Thursday, December 09, 2004

Return of the eBook?

Very interesting article in the NY Times about online access to library books.

"THE newest books in the New York Public Library don't take up any shelf space.

They are electronic books - 3,000 titles' worth - and the library's 1.8 million cardholders can point and click through the collection at, choosing from among best sellers, nonfiction, romance novels and self-help guides. Patrons borrow them for set periods, downloading them for reading on a computer, a hand-held organizer or other device using free reader software. When they are due, the files are automatically locked out - no matter what hardware they are on - and returned to circulation, eliminating late fees......"

For the rest of the article, click Libraries Reach Out, Online" (NY Times requires registration)

Friday, November 26, 2004

Future of Digital Media

Check this out. Really cool look into the future of Digital Media. If anything like this were to come true, its bound to have significant implications on practically every form of online content (highly personalized manuals, training materials, for instance)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Customized manuals and documents?

I was recently at the Blue Shield Health Insurance website. I was pleasantly surprised to note that they had a mechanism to generate a customized Blue Shield of California Online Provider Directory! Fill out a bunch of options, a PDF is generated and in a matter of minutes you are notified via email to pick up your custom directory! I thought this was really cool. Wouldn't be great it tech manuals and training modules go down this path at a low level of granularity, say at the chapter or topic level as opposed to a course level or a product manual level. This is perfectly in line with the O'Reilly approach to online publishing.

In the EDA and semiconductor industry imagine if all content from various product vendors was actually made available online (with creative commons licensing of course) for end users to mix, match and modify content for their internal use, there is no question that design methodology would improve significantly. Besides, it would result in a better trained audience and a more knowledgeable user base. There is no question that this would help the industry overall. I am sure this is true for other technology disciplines as well. Most importantly, I think the positives offered by this scenario would far outweigh the negatives, if any.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Unfortunate, but true

Check out this news report about the failed eUniversity in UK. Its unfortunate but true. A classic example of people (and governments too!) throwing money at projects and expecting wonders. When things like this happen, it unfortunately sends negative signals about a fundamentally powerful technology with lots of potential but ahead of its times.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Interesting discussion on tech product manuals

I came across an interesting discussion on the poor quality of manuals and documentation in general in the IT industry. Some excellent points have been raised by many.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

New Book on Online Learning

Heard about a new book on Online Learning from Cisco. Considering that Cisco has been a big proponent of online learning, it doesn't come as a surprise. At one time Cisco's CEO John Chambers was a very visible proponent of eLearning and its potential to be the NEXT big application for the Internet. Ironically, one venture capitalist once said to me, "If I got a penny for everytime I saw a quote from Chambers about eLearning on a website or on a business plan, I would have done better than I did on all my eLearning investments combined!"

I wish Cisco had taken the Creative Commons approach to licensing and made it freely available online like some recent authors and publishers have done recently. If Cisco's leadership can spend several millions on online education and evangelizing its true poential, why not make the book freely available online? I think the mission of spreading online learning and its business case will be better served by doing this.

The sample chapter available at the Cisco site doesn't say much, unfortunately. In fact, I found it more self-serving than insightful (which I was hoping for). Hope to check out the book some time, nevertheless!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Very interesting approach from O'Reilly Media

There was an interesting article in Business 2.0 magazine about how O'Reilly Media is approaching publishing with an online angle to it. (you might need registration to access the article. It appeared in the Sept 2004 issue).

Essentially, by making available lots of content online, it gives instructors an easy way to build their own custom book (including published content, their own content etc.) and students can order print versions of these custom books. If you are unable to get to the article go here to get more details about this.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

MS-Word-Techniq Platform: Plug and play

Microsoft dominates the desktop. MS-Office is omnipresent. Practically every computer user is capable of using MS-Word. As a technical writer you are more than convinced that Adobe Framemaker is a more powerful soution for developing manuals and books. As a software vendor, you might not be a big fan of MS-Office, but you got to learn to live with it. In other words, every solution (particularly anything involving content) must interface with MS-Office tools. At Vitalect, we have developed an easy mechanism to create content (FAQ, Glossary items) in MS-Word and seamlessly integrate it with course content on our Techniq Platform. This content can easily be cut, copied, pasted and shared across courses. In short, its truly plug and play.

To check out a demo click here.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Easy and Efficient Online Exams

Have you always wanted an easy way to test your employees, partners, customers and others who impact you business so you could improve your products and services?

Have you been terrified at the thought having to speak with your IT dept. about such a requirement?

Would you love it if there was an easy, effective, efficient and yet affordable system that you could deploy almost instantaneously? Wonder what a exam would like in such a system?

In any case, check out a sample exam using Vitalect's Techniq Certifier product.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Some Cool Content Navigation Functionality

The explosion of web content and particularly Flash based content, has resulted in challenges related to creating, editing and maintaining such content. Very often, Flash developers generate large Flash files which take forever to load. In the world of Online Learning, such content could turn away even the most committed learners.

To address this challenge the Vitalect Techniq Platform has been enhanced to support content navigation within Flash.

  • This means that content can be developed in small chunks, potentially by different users and seamlessly integrated, with each piece of content being displayed on demand.
  • With this functionality, you no longer have to wait forever until your entire Flash based content loads. Instead, specific components of a course are loaded and displayed on demand.
  • This approach also helps you easily update and edit the content since they are in smaller, more manageable chunks.
  • Finally, the Techniq Platform ensures that you have the ability to share these small chunks of content across courses, helping you realize the advantage of "create once, use many times over"

Click here to see a simple example describing our Techniq Platform using content naviagation feature! (I am proud to say, we eat our own dog food!)

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Power Corrupts, Powerpoint Corrupts Absolutely!

A recent survey showed that a large number of companies use Powerpoint for training purposes. This should not come as a big surprise given that the mighty Microsoft has practically destroyed all other presentation software alternatives. I believe that Powerpoint is a great presentation tool but not suited as a development tool for online training. It works well for instructor-led training because the instructor does all the work and the slides just help guide the flow. Unfortunately, because Powerpoint is widely used for instructor-led training, a number of organizations have extended its use for online training. This article describes the many reasons why I think Powerpoint is not suited to online learning and what I believe are key aspects of a good online learning solution.

Why Powerpoint is Not Suitable for Online Learning

Presentation vs. Training: Firstly, Powerpoint is a presentation tool and not a training tool. Hence, there is usually not much detailed content in a Powerpoint file. In fact, a presentation with a lot of detail is usually frowned upon. A presentation with limited content serves as a great supplement to a talk, but cannot be used in lieu of the talk itself. In other words, if you take a bunch of slides, slap audio on to it, and serve it as online learning, you can be certain that it won't result in effective learning!

Presentation without the Presenter: A presenter using Powerpoint slides uses bullet points in the slide to guide the flow of the talk. A presenter usually provides additional content verbally or in response to specific questions from the audience. With PowerPoint, you cannot provide the additional resources like a glossary, links to other web sites, other resources that the learner can access, and so on. Instead you have to create a separate slide for this purpose. Thus, to provide the slides to a person (or derivatives with pre-recorded voice-overs) and to expect that individual to be trained using that material is a completely misplaced expectation. Moreover, to restrict the user to a presentation format without the presence of the presenter is completely ineffective.

Navigation --"I'll get to that on slide 15": The only reason training appears to be a sequential process is because the trainer has to have a planned sequence of steps in mind in order to deliver a training session. Powerpoint follows a strictly linear sequence with a single chain of pages and does not allow sub-sections at multiple levels. This limitation is not an issue when there is a live presenter. However, in an online self-paced environment, the user must have the ability to traverse around the content without restrictions, navigate through pages, go to external references, and in general, have access to more details when desired.

Just bullets won't do: Software learning in particular requires demonstrations and not just static presentations (animated bulleted text notwithstanding). The visual aspect of showing the user how something is accomplished using a software is extremely critical to the learning process (e.g., how a tool is invoked, how to get to a certain screen, which switches to set, etc.).

Beware, it's a Microsoft World!

Standardizing on a Microsoft product is a modern day version of slavery. Thankfully, the Internet has limited this slavery to some extent. Here are some issues to bear in mind before you swear by Powerpoint as your medium of choice for development of online learning.
  • PowerPoint is designed for delivery from a PowerPoint player (or PowerPoint itself). It is not designed for delivery using a Web browser of unknown screen size.
  • HTML format from PowerPoint is not optimal for the web. When you save PowerPoint as HTML, it takes a snapshot of every slide, and stores this as a graphic. Then, it builds some navigation buttons around it. When you save it, you have to specify what screen size you desire. This means that your content is not searchable because it is just a series of graphics. Besides, if the learner's monitor has a resolution that is too high or too low, they will have trouble reading the content.
  • If a learner has a low bandwidth connection to the server, it will take a long time for each page to download.
  • Microsoft products work best with Internet Explorer. If you have end users on other browsers, Powerpoint won’t work as well.

Converting PowerPoint content to flash does address some of these issues but still carries with it all the fundamental limitations of a presentation vs. a learning solution.

Online Learning Solutions
Learning using a different medium such as the Internet clearly has its advantages. However, it also requires that the content development be approached differently from the conventional techniques used for instructor-led training. The absence of a live instructor implies a different environment and a user with a mindset that differs from someone in a classroom. Hence, using conventional tools and simply trying to extend them for the Web are likely have very poor results. The challenge is to leverage the new medium to provide a lot of information without overwhelming the learner. Instead, the learner has to be steadily drawn into the various topics and encouraged to probe and access additional information during the learning process.

An ideal online learning solution is one which has the following characteristics:

  1. Engaging (visually with graphics, audio, video etc.)
  2. Easy to use, with intuitive and powerful navigation (which lets the learner be in charge).
  3. Provides plenty of information but is presented in small installments guiding the learners as they learn and probe for more information (search, glossary)
  4. Constantly enhances content from everyday user issues (FAQ, support queries).
  5. Provides the ability to reach out to a subject matter expert (email, chat)
  6. Includes interaction with other learners in the community (Message board, chat).
  7. Has plenty of examples showing actual screen shots and step-by-step instructions (Simulations).
  8. Tests the learner at various stages, especially if there is Certification involved (Quizzes).
  9. Seeks feedback from the learner about the content, the actual experience etc. (Evaluation)
  10. Last but not the least, makes the access to the course easy and painless (registration, installation, browser testing etc.)

There can be no doubt that a solution with all these rich features is more suited to training and significantly differs from a conventional presentation. Ideally, you want a solution that does not force you to stick with one presentation tool but instead supports various desktop authoring tools while still remaining largely Web friendly. For example, just as Powerpoint is widely used for presentations, Adobe Framemaker is almost a de facto standard for development of manuals. Thus, you want an online solution that supports Powerpoint, Framemaker and any other desktop application of choice. This ensures that your developers are not forced into using any specific desktop application. Instead they should have the freedom of using their tool of choice but create content that still seamless integrates with your organization's online learning content.

Power certainly corrupts, but before you are absolutely corrupted by Powerpoint, think again--there are certainly better options out there!

Thursday, July 08, 2004

New Software Release: Techniq Platform 4.0

The latest release of Vitalect Techniq Platform is now available. This is a result of several months of hard work from the Vitalect team incorporating inputs from customers and prospects to enhance the platform and make creation and delivery of content a simpler and painless experience. This release includes several changes to various components of the Techniq Platform including:

Techniq Author: Changes have been made to the authoring system including: the ability to share, search and retrieve content at the lowest level of granularity (images, FAQ, html content etc), the ability to navigate to different parts of a course from the content area, support for print specific content, improved UI, and improved collaboration capabilities for content development.

Techniq Tutor: It is now available both online and offline (Desktop Tutor) with the unique ability to synchronize offline usage.

Techniq LMS: A number of new features have benn added to the Techniq learning management system including support for promotion codes, vastly improved UI, support for Instructor-led courses, ability to view transcript including self-paced, live online and instructor led courses, ability to easily export registration and usage infomation in MS Excel.

Techniq Surveys: An addition to the Vitalect Techniq Platform that lets users get feedback from customers through simple, easy to develop and maintain online surveys. The results of surveys can be exported to MS Excel for analysis.

Techniq Demos: An easy and effective mechanism that helps users maintain and grow their leads, through easy online registration and access to online demos. User lists can easily be exported to MS Excel for email campaigns and lead distribution.

In addition, several improvements that have been made "under the hood" which improve overall performance and reliability. If you have any specific questions, talk to your contact at Vitalect or send email to