Category: Distance Education

These days, you can hardly be an instructional designer without being prepared to show that you can use either Captivate or Storyline.  So, I decided to dive into learning the basics of both of these programs to see what all of the fuss is about.

Captivate, by Adobe, is an e-Learning authoring program that is very similar in function and appearance to the old lecture standard – PowerPoint – although it offers many features and improvements that take away the frustration of turning lectures slides into online instructional materials.  With improved support for narration, multi-media embedding, and flow control, Captivate takes creating materials for online or hybrid courses to a new level.


  • If you have been using PowerPoint in the classroom (or in online education) for years, you can import your old slides into Captivate to get a head start.  Tech support at Adobe says that support for converting PowerPoint animations during the import has improved, but you might download a demo version and check if your slideshows will convert smoothly.  On the other hand, if you’ve been using those animations to “create interest” – you probably should think about revising them substantially anyways.
  • With some attention to settings early on, you can create a slide show that will work on multiple devices: desktops, iPad/tablets, and smart phones, automatically adapting to fit the size of display.  As students increasingly shift their studying to the most convenient device in reach, the ease of creating a lecture once for multiple devices is very attractive.
  • Unlike PowerPoint, Captivate was designed to create e-Learning lessons and has far superior support for recording voice overs for slides and embedding multi-media – even allowing a video to play over multiple slides and adding closed captioning.
  • The ability to create a lecture that responds to student answers opens up the possibility for formative quizzes, student self-check of understanding, and branching within a presentation to allow students to view material that applies to them while skipping the rest … or get a review of material that they did not grasp on the first pass.
  • With the branching and assessment features, you can create very responsive interactive lessons, but you will need to spend time flowcharting your presentation or lesson and may want to work with someone who understands computer programming.


  • As a big proponent of active online learning, I have to caution instructional designers considering the adoption of Captivate.  While this program offers some handy features, such as quizzing and branching, it is essentially cut from the same cloth as the father and granddaddy of lecture aids: PowerPoint and the overhead project, respectively.  Of necessity, it boils down ideas to the few words that will fit on a screen, possibly with images, animation, and short video to augment the point, presented to the learner as part of direct instruction.  The theory of learning as consumption presented in a (mostly) linear fashion is not challenged by the newish tool.  And as students have been telling us for nearly twenty years, this is not an engaging way to learn – either in the classroom or online.  Adding pretty, moving pictures doesn’t really help.  Certainly, use this as a way to present content, but also consider using other techniques to engage students in activities that address higher order thinking skills as part of their learning.


  • With Captivate, you can publish your lesson or presentation in HTML5, for those viewers (most people) who do not have Captivate on their computers.  In general, most people should have modern browsers that can handle the new web standard, but I’m often surprised at the number of students (and faculty members) who are milking along old, out of date software.
  • Responsive design is a great feature, but you still need to pay attention to details of positioning as you build your lesson, slide by slide.  You may need to prioritize what will appear on a mobile device screen since no magic allow you to show a great deal of text and images on a small display.  Also, you cannot import a PowerPoint presentation into a responsive (i.e. adjustable size) presentation.  To take advantage of this feature, you’ll need to start from scratch.


For most uses, I suspect faculty members will not use the advanced features of Captivate and should stick to the old standard, PowerPoint.  Nearly every computer on any college campus has PowerPoint … or the free viewer …. installed.
But for direct instruction materials that can scale to a selection of display sizes AND do some quick quizzing, Captivate may be the solution you are seeking, especially for content-heavy courses aimed at adult, professional development or end-user education.



Image representing Google Docs as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

One of the tools cited by students as most helpful was the free set of tools provided by Google, known colloquially as “Google Docs“.  If you haven’t run into them yourself, these free, online tools include simplified word process, presentation software, a spreadsheet, and form creator (often used currently for short surveys), and a drawing program.  In most cases, they do not have the sophistication and range of features found in commercially available tools such as the Microsoft Office Suite, but their feature set often does the trick for most basic uses of these tools.  The word processing program, in particular is a perfectly adequate tool for producing term papers.  But the biggest claim to fame I found for my classroom use was the ability for groups to edit documents collaboratively and simultaneously.  This is a feature that I’ve been employing with co-writers for more than a year — freeing research groups from purchasing special access to systems such as Basecamp or Huddle.

The Good

When I introduced this set of tools to my students, I was extremely surprised to find that nearly all of them were entirely unfamiliar with Google docs, despite the adoption of Google apps by our campus more than a year ago.  They used commercial software in their freshman composition course, which costs each student about $40 under our campus agreement, but they were unaware that a free set of tools were an alternative that they could use now …. and more importantly, after they have graduated.

As college educators, we constantly ask ourselves how much do we need to teach the so-called digital natives about new developments in digital communication.  We assume that students will be ahead of us in adopting these tools, but as Joanna Goode pointed out in a recent article (Goode, J. (2010). The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students. New Media & Society, 12(3), 497-513.), many students are not exposed to essential tools informally.  Hence, instructors need to check with students and be prepared to point them in the direction of computer tools and techniques that will aid them in achieving academic success.

For my students, the suite of free tools was perfectly adequate for most assignments – and it allowed them to do more collaborative work with fellow students.  Several reported during the term that Google docs had allowed their groups to succeed in completing assignments for different classes, encouraging more participation from the whole group instead of the tendency for one or two people to do all of the work because they alone could meet face to face to do the assignments.

For my class, we often used these tools for small group engagement over readings as well as preparation for group teach-backs and practicing instruction with educational technology.

The Problematic

Some tools in the Google apps suite are still in development.  While the word processor was robust and full-featured, the spreadsheet and drawing programs could not complete with the commercial solutions.  Microsoft‘s Excel still has more formulas and a stronger graphing feature set that make it a better choice for creating spreadsheets even for simple tasks like creating a course grade book.

The Solutions

A small number of my students had difficulty throughout the term in using Google docs, especially in logging into the suite, even with their official campus ID.  Since mine was a course on educational technology, I used these situations as an example of how to do problem-solving to resolve technology glitches.  In some cases, we had to make do by creating an alternative, new log in for these students.   But many cases were occasions for patience and persistence … the willingness to find a work around to try later is an essential disposition in education, especially whenever trying out new techniques or tools.

Students generally found that the advantages of Google Docs …. especially the ability to edit a document by several people simultaneously …. outweighed the drawbacks.  But they also learned to do quick tests of concept to see if a feature set for a specific tool would be adequate for the assignment.  In my class, this was an important learning objective!  For professors using this suite for class, you probably should double check the feature set of any tool before you suggest it to students.  Since they often wait until the last minute to even start an assignment, this will lessen the likelihood of a “gotcha” situation and much frustration on the part of the students.

Overall, I look forward to seeing how Google extends their application suite.  If it remains free and readily accessible, many recent graduates will be able to keep using technology in their classrooms even with thin (and getting thinner) school budgets.

Image representing Moodle as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Generally, I teach classes that are offered largely online.  We might have a weekend meeting once during the term, but the rest of the course is usually conducted online.  So, when I took over a face-to-face course for the first time in (*cough*) too many years, I naturally gravitated toward using online content organized using a course management system.

I’ve used many of them over the years.  In the early days, we used tools such as Top Class and Web Crossing (anyone remember them?).  Then came WebCT/Vista, Blackboard, and Moodle.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Fortunately, I am rather fond of the emerging standard at our campus – the open source CMS, Moodle.

The Good

As a consultant, I’ve often been frustrated that faculty don’t seem eager to use the various tools that this – or most other – course management systems offer.  But, now that I’ve been on the other side again for a term, I have to say that using this online tool as the supreme organizer of topics, materials, and assignments – including collection of assignments electronically – made life a lot easier for not only me but also for (most of) my students.

I tend to organize my course chronologically.  That way, students have a ready check-list of what is coming up and know what to expect each week.  I created a module per week, therefore, and posted the topics we’d be covering, the readings, the lecture resources (such as my PowerPoint presentations and links to online videos), and assignments due.  This allowed students to read and prepare for lectures and to have the materials right in front of them on their lab computers as we worked in class.  Since seeing the board or the projected screen was difficult for about half of the class, this allowed them to see materials clearly …. overcoming some of the limitations of the room by using the room’s resources in conjunction with the online organization.  It also allowed me to adjust the class as we went – adding resources to meet student needs and interests, especially as they prepared to write their big research paper for the course.

The online, digital nature of materials was also very helpful to one of my students who was legally blind … he could use the digital copies along with text-to-speech software or ZoomText to access documents before, during, or after lectures.  Since I also gave the two tests using Moodle’s quiz function, we did not have to make any special accommodations for this student!!  He was able to be just another student in the class, making use of educational technology and universal design to access the class materials in ways that worked for him.

The Problematic

For this class, I did not have a book.  All materials were provided online.  For some students, this was somewhat of a challenge.  Despite the common perception of this generation as “digital natives”, many students expressed dissatisfaction with reading materials online for long periods.  They told me that they often printed out online readings and complained about printing costs and that reading online made them tired.

The Solution

Since I knew that some students did not have ready access to materials online, I always allowed for work and reading time during class periods and allowed students to submit printed …. rather than online …. assignments.  A few students did take me up on that option, and I accepted printed homework during the term.

To address the online reading problem, I taught students how to adjust fonts in Word documents and in web pages.  Most students did not know that it is easier to read sans serif fonts (such as Arial) online nor did they know how to adjust fonts.  Once we had made that change — and I generally remembered to change fonts in materials I handed out electronically — students found it much easier to do the reading for this class.

For those who still wanted to print documents in order to read them, I pointed out that, even at 5 cents per page, they would spend less in printing than they would have if I had made them by a text book.  The cheapest book I’d considered was $35, and they rapidly went up from there into over $100 per copy.  While I realized that this may not seem very student-centered, I was trying to save the majority of students money by offering all materials online.

But I also addressed ergonomic issues, such as asking them to be aware of lighting (to reduce glare) and their own posture when doing class work.  So much literature recently has been aimed at telling faculty how we need to catch up to students who “naturally” want us to adopt digital media that we forget how little students really know about managing their environment and habits …. even when online.

Recently, some professors asked me about using Second Life to augment second language acquisition classes.  So, I dove into old emails, landmarks, can websites to pull together a rough list of some of the opportunities that exist either formally or informally.  Forgive me if your particular institution or event is not listed – and add it in the comments, please.  While there are some lists available (wikis and blogs), many have become out of date – which is just frustrating for someone who wants to do a quick dip into the pool of possibilities.

I’m offering this short selection to get the reader started in thinking about Second Life (and other virtual worlds) as locations for instruction and practice.   For those students who are particularly good with technology, they can also be locations where students prepare and present their understanding of language and culture.


Yes, Virginia, there is a conference devoted to the topic.  SLanguages is free and held in Second Life.  This year, it is almost upon us – October 15 & 16, 2010.

Electric Village Online also has annual gatherings and work sessions.

Multiple Language Sites

Several language education groups work with multiple languages or with language acquisition pedagogy in general.  Also, Second Life has multiple sims where English is not the locally spoken language.  I provide three here to get the reader started:  the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Avatar Languages, and BABEL Language School (Link to location in SL).

Spanish Language

Instituto Espanol is an immersive language and culture site. They have a nightclub in Second Life with information and opportunities for practice.  Spanish language and location reproductions are relatively common in Second Life, offering students locations and situations in which they will need to use their language skills to navigate the space and interact with objects and people. I am including this YouTube video for a quick overview of some of the Spanish sims.

Penn State also is using Second Life to enhance their Spanish courses at Penn State Isle, and you can find objects for free there to enhance or start your own Second Life educational effort.

German Language

The Volkshochschule runs several dozen events each week, focusing on different topics and vocabulary sets.  The Goethe Institut also has an installation in world, and there is a virtual Berlin (modern) as well as 1920s version available for Second Life residents.

Chinese (Mandarin) Language

Chinese is taught at Chinese Island under the auspices of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.  The University of Hawai’i also has a Chinese School in Second Life.


At Bryn Mawr, a professor is experimenting with using Second Life to enhance Italian courses at the Experience Italy sim.


English as a second language is taught (or courses enhanced) at many locations in Second Life.  Places like English City, Languagelab, and Virtuoland HQ all offer opportunities to see how English is taught and practiced in this virtual world and could even be a practice ground for some of your ESL preservice teachers.

Informal Practice Opportunities

If you have read many of my blog posts,  you realize that I have a love-hate relationship with Second Life that has gone on almost as long as the platform has been available to the public.  It has many defects, but it also provides us many opportunities.

One opportunity that I relish is the fact that I can end up in an area where I do not speak the local language.  As a native English speaker in the middle of the United States, I rarely am forced out of my language comfort zone.  But in Second Life it happens fairly frequently (often enough that I keep a text-based translator in inventory for emergencies).

A wide variety of well-educated young people are roaming around this virtual world, creating sites in their own language, and they do not automatically agree with the idea that English is the default language of the web.  This means that your students can go interact in a space in a rather authentic manner.  This is not always easy for them; in fact, they will run into non-formal, slang fairly often.    But if they are serious about being ready to go to another country, these informal situations may be instructive.

Second Life

Image via Wikipedia

Yea, I’m slow.  The announcement that Second Life would be adding a user-selected display name came out months ago, but I am just getting around to logging pixels on the topic of what this means for educators.

While I’m preparing to duck here, I have to say that, as a teacher, I actually welcome the idea of having display names and user names.  I realize that there are issues to work out, especially during the transition.  However, I think it would be particularly useful to be able to greet a student in world without having to sort through a cheat sheet to try to line up a bizarre Second Life name with a name on my class list — a list that is, inevitably not handy at the moment when I need it.  For class purposes, I would be able to require a student to use his or her real name when doing school-related work … at least if the student wanted to get credit for course participation for that day.  It might be useful to be able to switch that name more often than weekly, since I’m sure many students do not want to be identifiable when not at my educational build, but for selfish purposes, my aging mind welcomes the ability to remember one name per student.

My current work around has been to use the various roleplay combat system attachments or roleplay name changers, which bring about their own issues such as scripting lag and the association of school with gaming and roleplay activities.  The display name option is, you have to admit, more elegant.

It will no doubt take time for us to adjust.  I am fortunate in that I do not have any scripts currently that rely upon user names for security or other reasons, since I base my scripting on active group membership.  But, I am looking forward to this, and other recent updates announced over the summer.  For good or ill, Second Life remains one of the more accessible and usable user-created content platforms available to the average user.