Trivantis takes the fight to Articulate with Snap! Empower

Its going to be an interesting year in the world of e-learning authoring tools. Trivantis has released Snap! Empower for the extremely competitive $99 and is aggressively targeting Articulate users with a very powerful set of features that go well beyond the capabilities offered by Engage at a fraction of the price. What will be more interesting is how this product will compete with the iminent Articulate Storyline which offers similar powerful functionality but seems destined to be offered at a significantly higher price.

One question all these e-learning authoring tools have yet to answer is how to move from flash based publishing to fully featured HTML5 based publishing (as required by iPad and iPhone). Snap! as with other similar tools takes the easy option of publishing to video to provide a limited form of HTML5 compatibility. This simple approach fails to include the rich interactions and opportunities for self exploration and pacing that the flash published versions can embody. We know it is these very aspects of our resources that are most valuable in promoting learning. I wonder how long it will be before we see an e-learning tool which truely tackles this thorny problem… perhaps it will be Storyline and that may just justify its greater cost?

 

Moodle and the mystery of the disappearing course enrolments

Its a good week for getting to the bottom of long standing mysteries.  Yesterday I finally solved a problem which had plagued one of my client’s moodle installations which involved student enrolments on courses disappearing without any obvious pattern.  Countless searches hadn’t turned up any reports of similar problems until I came across thismoodle bug tracker entry.  The comments on this report suggested the longtimenosee setting as a potential cause.  This Moodle setting is labelled – “Unsubscribe users from courses after” is defined on the Site administration > Server > Cleanup page and it appears to remove enrolments if a student doesn’t visit a particular course for a set time period.

Screenshot of the location of the Cleanup link

It appears that the student needs to visit that course at least once before this time limit will be applied.  By default this setting is set at a value of 120 days, so I have now set this to “Never” and intend to use this setting on all Moodle installations to avoid a problem like this being encountered again.

New setting for the longtimenosee setting

The moral of this story… I guess its to keep googling when you encounter a problem like this because finding that one page of information really is the key, but finding it isn’t always straightforward!  I’m glad I got there in the end!

 

Re-sizing and positioning the presentation slides in your Articulate Presenter skin

Wow what a great Articulate Users Conference at the University of Leeds!  I’m still buzzing from all the ideas, conversations and enthusiasm.  This has to be my favourite conference by far… and thanks to one of the other participants I have finally learned about one of the remaining mysteries of Articulate Presenter skinning (well it had been a mystery to me anyway).  I really hadn’t thought it was possible to move or resize the presentation slides displayed beneath your articulate skin and so all my skin designs were based on fitting around or overlapping the slide content where necessary.  But I was wrong.  As detailed in this forum post you can refer to the slides (and also to the other elements added on top of slides such as Engage and Quizmaker interactions) by their levels in the root articulate movie and so amend their scaling and position properties.  Hat’s off to the detective work that was necessary to work this out as it certainly isn’t mentioned in the SDK.

So for example if I want to re-size and re-position the presentation slides I need to add the following code to the actionscript in my skin (probably inside an appropriately named function):

_level22._yscale = 80;   //reduce slide height to 80% of original height
_level22._xscale = 80;   //reduce slide width to 80% of original width
_level22._y = 100;          //reposition slide on y axis
_level22._x = 200;          //reposition slide on x axis

The levels you use to refer to the other types of elements displayed on top of slides are (these are drawn from this forum post):

_level22 PPT slide loaded into in Articulate
_level33 Flash embedded in PPT slide
_level33 container for swf and flv
_level44 Side panel
_level55 Quizmaker
_level56 Engage
_level57 Toolbar items
_level58 ast_notes.swf and navicons

Knowing this opens the door to much more flexible skin design as I can now increase the space available for the skin above and below the presentation slides and not have to overlap the slide content. However if you are designing skins to be compatible with embedded Engage interactions, Quizmaker quizzes, SWF and FLV files etc you will  need to ensure you are also re-sizing and re-positioning each of these elements as well, so there will probably be lots of testing involved to get this right!

 

Drawtivity project completed

We are very pleased to annouce that the initial phase of the Drawtivity project has been completed. The system is now ready for you to use to create your own activities and the source files are available for those wishing to install and run their own authoring systems:

  1. A related project has been set up within SourceForge where the latest source files are now available (go to the Drawtivity SourceForge project).Go to the Drawtivity SourceForge project
  2. Documentation including help for activity authors, system administrators and details on installing your own Drawtivity authoring system (go to the Drawtivity documentation page).Drawtivity documentation
  3. More example activities are now available illustrating the possibilities of activities authored with the Drawtivity system (view the example Drawtivity activities)
    View example Drawtivity activities

 

Drawtivity update – activity scoring

If you are interested there has been progress on the Drawtivity project in the development of a mechanism to score activities. This has proven to be quite a complex business involving a great deal of thinking and also a fair bit of mathematics. We now have a mechanism that in testing seems to automatically generate appropriate percentage scores based on the accuracy of the user’s drawn response when compared against the activity answer. To learn more about the thinking behind this mechanism please review the Drawtivity blog posts How to score a Drawtivity activity and Implementing activity scoring. To try an example scored activity click on the screenshot below.

Try a scored Drawtivity activity

 

Two brand new custom Articulate Presenter skins available now

We are extremely pleased to announce that we have just launched two new skins for Articulate Presenter which are now available for purchase. Set your e-learning course apart with these eye catching and simple to use designs. For more information click on the images below:

More information on the iBar skin More information on the iSkin
iBar - a clean simple skin that allows you to add your own logo (more info on iBar). iSkin - inspired by an iconic design available with black and white backgrounds (more info iSkin).

Both skins can be customised to meet your exact requirements (bespoke colour schemes, functionality, logos etc) for an additional fee.  Please get in touch for more information.

 

Video for web and iPhone/iPad – lessons learned (the hard way)

As part of a recent project we have been involved in producing a series of short videos for increasing the awareness of doctors of how to use a physiotherapy referal service. A technical am of this project has been to deliver these videos to both PCs and mobile devices, but without using a video delivery service such as YouTube or Vimeo.  So we wanted to encode one version of the video file into a format that would play in a flash video player embedded in a web page and also be playable on the iPhone/iPad which obviously doesn’t currently have a flash player.

To do this we choose to use the JW Player which offers built in HTML 5 support and encoded the video using H.264

The first thing we learnt was that to get the player to substitute the HTML 5 version for the flash version when viewed with an iPhone/iPad, the video player needs to be embedded within the web page using the JW Player’s own JavaScript embedder (jwplayer.js), rather than HTML embed tags or the generic SWFObject javascript embedder.

Unfortunately it then turned out we had another more significant issue to overcome.  Once we had uploaded our video files and began testing them on-line we encountered serious audio synchronisation issues in the videos when viewing on a PC. This problem did not affect viewing on an iPhone and seemed to disappear if the video was paused and restarted. Initially we thought this must be an intermittant file caching issue. However the same problem was reported by various viewers and we slowly realised this was more serious.

A web search eventually found this forum post by Andrew Wallace which appeared to shed light on this problem:

The H.264 is not a completely “contained” compression method — by this I mean that Audio and Video tracks are still treated as separate entities that only QuickTime can recognize integrated timing information to match each track with one another. Flash, however, can not detect this information and so when it sees a gap of no audio, it shifts the remaining audio to fill in the gap, thus causing a sync issue. Why? Not entirely sure — it’s a Flash issue that has never been addressed by Macromedia/Adobe.

The same post suggests a solution to this problem:

Create a white noise track (generated in a sound program like Soundtrack) that is the complete duration of your video tracks and insert it underneath your currently existing audio track. Set the level to around -70dB thus making it inaudible. This track acts as a binding track to keep things in sync. Export as a self-contained file and compress as you normally would. You can still use H.264 as your compression method.

A subsequent post in the same thread suggests that this solution isn’t necessarily always successful…

So what to do… for this particular project we have now chosen to encode into FLV format for PC delivery and offer a separate H.264 version for iPhone/iPad viewers and provide jQuery tabs to allow selection between the video options available. This is not to suggest that a single video format can’t be used, but we have discovered this is not as simple as it appears and so we opted to use a tried and tested approach that we can have confidence in.

Screen shot of the video player and selection tabs

 

Dragster on Android

I finally joined the rest of the world in owning a smart phone this Christmas.  My choice after literally years of consideration was an HTC Desire which uses HTC’s own Sense UI based on the Google’s Android. One major reason for my choice was the availability of the flash player on this platform. So one of the first things I did on turning on my shiny new phone was to try a Dragster activity (see below).

Dragster 3 activity on an HTC Desire

And I was not disappointed.  I was extremely pleased to see that not only did the activity load up exactly as one would expect on a laptop or PC, it also responded as I hoped with the labels dragging with finger swipes on the touch screen. The activity feedback is displayed by tapping on the activity feedback button as you would expect. The only real difference between a PC/laptop with a mouse and cursor, and on the phone is when it comes to displaying feedback on label positioning. As the phone touch screen has no equivalent of mouse/cursor roll-over, I found I needed to tap on the labels in order to display the answer areas and pop-up text. The only problem with this is that if you lift your finger from the screen the answer areas disappear again, so viewing these areas can be problematic if they are small and are obscured by your finger. However when these areas are larger and not obscured this isn’t a problem.

So I think we can now state that Dragster 3 activities can be delivered to users of modern Android smart phones that have an up to date flash player installed. My only reservations are about screensize which limits the accuracy of element positioning and can hinder viewing of feedback as descibed earlier.

This experience makes me very excited about the new generation of Android based tablet computers that are due for release later this year. With their flash compatibility and large touch screens they will be absolutely ideal for delivering tactile drag and drop interactions for learning with Dragster.  I’m expecting 2011 to be a very exciting year!

 

Free Articulate Skin – Webducate Simple Blue

Following the popularity of the Free Reflection skin I thought I would share another simple skin for Articulate Presenter.  I believe that minimising the complexity of the presentation interface is often very helpful because it reduces distractions and confusion for the learner.  It also means that the buttons provided can be large and clear.

So the Free Webducate simple blue skin takes this approach with three large, clear buttons. Click on the screenshot below to view a demonstration of this skin.

Webducate Simple Blue Skin
To use this skin download the skin articulate package file below and double click on it to install. Once installed a new layer template option will appear in your Articulate presenter publish window.

Download the Webducate simple blue skin articulate package

NB – if  you encounter problems installing this skin it is likely to be due to security restrictions relating to downloaded files from the Internet on your PC.  In this case please contact me and I’ll email you the skin articulate package which will avoid this problem.

If you find this skin useful please note that Webducate offers a range of skin related services including custom skin development and skin development training.