotte coined the phrase and is one of its biggest proponents. Here are two articles that we found helpful: http://alistapart.com/article/responsive-web-design and http://unstoppablerobotninja.com/entry/fluid-images. We first learned about the concept in this excellent book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007SVJA3M/ref=oh_d__o00_details_o00__i00.

Making Exam Engine and Training Studio content responsive is challenging in the sense that you have to deal with both the background (index.htm) and the templates shown within the iFrame. But having templates rather than individual pages of training makes it quite a bit easier as there are a limited number of templates to fine-tune. The approach we used is to adjust the background elements both horizontally and vertically so they fit with both small and large screen sizes. With the templates, we only adjust them horizontally. This keeps the templates from running over the navigation buttons and so forth when they are resized[1]. Here is a matching template from Exam Engine at full size:

matching

Here it is again at a width of about 520 pixels:

matching500

Notice that we moved the Previous and Next buttons
to the left of the screen. The status text (not shown) is now below those
buttons and above the audio controls (which the items within the template have
sized automatically so they still fit on the screen). The drag and drop
functionality still works fine, though with this particular template the
“reset” functionality only operates correctly
when the user has not resized the screen while this template is
displayed.

Here is the same screen at about 390 pixels. It
still looks good but any smaller and we start running into problems with the
support text wrapping into the question text and so forth. Notice that we have
moved the exam name to its own line so that it doesn’t overlap the “Question 10
of 10” text. We have also moved the “countdown timer” right next to the Score
Exam button so that it doesn’t get cut off.

matching400

Here is an even smaller screen size (290 pixels). We have moved the support text to its own line[2]. It now wraps and gets in the way of the question text. But some minor adjustments on the length of the text or omitting the support link altogether would take care of that. Long feedback and status text also causes problems at such a small resolution. But even without these adjustments, we’ve gone a long way towards making our content quite viewable at multiple screen sizes.

matching300

The general approach to making this work is to first leave the style sheets as described above alone until we get to a width below our default size (800 pixel width for the templates that come with Exam Engine). We then use a CSS media query to adjust from there. It is important to understand that these CSS settings then stay in place until either another media query kicks in (such as at 400 pixels or whatever) or if the user resizes her browser above the value[3].

backgroundstyles.css

There are multiple media queries. At the first one (800 pixels width), we change all left and width values to the corresponding percentage values. As discussed in the references above, this uses the all-important formula: result = target / context. In our case, the context is our width, typically 800 pixels. The target is the existing amount in pixels. So if we have left: 8px;, we change it to left: 1%;, since 8 / 800 = 1%. Here are the media queries with some comments in line.

@media screen and (max-width: 800px)
{
	#userNameLabel
	{
	     left: 2.5%; /* 20px (target) / 800px (content) = 0.025 - 2.5%*/
	}

	#numQuestionsLabel
	{
	     left: 31.25%;
	}

	#examNameLabel
	{
	     left: 53.75%;
	}

	/* rest omitted for space reasons */
}

@media screen and (max-width: 768px)
{
	/* We switch the left and width of the status label and the various buttons to a fixed pixel amount so that they won’t move further or get too thin. */

	#statusLabel   
	{ 
	     width: 235px; 
	}   

	#previousBtn 
	{ 
	     left: 250px; 
	}   

	#emailResultsBtn 
	{ 
	     left: 310px; 
	}   

	#previousImageBtn, #emailResultsImageBtn 
	{ 
	     left: 318px; 
	}  

	/* rest omitted for space reasons */

}

The templatestyles.css and the individual style sheets for the templates have similar media queries. Of particular interest is the handling of images and media that are designed to fill a particular portion of the screen. Here is the media query from hotobjects.css.

@media screen and (max-width: 791px)
{
	#answer_1, #answer_2, #answer_3, #answer_4, #answer_5, #answer_6, #answer_7, #answer_8
	{
		max-width: 23.75%;
	}

	#answer_2
	{
		left: 23.75%;
	}

	#answer_4
	{
		left: 23.75%;
	}

	#answer_5
	{
		left: 47.5%;
	}

	#answer_6
	{
		left: 47.5%;
	}

	#answer_7
	{
		left: 71.25%;
	}

	#answer_8
	{
		left: 71.25%;
	}

	#instructionsFeedbackText
	{
		width: 55.375%;
	}
}

We use the max-width setting to ensure that the images (answer_1, answer_2, etc.) scale down as we reduce the screen width. On an 800 pixel width screen, the images are designed to be a maximum of 190 pixels wide. So we use our result = target / context formula to come up with 23.75% = 190 / 800. Note that this query starts at 791 pixels rather than 800. That is because the iFrame itself is 792 pixels wide and testing revealed that we needed a 1-pixel offset.


[1] Another way the media query could go away or change to a different value is if the user changes the orientation of the device, such as going from portrait to landscape.


[2] All of these screen shots have a spot for the student name, which accounts for the space at the top of the screen.


[3] This can still happen if you have long feedback or lots of text. If you are deploying to smaller devices like iPhones, we recommend either limiting question feedback or adjusting backgroundstyles.css to further push down the navigation buttons.