Most of us have seen a blockbuster that has gone way overboard in terms of “visualization” — sacrificing both a comprehensible story line and any semblance of character development to the spectacle. Sure these can be nice to look at, but, in the end, are as shallow as the latest Hollywood holographic teen idol. Some are like a poorly made Fajita — lots of flash and sizzle but no real meat (or Tofu if you prefer) in the middle.
Having said that, as elearning developers, that’s probably not the problem most of us have to contend with. We usually have to work with budgets not big enough to buy a dozen donuts and a coffee. Not only that, instead of creating a course on how the robots in the movie Transformers were made, we probably have to create a course on the workings of actual electrical transformers. Instead of explaining how the end of the world might come about in 2012, we are more likely to have to describe how “The International Financial Reporting Standards” put an end to old accounting practices in 2013. These are not subjects that motivate most people to reach for a bag of popcorn.
As a result, we need to figure out how to make our productions at least mildly engaging in order to hold our audience long enough that they actually learn something. That means visualizing on a budget.
One way we can start, (and this might seem really trivial to some of you) is to use representative stock icons to replace or support onscreen text or narration. Web sites like iStockphoto allow you to purchase some really nice 3D icon sets for your elearning projects.
Here are a few reasons to use icons:
1. They are cheap. One set of 12 icons costs approximately $10 US. That’s not bad. You will probably have to buy more than one set to get all the images you need but still you can’t beat the price.
2. You can have a relatively uniform look and feel for your images. Since the artists usually create multiple sets of icons to cover a wide variety of areas such as multimedia, computers, environment, office icons etc., you will find many different images to represent things in roughly the same graphical style. In addition, because these images are icons, they are usually very generic looking and can fit in with almost any project you might have. It’s time to throw away that cheesy clip art!
3. You can use one icon to represent a number of different concepts. One of the beautiful things about human beings is that they can understand abstract symbolism. Once you associate a concept with an image, people can make connection easily and immediately.
4. Icons are in vector format and can be re-sized without lose of quality and animated easily in programs like Adobe Flash. We keep our library of icons in a Flash file as a kind of vector image library. That way we can create little animated scenes for our projects or simply put them on the stage and export them in any number of formats and sizes. It’s pretty handy.
To sum up, using icons allows you to “show” and not “tell” by representing concepts visually with simple, uniform, and high quality images. They provide an inexpensive and easy way to enhance your elearning titles. You are not going to win any special-effects awards, but perhaps your project will be a little more effective and come in under budget.
You might not know this about me, or even care, but I’ve attempted to write a couple of screenplays and a couple of sit-com pilots. (I know, I know, delusions of grandeur. It’s true. But the Toronto International Film Festival is in town and I got Red Carpet fever) Actually, it’s more of a hobby than anything but it sure takes a lot of work in terms of getting to know how to write in this genre properly. From all the books I have read on screen writing, one message came out loud and clear: when writing for the screen, we need to “Show. Don’t tell”. This is the screen writer’s mantra. I think as educators, elearning developers, and instructional designers, this, in general, should be ours as well.
The screen writer’s job is to use as few expository words as possible to convey as much information through the action and images on the screen. Dialogue or narration that explains too much simply gets in the way of a viewer’s emotional and intellectual engagement of the content. Wordy scripts often create talking-head movies that drag like The English Patient after a big meal. This might be fine for a particular niche of film, but it certainly is not accessible to the majority of people living in this age of attention deficit. We don’t simply have our character say something like “I’m tired and would really like to sit down, take my shoes off, and take a breather.” Instead, we have him slump into a chair like a rag doll, throw off his shoes and breathe a sigh as if he is trying to inflate the room with his own lung air. Each of these actions conveys a sense of how tired he is and, more importantly, what kind of tired he is. It’s richer than words because it engages our brain on more than one level. It draws us in, because we feel that we are part of an unfolding narrative that we can relate to on, not just an intellectual, but an emotional level.
Those of us who create online learning need to “Show. Don’t tell” as well. But how can we do this when we have so much content to cover? Over the next couple of weeks, I will try and look at how we can do a better job of employing this principle and to think visually.
3. Grounding in Humanities and the Arts
Effective eLearning designers require grounding in Humanities and the Arts. They must take into account the many facets of human behaviour and have a connection with popular culture. Designers in tune with these things can effectively incorporate humour, audio, video, and social conventions that are relevant to our culture. They also need a keen eye to visualize the best way to convey a concept or idea on the screen for our current generation of learners.
Again sometimes designers are guilty of regurgitating what they have been given from subject matter experts who have developed a very narrow view of their area. It is precisely this narrow focus that makes these SME’s great. However, it is the job of the eLearning designer to take this information and to connect it to a larger picture for a particular audience. This takes consideration of the great big world beyond the boundaries of the subject area.