8 Video Tips to enhance your e-learning courses

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A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. Imagine then what a full blown, 24 frames per second, video is worth. Whatever your niche, from internal courses for your enterprise’s employees to music tuition, if properly used, video can be a very effective weapon in your arsenal. In this post we’ll have a look at how e-learning educators can effectively create and utilize video to enhance their courses (8 video tips).

1. Hire a professional

You might have mastered writing e-learning material, but video is an art in itself.

Do you really know how to setup and use cameras, lenses, lights, audio-recorders, mikes, tripods, and all the other gizmos that are necessary for a professional result? And these are just the beginning ― after the capture there comes color correction, sound mixing, editing, subtitling and general post production. And don’t get me started on frame rates, color profiles, codecs and compression settings.

Had too much already? Consider hiring a pro. With increased competition in the industry it doesn’t even have to be expensive. Ask at your local camera stores – a lot of them also do video jobs, and even those that don’t can still point you in the right direction.

2. Do it yourself

If the list of equipment and production tasks in the first tip didn’t put you off, or if you have previous experience in the field, it might be perfectly possible to do it yourself.

After all, with the democratization of video equipment and tools that modern technology has brought us, even untrained teens are able to produce their own material for YouTube and such.

Check enthusiast video sites like nofilmschool and philipbloom for tutorials and equipment reviews and recommendations. Search Google for royalty free music you can use in your videos. Start with a basic video editor like Premiere Elements or iMovie. Watch amateur YouTube and Vimeo productions for inspiration. If you put the effort, you’ll get the results.

3. It all starts with the script

Whether you consider hiring a professional to shoot your videos or want to have a go at doing it yourself, you should have a concrete idea of what you want.

Start with a script. Describe what each of your clips is about, and give a short description of each scene. Proceed to write any narrative or dialog. If you hired somebody to do the filming you can collaborate with them on the visual aspects on the film too (just don’t tell them how to do their job).

4. Be creative

It doesn’t matter (much) if you can’t afford to hire a video professional, or if your budget is small. A little creativity can go a long way to achieving a quality result.

Amateur filmmakers often build their own rigs from common everyday materials. Your phone could serve as a cheap video camera and a stick and some duct tape you can have your own “boom pole” in minutes. And lots of high impact informational videos have been created using the “drawing on a blackboard” technique, which requires almost no animation budget.

5. Keep it short and simple

Also known as the KISS principle. People are easily bored. Students doubly so.

Don’t let your clips meander for hours, and don’t try to use video to explain very detailed and complicated content. Some things are fine to demonstrate with a video, others take several pages of mathematical formulas or detailed illustrations to explain.

The production and cinematography of your video doesn’t have to be complex either. You might have tons of ideas, but sometimes a simple video of a professor giving a lecture can be more than enough, as long as he can communicate his knowledge well.

6. Respect the format

Video is not a glorified Powerpoint presentation. Don’t treat it as such. Same as written content has rules (syntax and grammar for starters), video has its own rules.

If you already have written material for your courses, there’s no point in replicating it verbatim in your videos. Pick the more essential parts, to have the videos re-enforce the gist of your course. Or add supplemental insights that are unrelated to what already exists in written form.

Try to use video to show things that cannot be easily explained otherwise, especially subjects that can benefit heavily from the visual element (e.g. videos for a guitar course could showcase the finger placement for the various chords).

7. Video is not just about video

You don’t have to restrict your video content to the filming of lectures, interviews, how-tos and so on. You can use graphics, such as plots and graphs, illustrations, and even animation in your videos.

For a lot of topics you can find ready-made graphics and animations on video-stock selling websites, that could be easily incorporated into your production. And you can create basic animations and graphics yourself, in tools like Adobe After Effects, Apple Motion, etc.

If you have the skills, you can even create interactive video content, with the use of tools like Adobe Flash or even plain old HTML5.

8. Fit your videos in with your content

Place your videos in the appropriate place within the rest of your content. You could, for example, place a video that introduces a subject matter in the beginning of the course, or have a video that demonstrates a particular example at the end of the chapter were that topic was covered.

Don’t just have videos serve as supplemental material. You can integrate them better with your courses by having them play a role in the student’s progress, e.g by basing a quiz or an exercise on their content.

That’s it for today. Of course video is a huge topic in itself, and we might return with some more in-depth posts on the subject. Until then, these high level guidelines will serve you well as a starting point in leveraging video for your e-learning content.

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6 tips for making your e-learning content look current

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In this ongoing series of posts, kickstarted with our “10 Graphic Design tips for e-learning educators“, we try to provide you with the required know-how for improving the look and feel of your e-learning content. In our last post we talked about the use of images and illustration. In this one we’ll be discussing modern graphic design trends.

Some of the design tips we talked about in this series of posts are timeless, sensible advice; use the right fonts, optimize your contrast, stick to a color palette, etc. Those are essential properties of any good design.

The problem is, you can religiously follow all of these rules, and still end up with a website that, while elegant and readable, looks stale and dated. Nothing says “cheap” and “amateur” than a 90’s looking design, whereas a Web 2.0 era style signals that you are a tad behind the times in this Web 3.0 era.

To get the current “hot” look, functional design guidelines will not do. You’ll have to recognize and follow the latest web trends. If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry. Just read the following tips and you’ll be ready to nail the elusive mid-2014’s look in no time.

Study the competition

The first step of getting your design up to date is finding out what a modern design is supposed to look like. Check what your competition is doing. Study up and coming startups, since those usually incorporate new design trends faster (established businesses are more conservative and slow to change).

Check online design resources; they often have features on current design trends and how to reproduce them. They also often showcase celebrated new website that can serve as an inspiration.

Professional HTML themes are another good source of design cues, as they tend to change with the times and keep up with the latest web fashions.

Make your own choices

There’s not one and only “modern” look. At every time there is a dominant look (“Web 2.0″ back in the day, the “flat” obsession of the last couple of years, etc) and several smaller trends and directions fighting it out. Some of these will go obsolete, others will establish the future fashions.

Don’t feel obliged to follow the dominant look to a tee. Analyze it, check what works with your content, mix and match elements.

If your basic design is solid, even a small touch of current design fashions can work wonders. If it’s not, you’ve got bigger issues than how modern you look.

Don’t overdo it

Fashion is fickle. Some design elements get so much exposure that they become unfashionable (like the Web 2.0 era gradients). Others were always fads, styles that caught like wildfire, and died out just as fast.

Be conservative in what you adopt, as there is such a thing as being “too fashionable”. If you want to play it safe, follow the design of established sites like Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and the like. Those tend to adopt (and even set) the latest trends without getting overboard.

Some of the design trends can be questionable. Use your judgement. There are also lists of “tired” and “cliche” design trends in designer websites you can consult.

Be aware of trends in functional design

Modern design is not just about the looks. It’s also about the functionality, the way a website behaves.

One important such element is “responsiveness”. Modern website designs are supposed to adapt to different screen sizes and be able to cater to computer, laptop, tablet and phone users. This is not some technical consideration that’s transparent to the user; it’s something that affects how your design looks and feels (e.g a smaller screen size might necessitate hiding some parts of the page, or changing some GUI elements).

Another such trend is “one page apps”, websites with only one page, in which the content is changed dynamically. This allows for faster loading and more interactivity, but to adopt it you’ll need to rethink your design, letting go of the old notion of a “page” and embracing the modern notion of a website as an “app” (that is, your navigation should have the feel of a native desktop application).

Embrace modern web technologies

The technologies you use in your website play an important role in how current it looks and functions. There are lots of HTML5 technologies you can leverage to give your design and e-learning content a competitive edge.

Plain text and images can be adequate for some content, but they have not been cutting edge since the mid-nineties. Today there are available options for audio, video, 2D and 3D drawing, animation, synthesizing sound, etc.

SVG and Canvas HTML5 APIs can help you add up to date graphics, from plots and graphs to interactive animation. With WebGL you can incorporate 3D elements (e.g molecule models for your chemistry e-learning classes, or building models for your architecture lessons). HTML5 also has native audio and video capabilities, so you can enhance your content will full blown multimedia. There’s even stuff like MathML to help you incorporate mathematical notation in your e-learning content.

Rinse. Repeat.

A modern design has, by definition, an expiration date. There might not be a clearly defined cutoff date but sooner or later the design trends you followed will fall out of fashion, and your once cutting edge design will start looking dated. In practice, a new design has about 3-4 years until it starts needing a face-lift.

You can opt to make small updates over time to keep it current, or leave it as it is, and do a full makeover every few years. Both are valid approaches, and both have worked for well known websites (Google usually does incremental updates. Microsoft and Yahoo prefer less frequent, larger scale makeovers).

In either case, don’t rest on your laurels. Keep an eye on changing trends, and watch out for when the one’s you followed fall out of fashion. Being current is an ongoing effort.

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6 tips for using images in your e-learning material

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In this ongoing series of posts, kickstarted with our “10 Graphic Design tips for e-learning educators“, we try to provide you with the required know-how for improving the look and feel of your e-learning content. In our last post we talked about the use of color. In this one we’ll be sharing 6 tips for using images and illustrations.

1. Match your illustration to your overall aesthetic

Your e-learning theme has a certain character. Your choice of illustration should reflect and support that character. If, for example, you want to have a children friendly look for your website then use cheeky, colorful images that appeal to kids. If, on the other hand, your theme follows a minimal flat design style, use illustration that sits well with it.

Using a consistent style helps establish your content’s identity (and your branding).

2. Use pictures to tell a story

Illustration is supposed to illustrate (“serve as an example of”), not decorate.

Don’t use pictures as mere decoration or ornamental elements. Use them to tell a story and to clarify what is said in your e-learning content. Ask yourself if adding a specific picture or graphic serves this purpose ― if it doesn’t, leave it out.

That doesn’t mean your illustration should be overly technical or too detailed. Just that it should be clear and relevant to the subject matter. Don’t let decorative and aesthetic preoccupations obscure the core task of communicating a specific message and intent with your choice of imagery. Use illustration to complement your material, not to distract from it.

3. Lies, damn lies, and charts

Charts and graphs are an especially important kind of illustration, and can be essential assets in your e-learning material.

The general guidelines that hold for your image and clip art illustration also hold for charts and graphs. Use them to complement your content and tell a story, keep their style consistent with your theme’s look, etc. But there are also some guidelines that are unique to them.

Keep charts clean. Avoid extraneous elements such as needless gradients, drop shadows, 3D perspectives, etc. Charts should be clear and up to the point.

Sticking with the “up to the point” theme, avoid overloading your charts with data. If you need to show too many data points, consider using a simple table instead of a fancy bar of line chart. Avoid pie charts ― journalists and marketeers love them, but data scientists and statisticians consider them a gimmicky and inefficient type of plot.

4. The internet is not an stock image library

It might be tempting to just use random images off of the internet for your illustration needs. Don’t ― online images are usually copyrighted and using them without permission can get you into legal trouble, especially if you’re using them in a commercial setting. Then, there’s also the aesthetic aspect: using random online images will result in your content illustration lacking a common style and looking unprofessional.

If you can’t afford to hire a professional photographer or illustrator to create original artwork for your content, then the second best option is to buy stock art and pictures from a image stock service such as istockphoto.com. Stock images are (usually) of higher production standards than random web pictures, and you can buy sets of photos or drawings in the same style, something that will give your content a consistent look. An even cheaper option is clip-art and photo packs that contain thousands of photos on various topics (e.g medical, animals, computers, flowers, etc) that might be appropriate for your content.

If you have to resort to using images off of the internet, there are some places you can find quality material that is either copyright free or offered with a permissive free license. Flickr’s Creative Commons image search is a good place to look for such pictures, as is Wikimedia Commons.

5. Prepare your images appropriately

Getting the right images is just half of the story. You also have to prepare them appropriately for use in your web content.

If, for example, your website theme has specific image placeholders (as most themes do), you’ll have to check their aspect ratios and crop your images to fit in them. Too many webmasters make the mistake of distorting their images, stretching them too thin or too tall in order to make them fit. For a polished look, try to keep widths and heights consistent, and avoid having widely varying image sizes ― it looks arbitrary and unprofessional.

File size also matters. Your 4MB high quality stock photo is not suitable for web use. Use a program like Photoshop to resize and compress them, and keep your page loading times low. Use JPEG compression for photographs and detailed illustrations with subtle gradations, and PNG or GIF for images with more flat colors, such as clip art.

6. Add captions and respect usability guidelines

This one is all too easy to overlook, and all too often, it is overlooked. Take the time and effort to add proper captions to your illustration. Not just “Figure a”, but a proper short description, such as “Illustration of the human retina”.

Properly captioning your content can be tedious, but it will benefit both regular students and people with disabilities that need to use a screen reader. In fact, in a lot of countries, it’s mandatory to cater for the latter, especially if you want to qualify your e-learning material for government use.

Keep in mind that there are several kinds of captions you should fill in. Not just the visible captions below each image, but also the “alt” and “title” HTML attributes. The easy way out is to fill all of those with the same content, but semantically each serves a different purpose. The regular visible caption is meant for a short description of the image. The “alt” attribute is meant to fully describe the image to those who cannot see it (e.g people using a screen reader). Finally, the “title” attribute is meant to contain the title for the image.

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A splash of color for your e-learning content

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In this ongoing series of posts, kickstarted with our “10 Graphic Design tips for e-learning educators”, we try to provide you with the required know-how for improving the look and feel of your e-learning content. In our last post we talked about typography ― the use of fonts and typesetting for optimal readability. In this post, we’ll be taking a look at color.

Seemingly easy, color for your e-learning content can be surprisingly challenging for web masters to get right, especially if they have had no training in graphic design. It’s something that everybody feels qualified to have an opinion on (in graphic designer circles, few thins are more feared than the client imposing his awful color choices to the designer he hired), but that few have a natural eye for.

Don’t be afraid though. There are certain practical rules and guidelines you can follow (and even the whole science of “color theory” if you want to delve deeper into the subject) that can get you going in no time.

Colors are meant to be combined

No color is an island. You might believe you have found the perfect hue to use in your e-learning site, but you have to think of how it fits with the rest of the colors you’ll use.

Don’t think about individual colors. Think about your palette ― a set of colors that fits well together and is used throughout your content. Here’s were some basic color theory can be helpful, as there are several schemes for picking colors that look nice next to each other (e.g “complementary colors”).

If that all sound Greek to you, there are tools, like Adobe’s online service Kuler, that can automate the whole process, letting you pick a few colors you “must have” and figuring out colors that fit with them for you.

After you’ve developed your palette, stick to it. A small palette creates a stronger visual identity than a larger one. Often, a single color (like IBM’s blue or Coca Cola’s red) can define your whole branding. As for black and white, they are neutral, and you can use them with any other color.

Color affects contrast

As we discussed in the post about typography, contrast is a very important factor for readability. And contrast is produced by the difference in luminance and hue between two colors (or shades of the same color). For example it’s hard to discern a dark blue figure on a dark green background, or yellow text on an orange background.

You want to have a strong contrast between the background and your text color, especially for your longer copy. You can relax that a little for headlines and call-outs, since those are usually set in larger font sizes which makes them easier to read in the first place.

You don’t really have to be creative with your text’s color. In fact it’s better if you don’t. Black text on white background has been used for centuries and works great for print. For the web, consider making the background a little darker (an extremely light shade of gray will do), because an all white page can be too intense to read on a computer screen due to the backlight.

Color conveys information

Colors offer a great way to quickly relay information.

We all know to associate certain colors with certain messages (like the global use of red to mean “warning” or “danger”). That’s color coding; a technique for displaying information by using different colors.

You are not constrained by already defined color associations such as these. You can define your own color coding that applies within your e-learning content. E.g you can mark exercises with blue, important notes with yellow, etc. Or you can use different colors to mark different topics or sections.

That said, you also have to consider color-blind users. Either select colors that they can also distinguish (there are tools that show you how a color-blind person sees a website) or use color-coding as a supplementary way to convey information (e.g, if you mark all beginner exercises with some blue heading, also add a textual label marking them as such).

Color sets the mood

Colors are not just for decoration. They are a powerful way to set the mood and tone of your content.

Especially important in your choice of palette is your target audience. Ever noticed how corporate sites usually have a blue theme, sites for women have pink or pastel hues, sites about the environment or organic food use shades of green or sites for kids use vibrant primary colors? That’s color psychology at work.

Psychologic (and marketing) research has come up with several ways different colors affects our emotions (e.g red conveys excitement, blue conveys competence, etc. Try to use the appropriate colors for your theme and target audience. There are guides you can find online to help you with that, but a quick survey on content and sites with target audiences similar to yours can also help.

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