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Leveraging HTML5 to take your e-learning (and #mlearning) into the future

(This is the second article of a series  from dominKnow Knowledge Base.)

There is no doubt about it, HTML5 is the technology buzzword in e-learning today, but we’ve found many people are still trying to understand exactly what it is, and what it can do for you.

At dominKnow, we’ve always believed in providing the tools for authors to create dynamic and engaging e-learning and our authoring environment has always allowed for the creation of HTML content, using complementary technologies like JavaScript and CSS. With the emergence of new mobile platforms like Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and RIM’s new Blackberry operating system, learners now have the ability to carry advanced web browsers in their pockets, and we’ve leveraged the elements of the new HTML5 specification to provide a multimedia experience as rich as what can be found on the desktop.

So, what is HTML5?

HTML5 is the name used to refer to the current HTML standard. This standard defines many things, but at a high level it defines:

  • New markup elements: These are tags that are new to the syntax of HTML.
  • Deprecated and obsolete elements: These are tags that should not be used. Deprecated tags will cause a warning if a validation tool is used to verify the code, obsolete tags will cause code to fail validation completely.
  • Web Application APIs: These are the capabilities exposed by the browser to be scripted by content authors using JavaScript. These include the ability to manipulate and interact with the new HTML markup elements, as well as new browser capabilities. It is important to note that the standard does not lay down any specifications for the core JavaScript language, this is governed by the ECMAScript standard
  • Microdata: This specifies a means for encoding machine-readable labels for the content of the document, which can be exposed in a variety of ways.

There are several other elements of the specification, but these are generally of interest to implementors (those who create and distribute web browsers) and web developers working to build web applications.

Some of the more technically-inclined may notice that CSS isn’t mentioned at all, despite the fact that many browsers have newly added support for some very advanced features of that technology. While CSS is used in conjunction with HTML to produce web content, the language is in fact not a part of the HTML standard, but is instead driven by it’s own standard. A working draft document on the W3C website describes the status of the modules for the next version, CSS3

HTML5What HTML5 isn’t

We have been seeing a lot of confusion in the e-learning space, and much of that confusion seems to revolve around what HTML5 isn’t. HTML5 is not:

  1. Combining HTML, JavaScript and CSS – There seems to be an idea that HTML5 is nothing more then combining HTML, JavaScript and CSS in your authored content. I’m not sure where this idea started, but I think there are 2 factors contributing to it’s continued existence. The first is the still prevalent idea in e-learning that any interactivity has to be built in Flash, and the second is the positioning of HTML5 as the open-standards successor to Flash. Many content authors still think of HTML as being static content pages, and since HTML5 is the Flash replacement, any interactive HTML content must be HTML5. Anyone who has been doing serious web development for the last few years knows this simply is not the case. We have been using all 3 of those technologies together to create interactive non-Flash content for years; there was nothing in the previous version of HTML that prevented us from doing so in any way.
  2. Different than HTML – This is another misconception that I’ve encountered, the idea that the HTML that has been powering the Web for these many years is somehow a different technology than HTML5. In fact, we’ve found that people assume any existing HTML content requires a significant effort to upgrade or port to HTML5. The truth is that HTML5 is simply the next version of the HTML standard, and with the exception of a few obsolete elements, the new standard includes everything from the last published standard (HTML 4.01). In fact, a quick example can demonstrate just how easy it is to update existing HTML content:First, the ‘old’ HTML code:
            .01//EN"    ""> 
                My first HTML document    
            Hello world!

    Next, the HTML5 version:

    <!--DOCTYPE html>
                My first HTML document    
            Hello world!
  3. Note the only difference between the 2 is the line starting with <!–DOCTYPE. This identifies the type of document that follows, in the first example the document is identified as being HTML 4.01, in the second the new HTML declaration is used. After that, the code is completely identical. This is because the code is perfectly valid in either version of the standard, the most recent version of which can be seen at –>
  4. Complete – The current version of the HTML standard is by no means complete. There are 2 places on the web one can view the HTML5 standard, and, both of which make the point that the draft is not finished. Ian Hickson, the specification editor with the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group, or WHATWG, nicely sums up the reason for the currently incomplete status in a blog post In fact it is this ever-changing nature of the standard that prompted the WHATWG to decide to drop numbered versions from the standard, and instead declare the current HTML standard to be a living document. It is still correct to refer to HTML5 as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is still working to create a ‘snapshot’ specification encompassing HTML5. The HTML5 specification is to be completed in 2014, at which point the W3C will begin working on the next snapshot, currently called

And as the HTML standard continues to evolve, dominKnow will evolve its authoring technology right along with it.

What does this all mean?

At this point, you might be wondering what HTML5 means to you as an author of learning content. For many, the most exciting new additions are the <audio> and <video> tags. These tags allow web content authors to deliver audio and video files over the web without having to rely on browser plugins. This is especially exciting when developing content for mobile devices, where in many instances common browser plugins such as the Flash Player currently cannot run. While there is still some controversy over the exact format of the files that browsers should support, most mobile browsers use a common encoding format. The new native media tags are supported on most of the modern mobile smartphone and tablet platforms, including Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, HP’s webOS and the latest version of RIM’s Blackberry smartphone and their tablet operating systems.

Another new feature that some find exciting is the addition of the tag. This tag provides a rich drawing API that can be accessed from JavaScript, providing graphics and animation capabilities that once required Flash. Again, mobile content is the prime area to deploy this new technology as it once again compensates for the lack of the Flash Player on some major mobile platforms.

The advancements in the latest specification of the HTML standard represent an exciting time for everyone involved with creating web content; we are seeing the means for producing ever more engaging and interactive content for our learners. However, it’s important to know your audience, as those with older browsers won’t have the ability to take advantage of these features. When planning your content, ensure there is a fallback in place for these browsers, so your content will function for as wide an audience as possible.

These are just a few of the highlights in the new HTML standard. The important point to come away with from this is when evaluating new authoring technologies, simply asking for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on HTML5 as a whole is insufficient. It is important to understand what features are important to you as a developer, and to ask technology vendors about the support of those specific features.

With Claro, our next generation authoring tool, we’re committed to taking advantage of as many new HTML features as we can, while still ensuring the content produced will continue to function in older browsers that may not support these new advancements.

Ryan McIlmoyl is Chief Software Architect at dominKnow

photo credit: Ted Drake via photopin cc


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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