There have been many questions in the last year or so about when the SafetySkills course library will obtain certain features. These include mobile capability, English/Spanish version bundling, and 508 compliance (accessibility for those with disabilities). The good news is that SafetySkills is committed to developing these product features and making them available to our customers as soon as possible. The bad news is that this development initiative is not a simple or quick process. This article will go through each feature and explain how and when we expect to implement them, as well as some of the challenges we face in developing them.
A Short History Lesson: Flash vs.HTML5
Websites use a coding protocol called HTML (hypertext markup language). In the early days of the Internet, HTML did not support certain graphical features such as animations, videos, etc. However, websites wanted to feature such content, so the software company Adobe created a program called Flash. Flash allowed Web developers to feature graphical elements that they could not have otherwise provided. For example, YouTube originally displayed all of its video content with Flash. Users would upload video files, and the website would convert them to a Flash video format so that the video could be displayed on the YouTube website.
For several years, Flash content was ubiquitous on the Internet. Flash was the standard graphical Web development tool when SafetySkills started creating courseware in 2007. Therefore, the bulk of the SafetySkills course catalog currently exists in a Flash video format.
During the intervening years, a new version of the HTML coding protocol was created. This new version, Called HTML5, supports video, animations, and all the graphical elements the old HTML did not support. Most Web developers began creating webpages and other content with HTML5 instead of Flash. As time went on, because Flash was a drain on device resources such as battery life and processor capacity, manufacturers decided that tablet devices and smartphones would phase out Flash support altogether. This trend was solidified into a mandate when Apple Corporation announced that its popular iPad tablets and iPhones would not support Flash in any form. Today, in 2015, virtually no mobile devices support Flash content in any way.
Keeping Up with the Market
Since the time when tablet devices such as the iPad and smart phones became popular not only as personal entertainment devices but as work tools, our customers have consistently requested that we offer the SafetySkills course catalog in a mobile format. In response to these repeated requests, beginning in 2014, SafetySkills began developing all new courseware using HTML5 instead of Flash.
While these new, native-HTML5 courses function on mobile devices, we must also make the 250+ SafetySkills courses that were developed with Flash available on mobile devices. We are left with two options: rebuilding the entire catalog from scratch in HTML5, or converting existing courses into a format that is HTML5 compatible.
We have opted to convert our Flash-based content into a format compatible with HTML5. As we update courses in the future for regulatory/instructional design reasons, they will be rebuilt in native HTML5.
HTML5 as a Platform for Growth
As you can see, converting our courseware products to an HTML5 format is essential to delivering them on mobile devices. However, it is also essential to us delivering ‘course bundling’ and 508 compliance. HTML5 gives us greater flexibility in creating course in which users can choose between languages, course ‘paths’ based on job titles and other criteria, or almost any other type of choice a user would benefit from. HTML5 also expands our ability to include the HTML ‘tags’ required by the screen readers used by people with different kinds of disabilities. This is key to providing 508-compliant training courses to our customers.
The Problem Posed by Internet Explorer 8
The continuing use of IE8 by our customers has been a problem as we have moved to upgrade SafetySkills products to be in line with HTML5 and other technological changes. This is because IE8 was released before HTML5 was a viable replacement for Flash development tools. Therefore IE8 cannot display content that has been developed with HTML5. In short, neither SafetySkills new, native HTML5 courses nor its HTML5 conversions of older courses will work with Internet Explorer 8. Our HTML5 products do work with Internet Explorer 9 and newer versions, as well as with Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Internet Explorer 8 remains a popular Internet browser, especially with corporate network administrators. It was first released in 2009 with Windows XP, and was included in the first release of Windows 7. While the vast majority of individuals and smaller companies have long since upgraded to a newer version of Internet Explorer, or use another brand of Web browser such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, there are still a significant number of large companies who are tied to IE8 as part of their virtual private network (VPN) configurations (see more about VPNs in the next section).
As of this writing (Feb. 2015), Microsoft will discontinue support for the vast majority of IE8 installations on January 12, 2016. SafetySkills is working toward discontinuing support for IE8 by Dec. 31, 2015.
Internet Explorer 8 and Virtual Private Networks
A virtual private network (VPN) is a software/hardware configuration designed to protect data privacy. There are many different sizes and types of VPN; for example, individuals may use VPNs at home to protect privacy. On the other end of the spectrum, many larger companies use extensive corporate VPNs to provide their employees with Internet access, file sharing, and for general data security.
While VPNs offer companies many advantages (security, data control, etc.), they can also be somewhat rigid in their configuration. In other words, once a VPN is set up and running, changing parts of the system can be problematic for the company’s Information Technology employees.
This is often the case with the Web browser installed with VPN configuration. Many of SafetySkills’ corporate clients are under contract with their VPN providers, and are essentially ‘stuck’ with the configuration they started with, at least for the time being.
Several of these corporate clients have VPN configurations that feature Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 as their sole Web browser. As mentioned above, our HTML5 products are not compatible with IE8, and SafetySkills plans to discontinue support for use of IE8 with its products Dec. 31, 2015.
As we can see, SafetySkills faces some unique challenges as we work toward upgrading our product technologically (HTML5) and meeting the needs of one customer group (those requesting mobile capability) while also trying to maintain a user base that is using nearly obsolete technology (IE8).
In order to meet the needs of both customer groups, SafetySkills will continue to provide Flash content to clients who are using VPN systems with Internet Explorer 8 installed as the default browser. SafetySkills will maintain both sets of courses (HTML5 and Flash) until such a time as it can reasonably cease support for customers who are still using IE8.
After SafetySkills officially ceases IE8 support, customers who opt to still use IE8 will still have access to SafetySkills’ Flash content. However, SafetySkills will no longer provide updates, regulatory or otherwise, to these course versions. LMS support will continue.
Mobile Course Timeline
SafetySkills is in the process of converting its Flash-based courseware into an HTML5-compliant format so that they can function on mobile devices. We are converting five courses each week. At this rate, we expect to have the library converted by the end of 2015. We will be adding the courses to the LMS each week as they are completed and reviewed for correct functionality and content accuracy. This process will begin early in 2015, with the first 40-50 courses becoming available on the LMS before the end of March 2015.
Courseware Language-Bundling Timeline
Many SafetySkills courses exist in both English and Spanish. As they currently exist, they must be assigned separately in the LMS. This means that LMS administrators must know which of their employees speak English, and which ones speak Spanish, and assign their training courses accordingly.
SafetySkills intends to ‘bundle’ corresponding Spanish and English courses together into one courseware offering. For example, where we now have Hearing Conservation English and Hearing Conservation Spanish, we would just have Hearing Conservation. On the course’s title screen, the learner would have the opportunity to choose whether to experience the course in English or in Spanish. This functionality is versatile, and can incorporate several languages, if available.
As noted above, this functionality cannot be integrated into the SafetySkills courseware until after it has been upgraded to be HTML5-compliant. As SafetySkills moves through the HTML5 conversion process, titles that have English and Spanish versions will be bundled. As with the HTML5 conversions, we expect to have all available course bundles running in the LMS by the end of 2015.
508 Compliance Timeline
SafetySkills training courseware has always been 508-compliant at the most basic level in that we have provided closed captioning for all courses. However, as requirements have evolved for government- and state-funded agencies, we have received more requests for greater inclusion of functionality for the disabled. This includes not only closed captioning, but features that can be accessed by screen readers and other hardware meant to improve accessibility. SafetySkills is currently developing a set of course build standards that will take into account the most recent developments in accessibility technology, and will provide all our learners with the highest level of access possible.
Integrating these new development processes requires an intensive effort. Unfortunately, we will not be able to integrate the same level of accessibility into our Flash-to-HTML5 converted courses as in our native HTML5 courses. However, the converted courses will still retain an acceptable level of functionality based on existing guidelines.