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Vol. 7, No. 8: April 17, 2001

eWEEK Magazine Judges Web Learning Tools at UW-Madison

by Jennifer Smith, TTT Editor

From April 11 to 13, eWEEK magazine (formerly PC Week) hosted a competitive demonstration of multimedia content development tools for the web called an "eWEEK eVALuation" at UW-Madison's Engineering Hall.  Vendors from four different companies--MindLever, Hypercosm, NYUonline, and Macromedia--came to demonstrate their wares to an audience of administrators, faculty, and instructional technology professionals.


For the competition, all of the vendors were given identical curriculum materials that they had to transform into a web learning module.  The learning materials came in a package called "Exploring the Nanoworld," developed by the Institute for Chemical Education at UW-Madison.  This kit introduces students to the world of atoms and is aimed at furthering science literacy.  Cindy Widstrand and Art Ellis, two of the kit's developers, were on hand to demonstrate it for the audience.


On Thursday, April 12, vendors gave one-hour demonstrations of their products, focusing on functions, features, and issues like accessibility and compliance with emerging standards like SCORM.  MindLever demonstrated its tool Composer, which provides a database authoring environment.  While MindLever has thus far focused on the corporate market, it is now attempting to move into the educational market.  Locally-based Hypercosm presented its strengths as producing 3-D content and showing how physical processes and objects work.  The NYUonline team gave the judges and observers a look at its forthcoming product iAuthor, to be released for purchase in May.  iAuthor works on an object model using the SCORM concept of blocks to organize content.  The software also utilizes "role-based processing," in which different types of authors--writers, graphic designers, subject experts, and so on--have different access levels within iAuthor depending on their roles.  Macromedia rounded out the day with a discussion of how Authorware, Dreamweaver, and Flash can be used to create learning objects--or "weapons of mass instruction," as one of the presenters quipped.


On Friday, the proof was in the pudding as vendors gave 30-minute demonstrations of the learning objects or lessons they had developed using their products with the "Exploring the Nanoworld" content.  Teams were held to a 30-hour total limit for the development of these learning objects (they had been presented with the curriculum materials on Wednesday).  Presenters were asked to provide breakdowns of how much time each team member spent on specific tasks.  Judges were to evaluate these presentations based on screen layout, animation, integration of learning principles, opportunities for reinforcement or remediation of content, and their capability of being assembled into courses.  The judges' findings on the strengths and weaknesses of each tool will be reported in the May 14 issue of eWEEK.  Judges from UW System Administration included Judy Brown, Ed Meachen, and Hal Schlais of the Office of Learning and Information Technology.  Patricia Ploetz of UW-Stevens Point and Jack Keel, Les Howles, and Alan Wolf from UW-Madison also served as judges. Additional judges came from the Wisconsin Technical College System, the University of Minnesota, Carnegie Mellon University, and Dow Corning Corporation.


Part of the rationale for holding this competitive evaluation stems from a recent Forrester Research poll, in which the main obstacle to developing a successful e-learning strategy was identified as a lack of interactivity.  As a brief eVAL history circulated at the event noted, today's educational institutions know how to manage and deliver online learning, but much more needs to be done to create highly interactive learning components.  In fact, the definition of interactivity surfaced occasionally during vendors' demonstrations.  Steve Lee of Allen Interactions, part of the Macromedia team, questioned prevailing notions of interactivity and commented that it must involve more than just clicking navigation buttons to move through a website.  He noted that the user must feel as if he or she is actually experiencing things.


Official results of the eVAL will be made available both in the print edition of eWEEK and on its website.  The event was organized and hosted by the UW System, the Academic ADL Co-Lab, and eWEEK.

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