Documentation and e-Learning (Part 4): Make Your Courses
Real for Students
By Dave Powell, Documentation Manager, SyberWorks, Inc.
This article is the fourth installment of Dave Powell's series, "Documentation and e-Learning."
School teachers know that reality is one of the greatest instructors. Chem-class explosions,
telescope observations, and biology field trips can generate faster real learning than textbooks.
And the discovery and adventure that accompany such experiences are powerful drivers for
inspiring students to continue learning. Some e-Learning products and materials might even be
more effective if they also pulled real-time, real-world data and videos into student training.
The challenge, of course, is doing it! Several techniques can help:
Tapping real-world web sites and cams.
Merging streaming real-world videos with online LMS training screens.
Bringing reality into course reference materials.
This article discusses the first of these. And when they appear in the future, Documentation and
e-Learning (Parts 5 and 6) will present the others.
To date, documentation and e-Learning developers have come closest to bringing reality into
their products when they include Flash animations that show how to perform procedures. But
these are predesigned presentations. They may look interactive, but their presentation of
information and reaction to user actions are all pre-planned. There is no real exploration in them
to fire student interest.
Tapping Real-World Web Sites and Cams
If you already play Flash movies in online course pages, it won’t be a huge technical leap to
similarly stream real-time web sites or live video to them. It could even be quite easy.
Are air traffic controllers your target audience? Here are a few live ATC displays that could
be useful in ATC courses:
o All traffic over the U.S. at any time: natca.org/flight-explorer/united-states.aspx
o Atlanta Center (animation builds over time): atcmonitor.com
o New York JFK (click on a plane to see its details): passur.com/jfk.html
Are eye doctors your training target? Then tell your students to log into the following site on
Wednesdays between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST, for feeds of live Lasik procedures. They can
click “Control the Camera” at the top of the page, to select their view (even one through the
surgeon’s own camera) and to control camera tilt, pan, zoom, and focus. (When I zoomed the
main camera, the doctor and nurse heard it, turned, and waved.): lasiktv.com
Earth-sciences students can access this live demo of the Earth’s rotation at any time. Tell
them to note how the Foucault pendulum’s swing direction appears to rotate above the
compass points due to the Earth’s actual rotation: pendelcam.kip.uni-
Meteorology? This Delray Beach, Florida shore cam lets students watch tropical storms and
even hurricanes live, as they approach, hit, and pass. The site also offers links to past storm
If you’re creating online training about vulcanology, here’s a list of volcano-cams that
display in near real time: volcanolive.com/volcanocams.html
Zoology? This site lists pages of cams that might be fun in courses for kids. (And yes, the
Smithsonian’s “Invertebrate Microscope Cam” can be icky!):
Astronomy and space science? You’re in luck!:
o NASA’s live Space Shuttle Countdown page:
o NASA web-TV channels about space exploration often play canned videos, but
sometimes broadcast live views of Earth and of real-time space projects from the
International Space Station itself: www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/
o The latest images from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter:
o Recent views of day and night on Earth from hundreds of orbiting satellites (you can also
view the Earth from the direction of the sun or moon): fourmilab.ch/cgi-
o Just a few real-time and near-real-time solar data/imaging sites:
o And these two eye-popping sites allow students to explore the entire visible (and
invisible) universe under their own power… using the latest photos from telescopes in
space and around the world:
Microsoft WorldWide Telescope: worldwidetelescope.org/Home.aspx
Google Sky (Google has a similar earth/ocean site): google.com/sky/
Also check the WorldWide Telescope site’s educational content (“Guided Tours”) that have been
created through the site… plus its instructional videos about making your own.
The above are just a tiny fraction of the content that’s out there about almost any subject. A little
searching may reveal resources for your use as well. (But even if content is freely available over
the Internet, and its supplier should be thrilled to have more viewers brought to it, be sure to ask
about any required permissions and credit.)
And if you have your own real-time video content, you can use a video-streaming service to
make it available to multiple web-based students.
Web-cam “telepresence” isn’t always as good as being there (which may not even be possible).
But it can be almost as good, and sometimes better. For a web site or cam to be useful for e-
Learning, though, it would ideally:
Refresh in real-time or near-real-time (cams that refresh slower than every 30 seconds may
strain viewers’ patience).
Offer data and images suited to your needs (some cams even webcast in HD now).
Focus on subjects that will be on-screen much of the time (this eliminates “UFO-cams” and
Be findable (it can take a lot of searching to find useful content on the web).
Be online (webcams are easy to take out of service).
Permit users to control camera movement and focus (usually, through a web queue that
grants each viewer a short period of control).
Be viewable through at least FireFox and Internet Explorer (some cams still don’t work well
with Firefox)… and Safari wouldn’t hurt either.
Next time, in Part 5 of my Documentation and e-Learning series, I’ll describe an amazing new
tool that e-Learning content creators and documentation writers may all be using within the next
few years. So stay tuned!
About the Author:
Dave Powell is Documentation Manager for SyberWorks Inc. (http://www.syberworks.com), a
privately-held supplier of e-Learning software and training. For the past 15 years, he has written
award-winning marketing collateral and user documentation for hardware/software companies
like PictureTel, 3Com, Philips Medical Systems, Polaroid, and SyberWorks. Prior to that, he
edited and wrote for publications like Computerworld, Infosecurity News, Networking
Management, Digital Design, LightWave, Popular Computing, Harvard Business Review, and
Leaders. (During that time, he also served as an author and Editorial Advisor for Sesame Street.)
About SyberWorks, Inc.
SyberWorks, Inc. (http://www.syberworks.com) is a leader in the custom e-Learning Solutions
and Learning Management System/Learning Content Management System (LMS/LCMS)
industries for Fortune 1000 corporations, law enforcement, healthcare, and other industries.
Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, the company serves the multi-billion-dollar e-Learning
market. Since 1995, SyberWorks has developed and delivered unique and economical solutions
to create, manage, measure, and improve e-Learning programs at companies and organizations in
the United States, Canada, Europe, and around the world.