Flash is Dead: Long Live HTML5 for eLearning

flash elearning

Adobe Flash technology has helped support the delivery of online multimedia content for nearly two decades. Three popular eLearning formats are also largely dependent on Flash technology for their delivery medium: SCORM, Tin Can (xAPI), and video. In July of this year, Adobe confirmed what many have predicted over the years. Flash will be allowed to die in 2020 as Adobe ceases to support the standard. 

Extensive use of Flash makes this development a concern for those of us working in the eLearning industry. Many of us will continue to depend on some combination of SCORM, Tin Can and video content when developing courses until flash is truly dead. While files can be exported for equivalent HTML5 compatibility, the movement away from Flash is certain to generate cost and complexity for online learning professionals. So how is the deadline likely to impact you and your organization’s LMS?

The troubled history of Flash

Flash has been a useful technology for developers working with a broad range of online content types for many years – 20 maybe? Wow! So why the fall? The two oft-touted reasons are around performance and security. For the latter half of Flash’s history, it has been plagued with many very serious security bugs that allowed total control of a user’s device by simply visiting a website with some Flash content. Those security holes are routinely fixed, but in many cases, the damage has already been done. Operating systems manufacturers like Microsoft, Ubuntu, and Apple all tired of the overhead in keeping their systems secure with frequent patches, and Flash has developed a poor security reputation as a result. 

The second reason is the hardware requirements Flash demands to play heavily animated or video content. Though not a problem for most desktop PCs these days, mobile devices and smaller laptops struggle to deliver a smooth user experience when Flash is involved. Apple famously, or is that infamously, excluded Flash from their iOS devices from the get-go. Android tried and largely failed, to deliver a rich Flash experience on mobile devices. Adobe has made many changes to counteract the performance issues, but have suffered reputational damage in the interim. 

With mounting frustrations from end-users, hardware manufacturers, and software providers, it was ultimately web-browsers that stepped up to the plate. Modern browsers like Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and eventually Internet Explorer all became equipped to provide the powerful features associated with Flash, such as animation, scripting and video playback. They continue to evolve to this day.

The rise of HTML5?

The good news is that HTML5 technology provides many tools urgently needed to fill the gap left by the decline of Flash. For example, HTML5 enables video and audio content to render directly in the browser. It also offers “fun stuff” that enhances animations and what I’ll describe as “wizardry in the UI”. HTML5 is also more efficient than Flash, using less processing power. That sounds great! All of the bells and whistles we enjoyed with Flash can simply be replaced by HTML5. 

While I agree with the HTML5 movement in general, I still have a problem. I can’t overlook the bugbear that video content in HTML5 format is handled differently in every browser. Browsers have a bit of work to do on playback over poor internet connections (and I’d also criticise the feature-incomplete players embedded in the browsers). Various browsers handle the buffering of video content differently, with some proving more effective than others. eLearning course developers must endure mixed results. At worst, learners become frustrated by attempting to absorb information from videos that struggle to buffer thanks to poor connections coupled with their browsers HTML5 implementation of choice. 

There are solutions to these problems. Some issues can be tackled using Content Delivery Networks, for example. Browser and HTML5 technologies should continue to mature to close the gap in these areas.

What it means for your LMS

Most of the impact for LMS users relate to the production of SCORM and Tin Can courses that are exported into Flash formats. While the rendering and streaming of eLearning video content will also be affected, SCORM and Tin Can courseware is most vulnerable, built as it is on Flash technology. It’s certainly helpful that SCORM and Tin Can modules can be rendered using HTML5 as an alternative. But the falling away of default compatibility with Flash will create problems for all who use an LMS to deliver eLearning.

Migrating course content to HTML5 is one solution made easier by the improvements delivered by the most recent versions of authoring tools. The alternative may be a dramatically diminished user experience for learners unable to access Flash. And the ultimate result of that is likely to be unhappy customers and unhappy learners. 

A less frequently discussed problem concerns support for Internet Explorer 8 and 9. As LMS vendors, we generally have no control over performance issues experienced with browsers installed on clients networks. There is little HTML5 support for versions earlier than IE9, while support available for IE9 is itself poor. For many organizations, upgrading from IE9 can generate significant upheaval.

Both scenarios lead to considerable inconvenience for developers and users in affected organizations. In some ways, I hope that the death of Flash encourages upgrades to more recent versions of IE. Whether that will actually happen or not remains to be seen. With Microsoft dropping support for old versions of Internet Explorer in 2016, it looks that this wish may just arrive sooner than expected.

The future of Flash vs. HTML5

With Adobe ’s confirmation that it will let Flash die in 2020, the future is no longer up in the air. Flash is indeed dead. Its growing reputation as a vulnerable technology was crucial in its demise. Flash may continue to serve some purpose until support is withdrawn completely, but it is really a stay of execution. I guess Apple called it correctly all those years ago. Should we ever have doubted them?! In the meantime, the adoption of video and mobile content will continue to grow within eLearning. All of these factors support the rise of HTML5, just as the technology will continue to improve.

My advice for eLearning professionals and organizations is to plan for the future, now. In LearnUpon, we offer customers alternatives to using Flash for video content. Most admin users continue to use our video streaming service that works with Flash players. But we’re seeing that usage pattern change with the development of mobile learning or mLearning, based on HTML5 video and courseware. 

If you’re an LMS admin, it’s now time to begin migrating existing courses to HTML5 formats. Most, authoring tools now allow you to export to both Flash and HTML5, delivering the best of both options. In scenarios where a course determines Flash is not supported, the HTML5 version kicks in instead.

But, is it as simple as re-exporting content?

My co-founder Brendan recently attended an Aurion Connections event that tackled this very subject. Damien Caldwell drew attention to the potential pitfalls of moving content from Flash to HTML5 format. It may not be as simple as you would expect. For example, you need to consider the following:

  • Do you have access to the original content objects?
  • Do you know what authoring tool they were developed in? Do you still have a license for it?
  • Do you know everywhere the learning object is currently used?
  • Will all the interactions in your learning still work as expected when you export to HTML5?

These questions reinforce the need to take action now. So as not to get caught out in the future. A gradual move towards HTML5 is best, far better than waiting for the big “flash in the pan” that is coming down the tracks.


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