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Friday, January 23, 2009

Interview with Sue Polyson Evans, SoftChalk - Innovators in E-Learning Series

Welcome to an interview with Sue Polyson Evans, co-founder and CEO of SoftChalk LLC. Softchalk is well-known among online instructors for its product, LessonBuilder. Online instructors and course developers from the mid-1990s will already have an acquaintance with Sue through Web Course in a Box, which she helped develop. Readers may wish to weigh in on the current state of learning management systems.

What is your name and what is your involvement in e-learning?

My name is Sue Polyson Evans, and I am a co-founder and the CEO of SoftChalk LLC. I have been working in the eLearning field from its inception in the early 1990s when I was the principal developer of Web Course in a Box, one of the first commercially available learning management systems in the U.S. I’ve also had various management positions at the university level in both instructional and academic technology.

What is Soft Chalk (link, please), and what is its mission and vision?

SoftChalk’s flagship product is LessonBuilder, a software tool designed to allow educators to create professional, sophisticated e-learning content. The thing that is unique about SoftChalk is how easy it is to use – we like to say “If it’s not easy, it’s not SoftChalk”.

SoftChalk came about as a result of the work that Bob Godwin-Jones (another SoftChalk co-founder) and I did in the 1990s, developing learning management system software. As LMS systems began to proliferate on college campuses, we saw that educators needed an easy way to move beyond the static lesson content (word processing documents and slide shows) found in most on-line courses. Through our work with faculty, we found that although educators desire to create sophisticated, interactive content, they typically do not have the time to learn complicated authoring tools. So we set about creating a software product based on these principles: the software had to be simple to use, yet powerful enough that educators could create truly interactive content. And the lesson content had to be portable for use in virtually any learning management system or on any web server. The result was SoftChalk LessonBuilder.

Today, as the leading provider of educational content authoring software for educators in K-12, colleges, universities and medical schools, we think SoftChalk is the educator’s only choice for easy content creation. With SoftChalk, educators can create professional, sophisticated content, while students love the interactive, engaging lessons created using SoftChalk. SoftChalk’s easy-to-use LessonBuilder software provides educators with a tool that enhances their teaching experience, and improves the learning experience of their students.

We would love to have you visit us online at and we invite you to download the 30-day free trial version of SoftChalk – the download link can be found on our website.

Who do you consider to be the target audience? Why?

On the one hand, SoftChalk’s primary target audience is the educator or content expert who desires to create professional-looking, interactive content for their digital learner. In addition, we target school administrators who are looking to leverage the investment they have already made in technology for online learning, and specifically in a learning management system. Very often institutions have difficulty getting faculty on-board in using an LMS, or adapting their course for distance delivery. But if you give those educators SoftChalk, they actually enjoy using it to create content. Once an educator has content they are enthused about, they see the value of the LMS as a way to deliver the content, and they see that adapting their course for distance delivery is very do-able.

What makes Soft Chalk effective?

SoftChalk is effective for three reasons – first is ease of use. SoftChalk works just like a word processing program. Most everyone is familiar with the word processing program interface so the learning curve for SoftChalk is very low. The average faculty member can learn to use SoftChalk in 2-3 hours. Secondly, educators really appreciate the ability to create professional-looking content very quickly. And lastly, the ability to create engaging, interactive content by including customizable Flash activities, pop-up annotations, and self-check questions with feedback, is key to student engagement.

Have recent changes in the way online learners interact changed anything about Soft Chalk? (social networking, twitter, wikis, multimedia, voice boards, etc.)

A very popular new feature of SoftChalk is the ability to easily embed YouTube videos into a SoftChalk lesson. We are working on another new feature that will be available in SoftChalk V5, scheduled for delivery in Spring 09. This feature will allow the content author to perform a federated search of multiple content/media repositories to locate images, video, audio, and text content for inclusion in their SoftChalk lesson. We think that the ability to create a “mash up” of content from various sources in a SoftChalk lesson will be extremely popular.

Please list and describe a few key benefits of using Soft Chalk.

I’d like to share some SoftChalk customer comments to help illustrate some of the key benefits of using Softchalk.

From Michael Chaney, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Respiratory Program Instructor, “I have a student who had barely passed every term of our professional program. Two terms ago, his grades shot up significantly. When I asked him what he had done differently, he said it was the time he spent with the activities in my new online lessons. He was referring to the SoftChalk activities. My experience is the more time students spend with the material, the better they do. They can do this in a variety of ways, but will probably pick the one that is the most fun. I think the SoftChalk activities that give instant feedback, are easy to use, and can be taken multiple times would be the one they will pick. As I had hoped, SoftChalk was improving student learing!”.

And from Nancy Terrell, Hampton City Schools, Teacher Librarian, “SoftChalk LessonBuilder allows us to easily organize information for both teaching and professional development because it makes it so easy to integrate our own content and then add SoftChalk’s interactive activities. Here in Hampton City Schools, we love having this resource to assist us in our instruction”.

And lastly, from Bill Ganza, Director of Professional Development at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, “LessonBuilder is easy to use and creates stunning interactive lessons that keep students engaged. In a very short time ANYONE can produce professional looking lessons that increase student motivation and aid in the learning process.”

For those who would like to try SoftChalk, you can download a 30-day free trial from this link:

And you can view short “Quick Start” videos that give you a “jump start” on using SoftChalk from here:

We also offer free, live online demonstrations of the software. You can sign up here:

Please describe upcoming activities.

SoftChalk offers an “Innovators in Online Learning” webinar series where we feature educators in the field who are using SoftChalk in innovative ways to enhance instruction.

This is a monthly series, and in January we feature Adora Svitak, a 10-year old published author and teacher, who will be demonstrativng the interactive web pages and learning tools that she created using SoftChalk.

Then, in February, we feature Angelique Smith and Jennyly Nevarez, faculty at Valencia Community College, who will demonstrate SoftChalk instructional modules they have developed and published in their statewide digital repository, “The Orange Grove”.

We invite anyone who is interested to register for these free webinars here:

Optional question: Do you see any applications of Soft Chalk for developing online courses for technical / professional development?

Absolutely! Although SoftChalk started in the higher education world, it has developed a large following in K12 and is catching on in corporate training. It is amazing that we have SoftChalk users who are developing content for such diverse groups of students – from gifted middle school kids, to community college students , to University nursing students, to the Air Force. It is truly a cross-disciplinary software tool.

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