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!

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About Jeff Rhodes
Jeff Rhodes is the Chief Technical Officer and owner of Platte Canyon Multimedia Software Corporation, a leader in developing commercial software that Improves the Lives of Training Developers. He graduated at the top of his class at the Air Force Academy, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. Jeff received a Masters degree in Economics from the London School of Economics, which he attended under a British Marshall Scholarship. Jeff is the author of "Programming for e-Learning Developers: ToolBook, Flash, JavaScript, & Silverlight" and "VBTrain.Net: Creating Computer and Web Based Training with Visual Basic .NET." He also co-wrote "The ToolBook Companion." He has had numerous articles on training development published and is a frequent presenter at conferences both in the U.S. and Europe. Jeff lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Sue and sons Derek and Michael.

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