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DoD Moves on from Adobe® Flash®

May 01, 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?

A Daunting Challenge

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.

Finding Flash

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.

To Create or Convert?

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 is 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 ADLNET GitHub site, can help forecast cost estimates for different courses of action.

Flash to HTML5 Obstacles

As discussed in the previous section, in situations where the original source files (.FLA files) no longer exist, or if they’re in older versions of Flash, decompilers can be used. Decompilers can parse a run-time Flash file (a .SWF file) to produce its static assets (audio, fonts, metadata, and non-animation-based video files) and some representation of its source code, which will usually require some human intervention to correct. These components, in turn, can be re-developed into HTML5 and other browser-intelligible languages, such as JavaScript. To support the migration process, tools known as transpilers help automate the conversion of code from one language to another. Unlike decompilation, in transpiling it’s implied that both the source and target languages are human-readable. Several ActionScript transpilers that have been developed by the open-source community, for instance, for converting ActionScript3 to JavaScript. The most obvious benefit of transpilation is its efficiency. It can automate a substantial portion of the re-development effort; however, it still requires manual intervention and extensive bug-checking from software developers. More problematically, nearly all available transpilation tools only work with ActionScript3, meaning anything built with ActionScript2 or earlier versions isn’t a candidate.

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.”

Community Coordination for Conversion

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.

  • Updates to DoDI 1322.26 References
    The ADL Initiative chairs the Defense ADL Advisory Committee (DADLAC), the body that oversees DoD Instruction 1322.26 (“Distributed Learning”). This Instruction includes references that provide guidance on constantly changing technology requirements. Recently, the DADLAC voted to update these references to formally deny the acquisition of additional Flash assets, including new and refurbished content, and to encourage DoD Components to actively inventory their files for Flash elements.

  • Flash Deprecation Analysis of Alternatives Working Group Across DoD, distributed learning programs began preparing for Flash’s end-of-life as soon as Adobe announced its termination date, but this work was occurring in isolation. To aid coordination, the ADL Initiative established the Flash Deprecation Analysis of Alternatives Working Group. The working group is sharing resources and best practices, examining enterprise-level strategies, and looking for ways to turn this challenge into an opportunity. Comprised of federal government agencies and coalition partners, the group meets biweekly to share information and tools. The working group is also making available the HTML5 templates mentioned above, which are still under active development. DoD and other federal government agencies are encouraged to contact the ADL Initiative for access to the templates or to participate in the group.

  • Formal Tasking and Top-Down Coordination
    The DoD Business System Reform Team, also participating in the working group, is helping DoD Components develop an enterprise-wide approach to migrating legacy Flash content. For example, they issued a formal task for all Components to catalog their content and provide quantitative data on the scope of Flash usage across DoD, and they’re also exploring policies and acquisition strategies related to this issue.

Looking to the Future

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.

Get Involved!

The ADL Initiative and its Flash Deprecation Analysis of Alternatives Working Group welcomes your participation. To get for more information, contact the ADL Initiative. (UPDATE: Working Group No Longer Meeting)