1 May 2019
The Department of Defense (DoD) uses Adobe® Flash® in thousands of its e-learning courses—but that’s about to change. In 2020, Adobe® will sunset this product in response to growing criticism of its security flaws. Apple ended Adobe® Flash® support in 2017 for its Safari browser, and all major browsers have announced their phase-out dates for 2019 and 2020. The deprecation of Adobe® Flash® will render some learning features in online courses useless. This leaves the DoD with an expensive and time-consuming challenge: How to remake or convert thousands of e-learning courses that the DoD workforce relies on across the globe?
Considered mainstream by 1999, Adobe® Flash® became the “go to” software to enable multimedia, animation, and interactivity online. Since its inception, developers have widely employed Flash® in browser-based content, including e-learning. Many other software products, such as courseware authoring tools and learning management systems, use Flash® inside their programs or as part of their exported files. It’s also used to develop graphical user interfaces or executable files outside of e-learning content, for example, for embedded training. The impact of Flash®’s end-of-life is far-reaching.
DoD and other organizations around the world now need to find ways to eliminate Flash® components from their software and materials. At a high level, this involves identifying existing Flash® content, determining which elements need to be maintained versus retired, and then converting or remaking the desired elements. Each of these steps presents challenges.
For e-learning courses, Flash® content may be embedded throughout, with a single course potentially containing numerous different elements that must to be converted. This makes discovering all of the Flash® elements challenging, and that challenge is magnified because some authoring tools, which seemingly produce different filetypes, also embed Flash® components. Flash® incorporated into unobvious places or hidden within other file formats becomes nearly invisible.
To help with this issue, The Army Distributed Learning Program (TADLP) developed Flash® Finder scripts that can identify Flash® content throughout distributed learning courses. Originally designed to discover content inside of SCORM® content packages, the ADL Initiative has since modified the scripts to find Flash® in any directory or zip file. You can download the Flash® Finder scripts from the ADL GitHub site.
Flash® has various uses, from multimedia presentations and graphical user interfaces to simulations and complex interactivity. Simpler components can be readily converted into other multimedia filetypes, such as movie files. Even basic e-learning courses can be converted into walkthrough-like movies, using screen-capture software. However, more complex Flash® files, with interactivity and ActionScript elements, need to be converted into HTML5.
HTML5 is a natural replacement of Flash®: It’s supported by all web browsers and isn’t controlled by a single software-maker. Unfortunately, converting a compiled Flash® file into HTML5 isn’t always easy. When the original source files exist in a modern Flash® version, the Adobe® Animate ® software can export HTML5 from them, but too often organizations have lost those files or didn’t originally obtain rights to them from a contracted vendor. Further, any courseware built using ActionScript2 or earlier versions won’t be easily processed by Animate or other automated tools. Even with ActionScript3, certain objects and features may not translate perfectly into an HTML5 environment. Successful conversion for these files requires human intervention and often involves a significant amount of time. For example, according to Adobe®, converting a high-complexity 5-hour course could take around 175 hours.
This leaves organizations with a decision: To remake the content from scratch, in a different format, or to try to covert the compiled runtime files (the Small Web Format or .SWF files) using some imperfect tools. To help with this decision, TADLP developed a Distributed Learning Cost Estimation and Comparison Calculator, which estimates the costs of building new Interactive Multimedia Instruction (IMI) versus converting existing Flash® content into HTML5. This tool, available on the TADLP GitHub site, can help forecast cost estimates for different courses of action.
A common technical approach for migrating content to HTML5 is to decompile the elements and then reconstruct them using standardized HTML5 templates to expedite the process. DoD organizations, including the ADL Initiative, are developing shared templates for the community. Each template corresponds to a specific media interaction, such as watching a video, reading a document, or taking a quiz. Conversion teams can use these templates to more quickly address common types of interactions, giving developers more time to focus on building-out the unique features of their content.
Adobe® has also provided advice to DoD on the conversion process. For instance, they recommend that templates be accompanied with a scripting and style guide. This will help standardize courses across DoD and reduce unnecessary variations in courseware. As another example, Adobe® recommended categorizing courses based on their complexity, where the complexity of a course is defined by the presence of video, audio, quizzes, bookmarks, embedded fonts, movie graphics, SCORM® and 508 compliance; and availability of source files. The level of complexity helps inform whether and how to convert or rebuild courseware.
According to Yasir Saleem, Adobe® Senior Solutions Consultant, “Adobe® is working closely with folks at ADL in understanding the breadth of DoD customers currently still using Flash® and providing feedback, best practices and a process to help address the concern for Flash® to HTML migration.”
The DoD community is coordinating on the Flash® conversion challenge. This includes creating updates to Department policy and participating in a working group, facilitated by the ADL Initiative and DoD Business Systems Reform Team, under the DoD Office of the Chief Management Officer. The latter organization is also organizing the formal top-down response and developing new Department-wide acquisition approaches.
The DoD community working groups are not only bringing together creative solutions to Flash® migration but are also using this situation to improve the way we develop courseware. Specifically, the sample HTML5 templates created by the ADL Initiative include standardized metadata for content elements and predesignated xAPI statements aligned to common Flash® interactions. These elements will provide the foundation for greater interoperability and standardized e-learning formats across DoD.
The content metadata, for example, can be used to help create a DoD Common Course Catalog, a registry of learning resources that enables the search and retrieval of training and education content spanning organizational boundaries. The addition of xAPI to the templates also sets the groundwork for improved learner analytics, performance tracking, and the sharing of results beyond what existing courses can achieve. This will help unlock data silos across DoD and move a step towards the vision of a unified learner record repository.
The ADL Initiative and its Flash® Deprecation Analysis of Alternatives Working Group welcomes your participation. To get for more information, contact the ADL Initiative.