When technology must be implemented quickly or when it will affect a large group of employees, organizations are often at a loss for appropriate training ideas. As a consultant and trainer, I often build and make use of a knowledge base or set up Web conferences to get the ball rolling quickly in these scenarios. Either choice can be very useful for informal and on-the-job training needs, which I discussed in two earlier articles in my series on in-house training options.

In this article, I’ll describe yet another option for on-demand training: online demonstrations. While knowledge bases and Web conferencing are general enough to apply to several situations, online demonstration works best when your training goal is to describe or teach computer functions.

Online demonstration tools
Online demonstrations allow you to visually demonstrate functions of various software programs. The tools used to develop these online demonstrations are called video capture, although they are not traditional video-capture programs. Normally with video capture, we run video footage using a video camera and then import those images to our computers for video editing using a video-capture board and/or software.

Online demonstration tools allow you to actually record steps as you complete them on your computer system. There is no need to import video footage. These tools are also known as screen-capture utilities; however, they record motion as well as still images.

These tools have been around for several years. In earlier years, Lotus ScreenCam was the standard in motion screen-capture software. Lotus has not updated the software, however, and so another product, Camtasia, is now considered the premier tool.

Missed some series articles?

It’s easy to catch up on the other articles that have appeared in our series detailing in-house training tools for the technical organization. The first article, “In-house training tools for the technical organization: Knowledge bases,” focused on knowledge base tools, technologies, and implementation issues to consider. The second installment, “Use this process to create a training knowledge base,” described a case study of how one organization used a knowledge base to train users on a new software tool. And don’t miss the third article in the series, “Use Web conferencing as part of a blended training approach,” which detailed Xerox’s use of this training tool and provided lessons learned from the company that can help your organization get the most from Web conferencing.

Screen-capture benefits and limitations
I have several reasons for which I use online demonstrations. First, I find it easier and quicker to put together a visual demonstration than to write a step-by-step procedure. I can also easily record a new demonstration as features change, so I have used this approach to educate users on software that has been updated or frequently changed. As most people are visual, and it is generally accepted that using multiple learning modes (kinesthetic, auditory, visual) increases learning, the format also meets the audience’s needs.

Using an online demonstration also lets me provide auditory instructions and explanations while visually walking students through a software function. If users complete the steps as they view the video, it creates a kinesthetic (touch) learning approach. Also, the tools tend to be inexpensive—from $80 to $150.

The primary limitation of online demonstrations is the size of the files. In general, when I record both video and audio, I find that each five-minute demonstration creates an .AVI or Camtasia file of about 5 MB. Storage is not really the issue because most instructors have large hard drives, but distributing the files can become a problem if you have large files or many files.

Creating an online demo
In most instances, I use online demonstrations when I am providing training on rapidly changing software or training in an informal setting. You can create a formal production using the same tools, but I am usually more concerned with making the training available quickly.

Let’s use the example of a new software product close to release. Documenters and trainers need to quickly get up to speed on the software but will not have unlimited access to developers or subject-matter experts. Producing online demonstrations reduces the workload of those who are developing the software, as they will only need to explain functions once instead of training several individuals at different times. It also helps students (documenters and trainers in this example) because they can learn about the software and then ask more specific questions of the developers. In addition, learners can access the online demonstrations from anywhere at any time.

Here is the process I follow:

  1. Develop a task-based outline from the program’s functional or technical specifications. I sequence the tasks in the order in which students should learn them. I write the document in Microsoft Word so that I can use its outlining and hyperlink features. I also use this outline as a checklist of what online demonstrations I need to produce.
  2. Starting with the first task on the outline, I develop an online demonstration. Again, I try to keep the online demonstrations to five minutes for several reasons. First, it is easier to manage the process of developing an online demonstration if it is short. If you make a mistake on a five-minute demo vs. a 20-minute demo, reproducing the five-minute demo does not take much time. Secondly, students spend a short amount of time watching each demo, making it less likely that they will be interrupted and distracted. I find it takes me 15 to 20 minutes to produce a five-minute demo. This includes recording the demo, saving the file, and linking it to the outline document.
  3. Once I have completed some or all of the online demonstrations, I place the files—the outline and demonstrations—on a Web server. From here, students can run the demonstrations from the server or download the files.
  4. Finally, I send an announcement via e-mail to my potential audience.

Using this approach, and if the specifications are available, I can produce about 15 to 20 online demonstrations the first day. These will usually be enough to get learners started. As features or functions change, I redo the demonstrations and repost the new versions on the Web server.

You will need a computer with a sound card, a microphone, and the motion screen-capture tool to produce online demonstrations. For a free look at how it works, download a 30-day trial of Camtasia.

We want your feedback

We’re interested in how online demonstration tools have worked for you and what tips you might have to share with fellow TechRepublic members. Send us an e-mail or start a discussion below.