I don’t think I am going to make any new friends with this month’s column.

For the past several months I have written about techniques and technologies that eLearning developers can use to improve the quality of their eLearning interactions. I thought it important to set aside this month’s column to express why it’s so important that eLearning developers learn basic coding techniques – or have someone on their team that does. I hope that this column will provide a context for future columns and encourage you to start learning to code.

When I discuss or present on the topic of coding for eLearning development, I often meet with reticence. To many in eLearning development, it seems that coding is a complex luxury we can do without. Small budgets are prohibitive, and the tools of the trade do everything needed. Right? Why learn to code when you can do 90 percent of “good enough” eLearning with the latest steroidal version of PowerPoint and a good library of stock animation and graphics?

I don’t mean to belittle the work that many eLearning developers do – it’s difficult work, and there is much excellent eLearning product out there. However, we can improve the level of engagement, the quality of eLearning courses, and the effectiveness of the eLearning experience itself with the addition of a programmer or programming.

In the end, the “present and assess” method of eLearning seems to be prevalent because that’s what the tools we use do. The slide metaphor isn’t one that was born of careful research (if you have that study – please e-mail it to me!). The slide metaphor was born from PowerPoint and then translated into more “advanced” tools. Have the more creative eLearning developers among us felt limited? Is there a bigger and better vision for eLearning beyond “present and assess”? From having attended conferences and read brilliant posts from eLearning developers in online forums, I know there is. But attaining that vision – and escaping the limitations of eLearning development tools – is going to take an army of programmers.

I am trying to enlist you.

Why learn programming?

Imagine trying to teach someone to drive a car using only eLearning. The task would be difficult, if not impossible. However, we train airline and military pilots using an advanced form of eLearning – simulation. A team of programmers created these simulations. On a smaller scale, we can best teach someone to operate a complex panel on a piece of factory equipment, even teach a surgeon a new procedure, with simulation. If simulation is an appropriate technique for the type of training you do, you should learn programming.

The growth of social networking – and its role in eLearning – is an important and often-discussed topic. Many are already experimenting with integrating social tools into learning. Even some of the major eLearning development tools have started to integrate social tools. However, to do the type of social-tool integration that you truly believe would be effective – and to tailor it for your courses and your learners – you need to learn programming.

If you have ever had an idea you couldn’t execute because it was beyond the scope of the tools common in eLearning, then you need to learn to program.

We are a profession of teachers. Is it (at best) complacency or (at worst) hypocrisy if we don’t, as a profession, start to do the learning that will move our profession forward?

Where do I start?

There are plentiful resources out there to help you learn coding. HTML/HTML5 is the perfect starting place. While not a full-fledged programming language, learning HTML will teach you to structure code. Use an editor, test, and (perhaps most importantly) debug. HTML coding only requires a free text editor and free browser, so you can get started for no cost. This column frequently covers topics related to HTML and HTML5 at a beginning level. The excellent eLearning Guild conferences frequently have HTML topics by outstanding presenters. There are loads of online courses available for learning HTML. There are just as many books and free YouTube videos on the topic.

If you already know HTML, or are looking for a bit more of a challenge, consider starting with JavaScript. You can also learn JavaScript for little or no cost, and the existing resources to help you learn are enormous.

If you use Flash for eLearning development, ActionScript 3.0 is another great place to start. A flexible, object-oriented, and powerful language similar to JavaScript, ActionScript 3.0 will add real power and flexibility to your Flash learning interactions. We’ll look at some ActionScript 3.0 in next month’s column. Diving into ActionScript 3.0 is the fastest way to make impactful changes to your eLearning quickly. It is the most difficult of the three languages, but you will see results fastest as well.

A call to action

Will you commit to learning a computer language this year?

Teaching and journalism are professions that have identified learning computer programming as a catalyst to moving their fields forward. I believe we, as professional eLearning developers, are no different. If you are willing to commit to learning a language this year, I am here to support your learning.

Now, let’s build that army.