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Flashback: What We’re Learning About HTML5

by Ian Huckabee on December 4, 2012

We had Flash down cold. As an industry, we created e-learning solutions filled with rich media. They were engaging and interactive, they played nicely with SCORM-compliant LMSs, and they turned PowerPoint presentations into compelling e-learning courses.

Then came the iPad. A toy, we thought. Or a luxury. Another gadget created by a company with disruption in its DNA. We read Steve Jobs’s manifesto, Thoughts on Flash, and heaved an industry-wide commiserative sigh as we watched the iPad become the most quickly adopted electronic product in history. While the silver lining was the new set of opportunities in mobile learning, the iPad didn’t support Flash.

And now with the release of Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10, we finally have touch on the desktop. But plug-ins like Flash aren’t designed for touch. (The desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 does support Flash, but the writing’s on the wall.)

So, is HTML5 and the race toward mobile learning driving the final stakes in the e-learning-with-Flash coffin?

Not yet.

Give Me 5

In 2012, a majority of the e-learning solutions we created at WeejeeLearning were developed using HTML5. We were able to reach learners where our clients had not reached them before, and these mobile-friendly solutions helped drive up participation and completion rates.

We encountered the expected hurdles – browser compatibility issues, different OS-browser configurations, LMS integration twists-and-turns, and more. But we learned some important things along the way. Interestingly, one thing we learned is that it’s not time to say good-bye to Flash.

Since Flash isn’t supported by Apple’s mobile operating system or Windows 8, and since Adobe has stopped supporting Flash for Android devices, the evolving HTML5 standard is more important than ever, not just for browser-based mobile learning but for all browser-based learning. HTML5 will make it possible for developers to work with a single markup language for all modern browsers – desktop and mobile – without having to maintain their code to accommodate third-party platforms, like Flash.

And for mobile, HTML5 offers better learning experiences by enabling both low-power delivery of multimedia elements and the use of responsive Web design, where Web pages are rendered to fit the screens of different devices.

But What about the Desktop?

Today, most e-learning is not mobile. This may change as HTML5 evolves, but according to Forrester Research, 63% of the devices used for work are either a desktop or a laptop. Only about a quarter are mobile devices.

And it’s important to note that HTML5 still isn’t an officially adopted standard. It won’t be until the end of 2014 at the earliest, according to W3C, the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web. Moreover, the less stable elements have been moved out even farther, to a 5.1 standard that will go up for recommendation sometime in 2016.

So desktop learners don’t have to give up their media-rich experiences any time soon.

When designing e-learning in HTML5, it’s critical to determine the lowest common denominator browser of your target audience. Too often, it’s IE8, a legacy browser with practically no HTML5 support. So right off the bat, you’re developing not in HTML5 but in HTML 4. And just when you think you have a successful solution, your QA team tells you they’ve discovered a user base somewhere in the client’s organization running Windows 7 downgraded to IE8, another animal altogether. Who’da thunk?

Which is why Flash isn’t dead in e-learning. Understanding your learning audience is more critical than ever. Who’s taking the learning? Where are they? What’s their technology?

If the audience for your learning is primarily mobile, develop it in HTML5. If it’s not, consider Flash. If it’s both, create solutions in both. When we put the numbers to it, it was a lot cheaper than we originally thought to develop both an HTML5 solution and a Flash solution.

Our approach has been to create the initial solution in HTML5 using the richest interactions our target browsers will allow. Then once we’ve completed the HTML5 solution, we create it in Flash using the same assets and replicating and enhancing many of the interactions. Since our solutions are XML-based, both solutions are driven by the same XML file, so course updates can be made once and applied to each solution.

The Natives Are Restless

What about native apps? Most of us heard Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg utter recently that HTML5 just isn’t quite there yet. After dedicating two years to an HTML5 mobile version of Facebook, Zuckerberg finally decided instead to focus primarily on native apps.

It’s true that native apps are the best way to offer content on a specific device. But building and maintaining separate e-learning solutions for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian, webOS – along with browser-based solutions – is, in almost every case, cost prohibitive.

We’re a Mobile Society

We’re mobile, at play and at work. And our learning is increasingly mobile. As such, the relative percentage of learning consumed on the desktop will likely go down. But it remains important to give learners the best experience possible, one with the highest likelihood of improving their performance, whether they’re at a desk or at a bus stop.

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