Asymetrix offers comprehensive training solution

Testing by Chip Pettirossi

With high demand for training and limited funds to provide it, more government agencies are turning to computer-based training (CBT) to create and manage custom training courses with multimedia features— all delivered electronically.

Many agencies prefer CBT because it's less expensive than on-site or off-site training and more convenient for end users, who can schedule classes individually rather than in large groups. Because CBT is self-paced, employees have the flexibility to finish course work in increments. And for agencies with a geographically diverse work force, CBT allows remote course deployment. For example, sailors can take CBT courses at sea while personnel on land monitor the results. By enabling simulation, CBT also helps save wear and tear on equipment such as airplanes and radar.

The two dominant CBT manufacturers are Macromedia Inc., San Francisco, and Asymetrix Learning Systems Inc., Bellevue, Wash. Macromedia declined to have its Authorware package reviewed, so we tested only the Asymetrix solution— a two-part program consisting of the Toolbook II Assistant 6.5 and a management module called Librarian.

We found that Asymetrix offers a comprehensive CBT solution that is generally easy to use, but it may be more than a one-person project because creating an effective course requires many types of expertise, such as a content expert, an instructional designer, a database administrator for the SQL server, a mail database administrator and a World Wide Web server administrator. A single developer would be hard-pressed to create and maintain all the components necessary for the CBT solution.

Northrop Grumman Corp., which holds a contract for air crew training for the Air Force, recently began using Asymetrix's CBT products.

"There isn't even a comparison" for the amount of time saved by using the new product, said Rob Taylor, instructional systems designer at Northrop Grumman. "We have an older proprietary system that uses simulation that's costly to update, so we wanted to offload some of the faster-changing lessons and use a simpler CBT environment," he explained. Toolbook II Assistant allows the company to reuse material more inexpensively. For example, a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation can be imported and used in the CBT.

Taylor is pleased with Toolbook II Assistant and especially likes the new video synchronization tool, which lets you link a video clip to a portion of text. As the video clip plays, the relevant portions of text become highlighted. "We're looking to use this feature for manufacturing training," he said, explaining that a video clip would show how to install a piece of equipment while relevant instructional text would be highlighted.

Our Test Results

We looked at the following areas of the Toolbook II Assistant and Librarian solutions: creating a lesson, deploying a course, taking a lesson, course management and reports. The results of our evaluation are displayed in the chart on Page 36.

First, we used Toolbook II Assistant's canned Quick Start template to create a five-page test course. Quick Start provides numerous templates to help authors develop learning applications quickly. Authors also can create their own templates.

We added our own content to the template, which involved importing a text file, adding a video clip, inserting a graphic and customizing a question object. Moving between pages was as easy as clicking on the navigation button. The toolbar also contains useful graphical icons with pop-up text. You easily can add objects to a course using standard drag-and-drop techniques. The easy interface and useful tools helped earn Toolbook II Assistant a very good score for lesson creation.

Next we looked at methods of deploying a course. With Toolbook II Assistant, content creators can export courses to the Internet, an intranet, a local-area network or stand-alone workstations via diskette or CD ROM. We chose to deploy our course on our test center intranet, which supports Hypertext Markup Language and Java.

By selecting the Export to Web option, we were able to convert our test book to HTML files and graphics. Courses with Java applets need to be linked with special Java code to function properly. Administrators need to make sure Java code is accessible to students when they take a course. Audio and video files need to be properly exported so that they run correctly from the student's World Wide Web browser. Testing HTML applications— especially browser compatibility, hyperlinks, media players and navigation buttons— is critical. The exporting tool contains error checking, which gives the developer messages when there are problems.

We used the File Transfer Protocol utility to copy our HTML book to our Web server. Choosing the correct destination directory on our Web server was a bit confusing. We would have preferred better guidance and more spe-cifics on where to transfer our HTML application. For these reasons, we awarded Toolbook II Assistant a satisfactory score for deploying a course.

After designing our test course and exporting it to the Web, we evaluated the student experience of taking a computer-based lesson. From our client PC's Web browser, we logged into Librarian with our student ID and password. It took us a few attempts to properly configure the content location address so that the student Web browser could load the correct lesson. Properly configuring content is not very intuitive, and better guidance, such as documentation and online help screens, is needed.

From the main window, students can view current assignments, change their passwords, join an organization if it allows open membership, search for lessons and collaborations, send mail messages to the instructor or other students, view progress reports and log off.

After reading the lesson material, we took a multiple-choice quiz. The course applet was very easy to use, and we were presented with well-organized screens and information.

Completing the lesson was very intuitive, and we were able to view our quiz results online.

However, when taking a course, the Web browser navigation buttons are rendered useless. Developers must specifically add navigation buttons when creating a course, which we thought was unnecessarily cumbersome.

When students exit the lesson, their scores are sent to, and stored in, the Librarian.

Overall, we gave a good score to the experience of taking a lesson with a Toolbook II Assistant-created CBT course.


Managing Courseware

Librarian is the software tool for managing and administering courseware created from Toolbook II Assistant or third-party content-creation programs. Librarian is a robust and comprehensive management tool that allows administrators to set up courses and lessons that students will use. We created new content from our HTML lesson, which we assembled using Toolbook II Assistant. While this procedure basically is accomplished by clicking the appropriate icon, we found the content location field a bit confusing. After a few attempts, we had the right Uniform Resource Locator and were able to validate the location address using the URL test button.

Librarian provides strong member access controls based on administrator-assigned conditions. Administrators use Librarian to control an organization's or student's access to a particular course. Librarian also is used to create a record for new students and assign pre-defined access permissions to members.

Before assigning lessons to students, administrators can configure parameters for each lesson using Librarian. We were able to set minimum, maximum and passing scores, whether the lesson had to be scored by an administrator, a time limit for completing the lesson, how many minutes we thought it would take to complete the course and the number of times a student could attempt to take the lesson. Librarian also provides many course management settings.

With a few clicks of the mouse, we were able to easily assign our lesson to the test student. Librarian allows administrators to choose dates specifying when a student can start a lesson. In addition, the course can be pre-configured to be assigned to the student via an e-mail message. Using Librarian's hierarchical directory structure, administrators can assign courses to an entire organization as well. Similarly, administrators can use Librarian to assign collaborative discussion groups to organizations and students.

After a student has completed or attempted to complete a lesson, an administrator with reviewer or evaluator permissions can review the individual's progress. After our test student completed the lesson, we were able to see such activity information as course completion status, score, start and end times, and the number of attempts. Managers with evaluator roles can even modify the student's scores. In addition to monitoring individual student activity, administrators can review activity for an entire organization or for a particular lesson.

These many features, as well as Librarian's usability, earned it a very good score for course management.

Librarian also provides built-in reports on organizations, members, lessons and content. We counted more than 13 standard reports covering areas such as member status and last log-in date, progress reports, questions and answers in a lesson, students' answers and scores by lesson, and discussion-group tracking. Custom reports, however, require third-party software and need to be added to Librarian. You can print out all reports using the Web browser's print button.

Students also can print their own lesson reports from their Web browser. These progress reports show lessons assigned to the student and lesson completion information, including student scores. Students can easily access their own progress reports with a few clicks of the mouse. Student progress reports are pre-defined by Librarian and cannot be customized.

We gave Librarian's reports function a good score.

Installation and Setup

Asymetrix's computer-based learning solution requires two software program installations: the Toolbook II Assistant authoring application and the Librarian course management application. We loaded Toolbook II Assistant on a Hewlett-Packard Co. Pentium II PC running Windows NT 4.0 Workstation and Service Pack 3. Handy installation wizards made setup a breeze, and we were up and running in five minutes. We give kudos to Asymetrix for the helpful bundled demo video on how to use Assistant. There also is a useful online presentation for getting started.

The Librarian installation was substantially more complex and time-consuming. We strongly recommend that agencies take advantage of Asymetrix's JumpStart program, which provides on-site installation and configuration services. Before the installation engineer arrives, administrators need to complete a planning sheet containing important configuration information on database, Web server, mail gateway and directory locations. Librarian needs to be loaded on a system that is running a Web and a database server.

We installed Librarian on a Windows NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3 running Microsoft's Internet Information Server. (Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris Unix systems are also supported.) Although Librarian requires a lot of configuration information, the program's installation wizards help guide administrators through the setup process. To satisfy the database requirement, we installed SQL Server 6.5 and the necessary Open Database Connectivity drivers. (Oracle also is certified to work with Librarian.) Agencies need to plan for database administrator support with Librarian. Additional technical resources also will be necessary to support a Simple Mail Transfer Protocol mail server so that Librarian can send e-mail to students and administrators.

Asymetrix sells its products directly to the government, which receives a 30 percent discount. However, the products will be listed on the GSA schedule by the end of this year.


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