CXO

Keep online students engaged with Web-based technology

Interactive questions and animated demonstrations can make the difference between a successful online class and a failure. Using Flash as well as audio and video technology will engage your students on several levels and increase information retention.


Even if you turn off the animation feature of your Web browser, it’s hard to miss the banner ads and clever games featured on many Web sites. This type of online entertainment ranges from punching the monkey for a prize to picking the shell that hides the ball. The goal of these games is to draw viewers in and get them to click through to a new screen with more advertising or product information.

Interactivity is the key to successful Web-based training, too, and training developers can use the same tools that advertisers use to snag viewers' attention and promote participation. Here’s how technologies like Flash animations and audio and video clips work—and how they can work for you.
This is the second of two articles about creating interactivity in online classes. The first article covered how an instructor must change his or her role to make sure students get the most out of Web-based or other online training.
Flash to the rescue
Dynamic programs featured in banner ads and online games can be created with Flash, a Macromedia program. Flash can also be used in online courses with the help of a programmer who has computer graphics skills and programming skills. With Flash, designers can create graphics with the Macromedia user interface, and developers can build Web applications using scripting, forms, and server-side connectivity.

Flash uses x-y coordinates to store objects and display them in the designated location. With this software, a diagram or picture can be explained through movement and audio. One technique that would work well for online test questions is called Drag-n-Drop, where participants drag answers across the screen and drop them in the correct answer space.

Flash is fast and has a tiny file size, so the interactive questions, charts, diagrams, and programming exercises can still be effective from a 56K modem connection. The Flash player is a free download from the Macromedia Web site that must be installed on all student computers for the animations to work.

There are several interactive advantages to using Flash or other graphics in online training. Research shows that recall of simple and complex skills increases up to 50 percent when instructional graphics are used because people process visuals faster than text. Plus, learner responses can be stored in a database and tracked for the course administrator to review for completion requirements.

Another benefit is that graphics can be built in a vector-based program like Illustrator and transferred into the Flash program for a clean, professional look. Graphics that are raptor-based (i.e., Photoshop) do not transfer as well into Flash because they are built as pixels on a bitmap, and not as x-y coordinates.

Caveats
Despite the added benefits of engaging students with Flash, there are a few quirks that come with using the program. For example, users who have a Flash 3 player installed won’t be able to read the database for a Flash 4 diagram.

Another complication is that Microsoft Internet Explorer is the only browser that will automatically download the Flash plug-in. However, a detector can be built in to the training software to see if the workstation has the Flash plug-in. I recommend working with a Flash expert who can help create a program that works for you.

Watch, listen, interact
Another useful interactive technology for online training is audio and video clips. Using the Real Player, Real Audio, or Windows Media Player with audio plug-ins, participants can listen to expert interviews or watch product demonstrations.

However, the training environment has to have a DSL, T-1, or other high-speed Internet connection to use audio and video materials successfully. Many online course management systems now offer a choice between high bandwidth and low bandwidth interactivity. The technical requirements include having an extra video and audio server that determines whether the computer has a fast enough connection before downloading audio and video. If the connection is not fast enough, still graphics replace the video, and audio is compressed for delivery at a 56K speed.

There are numerous benefits to using audio and video clips in your online training. Videos show realistic scenes, attitudes, and behaviors that can provide training on communication skills and product demonstrations. They can also illustrate procedures and processes, show comparisons of information, and focus a learner’s attention visually. Videos showing verbal communications with customers, employees, and managers can be a big help with customer service training because they demonstrate how the learner should respond to a variety of scenarios on several sensory levels.

Audio improves the learning experience for people who would rather not read or would rather listen to information. Usability tests have shown that students prefer to have the option of listening to audio while reading text, so I provide an extra learner-control that enables the individual to turn the audio off or on. The option to replay audio text also accommodates a variety of learners.

In addition to adding realism, audio stimulates learner involvement and emotional buy-in, which is beneficial when attitudes and behaviors are affected. The vocal approach reinforces the idea that there is a real person behind the online training.

Laura Summers is the managing partner of instructional design at Alva Learning Systems. She is also completing her Ph.D. in instructional technology.

What programs have you investigated while creating online training? Are there certain pieces of software that every course designer should know about and know how to use? Tell us about what technology you’ve used while creating online courses.

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