I’ve been itching to write some about the proliferation of mobile devices in the wake of Tablet computers like the Apple iPad, the Samsung Galaxy, the Blackberry Playbook and a myriad of others for quite a while. Much of what I’ve read is very technical and always seems a little heavy on hype and light on practical solutions for eLearning. The salient question is, should we as eLearning developers be looking at ways to move our content onto these mobile devices in order to more effectively reach our audience? The answer is that we of course should, but also that we are faced with a host of new challenges as soon as we attempt to do so. So in this post I’ll try to answer as much of that as I can, as objectively as I can, without getting lost in the specifics of the technology.
A little Context
First it should be noted that the idea of notebook computing didn’t originate with the iPad, it began long before with a host of solutions that attempted to offer the comfort and familiarity. The real breakthrough with the iPad is probably owed in part to a great GUI (graphical user interface) in part to aspirational marketing (it’s what the guy next to you oggles on a long flight) and in part to the availability of enough networking access to make user experiences on cloud based devices a positive experience.
In many ways notebook computing is also a terrible step backward. It doesn’t allow you to run your most used software applications, it is often slow to download and slow to perform, and it really doesn’t facilitate many of the most potent uses of the Internet because of it’s lack of in-browser Flash support. The notion that our devices and our software do this little dance of two steps forward and one step back is not at all new. We have been doing this dance for a long time. One lifelong eLearning developer infamously cracked “I could do that 20 years ago with Authorware” to virtually every “new” feature touted by various eLearning software vendors. He was of course quite correct, that we had better control of the computer years ago, and that the ongoing battle between ubiquity, accessibility, ease of use and ever-evolving hardware has often reduced the amount of control we have over the devices that display our eLearning content.
The push-pull of technologies vs. ease of use is only one of the concerns we should examine as we consider migrating content to mobile devices and tablets. There are social considerations as well. Are we demanding too much of people? Are we introducing an expectation that they be ‘always available’ by providing technologies that facilitate constant connection?
This process, of push and pull between our desire to be free from the inherent restrictions of our technologies and our desire to take full advantage of them is a theme that has been replayed throughout the ages, even long before our technologies were digital. Certainly it’s something we see echoed in literature. Consider for example Neal Stephenson’s dystopic and all-too often prophetic novel “Snow Crash.” Stephenson describes a world that is almost inseparably chained to it’s technologies. He further extends the metaphor by introducing a notion of mental ‘programming’ and in essence makes us all the products of a vast machine.
We hear everyday in our incidental conversations the evidence that for many of us, the ‘always on’ interconnectedness of social networks, emails and web communities creates a difficult balance of welcomed interaction and unwelcome interruption. Tablets fall into this picture as a device we hope can help mediate, can make it easier to keep up with everything. They can make it easier for us to remain connected, and hopefully the software thereupon can help us filter and sort the vast array of communications we receive.
State of the dream technology
The tablets we have today, fall short of those promised us in Science fiction films and novels like Snow Crash, Minority Report or Avatar. In our imaginations and aspirations we are promised a totally mobile solution that will effortlessly enable transfer between any of our computing devices with little more than a flick of the wrist. It can be difficult to comprehend why then, we now see a technology industry that appears to be moving in the opposite direction. It appears that operating systems are splintering – and forming walls of incompatibility.
Today’s tablets do attempt to share data across devices, but generally each one prefers to lock it all into it’s own little silo. The data is often in different formats from device to device, and operating systems differ on each device making it often quite difficult to work with things in the same authoring applications across various devices. While some software companies are working actively to create cloud based application solutions, many of the creators of cloud storage systems and hardware appear to be prepping for a protocol and standards showdown. There’s nothing new in such efforts, it is in fact the way we have seen technologies evolve for ages.
The role of standards in technology adoption
Consider the historical example of Philo Farnsworth, who brought us Television. Farnsworth was only 15 when he came up with the idea for projecting television (which most then would have thought of as radio with pictures) by observing the back and forth motion of a plow tilling a field. Farnsworth and RCA, then RCA and Zenith and a variety of others would then begin a long series of law suits both to establish ownership of the invention(s) but also subsequently to establish the universal standard that would allow all televisions to receive a consistent ‘type’ of signal. Whether its VHS/Beta or TV standard A vs. TV standard B, we generally see media fall into these kinds of early disputes whenever there are encoders and decoders that need to standardize in order to ensure inter-operability.
In the early days of the World Wide Web we had similar competing standards for the distribution and sharing of information, including things like Telnet, Gopher and the early HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language). While HTML quickly became the dominant standard, the individual companies which produced decoders (we call them web browsers) and encoders (we call them Web page editors) all used different standards to determine how to decode or encode the messages. In fact HTML is still implemented in a variety of ways today across different browsers – that’s why you often hear a tech geek say, well open it in a different browser, when you have trouble with seeing the content on a given web page. Adobe even has a cloud based service called Browser Lab that allows web developers preview overlays of their websites as they would appear on each of the major browsers, so that they can avoid big differences.
Plug-ins and extensions bridge the compatibility gaps
One of the big reasons plugins like Shockwave, QuickTime, Flash & Reader became so common as add on’s to a web browser, was because they could render things exactly the same way on any machine in any browser, so designers and producers preferred them because its much cheaper and more efficient to produce things one time than it is to produce them many times. The other reasons were because these plugins enabled levels of interactivity that the browsers could not.
Understanding the Why Now of HTML5
So why does that seem to be changing? Like everything, web page technology is evolving and improving. The most recent definition of Web page standards is soon going to be HTML5 (yes it isn’t really fully in place yet.) This new fifth generation of HTML (web pages) supports much deeper levels of interactivity than earlier versions. It also has better support for video, audio, animation, and interaction. So many of the things that couldn’t be done with a web page alone in the past, will soon be possible without using any kind of plugin like Flash. There are also a lot of things that still won’t be possible without that plugin, but the excitement is about the possibilities of creating more engaging content without the need for a plugin.
Now while it’s simpler to think of things in a single format and as a single output, this thinking doesn’t yet really apply well to our desktop computers the same as it does to our mobile devices. Phones have become smarter, and tablets are beginning to look and feel a lot more like computers, but the purposes and abilities of the devices are not yet really identical. So while we might imagine it would be great to just grab something from the computer and toss it to our tablet – the real experience is usually more frustrating and less plausible.
For now, we’re going to see folks keep producing content that is optimized for the desktop experience, but we’ll see an increasing desire to ensure that it will also play on mobile devices.
This change comes with a couple of big potential problems. First, virtually all of the content created for eLearning that exists today has been created and deployed using Flash technology. Regardless of whether you author your content with Captivate, Presenter or most any other technology – the output is most likely Flash. If a potential playback device doesn’t support Flash playback in a browser, then even if the new content you create is all outputting HTML5, the older content you’ve already created will still not play back on such a device. That’s nothing to shrug off. There are literally millions of course modules out there that people use every day, that are inaccessible on some mobile devices.
Now the only major playback environment that doesn’t support Flash in browser is called iOS. This is the operating system on Apple devices like the iPad, iPod and iPhone. Unfortunately for eLearning developers this is a very popular environment, so the push-pull strikes us hard here, where we either have to recreate all of our content (dating back more than a decade) or we tell our users that they cannot use these devices to access our content, or we need solutions that will help us make this content available on the iOS devices.
What should we do then?
This leads to the next potential problem. There aren’t yet any good authoring solutions for publishing to HTML5 rather than Flash, and still retaining the workflows, interactivity and other experiences that we have adopted for eLearning. There are some ways to author HTML5 content, but they are not workflows that have been customized to eLearning. The good news, there are some early contenders that are making fast progress, and that are enabling developers to continue to work in both the Flash and HTML5 environment, therein maximizing compatibility.
The Adobe Captivate Team is leading this charge. They’ve recently announced a public Beta of the Captivate SWF (Flash) to HTML5 converter. Yes, you can just click that link to download it. This amazing converter actually takes your Captivate 5.5 created flash projects and converts them into web pages that use the HTML5 standard. It is being hosted on Adobe Labs, which is a sort of test bed for Adobe projects that may or may not one day be integrated into actual products.
One of the coolest things, is that it’s totally free and you can download it already and play around with it. Another is that it makes web pages, so any content you create is yours forever – it’s just a web page after all. The first version only supported the basic workflows and elements commonly found in application capture, but at eLearning Guild’s DevLearn conference last week I was able to give folks a preview of the next version. This new version includes support for most question types (so yes, you can create quizzes in HTML5 using the Captivate 5.5 editor) and even supports integration with Scorm compliant Learning Management Systems. As far as I know this will make Captivate the first full featured eLearning editor to support quizzing and Scorm compliant reporting both in native Flash and in converted HTML5. So if you’re looking for a solution for those iOS devices today – Captivate’s new HTML5 converter is likely your best bet.
You’ll also find similar HTML5 converters from other teams at Adobe, Including an HTML5 converter for Illustrator, and HTML5 editing solutions for Dreamweaver. There is also the Wallaby project for general Flash conversion to HTML5, specializing on animation as well as the recently announced Adobe Edge. Edge and Dreamweaver are HTML5 editors for creating dynamic and engaging HTML5 content, while the others are essentially converters.
I suspect we’ll see solutions like this for a while and it’s no surprise that Adobe is leading the way with a custom HTML5 editing and creation utility like Edge which is already available for public use via labs.adobe.com. If you are familiar with After Effects or Premiere, the interface of Edge will seem pretty instantly familiar. It’s easy to use and you can build animations with relative ease.
HTML5 was clearly the hot topic at this year’s DevLearn conference in Las Vegas. To be honest I found it both exciting and more than a little frustrating. In the area of eLearning we’ve managed for a long time to create specialized software solutions that simplify interactive media creation for eLearning developers, Instructional Designers, and Subject Matter Experts. In my opinion, this frees trainers and learning specialists up to focus on the education rather than spending their time becoming multi-media developers.
The world of HTML has, to be honest, never done much to mitigate the technology – in fact historically HTML editors have always been very careful to always expose the code under the hood quite easily. From a media developer’s point of view, this is a big plus – it makes it easier to make small changes if something in the graphical editor isn’t behaving as needed. From an eLearning developer’s point of view – I think this presents a sizeable challenge. The balance between ease-of-use and power is a constant theme in software. I’m just a little worried that a rapid shift toward HTML5 may be an enormous shift away from the ease of use that is now very popular in eLearning authoring.
Converters of course give us an ideal ease-of-use scenario. We can just keep using our tools and convert as needed. It’s also reasonable to expect that some extant tools will at least in part support output to HTML5. Editors might be fine, but I think we’ll want to see specialized editors for eLearning, ones that accomodate our needs, and accelerate our development time-lines. For a while, we may well end up publishing two versions of things, one for general consumption and one for people on iOS devices.
We might also see the landscape (or in this case the divergent operating systems) splinter even further before standards are broadly enough adopted to move us back onto a more stable situation. Times like these are wonderful for innovation – and I expect we’ll see some exciting new ideas bubbling up. But they are also generally not at all good for steady, reliable growth. It becomes difficult to know what to expect – and you can find yourself creating or preserving content that you don’t feel certain will remain viable in 5, 10 or 15 years.
I wouldn’t expect that you’ll have serious problems or limitations with your current Flash based content, nor would I guarantee that HTML5 content will remain viable – but realistically that level of uncertainty has existed for the bast 20 years as well. Perhaps the most realistic approach is to expect the materials you create today will have a shelf life, which is likely given their content anyway.
Specific Recommendations for Action (A ToDo list for HTML5 / Mobile):
I know you all will have questions, comments and concerns as it relates to HTML5. Don’t be shy – fill the comments section below with all your ideas. Let’s get this discussion underway.