Animation For Elearning: Why, What, and How?

A preliminary study of workflows and tools

Uncle Leland’s obsession with animal locomotion leads to the invention of animation


Animation has become a trending element in eLearning. The reason is not hard to fanthom: people like anything that moves. Having something that actually moves boosts our confidence in elearning which are most of the time, let’s admit it, boring.

Whether or not animation can really do elearning some good (and more importantly, how) is a closely related but slightly different matter. In this article, my attention is on the increasingly affordable practice of making animation in the elearning context. I want to examine, first, under what circumstances should we aim at animation. And then I want to have a quick inventory of the kinds of animations I see everyday. Finally, for the bulk of this article, I will focus on different tools to produce animation and how they compare to each other. I do this in rather abstract terms, in the spirit of “towards a general taxnomy of tools”. I do mention names; but the ideas behind tools and their assumptions and limitations are my real concern.

Why Animation?

Although there is today certainly a much larger appreciation of what animation can do in elearning, the actual use of animation is still far from a standard operation procedure in such context. While some firmly believe that animations are valuable in that they foster emotional connections and get learners excited about the subject matter, others feel that it is mainly a distraction from what really matters.

To use or to not use animation is of course your choice. If you have the resource, nobody would mind some animated stuff: they are always cute! But when we talk about effect, about some serious justification for the money and time you might spend, I find it hard to pinpoint animation’s effectiveness. The truth is that the effect of animation relies on its quality on the one hand, and relevancy on the other. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Always ask yourself why: Animation generally speaking does involve more cost of production, but even if you have the money, it should still serve a good purpose. Do I really need animation here? Think of things that are difficult without animation, such as explaining complex issues, visualizing a real life scenario or showing intricate processes.
  • Use animation to convey the right tone: be careful when you want to use cartoonish characters and funny sound effects dealing with a serious matter. Ask your SME’s feedback.
  • Give control back to learner: you want the learners to have the ability to start, skip, pause, seek backward and forward. It would also be nice to make the video interactive so it is not a completely passive experience. Currently this is possible, but with some limitations.
  • Compliance issues: whenever there is video, you need captions.

Ultimately, the biggest issue is the first point, namely, is it worth it?

If you are on a shoestring budget, producing animation may consume too much resources that can be better spent on other things, such as building better script or interactions. Have you heard of a blockbuster film that spent a lot of money on special effects and salaries of its fancy cast but left little for the crappy script? Guaranteed failure.

Produce animation only when it falls into reasonable budget and timeline, fits your subject matter, and after you already have a strong script.

What kind of animation?

Before looking at tools, always look at your need first. In my opinion, animations in elearning generally falls into the following three categories:

  • Scenario-based training: we present a scenario to illustrate a problem that you need to learn to deal with.
  • Explainer: what does a product, technology or feature do?
  • Tutorial: How to do/use something?

Does your content involve something like “imagine the following…”? Is it about ethical conduct? Protocols to follow when this or that happens? Human interactions, especially negotiations? It is a scenario-based training. In the past, you have to make do with extensive reading and sometimes illustrations. Now you have a much much better option.

Here is a good example of scenario-based training

An explainer, on the other hand, doesn’t involve human interactions as much as human machine interactions. It is typically about what a technological tool can do and process or workflow it involves. 

Here is a good example of explainer animation

As for tutorial, it is something you do, typically on your own. It often involves a very specific skill, ranging from simple tasks such as change the light bulb to scary things such as conduct epidural anesthesia, or mysterious things such as meditation.

Super impressive tutorial

The difference between explainer and tutorial also lies in that the former often involves abstract concepts while the latter is mostly about a hands-on skill. The former wants you to understand something, the latter, do something. This is why a screencast will fall into the third category, if it is about how to use a particular computer tool. But when you talk about the ideas behind this computer tool, it goes to the explainer category.

The following example combines explainer with tutorial, and uses the breakneck pace of animation to alleviate the slowness of screencast.

Hybrid example

The above three are not all there is you can do animation with. Categories are there to help you understand different goals, but any creative hybridization is welcomed. In recent years infographics was all the rage. I see it as a combination of our society’s fascination with numbers (same goes for the popularity of numericalized titles such 13 reasons why, etc.), narration and animation, We do not see this often in elearning — it runs against the professional tone. But it is an interesting category in itself. Take the following as an example.

How ? 4 categories for tools

We use the term “animation” or “motion graphics” mainly for its content. But in terms of format, an animation is just a video file that you put on a slide, or embed in a html page. It is no different to a live action video file, or a screencast. Both are one same type of component in the larger technical system of elearning.

Although there is no fundamental difference between an animation sequence created for eLearning animation as opposed to, say, one for marketing marketing purposes, the workflows involved in the two are quite different.

If an animation is targeted in the marketing division, we produce it whatever special tool and then proceed to share it to social media sites, upload to video hosting sites or download as mp4 or animated gif to use it in self-owned websites.

In the elearning context, animation is never a standalone product. That’s why the end of animation production is only the beginning of the next step — you grab the animation and put it into your authoring platform.

Once you have produced such a component intended for a larger system, it functions as a blackbox (even if you produce one of those “interactive” videos). You can control the playback, and give that control to your learner. But you cannot go inside the blackbox and change what happens there. The video/animation is an indivisible unit.

Where the animation is in your workflow is not a trivial issue. It has a big impact not only on how you would use the final result and also what specific tool you can employ to produce it. It is a fundamental concern. Here are some of your choices:

The “timeless” approach: low control on animation, but easy to produce, and tightly interwoven with the rest of your content. We are all familiar with the entrance and exit effects in Powerpoint.

The “native” solution: if your animation needs can be met within the elearning authoring tool, do it there. And it will be ideal.

Cloud-based animation: It is true that making good animation still takes considerable more resources than the simple text and image combination, but the cost has been significantly lowered in the past years with an emerging generation of new tools such as GoAnimate, Powtoon, etc. There are even services who claim to produce a video if you feed it with a web page. Of course, what it does is only to scan the page and find whatever images and texts there and animate them with predesigned templates.

The pro-choice (limited to 2D): For complete control over all the aspects imaginable, there is a line of pro tools. For something that primarily deals with cartoon, think Toon Boom Harmony (company in Montreal) or Anime Studio (now called Moho). If you work with text, video and special effects, consider Adobe After Effect.

We shall discuss these four categories in somewhat detail in the following.

The “timeless” approach — the bare minimum

A presentation software such as PowerPoint or Keynote can already do animation. An element placed on the slide can have entrance and exit effects. It can have a customized motion path, meaning an element can move from one place to another following a set trajectory. We can control the speed of this movement, create a bounce effect. The path itself can be curved and sometimes we can orient the object along the path.

But there is no timeline. This is what I mean by timeless. Although there is a temporal dimension, we do not have control of what happens exactly at any particular time.

Not impressed? Think about any Apple event where important products and services are being announced. Given what is at stake, wouldn’t any fancy animation be justified? Yet in a live presenter’s presence, animation does its job best when it illustrates ideas and processes without diverting attention too long (less than 2 seconds?)from the presenter. The entrance and exit effects and motion path are perfect for this need. Combined with the ability to make an order of these effects, we may feel that most of our needs are already covered.

The “Native” Solution — enhanced with timeline

If you cannot accept the fact that a video is a indivisible unit, that you have no control over what goes on inside it, we do have an alternative.

If you are using any advanced elearning authoring tool (EAT for short) such as Storyline or Captivate, you have some built-in animation capabilities. The animation capabilities of a slide-based EAT (or SEAT for short) such as SL or CP is fashioned largely after presentation softwares, so you would have your entrance and exit effects and motion path. But you also have an important addition: timeline. I call this the “native” solution, because a natively produced animation can be easily tweaked. Need to change a phrase spoken? You don’t have to go back to the animation tool and re-render everything, re-download it, then re-import into your course. Doing this many times is not a pleasant experience.

Because a SEAT is also equipped with layers and other programming features: state, trigger, variable, this solution has not only the advantage of having control over what is inside the animation, but also opens the door of making them responding to elements outside the animation. You can tweak the timing as well as placement of elements in the animation, and you can show or hide certain things according to your variable or triggers. For example, you can choose to show different animation according to your variable or object state.

If you are just placing a video file on a slide, none of these is possible. This is true regardless of how sophisticated your animation is.

Let me say this loud and clear. I do believe that the native approach is the best if we need to produce animation for elearning. However, we cannot wait for the EAT vendors to make everything we need happen. As a result, many of us choose to build the animation elsewhere. Tools dedicated to animation can do more and once you see what they can do, it is hard to go back to the limited functionalities provided by your elearning authoring tools.

Cloud-based animation — huge asset and ready to use animations

The biggest advantage of a cloud-based animation tool is how expedient it is. This same idea can be found in the cloud-based solution to graphic design such as Venngage and Canva. Having worked with some of these tools (Powtoon and Goanimate, now Vyond) I now have conflicted feelings toward them. On the one hand, they are a godsend for those who hate learning curves and are often informed in the late afternoon that something is needed tomorrow. Using such tools, you can easily make a reasonably good-looking animation under an hour. Find a template, pick some slides, plug in some characters and props, choose their poses or animations: you are almost done! In fact, the biggest chunk of time I have spent on building these animations is to sync audio track.

On the other hand, things can get repetitive. The excitement wanes after the first few tries. Your works look similar — you can choose to call it “consistent” — but there is very little you can do about it. There are not many customization options there. Sometimes, it is even taking a step back from the SEAT tools (the motion path capability is these cloud based tools is inferior than the one found in Articulate Storyline).

If you are reading this and you work in the elearning authoring business, let me ask you: wouldn’t you be in the state of ecstasy if you can pull characters with built-in animations into your course? Wouldn’t it be nice if you can start from templates that are designed for animated content?

The pro-choice

If you 1) have considerable amount of time to spend 2) are not afraid of steep learning curve or have been painfully trained 3) need original work that cannot be produced by the above solutions, pro-tools such as Adobe AE is your only choice. If any of these three conditions is not met, I would recommend looking elsewhere.

I have only limited knowledge regarding these tools and my focus here is how this tool does its job compared to the other solutions. It is important to know that, even with an intimidating set of options to control (and sometimes even programmatically) numerous aspects of your work, the pro-tools are not omnipotent.

This article is planed as the first part of a series dedicated to the use of animation in elearning. The upcoming one intends to discuss more on dissecting the structure of animation in terms of rhetoric, and explore ways we communicate learning objectives through animation.


Leave a Reply