Smart WBT Players

Just a Saturday morning thought –

Smart WBTs. I’ve always liked the idea.

A long time ago, I wrote several Flash based WBT presentation tools – content was externalized in my own XML schema, played in my nice player. These things are pretty common. Even in modern HTML5 / JavaScript land, a nice player that can present any type of content is a big efficiency. I was taking apart the Articulate Storyline 2 Player JavaScript the other day and it does the same thing. It’s fun to see how other developers tackled the problem.

But one idea I had (around 2005) was: What if the player was smart enough to not only present the content, but understand what the learner was trying to do? What if it’s a typical learner that’s mashing Next as quickly as possible to get to the test and the system noticed this (based on time per page) and prompted you to just go to the test? What if the learner sat on a question or tried 5 times and couldn’t get it right? It would notice and ask if you’d like to go back to that part of the content for a quick review?

I had it all coded up and working perfectly – but it’s hard to get business partners to buy into that when deadlines come. I couldn’t get anyone interested in the idea we just moved on without it. But I never forgot it.

I did bring the idea back with the Social Sim “engine” I built, but never completed my vision for it.

This morning I saw the Synaptic JavaScript library on GitHub. A JavaScript based neural frakin’ network. How cool would that be integrated into a WBT player? If the WBT learned how you interacted with it and altered it’s own behavior.

That would indeed be pretty cool.

VIM … !

Recently deciding that I needed to keep my mushy brain in shape, I’ve decided to forgo sudoku puzzles and learn: Vim. That aged text editor of Unix lore is quite powerful, or so I hear. I’ve met a local dev who is a true wizard at it – his fingers glide across the keyboard as CSS magically appears in the inky black of the terminal windows. And I can do that. I’ve learned just enough to bash out a few short paragraphs and it /is/ pretty quick.

I’m on level 7 of  Vim Adventures right now, and it’s the best way I’ve run across to learn and practice the commands. Cheat sheets line my cubical walls and my Evernote note grows daily. I’ll be good any this in a few weeks – I have to be since I’ve limited all of my coding to Vim. No more Sublime Text for me – not even Vintage mode. :w!

The not so curious case of the “Click Next Fatigue”

As someone who annually sufferers through painful elearning courses, I thought that I’d make a list to help my punishers, who are surely ignorant of the pain they’re causing. My “click next button finger” is falling off at this point!

In a past life, I used to build courses like this. I’m sure that I’ve inflicted unmeasurable “click next fatigue” on countless employees/associates/teammates/whatever. But, I like to believe that I was aware of good user experience and always fought for what was best for the user.

So here’s my list, feel free to leave your thoughts or additions in the comments.

Some helpful guidelines for keeping the victim of an elearning course happy:

1. Golden Rule: Treat me like a responsible, honest adult
2. Let me test out
3. Never disable the back or next buttons
4. Don’t make me listen for the page to be read out loud before I can click next.
5. Don’t use sound! But if you must, make it optional.
6. Do not require me to click all of the buttons/links/etc. before I can click next.
7. If all of the content will fit on the page, put it there. Don’t force me through unnecessary interactions in the sake of “making it interactive.”
8. Don’t cover the next button I need to click on next with an oversized box from another button.
9. Be honest about how long the course will take to complete.
10. Developers: Don’t let the SMEs tell you how to build the interaction. That’s YOUR job.
11. Designers: Don’t let the SMEs write the content. That’s YOUR job.
12. Keep me entertained with novel interactions. When every course that you’ve created for the past 3 years uses the same interactions – you’re doing it wrong.
13. Make the graphics pretty. Pick stock art from at least the last decade. Why is that business executive on a Motorola flip phone (or worse!)?
14. Never copy a Microsoft UI style.
15. Never copy an Apple UI style.
16. When I miss a question, let me know what the correct answer was.
17. After you’ve shown me the correct answer, don’t make me change my answer and then resubmit the question.
18. The built-in knowledge check types in practically ALL elearning authoring tools suck. Don’t use them.
19. When you have mandatory popups on a page, don’t hide mandatory clicks in there.
20. Show my progress and let me know how much longer I’ll be stuck in here.
21. Ask for my opinion with at least one free form text field in a level 1 survey.

Clean Code

I’ve been programming for along time now. My first program was probably back in 5th or 6th grade when I had to get checked off on basic computer skills in elementary school. I think they were pretty progressive for 1989. It would have been as BASIC program on an Apple II and gone something like this:

10 PRINT "Hello!"
20 GOTO 10

I got into this seriously in 8th grade programming games in BASIC on the TRS-80s in the typing lab. Then moved though various lanauges (QuickBasic, Pascal, C++, Lingo, Javascript, ActionScript 0, 1 and 2) before landing where I currently am: an ActionScript 3 developer working with the Flash Platform.

Throughout all of this, I really just concentrated on syntax of the language and getting stuff done. But two years ago, I started using design patterns and looking beyond the code into the technique 9or craft) of coding. And in the past few weeks, I’ve really started thinking seriously about how bad I code and how want to code. In my freshman year of college, my first English assignment was a required paper titled: “My Writing Sucks and And Why.” Now I’m doing this mentally.

I picked up a copy of the excellent Clean Code by Robert C. Martin and have just started to read it. A few weeks from now, I fully intent to be a better programmer and look back on the code that I’ll write today and think: “What the hell was I thinking?!”

Note, I’d consider ActionScript 0 to be what ever the hell we were writing for frame scripts in Flash 4. That was painful.

Nori Framework

Lately, I’ve been into learning new things – one of them has been to find out what IOC (Inversion of Control) and DI (Dependency Injection) is all about. As a working project for this, I’ve taken the Cairngorm based framework that I created at work and started to do a major rewrite around IOC. I’m basing most of it on Robotlegs.
Not much to say right now, but I’ll toss up information about it and informative links that I’ve found soon.

Social sim. engine, Part 3 – Progress!

Thanks to a wonderful confluence of events and great timing, I’m able to turn this in to a project for work – there are a handful of solutions in the queue that can use this starting next month – so I’m working full time on it over the month of Feburay.

After a few days, this is what I’ve got: click. It’s a pretty straight forward scenario, but it demonstrates all of the features that I’ve got working.

I’ve been able to keep up with my “play” metaphor and it’s working out great by providing many more opportunities for gaming rather than typical multiple choice branching.

One of the projects brought up a requirement that started a new idea – an inventory system. All I really need to do is allow the learner to reference a screen shot to get some data, but I think it can be taken farther. But more on that later.

Designing learning interactions that no one wants to use

Well, done that!

Multiple Sliders

I had a requirement to for an interaction for learners to rate up to six criteria for a given scenario. I thought of 3 different ways to do it: 1) that, 2) text entry and 3) drop down menus.

Text entry was the first idea. But that’s commonplace – can you call that an idea? I had a slider component that I’d coded for a project a year ago that was never used – so why not? The result, while interesting, fails miserably on many levels with visual clutter being the main one. I still think that it would work for up to 3 or 4 items, but it just doesn’t for this many.

So go back and do something more simple – with drop downs. I’d coded the slider to use the same basic properties as the native AS3 ones so, there wasn’t that much more effort to make this change. It’s much easier for the learner to use and saves a lot of space – so much that the scenario can be on the same screen as the question.

Created a few learning interactions today

When I started Ramen, one of the goals was to allow the page templates/interactions to be used outside of the system – in a Lectora course for example. This has even become more important as my day job standardizes on Lectora as the shell for any tracked learning content. Over the past year, I’ve been able to write a whole lot of really easy to use APIs for creating learning interactions. Creating a new interaction takes just a few hours using the Ramen page template API and borrowing functionality from existing templates.

The biggest benefit of this is quick and easy reusability. Just change the XML file and it’s a new page. I don’t want to even think about how hard  some of these would be to pull of in Lectora. It gets really confusing when the action icons start to pile up.

I’m helping out on a project now that needs a few learning interactions developed – quickly. So I spent today working on these. Here they are in the Ramen player:

These aren’t the fanciest interactions ever created, but not bad for a few hours work.

Rethinking the Social Simulation

So far, I’ve gotten a basic schema defined for the structure file and a good start on most of the base data classes.

I’ve been planning to go down the most familiar path: a page-branch-page-branch-etc. architecture/flow. It’s the one that any elearning developer would be most familiar with. Each page contains pictures of the people and if it’s an interaction a few choices to click on. Just repeat that over and over and you have it. It’s a fairly “dumb” system.

But then I had a new idea on how to make this thing operate … had to dig out my Moleskine and start taking notes (for the first time in nearly 2 years).

What’s a better metaphor for this thing? How about a play? In this case my characters are actors. And what about all of the text? It’s generated from the actors! What about logic – is it in the page interaction or the controller? No – it comes from the actors reacting to a spoken line from another character.

Probably a small thing – but in the scope of what I want to do – it’s ground breaking. Now we have persistent actors on the stage (which now really is a stage) who drive the dialog and their reaction to it. Pages are now the “script” that is fed to the actors and look/feel of each page is the “set.” We don’t have a dumb template system we have a set of intelligent programmable avatars.

In code, each actor will be a component in the library following a MVC model. The sim. engine controller will handle the event listening and dispatch it to the correct actor. The logic will be part XML defined and part variable driven and will be in the actor’s controller. The look of the actor will be driven by logic (change based on emotion/score!) and the appearance of the dialog will come from the actor. Any narrative text (instructions, etc.) would be narration driven by the engine/narrator character. Interaction on a spoken line will cause a reaction in the targeted actor (you could speak to the mentor!) and will direct the play to a new page in the script. The page script will control the actor’s position, the look of the set, and feed new dialog to the actors.

This tips the possibilities towards the complex end of the scale – more complicated scenarios will be easier to play out while a linear scenario would be more difficult. It also opens the door towards making it more of a game. Actors can have different personalities by tweaking their logic and their automatic reactions. Point modifiers for certain actors and certain lines. Maybe you could flirt with the other actor. Maybe you could ask the mentor for help – or earn a “smooth talking” bonus? I’m thinking of a lot of new ideas here …

Building a social simulation engine, pt. 1

So this topic has come up off an on at work for nearly a year now. We need a good reusable player to create engaging social simulations for training employees on customer interaction. People have looked around and the best off the shelf solution seems to be Nexlearn’s SimWriter. I’ve taken a quick look at it and it does seem like it has a lot of features, but has the same problem most other “learning development” tools have – the look/feel of the output leaves a lot to be desired. And from what I’ve heard it’s a pretty expensive product.

I spent way too much time thinking about this today, and have some free time, so … I’ll build one and document the process on this blog. Not an overly complex one, and I’m not going to be posting all of the source but it’ll be a nice thought experiment.

So what are my requirements?

  • Produce 3 levels of simulation: 1) Linear/low, 2) Branching and 3) “Dynamic State”/complex based on previous branches or other data.
  • Minimum of 3 characters: antagonist (customer), protagonist (you) and a coach/mentor/guide
  • Learner character choice – pick the protagonist who you identify with (age, race, sex, etc.)
  • Scoring – possibly represented as antagonist “mood”
  • History states – go back and review/change past choices
  • Possible branching to other tasks – system/mechanical sim?
  • Basic flow: Introduction, protagonist selection, conversation tree, resolution, summary
  • Tie learning objectives/goals to places in the scenario to measure success/failure.
  • Photos of the characters in different states
  • Audio?
  • Video?
  • Fully Flash based (rich media, etc.)
  • Easy to edit by moderately technical people (XML driven)
  • Possible SCORM tracking: score, answers, performance, time

Not a small list! Not quite sure how long it’ll take me and it will definitely be a phased solution. And I don’t know if  it’ll every be used for anything in production, but it’ll be a nice little way to keep busy in the evenings.

So, let’s get started …