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Hansen Training Systems, Inc.



EasyTutor

Unlike virtually all other eLearning authoring systems, which were designed for general use, EasyTutor was created with a single user in mind: Hansen Training Systems. HTS specializes in courses for IT professionals. We teach people how to write programs, operate computers, set up secure software environments, interpret computer output, and perform other tasks involving human/computer interactions. If you also teach such topics, EasyTutor is the eLearning system you have been waiting for.

Existing eLearning Systems Fail at Teaching IT

Teaching computer-related subjects is different from teaching teaching company HR policies or supervisory skills. Over its 40-year history, HTS has noticed four factors that make IT training unique.

  • Because students — particularly those already on the job — come from different backgrounds and enter with different skill levels, most courses must begin by covering "enabling objectives." These are not the ultimate behavioral objectives that students will be expected to master, but prerequisite skills that they are expected to have before the course gets into job-related skills training. In the case of IT topics, students general need to learn abstract concepts, such as the work flow within an operating system, before they can learn the procedures to control and alter such flows. From an authoring system perspective, this means that authoring systems designed around large video and photo libraries are useless. Depending on the concepts involved, the developer will want to include complex graphics or even animation sequences.
  • Once the student has mastered the underlying concepts, the heart of most IT training involves teaching a "language" of some sort, whether the subject is Java programming or z/OS commands. People not in IT might be surprised to learn that this involves teaching syntax, commonly used verbs, which objects (nouns) go with which verbs, and so on. The point is that IT courses include tons of text. If there are "figures," they tend to be complex command examples or program segments. The ideal authoring system for this type of course will make it extremely easy to enter, edit, and format large amount of text. In particular, any eLearning system that requires the author to define text boxes in which to enter individual sentences or paragraphs fails the requirement.
  • For professional trainers, the "six-pack" of books written by Dr. Robert Mager remains the gold standard of how skills training should be designed and delivered. Most important, effective training must give the student the opportunity to demonstrate the skills learned. For computer operators, for example, that means being presented with a display from the operating system, determining what action needs to be performed, and then entering the appropriate command(s) or selecting menu options. When HTS began producing such exercises in 1985, no commercially available authoring system made this an easy task. At best, some of them provided facilities whereby the author could insert his or her own programming code, albeit often in a proprietary — and extremely limited — language. The first version of EasyTutor solved this problem in 1988. Even after 30 years, we are not aware of ANY other authoring tool that does so. While some systems let students watch a task being performed, only EasyTutor lets students perform such tasks themselves.
  • While some IT courses have a fairly long shelf life (COBOL comes to mind), most do not. Software vendors are constantly fixing bugs and adding new features, making the job of keeping a course up to date a never-ending chore. Sometimes keeping a course current involves adding new material. Other times it involved minor edits or global search and replace operations. A not uncommon task in the world of IBM midrange systems, for example, has been to change the name of the hardware (from AS/400 to AS/400e to iSeries to System i to Power Systems) and the name of the operating system (from OS/400 to i5/OS to IBM i) as new marketing teams decide to put their own mark on the product. As a result, HTS's sister company, Manta Technologies, has periodically had to make such changes in 130 courses. Fortunately, this was a straightforward (although tedious) job which involved search/replace operations on over 10,000 script files. With some popular authoring systems, this task would have grown from months to years, as the authors would need to open every text window on every screen to manually make the change.

Given that other eLearning authoring systems are inadequate for skill-based IT training, what makes EasyTutor special?

Why the world needed another authoring system

Before Hansen Training Systems developed its first computer-based course, we surveyed the available authoring systems, making lists of what we liked and disliked about each system. The high-priced authoring systems we investigated were easy to use and could deliver high quality graphics. They were extremely time-consuming to use, however, and could not handle realistic simulations without switching to built-in programming languages. Some low-priced systems provided the functionality we required, but also required the support of a full-time programmer.

We developed EasyTutor after concluding that no existing authoring system could meet our needs. In addition to containing the features of other commercially available systems, we added the following requirements.

  • Because authors are passionate about their choice of writing tools, they should be allowed to use any word processor for the creation of course scripts.
  • Because the same is true for artists, the system should be able to use high-resolution graphics stored in a standard format and created using any graphics program. (Animation facilities were added to a later release.)
  • The system should minimize the work required of the author by recognizing concepts such as "multiple-choice question," "data-entry simulation," and "coding problem." For each question type, the system should provide the appropriate answer analysis based on minimal author input. Default messages should be built into the system for all common student input errors.
  • An object-oriented approach should be used to let the organization develop standards for the presentation of each question type, while letting the author override the standards at the course, session, or screen level.
  • Data redundancy should be eliminated. The author should be able to develop model screens that can be used as the starting point for subsequent screens. No message or example should have to be specified more than once. The author should be able to associate multiple correct or incorrect answers with a single message.
  • To accommodate 1988-era simulations, the system had to be able to display a full 24- by 80-character screen image within a window. The rest of the screen had to be large enough to contain identification information, a text-discussion area, a feedback windows, and student-control icons. The ability to simulate graphical interfaces was added in a later release.
  • The system must be able to incorporate custom modules when new coding is required to handle custom answer-parsing situations. In particular, the system must be able to use our library of routines for handling MVS commands, JES2 commands, assembler language statements, IBM i CL statements, etc.
  • The system should automatically format menus, text displays, and messages to achieve the best appearance in the space provided.

EasyTutor Overview

The heart of EasyTutor is its XML-based scripting language. You can think of it as a super-set to HTML. A multiple-choice question, for example, can be created by adding the following EasyTutor tags around the question statement:

<SCREEN TYPE="MC">
    :
</SCREEN>

Minimally, <CHOICES> tags are needed to specify the answer options and an <ANSWER> tag is needed to identify the correct answer. EasyTutor formats the entire screen, converting the choices specified into radio buttons. Default messages are available for correct and incorrect answers. Alternatively, the author may supply any or all feedback messages, in addition to multiple levels of hints and a message to be displayed if the student asks for the answer.

Now imagine similar tags used for every possible exercise type, from fill-in-the-blank and true/false to simulations of text-based and graphical user interfaces. (For a complete list of screen types that are available, see the 50-page EasyTutor General Information manual, which can be downloaded from this site.)

Our Experience

Following are the benefits that we have discovered through our own use of EasyTutor.

  • EasyTutor completely changes the course development process to automate the noncreative parts of the job.
  • In particular, EasyTutor totally eliminated the programming function from our course development cycle. In the past, we scheduled a six-week programming cycle after the client approved the storyboards for a course. We no longer use storyboards, but deliver the complete course in the same amount of time.
  • Using EasyTutor increases an author's productivity. Using EasyTutor, we have reduced our standard course development cycle for a six-hour, computer-based course from six months to less than three. Our increased productivity is due to EasyTutor's object-oriented approach to CBT development, its automatic formatting capabilities, and the built-in default values. The elimination of the programming phase of development and the shortening of the testing/correction phase accounts for the rest of the reduction.
  • EasyTutor is easy to learn. As an example, a client once gave us storyboards for an eight-hour CBT course. It took us one day to train a college freshman with limited programming experience. She then "programmed" the course in less than a month during her summer vacation.
  • EasyTutor sessions are easy to change. Our customers are now revising courses on their own with no training other than telephone support. This is possible because EasyTutor lessons are stored in standard ASCII format and the EasyTutor tags are English-like and self-documenting.
  • Using EasyTutor reduces errors. We have been able to change our quality assurance procedures due to an incredible reduction in the number of errors detected. In essence, there are no programming errors to be found if there is no programming.
  • EasyTutor provides sophisticated answer-parsing for any situation. All of our simulations allow the student to enter answers in any form acceptable to a real system. A recent programming course, for example, supports over 300 possible correct answers for many questions. Yet the entire course was developed by one person in 10 weeks.
  • Prototype sessions and courses can be produced quickly. Authors can develop a student interaction and immediately view its presentation. We have discovered that authors use this ability to fine-tune their work, making improvements that would have been ignored in the past due to a lack of time. In addition, it is an easy matter to produce the menu structure and sample screens making up a prototype course. This facility lets us involve the client in design issues before major writing begins.
  • Graphic support is straightforward and easy to use, with graphics, audios, and videos stored externally from the course script. Our standard procedure is now for the author to include rough sketches in a course. These are replaced by professionally drawn pictures as the artist's schedule permits. Once a picture has been drawn, it can be included in a course and reviewed immediately.
  • EasyTutor saves money. By eliminated the programming function from the development cycle and reducing the author's effort, EasyTutor has let us reduce our labor costs for a typical course by 30%.
  • EasyTutor allows an organization to enforce CBT development standards. The object-oriented approach used by EasyTutor allows an organization to define a standard screen format, headings, function icons, colors, and default messages. These values are specified in separate files that EasyTutor consults to establish the default presentation environment. Unless the author takes action to override a value for a specific screen, session, or course, the result is an installation-standard course.

Our favorite comment came from a client's product manager for operating system training:

The first training vendor to adopt EasyTutor as its development standard will have a significant advantage over its competitors - in productivity, in costs, and in quality.

This has proved to be true with Manta Technologies in the IBM i environment. What subject area do you wish to dominate?

Click any of the following links for additional information:

  • The EasyTutor Learning Management System — for information about the EasyTutor LMS
  • Download — to download the EasyTutor General Information manual, which includes the information found on this web site plus descriptions and examples of all 13 EasyTutor screen types.
  • Sample Session — to take a sample session that uses EasyTutor

The sample session comes from a Using Web Query course that HTS wrote for Manta Technologies.





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