Plot the perfect course: Media specifications for e-learning courses by Rafiq R.

Elmansy An important part of planning e-learning courses is to document the course’s media specifications. Media specifications help you create a course that achieves its goals; without media specifications, the course design can distract the audience from the content. Course developers follow the guidelines and rules in the media specifications when creating the course. When determining the media specifications for your course, keep in mind that the course design should: * Provide an attractive environment for the audience. * Provide a simple unified learning environment for the learner. * Provide a unified link between the course elements. * Consider the culture characteristics of your audience, such as culture, gender, age range, and location. * Consider the content type of your course (such as business presentation, instructional video, and so on), and how your course is delivered. * Provide visual or audio cues to help the audience focus on the content. The most important step to take before creating specifications for your e-learning application is to analyze the target audience and course content. Information about your target audience should describe the audience characteristics: * Age range—Does the primary audience consist of children, teenagers, or adults? You need to adapt the delivery mechanism, visual effects, or narrative script to target the audience’s age range. * Gender—Is the primary audience male or female? Determining the primary gender of your audience might affect design or narration specifications. * Culture (location)—What is the location of your primary audience, and what is their culture? Avoid presenting course content or media that offends their culture. * Capabilities—Does the audience have special mental or health requirements that will affect their ability to understand the material? Determine how to adapt the content and delivery mechanisms to meet these needs. * Level of education—Does the course require a prerequisite level of education? Determine how education and assumed knowledge affects content, design, and delivery. It’s also important to create specifications focused on the knowledge level of your audience. For example, you need to know how much knowledge you can assume your audience has prior to taking your course. Your specification should outline: * The kind of content discussed in the course. For example, it might be educational content, business content, or a training course. * The way that your course is presented. It might consist of a lecture, an educational game, or practice material. * The quantity of course content. The course might include a lot of objectives, or only a few. Or, the course could be highly specific as opposed to a general overview. When you deliver your documented media specifications to the developers who will create your course, include a follow-up checklist. Additionally, your documentation should include specifications about the software they should use to develop the course (such as Flash, Director, Authorware, HTML, Flex, or Java). For example, if you plan to develop the course in Flash, the specification should

include the version of Flash Player to target, file size and dimensions, frame rate, server integration, and so on. Create media specifications for an e-learning course 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Course themes and interface design Text standards and writing style Interactivity and functionality Navigation Video Audio Animation and special effects

In the following sections, I will discuss each of these items and describe how to apply them to achieve the desired learning environment. Use this document as a guideline when designing your course. 1. Course themes and interface design The theme of your course and the user interface (UI) are the most important parts of the learning environment. The UI and course elements (such as buttons and controls, which are described in the following section), support the rest of the media in your e-learning application. The theme and UI design work together to form a unified and interesting look for the course that attracts the users’ attention and helps them learn. User interface design The UI design should give your course a unique look. The design depends both on the characteristics of your audience and the course content. When you design the UI, consider the elements shown in Figure 1. You should reserve space in your UI for: * A constant area for the main content * Functional, control, and navigational elements, such as menus, controllers, and buttons * Audio controls, if applicable * Other assets, such as a logo, titling, and text design should be consistent Figure 1: UI design should be consistent throughout the course. The UI design might be a 3D learning environment, 2D cartoon interface, or a professional business-style interface. For example, an UI design for young children might use bright colors and large simple objects that are easy to understand. On the other hand, the UI for a business course should have a wellorganized, nondistracting design. You should also specify the content types you intend to use. If the course includes video and images, you may need to reserve space for displaying them. Courses that contain a lot of content, or varied content types, typically have a simple narrow frame, so all of the content can be displayed appropriately. Colors When you design the UI for your course, use colors that target your audience and give the course a unique look and feel. In general, you should use a simple color palette with balanced colors. You should also use color to attract the users’ eyes to the most important content in the UI. Choosing a suitable color palette depends on the audience characteristics, as

discussed earlier. Also, using corporate colors or predetermined logo colors might be an appropriate choice for a corporate application. Also, if you design an e-learning course for young children, try to use bright colors to attract their eyes to specific parts of the course content. For example, it might be helpful to identify each section of the course with a unique color to help children remember what part of the course they are in (see Figure 2). color coding Figure 2: A screenshot from a course for school children. Notice how the three sections down the left side of the course are color coded, and the banner and arrows match the pink section of the course. The background color for the main content area is an important element to outline in your specifications. It is advisable to use white, or a very light color, as the background for your main content (see Figure 2). High contrast between the background and text colors make the content most legible. Also consider the intended output when choosing your colors. For example, use web-safe colors when creating internet-based courses, or broadcast-safe colors if your course will be output to TV or videotape. Other color specifications, such as those for applications meant for mobile devices or kiosks, will vary. It is helpful to understand color theory when choosing a color scheme for your UI. You can find more about color theory on Wikipedia at 2. Text standards and writing style Text standards and writing style determine how the course content appears on the screen, and can help you determine how to best display your assets. Text standards Text specifications should include font type, size, and color. Choose a font in which each character is legible and easily readable, without straining the eye. Commonly used fonts, such as Arial, Times New Roman, and Verdana, are suitable for many users and course types. In many cases, you need to use more than one font to identify parts of the content such as the headers, topics, and subtopics. Fonts used should be complementary and suit the content displayed. In some courses, such as those for children, you may need to attract the eyes to the content using nontraditional fonts, such as those in the right column in Figure 3. fonts Figure 3: Commonly-used fonts (left) and nontraditional fonts (right). Keep in mind that while some audiences may like small fonts, other users might not be able to read text that is too small. When you select a font, you should choose a font size that is legible and clearly displays the content for most of your users, such as 12-point Times New Roman. If your course is for children, a large font size helps inexperienced readers concentrate on the text. Refer to the color themes section when selecting a color for your text. Remember that the text color should contrast with the background color (such as black text on a white background). You might use color to differentiate between specific topics such as headers, links, and so on. You can use different text colors to highlight specific words, emphasize meaning, explain functions, or to call out any other information depending.

Remember that monitor resolution can affect the content’s appearance. So, you can advise your audience to use specific standard resolution (such as 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768) when viewing the content. Or, you can have the application change the monitor resolution to match the course standard. Writing style In the context of this article, writing style refers to how you arrange and display the text. You should try to unify the writing style throughout the course to help users identify ideas and understand context, and to help information flow easily and clearly. For example, numbering and bullets help arrange the data and clarify the relationship between different parts of the course. You can also use bullets and numbering to break up large blocks of text, thus making the content easier to read and comprehend. Make specifications for both text and writing style standards that coordinate with each other to show the textual content clearly, help the audience identify concepts, and aid in the flow of information throughout the course. 3. Interactivity and functionality One of the biggest advantages of an e-learning course is that it lets the user interact with the course material, and navigate through the course in a nonlinear way between the content, exercises, multimedia elements, and so on. In the following sections, I will briefly discuss how interactivity and functionality relate to each other in the context of e-learning. Interactivity Interactivity does not only make the course more attractive and interesting for the audience, but also helps the audience digest the content by using their senses to interact with the course. Interactivity can include several input mechanisms, such as responding to text or audio using input devices such as a microphone, keyboard, or mouse. The amount of interactivity in your course depends on the nature of the content. For example, if a course requires the audience to listen to audio while watching a presentation on their monitor, do not provide much interactivity. On the other hand, instructional courses and educational games course depend on user interaction. Functionality Buttons are a primary tool for enabling the audience to interact with the elearning application, because they provide a link between the user and the course content. You should make several considerations when specifying how your course will function: * Use simple and clear functional buttons that are easy to use and identify. * Reserve a consistent area in your UI for buttons. Buttons should appear in the same place on each screen, so the UI is intuitive to your audience (see Figure 1). For example, a business course that includes rich content may require a lot of control (buttons), because users require them to navigate and control content. However, a course for children might contain less content, and thus require fewer buttons and controls. The following list contains examples of functional elements that you can add to a course to help users interact with the course content:

* Page identifiers—For example, you might add “(Page 3 of 10)” to the bottom of the UI to communicate the progression through the course. * Next, Previous, Back, Main Menu, and Exit buttons—These buttons help the user navigate through the course. * Help button—Provides the user with information on how to use the course. The Help button might include links to websites that can provide updated information, or otherwise assist the user. * Bookmark button—Helps the user bookmark the location of important pages so she or he can return to it at a later time. * Glossary button—Contains information (such as definitions) about the course content. * Links to topics or lessons—Lets the user progress to a specific section of the course. * Audio control buttons—Helps the user control the audio, such as Play, Stop, Pause, Mute, and Record. * Video control buttons—Helps the user control the video, such as Play, Stop, or Pause. * Print button—Enables the user to print course content, an assignment, or other assets. 4. Navigation Navigation plays an important role in how the course functions. Navigation forms a link between the different parts of a course, which you might separate into sections based on content, media, delivery mechanism, or purpose. The main menu should be the starting place for the audience to explore the contents of your course. You might include a link to the main menu on each screen of the course, so the user can return directly to the main menu at any time. In some courses, links to the course sections are always presented in a fixed place in the UI. Adding links to each section throughout the course means the user does not have to return to the main menu to navigate through the course. The course may include other navigation like Next and Previous, which enable the user to move screen-by-screen through the course. However, it is important to use navigational buttons at the same level; for example, the next and previous buttons within a specific section of the course might not be used to let the user proceed to other sections of the course. 5. Video Video is a common element of a multimedia course, and can be an effective information delivery mechanism. It is important to make sure that the video content serves a purpose and is related to the course, or it will distract your audience. For courses that have file-size limitations (such as online courses), you need to consider and specify the video dimensions and amount of compression, codecs, and file format you use (such as FLV). Using video instead of text and images can increase the file size of your course quickly. Large file sizes can increase the bandwidth requirements, and cost, of internet-based courses. In addition to taking bandwidth into consideration for online courses, you should also specify a suitable technology for course delivery. For example, for video sections, you can choose between streaming the video online or offering the video files for download. Note: Remember to add captions for video to help users with hearing impairments.

6. Audio You can use sound in your course to enhance the instructional experience. Sound is often an efficient way to deliver course information, and might even be essential for some audiences (such as users with impaired sight). Audio may include narration, sound effects, and background sound. Generally, the audio you use in the course should be balanced; for example, background sound should not overpower the narration. The following sections outline what to consider for the audio portion of your media specifications. Demonstrative and explanatory narration Adding a narration track can help your audience understand the course content. The appropriate narrator (male, female, young, old) depends on the type of course you’re creating. For example, if the course tells a story for young children, it might be appropriate to use a child or female narrator. When creating the narration: * Use clear enunciation that the audience can understand. The narration should not proceed too quickly, so users can digest information and understand the content. * Use terminology that suits the audience’s culture. * Use a script that suits both the course and the age and education of your audience. Sound effects and background sound Sound effects are useful when you need to alert the audience to actions that occur in the UI, such as moving to another page or topic, showing a question answer, or clicking a button. Background sounds are often used when displaying animation or video to enhance meaning and comprehension. Note: As with video, you should specify how you will deliver your audio. Outline the file format and compression settings that you intend to use. 7. Animation and special effects Your course might include 2D or 3D animation or special effects to display various forms of instructional or informational content. You should specify what kind of animation you expect to use, such as demonstrative animation (perhaps a cartoon), or interactive animated characters that act like a tutor. You might also decide to use animation to introduce the course and present an outline of the content. An animation might demonstrate the course objectives, or you might develop an animated logo to give the course its own identity. You might not want to use 3D animation or special effects in some courses, such as a business presentation, where animated charts or curves are sufficient to illustrate the content. When planning to use animation and special effects in your course, make sure that these elements do not detract from the course content. Also remember that the type of animation or effect you use should be age-appropriate. 2D Animation When you plan an e-learning course, specify what types of animation you will use, as well as how you plan to use it. 2D animation includes animated charts and diagrams, technical demonstrations, and cartoon or character animation that might take the form of instructional stories or interactive tutors that guide the user. 3D Animation

3D animation might include a rotating 3D model, or parts of the interface itself. 3D animation is powerful technology for demonstrations, especially in industrial courses where you might employ virtual reality (VR) as instructional media. When using VR, the user can interact with objects or places that you describe in the course. Like 2D animation, you might also use 3D virtual characters to guide users through a course to increase the interactivity and ease-of-use. Depending on the level of complexity you wish to add, interaction might vary from simple explanations, to answering questions through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology for advanced courses. Special effects Special effects might include animation used to display text or images (such as fading in), transitions between pages, effects to attract attention to an area of the screen, and so on. Special effects should be simple, intuitive, and have a specific purpose. If the course includes a lot of content and information, it is a good idea to use only a few well-placed special effects. However, in a course targeted at children, you might need more effects to attract the eyes to content changes, when certain actions are required, or to highlight instructions.

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