How to convert tech books to elearning courses?

Hi

I work for a technical publisher with several hundred published "how to" tech books (www.packtpub.com). We are planning to start offering elearning courses, and with such a large back catalog of relevant content we're looking at ways to convert it into elearning, which we will then sell to corporate accounts.

The books mainly consist of headings, text, programming code, and screenshots.

Now, I know that building elearning courses from scratch provides opportunity for better pedagogy and results. At the same time, it would take years to build elearning courses from scratch on all of our topics.

I'm therefore looking for the simplest way to turn a catalog of books into basic elearning material. My general idea is:

  1. Pick sub-sets of each book to make into an elearning course. Most elearning courses appear to have narrower scope than a tech book.
  2. For each course, break the book content into lessons which will have a clear learning objective and generally be much shorter than a chapter (most chapters are about 6000 words).
  3. Present each lesson as a series of screens. The LMS can monitor to ensure that trainees are looking at the material they are supposed to be learning.

This feels to me like the absolute minimum we could do in order to credibly call it "elearning". It will differ from a book primarily because it takes place on screen, and managers can monitor how much their staff are using the training provided.

Once we have that we can then look at adding:

  1. Quizzes and exercises.
  2. Animation and sound.
  3. A more screen-friendly learning style (more diagrams, infographics, etc.)

Is this credible? Am I living in cloud cuckoo land to think this could possibly work?

Mindleaders appear to have done this with some of their courses. (See some of the demos here: http://www.mindleaders.com/elearning/ especially the Oracle one.)

Thanks in advance!

Dave

18 Replies
Jeanette Brooks

Hi David - sounds like a cool project, and no I don't think you're living in cloud cuckoo land. In fact, what you describe is how a lot of folks dip their toe in the water when they first begin producing e-learning.... i.e., just get it online (you gotta start somewhere, right?) Sometimes e-learning professionals get fussy & bothered by content that they consider too "static" or "passive," but the truth is, if it's fun and easy for learners to explore and find what they need, it'll still be more effective than making them rely on physical paper-based materials.

If your content is the kind of thing where you expect learners to move through in a linear order, than you would probably want to think about how you can break it up a bit so that every X minutes you're challenging them with some kind of action. A knowledge-check, or application activity, or even just an explorable Engage interaction, can go a long way.

Also, in some cases you might be able to flip the "typical" order ... i.e., usually e-learning courses present some info and then quiz the learner. Then present some more info, then give them another quiz... etc. That can get kind of tiresome. You could instead start right out with a scenario or challenge on the front end (something brief, like 1 or 2 questions), and then provide content-rich feedback with supporting info that also teaches them the content. The Rapid Situational Interactive approach could be a great fit for something like this.

If on the other hand the material is more reference-type stuff, where you expect people to jump around, and look at only certain sections at a time, you'll want to factor that into the design.... i.e., get strategic about your section/slide titles and slide levels in the menu, so that learners can easily scan the menu and find what they need. You might want to also leverage the Attachments feature for supplemental stuff, and place frequently-used info (job-aid type stuff) within Engage interactions on the player tabs. You could check out this blog post for some good suggestions about that.

Does that help? Want to post a sample outline or high-level course plan for us to react to?

Natalia Mueller

Hi David-

Most of what I do is translate technical manuals into user-friendly elearning so I'm pretty familiar with the challenges you face. Am I right in assuming that the training is for novice level? A common mistake/challenge is to attempt to get a new user from 0 to 10 just by watching videos. It is very difficult for anyone to retain that much information, including multiple steps, just from watching/reading/listening to a screen. So be sure to start with realistic expectations. It very easy to send the learner into information overload.

 

Some things I do as part of my process

1. Break the material into manageable pieces. Even if you want to cover a lot in a single module, you can break the training into "chapters" and they can watch one chapter at a time and return to wherever they left off. This can help to keep their assigned curriculum from being massive.

 

2. I start with what they need to be able to DO with the software - not everything we think they should KNOW. If one of those is search and create, then for that module I will only show them the fields relevant to that task. It can be very tempting to show them what everything on the screen does. It helps me to remember that if they can only process so much, what is the most important thing they walk away being able to DO. Then I try to limit the information to just that

3. Tech manuals tend to show a user ALL of the different ways to do one thing. Even tho it's good to know all of the options and shortcuts, it's hard enough for a new user to remember ONE way to do everything. Once they get further into the training series and have the basics down, I'll start slipping in short cuts and attaching resources that show them advanced material. You can always attach additional information. 

4. Whenever possible, I add practice exercises. I prefer to build the course with hyperlinks to allow them to feel like they're clicking in the software. A well constructed course with scenarios and feedback can be hugely beneficial to help them practice, learn from their mistakes and retain more of the information. That takes a lot more development time, however.

         When that isn't an option, I've found that a good alternative is to create a guided practice exercise and add it under attachements. They watch the training, print out the exercise, go into the software (or "sandbox"/QA environment if there is one) and follow the instructions to practice what they have just learned. This is really helpful if they truly need to learn the software and not just show up on a list that they were "trained". 

I'll cut myself off at this point. What you are wanting to do is absolutely possible and there are a lot of great resources available to save you the pain of reinventing the wheel. If you haven't seen it already, Cathy Moore has a great site.  Tom K has written some excellent articles focussed on technical training as well. Here's a link I had saved.


Bob S

Hi David,

It does indeed sound like a cool project.. Couple of thoughts...

Not to scare you, but are you prepared for the time/resources involved with converting hundreds of books over to e-learning? Even in the most rapid of rapid development worlds that is likely to take years.

As you scope the project, consider wether you want to go wide or deep. In other words, flip as many as you can over or flip over a few every quarter and make them more valuable (read as "saleable" to the clients).

In either case, simplicity is going to be the key. Don't become scared of creating just "e-reading" ; after all these are books currently right? But look for ways to break up the reading with interactions etc. Perhaps coming up with a repeatable formulae your team can follow would work best.

Also, think about creating some sort of activity that sits outside of the reading that the learner completes a peice at a time; preferably after finishing various sections/modules/courses. Depending on the topic being taught, examples could include things like:

  • creating their own web page one step at a time
  • completing a full-blown project plan section by section
  • writing a complete (simple) program one block at a time
  • compiling their own job aid/cheat sheet as they go
  • etc (including fun things like scavenger hunts and more)

Having that ongoing activity that spans the sections/chapters of your book conversions can serve to tie things together, re-energize the reader, and cement the learning.

Hope this helps and good luck!

Bob

David Barnes

Thanks very much for the responses. Some very thoughtful ideas there. I love the RSI ruse Jeanette... will definitely use it.

As part of my research I've been looking at some of the example courses available from Microsoft Elearning. I'm glad I don't have to learn software using these courses. At the same time it's reassuring that this is the kind of material the market expects and that presumably does a "good enough" job of training staff.

@Natalia most of our books are aimed at "IT professionals" so they're used to working with a variety of software and should be able to absorb information quite quickly. However I'm seeing that even elearning that calls itself "self paced" is much more rigid than dipping into a book, and therefore you need to cover things in much less depth.

I've already looked at Cathy and Bob's sites. They're excellent. 

@Bob you're absolutely right that I'm looking for a repeatable formulae here. The ideal would be a situation where one of our tech editors could create elearning based on material in a book, without any special knowledge of the topic. The closer I can get to that the better. This could mean:

- Extracting chunks of text into a screen-full of text with a diagram or two.

- Create a screencast using the instructions already given in the text.

- Turn the quizzes already included in our books into online quizzes, or even better the RSI approach Jeanette suggests.

You are right about making things activity driven. Giving readers a "mission" before you even start on the technical content is something I always tried to do in tutorial books too. 

For those who like Cathy Moore's site, please look at this one too: http://headrush.typepad.com/ It's not active any more but I'm sure it was a big influence on Cathy's approach. My favorite bits are linked here: http://davidbarneswork.posterous.com/where-in-the-world-in-kathy-sierra-or-the-bes

Zara Ogden

I recently was handed a power point of screen shots and training system to develop a training program for a new system we are going to be using. I fully developed the elearning in quizmaker and completed it as a simulation. I elected to use quizmaker because it will create a score for following the instructions correctly. For larger items more than 40 slides I would suggest using Presenter instead and creating branching with hyperlinks in PPT.

I have also have another project where I have a manual that i must convert to learning. In this I physically ripped apart the book to prioritize the content and mix it up.

The main thing is to look at one book at a time. Consider what is the objective of this book and of the training. Do you want the learner to use the software program? Do you want the learner to know the content of the book? Then break it down into levels of difficulty and manageable chunks.

I defiantly would not advise directly converting the books as is. They have to be reorganized. Or they won't make sense or your users will fall asleep. The only time this is a good idea is if you are desperate for training and need it NOW! for some compliance reason.

I love this type of conversion cause all the research is done. It is all design. You have the content, the images, the layout, all you need to do is divide it and publish it.

  1. Physically rip apart the book and reorganize it base on difficulty. ( have to walk before you can run) Have the learners get the basics of the concept or program. Then give them more and more advanced material. For example on a new soft ware program perhaps you explain all the key features in the first module (this button does this...). In the second module you complete a basic task (combined action of the buttons explained) Third Module you add complex actions (advanced use of buttons in a complex task). Once you have done this you have mapped out your program. HARD PART DONE. (it is really quick to do too)
  2. Create a Master Slide collection. This is you colour pallet, feel, emotion, layouts, text selection. What it will look like.
  3. Begin adding content.
  4. DONE!

If you have any questions or need some samples let me know via PM I am always happy to share.

Software simulation

Book conversion.

David Barnes

Thanks for the further feedback! Having developed over 100 technical books myself I would very much enjoy tearing a few of them up.

I've been looking at how Microsoft's elearning products work. It looks like a lot of their e-learning is lifted from books or other forms of documentation. For example here's a screen shot from a Microsoft Elearning course:

I've not seen any articulate courses that feature scrolling chunks of detailed text. What authoring tool would enable this kind of content to be produced. Can Articulate?

It feels like a large part of the advantage of this kind of elearning over a book is not that it offers better teaching, but rather:

- Easier organization and management than a physical library or even a collection of ebooks.

- You can monitor to check staff are doing the courses you've told them to do.

- Staff can easily go back and review material.

In other words, the benefit of this elearning over books is about managing the content rather than the content itself. Does that make sense? Is your experience similar when it comes to teaching techy stuff with elearning?

Dave

Zara Ogden

I just found a very interesting book that you will help with this topic and eLearning in general.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works

Janice (Ginny) Redish

I am taking a certificate program at University of Toronto for eLearning. The first course I chose was Writing for the Web to beef up my writing skills. I really didn't know what I would get out of the program but low and behold I have found the super book of structuring your design process. The book is focused on creating content but I am at chapter 5 and so far it seems like it would benefit any ID to read it.

In chapter 2 they discuss understanding your audience and creating Persona's This is a new concept to me and bloody genius. Do you know how many SME fights we could avoid with persona's. I think tons.

The book also discusses the difference in writing for a book comparison for the web. They compare like so

  • the web is like a collection of cue cards that all hold a wee bit of info
  • books are collections of all the detail in one unit

I personally hate text books and books on business because I don't have the patience to read them. But this one is simplistic and clear. It is direct and to the point.

Mark Siegrist

David -

For what your goal is (text-heavy/diagrams) then I would think the better way to go would be an html-based approach and certainly not a Flash-based approach. Microsoft uses their own tool to build their 'courses', and a couple of years ago they made it free to the public (they're not so evil after all!):

http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/training/lcds.aspx

I remember trying the beta of it and really liked what I saw.

That said....since you are basically going to be doing lots of copying and pasting of large amounts of text from existing documents, then maybe just using an HTML editor like Dreamweaver (or plenty of free solutions) and just setup a template/workflow using that. I would think, if you spend the time up-front to design out the workflow and think it through, then once that's done it could go very quickly to dump the content, book by book, into your template/workflow to produce courses similar to what Microsoft Elearning produces (i.e., 'e-books' really).

Another reason I recommend this is that, down the road, if you want/need to get more sophisticated and can think of better ways to automate the conversion of content to courseware, then keeping it as text and not converted to flash or in PPT or anything will be a big help/timesaver.

mark

www.elearninglive.com

David Barnes

Hey thanks Mark. Weird: I discovered LCDS earlier this afternoon and have been having a play with it. There's a lot that's good about it, but it is rather inflexible. Content editing isn't easy and you can't easily throw in HTML or other source files -- you have to create everything inside their editor.

Your idea of using an HTML editor makes a lot of sense. If we want multimedia we can just embed videos or Flash in the web pages.

Where I'd get stuck is then packaging it as a SCORM course to integrate with existing LMSs so that Big Brother managers can keep on eye on which of their staff are not doing their homework. Our customers would probably sacrifice animations and so on, but not the ability to "manage and track" their staff's progress.

Mark Siegrist

David,

Yes - I just downloaded a sample course from the LCDS website and took a look (I hadn't looked at the tool in a couple of years). It seems to have regressed, based on the sample course (SQL Server) that they offer to see sample output. Horrible.

One other option: eXe

http://wikieducator.org/Online_manual

It's open-source, free, actively updated (it's been around for quite some time now), and most importantly: it is XHTML-based and will handle the SCORM packaging for you. That said, it still may not be as good as using a text editor/Dreamweaver and then a separate SCORM packager once the content is built. I believe the Elearning Suite from Adobe has a SCORM packager for Dreamweaver? Might be worth the investment, but I'd be surprised if there aren't free equivalents out there as well.

David Barnes

Mark, thank you. This is very helpful. I'm new to elearning and finding it hard to get a handle on the "architecture" of elearning.

As I see it, there are three areas I need to get straight:

1. The Content. In my case this is quite trivial. If all we could offer was static HTML with images, I could live with that. More dynamic stuff would be nice too but not essential.

2. The UI and course structure. I need some way to put all these individual HTML pages (make 300 per course) into a structured UI where users can move around a table of contents, see the sessions they've completed ticked off, and of course move back and forth between screens.

3. The interface with a main LMS so that managers can look at who's done what course, and users can also keep track of their own learning.

My understanding is that a SCORM wrapper / packager would take care of point 3. Would it help me with point 2 also?

Mark Siegrist

For #2, usually the development tool handles that. 

I did something similar to what you're trying to do about 7 or 8 years ago with my first e-learning courses. They were static HTML with a few Flash files embedded. I was supplied a javascript template that did handled the left-hand navigation 'tree' from page to page, and I manually just populated it with the links to the pages. The overall 'architecture' of the course in the browser was all done via a frameset:

Left-hand frame, which took up about 1/5th of the page, loaded in the course's navigation menu.

Right-hand frame, which took up the rest of the browser width, loaded in the individual html content pages.  

We didn't use an LMS back then but if we did, there would have also been a bottom frame that had a height/width of 0. It would have been invisible to the student, and it's whole purpose would be to load in the SCORM javascript and pass in/read variables to/from the LMS. This is how the old-school HTML-based courses, and many elearning dev tools to this day, do it I believe.

Shortly after that foray into elearning I took an interest in programming, though not javascript (actionscript 2 and then 3, java/jsp, and Python). If I were trying to do what you're looking to do then I'd approach it like this:

1. Get your content into HTML. Plain ole html pages, just like you'd want them to be rendered, page by page, to the student via the browser. Somewhere in each page I would have of course the tag with the page's title, but then also a custom tag like and have the logical 'lesson' or 'chapter' for which that page belongs. So, for example, 20 pages would be in the 'Sample' lesson/chapter. This would have to be done manually. I'm sure there would be a way to automate it but without knowing what your source content looks like it's probably gonna be a manual effort. That said, with a decent html/stylesheet editor/workflow you should be able to minimize the number of tags you have to insert. You could get through a 300 page 'course' within a couple of hours I bet, once you get going. Each page should be based on a template that includes next and previous page hyperlinks, to navigate from page to page. 

2. Once all the course content was done I'd then do one of the following:

a. write a Python script that loops through all of the individual HTML pages and looks for the and tag values and then generates a php page that generates the left-hand navigation tree

or

b. I'd just manually create another simple html file that contains the sections (not the pages, unless it's not big) of the course with simple hyperlinks, so the student could just jump around to the major sections as needed. This isn't ideal but it would work.

3. I'd then concern myself with the SCORM wrapper. I would think the simple way would be to use a frameset and load the js into a hidden frame, but not sure what best practice for that is these days.

4. THEN, I'd load it into the LMS. That is IF I really needed/wanted an LMS. You might simply just have your IT folks create a simple custom tracking database that has user login capabality and then simple complete/incomplete status and bookmarking. This would not require much work and be more reliable than SCORM tracking via a bulky LMS anyway, in my experience.

Just set it up so that the user logs in and then when they hit the 'next' or 'previous' page links, there is code in the template page that passes a unique page ID to the bookmark field on the database. Then also have that bookmark value 'read' when the user logs in, etc.

This is all a quick, off the top of my head/brainstorm. There are probably many ways to 'skin this cat' but if you must do it the manual way, the above is possible.

I would seriously look at the Adobe elearning Suite and, specifically, the Dreamweaver app and see if it has a SCORM wrapper built into it. No "rapid" tool is going to be better for working with html content like what you have.

My 2 cents...

mark

www.elearninglive.com

David Barnes

Thanks again Mark. I have no desire to adopt a DIY approach. If Adobe Elearning Suite does what I need then that's what we'll use. It does look like it supports what I need it to do, but all of the marketing information and case studies focus on flashy elearning created in Captivate. The Dreamweaver component is likely more important for what I'm trying to do, at least in the short term.

Mark Siegrist

Yeah the only reason I recommended the full elearning suite is because, I believe, that's likely the only way to get the SCORM libraries/packager for Dreamweaver. You definitely wouldn't want to use Captivate for what you're trying to accomplish.

Years ago it was maintained by a 3rd-party (consultants/vendors that would drop the ball and let it stagnate....) but I guess now Adobe owns it.

David Barnes

I've played around with the Elearning Suite online trial and I'm still not sure if it's what I need. The examples of elearning that Dreamweaver has integrate the navigation and the content into one page. It's very important to me that the navigation system and the content are separate. I can't find anything in the Elearning Suite similar to Microsoft's structure.

I'll contact Adobe and see what they can offer. Otherwise it's back to the drawing board. :(