Rule the tools…

I was watching South Park on Wednesday night where Stan relieves his anxiety over the pressures to reach a million points in Guitar Hero III with *Heroin Hero* (stay with me — I have a point). In the game, you continue to chase this cute flying dragon reminiscent of DragonTales (get it… “chase the dragon?”) and no matter how much you advance, you can never ever get the dragon.

I know it sounds odd to read about what I learned from watching South Park, but I’m not exactly normal. 😉

In that South Park episode, Stan is trapped by the external pressures and succumbs to them. For many designers and developers, I get a lot of feedback and messaging about how you’re chasing after authoring tools with more bells and whistles to produce more engaging content.

Sound like you? I don’t know which step in a program is acknowledgement, but I need to tell you that you’re just chasing the dragon… because if you’re looking for a tool to make your content better, you’re missing the point. You’re addicted to the shiny objects and you’re (in effect) chasing the dragon.

Tools allow you to do a lot of things — some of them might be things you want to do for instructional intent. Some of them are things enabling an easier development of that which you think is cool (timed bullets to audio, templates for tabbed interfaces or slideshows, etc). [Phillip Hutchinson]( commented on here just the other day about how XML templates in Flash ultimately constrain — and I think he has a point. *Any tool you use that gives you wizard-like control is ultimately going to limit you to the initial design capabilities of its inventor.* Tools sometimes also do things you find instructionally odd, maybe even wrong. They’re tools.

It’s not the hammer that builds a better house. It’s the carpenter who wields it.

Some authoring tools are more flexible than others. Captivate, Articulate or FlashForm all allow you to embed your own content — but at least with Captivate or Articulate, there are some caveats to that. Articulate has an API exposed so you can send navigational control or set completion status from your customized content… but you can only embed one Flash file per slide. Captivate doesn’t seem to care how many things you embed or where and it even allows you to branch pretty fluidly… but you can’t talk to the Captivate engine.

Point is… the limitations on how effective training can be are on you and your creative instructional instincts — the tools only help you expand that, and I would argue that you need to prioritize what’s most important to you and let that dictate your decision to use any tool (and that includes rolling your own set of templates). Code is cheap — it may not always be free, but there is so much code available to you off-the-shelf now compared a few years ago — that it’s closing in on ubiquity.

Anything technical — from figuring out how to make that cool activity in Flash you want to make all the way to figuring out how to report something to an LMS — can be bought, borrowed or lifted from someone. At the end of the day, what differentiates your E-Learning and makes it special is what you want to message to your learners. Figure out what you want to do first and THEN find the right combination of tools and technology to support the instruction.

Unless expediency and the notion of the 80% solution is more important… then go for the tool that affords that for you.

Bottom line: don’t be addicted to the tech. Don’t adopt the new toy to make your E-Learning better. Only you can make it better. The tool is only as good as the ideas that feed it. I’m as guilty as anyone on this, and it’s only through the pain of withdrawal from authoring tools that I start to see clearly that solid instructional vision is more powerful than the delivery mechanism.

My preaching is done for today 🙂