Flash MX Learning Studio, by Ethan Waltrall

Reviewed by: Paul Schneider, send e-mail
Published by: Sybex, go to the web site
Requires: Widows Requirements: Pentium 200 or higher, 65 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM, 1024x768 resolution, 16 bit sound card, Windows 95 or above. Mac Requirements: Power PC G3 233 MHz or higher, 64 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM, 1024x768 resolution, Mac OS 9 or above
MSRP: $119.99 (U.S.) $191.95 (Canada) $89.99 (UK)

Unfortunately, unlike living in the Matrix, we can not simply download knowledge into our head in a few seconds and suddenly become experts at just about anything. For our slightly less advanced selves we must learn the old fashioned way. However, that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily go to a classroom to learn. Flash MX Learning Studio is an example of Computer Based Training (CBT). Like a book or correspondence course, this is a form of self study. Using Flash MX Learning Studio you will be introduced to a wide variety of Flash MX basic and advanced concepts. The CBT addresses the 'middle' crowd pretty well, providing some very basic instruction while also covering many advanced topics.

For those of you who have not used CBT or its cousin Web Based Training (WBT) it is, simply put, programs designed to provide you with all the learning you might normally obtain by reading a book, attending a class or watching a video. Like those other forms of learning, CBT can have certain strengths. In a classroom a charismatic and patient instructor can make for a wonderful experience, while the opposite type will lead you to skipping the class and looking for a good book to teach you the material. Like a classroom there are key aspects of CBT that can make it great or not so great. Some of these are the CBT’s interactivity level, graphical presentation and basic functions such as bookmarking, searching, usability and references.

Flash MX Learning Studio is an interesting package in that, in addition to the CBT, it comes with Flash MX Saavy. Although this review does not focus on the accompanying book, in briefly reviewing it I was pleased with its coverage, use of some photographic paper/images and assistance in helping people move beyond Flash basics. Generally speaking it is a worthy companion. The CBT’s coverage spans seven main areas: Creating Visuals, Animating in Flash, Intro to ActionScript, Actionscripting for Interactivity, Working with Audio, Using Other Tools, and Publishing Flash. There are two additional sections which are useful throughout the course: Reference and Hands on Project. Overall the material coverage is fairly comprehensive and will be satisfying even to those who consider themselves an intermediate level Flash developer.

The CBT was missing some basic features, which I will speak to later, but it did contain some that were very helpful. The Search feature, which was available on just about every screen, searched the course content well and made it easy to quickly find a desired topic. The selection of the material to cover was well thought out and although the pagination of the content could be improved, topic areas worked well together and the material built upon itself.

The post-course materials were also a helpful addition. The reference section provides thorough coverage of many extraneous topics as well as the expected information. The Hands-On Projects walks you through several projects which bring together aspects of what you learned in the course. They utilize a show me/try me/test me method to walk you through each of the different steps. Don’t be scared by the test me step though, as it is more like a 'practice me' because you get clues and hints as soon as you take a wrong step.

Although I liked the approach, content coverage and colloquial writing style, there are several things I felt were not addressed well. Now before I get too picky, I have to warn you that I run an instructional design department whose primary purpose is to develop CBT and WBT courseware so I tend to have fairly high standards. The first area where I felt there were a lot of problems was in navigation. The Forward and Backward buttons simply did not work in many cases. Links pointing you to useful, separate pieces of content in the course would bring you there and then you had no way to get back except return to the table of contents and figure out where you left off. In other cases you could click on the browser Back button, but then Previous or Next buttons did not always work. Tied to this problem, there is no bookmarking in the course. Bookmarking generally help you track what has been completed so that when you re-start the course you do not have to waste time searching for the point at which you previously stopped. Unfortunately Flash MX Learning Studio has no bookmarking capabilities and I found this to be quite a handicap.

Some of the content seemed a bit premature or dated, such as a comment about SiteSpring being a “new tool” when in fact it is no longer supported by Macromedia and has not been for many months. The videos provided a nice introduction to the author which is of questionable value to the course. I had to wonder why they were there and even more, why put them into pop up windows and formatted in Quicktime instead of Flash? I would much rather have seen the money and time spent here used for more useful features such as bookmarking.

The show me/try me feature that is touted in the marketing material while not ineffectual, certainly was lacking. It was more akin to a show me with built in pauses. You have to click on relevant parts of the screen to move the movie forward. From a simulation perspective it was fairly limited and offered no chance to make mistakes other than clicking on the wrong part of the screen.

The hands-on projects had more of the show me/try me/test me feature and while the show me played fine, the try me and test me were rather disappointing. The try me worked as previously described while the test me basically provided you with different places to click on the screen. Clicking one of the incorrect locations gave you very little corrective information. There was no computer intelligence behind the hints that were provided and I can only conclude this approach was used because of a limited budget (or it was simply easier to develop).

Scroll scroll scroll. I suppose one could argue about the use of scrolling, but I feel the course would have been better served by using a fixed window size and limiting the amount of information on a page so that no scrolling was required. A table of contents that did not require scrolling and which marked off completed sections would also have been nice.

Overall, I was pleased with the content coverage of the course and the style of the instructor/author. I was not impressed by the CBT itself. The CBT failed to include some important basic aspects such as progress meters and bookmarking and the simulations were very elementary, allowing very little in terms of creating the most useful 'try me' environment for the user. As a compliment to the Flash MX Saavy book the CBT does a decent job, but as a training course for using Flash MX I would recommend you do some comparison shopping.

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