Flash 5 is more than just eye candy , it's a way to add interactivity and flexibility to your online learning.
Macromedia's Flash has been around for a long time (in Internet terms, that is), but Flash 5, released this past September, has some new advantages. Its additional functionality will likely turn Flash from a nice-to-use learning tool into a great-to-use tool.
If you've seen nothing more of Flash content than those mind-numbing eye-candy splash screens, you may be shaking your head in disgust and wondering where my good sense has gone. (If you want to know what's behind some of the anti-Flash buzz, check out WebWord's recent Flash usability challenge at http://webword.com/f....) It's true that there's loads of Flash eye candy littering the Internet. But whose fault is that? Not the tool?s, for heaven's sake. People can and will use any tool to do stuff that's just plain dumb at best and horrible at worst.
Flash vs. programming
If you have control over all these issues (for example, your course will be delivered over a corporate intranet using one platform, one browser and consistent screen resolution), this isn't a big deal. If you're developing for a wide Internet-based audience, on the other hand, these incompatibilities make being a Roman gladiator seem like child's play.
Flash doesn't have these problems. If users have the Flash plug-in, they see exactly what you've developed, regardless of platform, browser type and screen resolution. This is a big plus. A huge plus. A dance-around-the-room-in-a-toga plus.
Yes, I see you out there , you're vigorously waving your hand in the air, just itching to complain about the Flash plug-in issue. It's true that downloading plug-ins can be a big problem for newbies or for anyone trapped behind corporate firewalls, but the Flash player is fairly ubiquitous. How ubiquitous? Check out the stats on Flash player penetration (www.macromedia.com/s...) and you'll see that most Web users can view Flash content without needing to download the plug-in.
While the Flash plug-in issue shouldn't be much of a problem for most people, you'll need to evaluate your own situation to see if it'll be a problem for you. Some learning sites have a built-in check that scans your system to make sure you have the plug-ins you need before you start the course. It's a good idea that's worth keeping in mind.
To see what Flash can do as compared with HTML and Authorware, check out the demo from The Final Copy Group (www.finalcopygroup.com), a firm that develops custom training programs.
What's it good for?
Animations are usually highly engaging. When they're done well, the production value (in other words, the perceived classiness) of Flash sites is high. For example, imagine an online orientation that allows learners to walk through the floor plan of a building. Or a product demo that lets a salesperson view a virtual version of a new laser copier and click on parts of it for explanations.
The following graphic is a great example of using Flash to show how a process works , in this case, the process of making Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It comes from a business case study done by the Darden School at the University of Virginia. The user can interact with a doughnut-making machine (yum!) and walk through a virtual floor plan of the doughnut production room.
Gayle Perry, coordinator in charge of Web services at TEAMS Distance Learning (the Los Angeles County education office) uses Flash to make her tutorials more engaging. She effectively integrates very simple Flash animations into HTML-based documents in the following Web tutorials:
o Searching the Web
o Evaluating Information on the Web
o The Many Ways to Communicate on the Web
Fun and easy
Flash 5 comes with six templates for learning interactions, including multiple choice, fill in the blank, drag and drop, true or false, hot spots and hot objects. New extensions (expected to be available from Macromedia by the time you read this) will include page navigation structures, quiz structures and data tracking capabilities.
I saw the module shown above demonstrated at the OnLine Learning show in Denver this past September, and was impressed by how easy it was to add high-quality interactions to a Flash movie. This example, developed for Macromedia by Ann Gallenson, shows a "hot object" interaction used in a physics and scuba learning module. It's fun, engaging and easy to develop.
Another advantage of Flash is that it supports MP3 compressed audio, which means you can add streaming audio even under low-bandwidth conditions. So, for instance, that laser-copier salesperson might hear a description of features for each part of the virtual laser copier as he manipulates it on the screen.
Wide Learning, a London-based e-learning provider of finance and business skills courses, demonstrates Flash streaming audio capabilities in the company's Quicksite demos, which show how savings accounts work. The audio can be turned on or off, and when it's turned off, the information is presented as text.
The Quicksite ISA demo from Wide Learning (www.widelearning.com) allows users to select audio or text instructions.
Rose Stipati, technical writer and Flash developer, and Wayne Blizzard, senior instructional designer at Final Copy Group, appreciate how easy it is to synchronize audio and action in Flash. They find it's also easy to adjust animations when they're translated to different languages. Stipati and Blizzard have even developed Flash modules that allow users to change language on the fly. Flash has allowed them to develop streaming media that can be downloaded, preloaded or streamed, depending on their needs.
Want advanced levels of interactivity? Flash 5 allows advanced developers to do the kinds of things they'd expect to do in an object-oriented programming environment, including manipulation of variables, conditional logic and object properties.
What about standards?
Macromedia is one of the key players in the learning standards movement. Flash 5, like other Macromedia products, can send student interaction data to AICC-compliant learning management systems. (If you're not worrying about how your authoring tools and learning management systems will interact with emerging standards, it's time to learn more about these critical developments. See this magazine's November 2000 issue, p. 70, for more on standards.)
Want to see more Flash examples? Check out the Macromedia Showcase at www.macromedia.com/s... and click on Education/Training.
Suggestions from the pros
Want to use Flash in your own learning sites? I asked some regular Flash users for tips and advice.
"Flash is an excellent choice when you want to demonstrate processes and procedures," says Final Copy Group's Blizzard. "It is highly interactive and responsive to the user."
He and Stipati are currently using Flash to develop a learning module that teaches home owners and landscape professionals how to use an irrigation timer. Through demonstrations, step-by-step practice and an open-ended simulation, users will learn how to program the timer and identify its controls.
Sounds great, but are there any downsides to developing learning sites with Flash? "Not many," Blizzard says. "Plug-ins may be a problem in some instances, and if you need to gather a lot of data on your user's test responses or actions, Flash may require more effort than some other approaches."
When considering whether to use Flash, think about the content, say Stipati and Blizzard. It's too easy to get caught up in the "gee whiz" of Flash and forget that the goal of a learning site is to teach your audience something. Every interaction must have an instructional purpose, they say.
Julie Dirksen, interactivity producer at Minneapolis-based Allen Interactions, says Flash is the only tool that gets her beyond the simple point-and-click or multiple-choice level of Web interactivity. "Unlike tools designed specifically for the creation of learning applications, it can sometimes take sophisticated programming to coax online learning from Flash," she says. "But the end results can be much better in terms of load speed, support of multimedia and interactivity."
Something to think about
Recently, participants on an ed tech listserv got into a heated discussion about Flash's limitations for blind and deaf people. I hadn't thought about it much, but the discussion made me realize that you always have to consider your users.
"Flash is not easily accessible to blind and deaf users," says Nathan Lowell, an ed tech Ph.D. student at the University of Northern Colorado. "Most Flash doesn't include audio descriptors or closed captioning, so Flash becomes blank and confusing space." Luckily, Macromedia recently developed a new plug-in that will make the text accessible for screen reader programs. That doesn't help with the graphics, but it's a positive step. Lowell's advice: Add audio descriptor and caption tracks to Flash movies so that blind and deaf people can use them. For more information, check out www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/features/flash.html.
There are lots of options for learning Flash. New Flash users should start with the tutorial in the Flash documentation. And Macromedia's training page (www.macromedia.com
/support/training) lists both self-paced and instructor-led options. Flash training is popular, so you should be able to find training providers in your area. Many of the books listed in the Macromedia Press section are on my shelf, and I rely on them heavily when I need advice.
My personal favorite for Macromedia self-paced training is Lynda Weinman's stuff (www.lynda.com). She's considered by many Web developers to be a Macromedia guru. Her Flash 4 training videos and CDs have been extremely helpful to many of us, and we're all anxiously awaiting Flash 5 online training materials (coming soon, according to her staff).
Macromedia and Element K (formerly Ziff-Davis University) are providing online training through Macromedia University (http://macromedia.el...). An annual subscription ranges from $99 to $399, and each self-paced course includes eight to 12 hours of instruction delivered with the Macromedia Shockwave Player.
Is Flash a good option for developing learning sites? The answer, as always, comes down to your audience, instructional objectives, content and the amount of money you're able to spend on development.
There's no right answer, but Flash is definitely worthy of consideration if you're developing for an Internet-based audience and your instructional content lends itself to animation, simple simulation and content interaction. Also, it's easily integrated into HTML-based sites.
All in all, it's a good tool to consider. Time to get my toga dry-cleaned!
-Patti Shank is an instructional technology consultant and faculty member at the University of Colorado in Denver. She can be reached through her Web site at www.learningpeaks.com.
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.