A few weeks ago I was looking for a new solution to the problem of getting a web page footer to stick to the bottom of the page using CSS. This needed to be something that keeps the footer aligned with the bottom of the browser even when the page is light on content.

The most elegant solution I found was this one:

Well I have been making progress on refocusing my business activities and preparing for my relaunch over the last couple of months. This has included more work on the Grit & Oyster website. I’ve just completed a major phase of developing the theme and most of the component parts are now there. This has taken a little longer than I had planned because I decided to step back before going forward.

I decided that I wanted to create a ‘template’ or ‘starter’ theme to act as a reliable code base for future development. Essentially this is a WordPress template which works and has all the necessary code and files, but has a limited amount of design and styling applied to it. This is so you can use it as a platform to build other themes on.

I did look at a range of the existing ‘starter’ themes and templates that are available. I had a good look at the code of some of the more popular ones. But while they provided inspiration, and in some cases some useful bits of code, I decided I wanted to create one for myself. Partly this was simply for the challenge, but it was also because I felt that if I was going to use it to build websites for clients I really needed to know and understand the code thoroughly — and the best way to do that is to write it yourself.

What I’ve ended up with I’ve called “Oystershell” and while not yet perfect it is finished enough to be used in anger. I am rather pleased with some of the features:

  • It has the option of a responsive or fixed width layout
  • The status, aside and quote post formats are included
  • It has a number of customisable functions that will make theme development a lot easier
  • I’ve included a range of action hooks that I can make use of in custom plugins
  • I also think the CSS style sheet provides a pretty comprehensive base covering all the common and a lot of the not so common page elements

The theme for the Grit & Oyster website is now a child theme of the Oystershell starter theme. Creating that child theme was a good test of using it as base for theme development. The main additions were the colour scheme, the use of web fonts, and getting the particular responsive layout I wanted. There was also some tweaks to the post formats and the addition of special features for the website home page.

I’m aware that what I have ended up with is not the most stunning piece of graphic design – but then it wasn’t really intended to be. My objective was to come up with a technically solid implementation of a WordPress theme that uses standard compliant code. I wanted to avoid the use of JavaScript where possible, preferring intelligent use of CSS, and to try out techniques of responsive design. All of that I believe I have achieved.

Now to concentrate on some actual content!

I’ve been doing some investigating into the best software and tools to use to produce online learning materials.

I’ve been slightly surprised by what I have found.

Learning Management Systems

There seems to be a whole host of different solutions for the administrative side of providing training and education online. These are the various Learning Management Systems (LMS) that are available. They provide features to help you register students, schedule lessons and activities, collect together learning materials, and other sorts of tasks involved in running a training course.

There seem to be a number of commercial LMS products and web services available that are targeted either at the training needs of large commercial organisations or for use by educational institutions themselves. There are some open source alternatives, the dominant one appears to be Moodle.

I’ve had a little bit of a play with Moodle and I am impressed by the range of features and flexibility that underlie it. But it isn’t the most straightforward thing to use and would require a fair amount of development and customisation to offer a high quality tailored solution. If you were setting up a website to offer a range of training courses online it seems to me the most cost efficient approach to your LMS would be to use Moodle but invest in some technical expertise to help you develop it, possibly by integrating it with WordPress to produce a more attractive website.

Courseware presentations

The thing that has surprised me is the limited range of options for creating the online training courses themselves.

Obviously, there are lots of options for producing and hosting audio and video. Also for putting documents and presentations online. And you can of course create web pages of training materials in numerous ways. But the tools and products available to help you create interactive courseware seem to be limited in their use of technologies.

I once was a big fan of Authorware having used earlier versions of the software. This was mainly because of it’s underlying concept of dragging and dropping objects onto a ‘flow line’. Sadly Adobe, while still selling the product, has chosen to discontinue its development. The reason given is that;

 “The eLearning market has transitioned to Adobe Flash…”

It seems that if you what to create really engaging and interactive courseware that makes the most of the medium you really have only one choice and that is to use Flash.

If you wanted to do this is in a big way then you can make use of Adobe’s flash authoring tools. Such as Flash Professional, Adobe Captivate and Director. But this can be expensive. The Adobe eLearning suite for example currently costs £1,714.80.

PowerPoint to Flash

So the most common alternative to building a Flash presentation from scratch seems to be to use PowerPoint and then to use one of the available tools that converts a PowerPoint presentation in to the Flash file format.

There are a number of similar products on the market that do this. The common approach they take is to insert an extra menu tab into your copy of PowerPoint giving you the option to insert extra features like narration and to export as a Flash file. They will also package your presentation together with a Flash player so your file can be placed online and played.

The following products all take this approach:

While creating courses in this way is actually very straightforward and provides a very usable solution for a lot of people, I am pretty dubious about the merits of PowerPoint as a tool as it is. The logic and design behind the creation of a PowerPoint presentation, while familiar and easy for a lot of people to use, is restrictive. Is the conversion of lots of badly designed PowerPoint presentations, overflowing with bullet points, really what we want? What happened to the multimedia future we were promised?

Screencasting

For those creating courseware for training people in computer related activities, tutorials for the use of software products for example, there is also the related issue of screencasting.

Screencasting is;

“A screencast is a digital recording of computer screen output, also known as a video screen capture, often containing audio narration. The term screencast compares with the related term screenshot; whereas screenshot is a picture of a computer screen, a screencast is essentially a movie of the changes over time that a user sees on a computer screen, enhanced with audio narration.”

There are a range of software tools that can help you to create a screen cast as well as some web services specifically designed to host them;

Problems with Flash

When used right Flash can do great things, but there are some problems with it. The obvious restriction is that Apple devices won’t accept it. If people want to look at your training courses on their iPhone or iPad they won’t be able to.

If you want to have your training available to the full range of mobile devices you will need to look at alternatives. You can return to making use of video, although this will sacrifice any interactive elements you have included.

More promising is the use of HTML5. I think this looks to be the best long term choice of alternative technology to replace Flash. But it still has a way to go before it matures and I haven’t found any authoring tools specifically designed to create HTML5 courseware.

So, for anything other than a big budget production, the solution seems to be writing your training course in PowerPoint, possibly adding extra video, and outputting in Flash.

The basic elements of a HTML page::

<!DOCTYPE HTML>

<html>

<head>

<title>Title of the document</title>

</head>

<body>

The content of the document......

</body>

</html>

The “document type declaration” or “doctype” should be the very first thing that appears in an web page. The doctype is not an HTML tag. It is an instruction to the web browser that identifies the version of the markup language the page is written in.

Specifying the doctype is important to ensure that the browser knows what type of document to expect. The doctype therefore specifies which of the standards, set by W3C, for coding webpages you are trying to conform to.

There are a number of choices. There is the choice between HTML and XHTML. Then there is the choice of the different flavours of each, strict or transitional. Researching the differences between these to determine which is the best to use becomes bewildering. There is a whole load of contrary advice and opinion. Some of which gets very technical, particularly relating to MIME types.

I have a lot of sympathy with those who wish to conform to strict standards and have neatly written code. Also with those who want to use more recent standards and look to the future. My instinct then is to use XHTML strict. This requires you to write better code and have the presentational elements dealt with by CSS. Which is the way it should be.

However, the key thing I have learnt is this;

“Standards are written for validators not web browsers.”

When serving a text/html document all you need a doctype for is to trigger standards mode in the browser. As long as your HTML markup then produces the right result you don’t need to worry. Everything else is just the personal preference of the developer.

So which doctype to use?

Well, while HTML5 is not yet an official standard, it is the direction in which the world is heading. Also, the HTML5 doctype is really simple:

<!DOCTYPE HTML>

So for the future I am going to try using the HTML5 doctype but write my code using XHTML syntax.

specify the doctype in all HTML documents, so that the browser knows what type of document to expect.