Repeat After Me: eLearning is a Technology Solution

Dear clients,

In my 3+ years as a freelancer, I’ve worked with many different types of companies and organizations – everything from huge Fortune 500s with a global audience to small, local businesses with less than 20 employees. Helping small businesses gives me an opportunity to collaborate and design affordable, scalable learning solutions and lay a foundation of good practices. Working with my larger clients generally gives me access to more resources and budget, but usually with more creative restrictions. Two ends of the client spectrum, each with their own rewards and drawbacks.

Whether large or small, global or local, profit or non-profit, the one thing I’ve run into over and over again is the fundamental misunderstanding of the skills, details, time, and costs involved in designing, developing, testing, implementing, and maintaining eLearning. And the more complex, engaging, and sophisticated you want your eLearning to be, the more time and resources (and budget) your eLearning vendor (me) may need to achieve your objectives.

So, in the interest of helping you become a more educated consumer, allow me to share some free consulting advice as follows:

1. Spend money on good design.

A designer is not just someone with a nice looking portfolio full of snazzy graphics and sleek animations. A designer is equal parts analytic and creative, a necessity for helping you to identify potential barriers to achieving your goals AND to help design creative solutions to overcome those barriers (solutions that may or may not involve snazzy graphics and sleek animations).

Many clients approach me saying that they don’t need me to design anything; they only want my assistance as an eLearning developer. I’ve learned that this is usually code for “take my PowerPoint and turn it into eLearning through the magic of rapid authoring tools”.

Here’s the deal: in 99% of cases, the source material you’ve given me hasn’t been “designed for learning” – it’s too technical, wordy, passive, or all informational with no practical application. If I merely dumped your content into an authoring tool and published it out, you’d probably assess the results on a scale of unimpressed to deep hatred.

What you really need is a designer to ask tons of questions, to help you define the requirements and the desired outcomes, and to make some informed recommendations within those constraints. You really need someone who, when eLearning is an appropriate solution, is given the time and budget to re-structure, edit, and otherwise transform your content guided by specific instructional intent and not just a budget and a deadline. The visual design elements (i.e. UI, graphics, branding, etc.) are only one layer of the larger design process and on their own can’t give you what you’re looking for.

Bottom line: When you pay for good design you’re buying more than just good looks. You’re paying for the expertise of someone who knows what to ask and how to ask you all of the hard questions so you’ll actually SAVE time, money and agony in the long run.

2. Rush job? Expect rushed results.

Whenever I’m in a gathering of fellow eLearning designers, inevitably the conversation turns to the fact that you, the client, have no idea (or appreciation for) how much time it takes us to design, develop, and launch a decent eLearning course. So let’s just get this out of the way up front: it’s not going to happen in a week or even two. That’s not to say that it’s not possible, but when you make time the primary driver of the project, it forces us to scale back appropriately – meaning minimal complexity and minimal review cycles. In some cases, that’s a decent trade-off, but in others it’s a recipe for a waste of time and money.

For instance, let’s say you have an audience of experienced sales reps with lots of product knowledge but with flat sales numbers. With no design time, all I can reasonably do is take your source content (and your word that you know your audience well), and then use eLearning as a vehicle for giving your audience some basic pointers, maybe a few examples, and minimal practice. But you and I both know that connecting with an audience of experienced sales people is challenging on its own, and even more so when we’re trying to convey techniques to address a nuanced, delicate sales rep/client interaction.

Honing a skill requires practice and an appropriate solution probably needs to be more complex than an eLearning course with some pointers. By letting a timeline drive the project you’re inevitably sacrificing efficacy for the sake of expediency. And I doubt that’s a point you’ll want to use in your defense when next month’s sales numbers still haven’t hit the target and your boss is grilling you about all that money you just spent on eLearning.

Bottom line: Designing and developing an effective learning solution – which may or may not encompass eLearning – takes time. One industry guideline many of us consult is a study from the Chapman Alliance which states that it generally takes 49 hrs to develop every 1 hr of basic, click & read eLearning. That’s just a guideline of course. Your goals may require the use of complex simulations or branching scenarios that push that timeline out, or your interests may be best served by developing another solution entirely. The only way to know is to heed my #1 advice and, by doing so, hopefully avoid stepping into #2.

3. eLearning is a technology solution.

Question: Would you trust a realtor with no prior architecture or carpentry experience, or knowledge, to design and build your entire house by hand? Before you answer that, you should know that this realtor is knowledgeable about selling houses, he’s selected the lot to build your house on for you (it’s a stable lot with good word of mouth that anyone can build on), and he does have access to a tool that is SO powerful and easy to use, it requires no training, experience, or other tools to build dazzling homes. Okay, think that over.

Next question: It’s move-in day and you go to plug in your new refrigerator. As you struggle to push the plug into the new electrical outlet, the entire wall gives way. It’s a load-bearing wall. You call your realtor/builder in a panic and ask him what went wrong. How likely is it that he’ll be able to troubleshoot the source of the problem or fix it since his knowledge is limited to using only that one tool?

Designing, developing, and implementing eLearning is, plain and simple, a technology solution. That means it comes with all the complexities that accompany any other technology including software, websites, custom apps, or new systems. The details that go into designing, developing and delivering a technology solution are mind-boggling. Things such as browser settings, device settings, image and text resolution, individual hardware and software configurations, associated tools and software you’ll need to realize the full benefits of the core software, the use of audio and video, changes to internal processes and workflows to support successful product launch, back-end systems to host your solution – and then, of course, there are always a few users who will fail to recognize the gigantic flashing arrow button on the bottom of their screen is the means of navigating the course. All of these things and more will bedevil even the most well-funded, well-staffed, and thoroughly trained team. In time and with some support, these challenges are usually overcome, but the costs (financial and otherwise) of getting through that process are substantial and not to be taken lightly.

Bottom line: eLearning is a technology solution and you need to be prepared for the substantial cost and work that goes into designing, developing, testing, deploying, and maintaining that solution. If you or your team are uncomfortable with technology, don’t force yourselves to become eLearning experts. Instead, invest some time and money into becoming better informed in the long-term, and in the short-term, outsource the design and development to experts who can coach you through the process.

There is no magic rapid authoring tool that can “design” great eLearning for you. Authoring tools are just that – tools. Some tools are better and easier to use than others. It’s the designer/developer’s skills and years of experience that allow them to make recommendations about how to build a solution that maximizes the use of their tools while minimizing potential problems for you down the road.

There is no design smart enough to outwit stupid. (You can quote me on that.)

There is no LMS that offers 100% up time with an interface so intuitive that a halfwit goat could use and administer it while blindfolded. (If there is, please send photos.)

Take my candor for what’s it worth – free advice from someone who’s been doing this eLearning thing for quite a while now. And whatever path you take, I hope my perspective gives you and yours some food for thought.

Best wishes,

Trina