Creating international elearning

flagsCreating international elearning experiences is not simply a matter of translating content (see “Translating elearning into other languages: 6 tips“). The platform and architecture must also be ready to work in systems that use different formats and assumptions. While these differences become apparent as international users engage their computers and devices with your elearning, they will also put your own content to the test. Here are a few tips to ensure your platform will pass the internationalization test.

Challenge your existing scenarios

Your current learner scenarios most likely don’t include international customers. Take Europe, for instance, where more than 50% of the population speaks at least one other language. The fact that they are based in one country doesn’t necessarily determine the language they speak. It’s easy to make an assumption about what your learners in Switzerland speak, and you will probably be wrong.

If you don’t know what scenarios are, start creating some international personas.

Unlearning your ABCs

Everything you thought about the alphabet is wrong. A comes before B, but Å doesn’t. Can your platform display all the characters of your target language? This usually means ensuring you have a full Unicode implementation. Can it sort course titles according to the rules of the target language, or will it put Å after A, when in fact it should come after Z, Æ and Ø? (If you are speaking Norwegian). Can your authoring tools produce those characters for video, vectors and other artwork? Can your search service support those characters?

dictionariesDisplaying text has far more consequences than being able to support Unicode. Layout will be drastically altered if you want to support languages that are written from right to left, like Arabic. The placement of buttons, interactive areas, callouts, everything will be affected, and the platform must be able to mirror visual designs based on language displayed. Videos and charts that rely on sequences represented as diagrams flowing from left to right will have to be re-rendered in the opposite direction. Then… the subtleties: In Arabic, does the “Play video” button point to the right or to the left? Is the numeric keypad mirrored or not?

Finally, the choice of font becomes less of a stylistic matter and more of a readability issue. Some fonts we take for granted do not display other languages well. Usually this means having a small, versatile set of fonts to choose from, or more frequently, having more complex style sheets or logic that handles font selection from a wider range of options, according to the target language.

Reassessing screen real estate

Bilingual sign

It’s hard enough to design responsive elearning interfaces for such a wide range of screen sizes. Well, the problem gets worse – the typical English text usually takes more space (in some languages, considerably more space) once translated. How does your platform handle text expansion? Will it adapt button sizes and other interactive areas to contain longer text strings? In this Visitor Parking sign, the Spanish translation takes exactly double the space (in characters). How will your elearning design handle longer text? Smaller font size, as it was done here, is not an option!

4th of July is not in April

Date, time and number formats vary wildly from country to country. An elearning platform must get dates right, and it is not exactly helpful that your learner (based in Switzerland) sees that she completed a course at 2:00AM… Pacific Standard Time, even if the server is sitting in that time zone. If she completed the course on 4/7, then it was July and it wasn’t a national holiday for her, and hopefully her certificate of completion doesn’t state the wrong date.

Numbers can be equally tricky. Not only because the decimal and thousand separators change from country to country, but also because if you expect learners to type in numbers, then they are likely to use separators too. If your elearning assessment system is expecting 1000 as the correct answer, it should deem “1,000” as correct for a US learner, and “1.000” as correct for a Spanish learner. They are the same answer, just a different format.


A special case within number formats is currency. If your content includes currency, for example as part of an investment course, you will have to decide if the subject matter and your audience will tolerate the use of a foreign currency in the context of a learning environment. This may be perfectly OK for an MBA-level course, but if it’s about say home economics, it is probably better to use the local currency, or the entire course will miss the local touch that helps make a great learning experience.

DSC_9644If you charge subscriptions, course or certificate fees, there are some additional challenges. You’ll need to decide how to arrange payment systems that are customer-friendly: not every customer will be happy to pay in a foreign currency, even if their credit card allows for it. This is particularly true for smaller amounts, where bank and exchange-related fees may add up to a substantial portion of the total cost paid.

And if you decide to continue charging in your original currency, you still have to ensure customers aren’t making wrong assumptions. For example, if I find a course in Spanish, a price marked with the $ symbol, and a shopping experience that is in perfect Spanish, I may assume that the currency is Mexican peso if I live in Mexico. I’m thinking pesos, you are thinking US dollars, the currency symbol is the same, I click Pay… and $100 magically become $1,500 plus exchange fee. I am the customer that will cause overhead to your accounts department, and the one you won’t see again.

A good start

That covers some essential points about the platform that will ensure a great internationalization start. Now, it’s time to turn to content and ensure it is country and culturally appropriate. Don’t know where to begin? Start with these 10 Tips for Global Trainers. If you are planning large-scale internationalization, then it may be well worth thinking about things like terminology management too.

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