Rapid e-learning

This article by Jane Hart, appeared in the March 2007  edition of the elearning Age magazine

“Rapid e-learning” is one of the current buzzwords in e-learning and generally refers to the use of a new breed of authoring tools to create formal instructional online training resources –  like courses and simulations – quickly, easily and cheaply.  So let’s consider these three factors in more detail.

  • Cost: Most organisations who want to build an online course have, in the past, had them developed by specialist content developers. Since one of the ways of costing the production of an online course is by the number of hours of learning involved, and as this could be anything between £5,000 and £25,000 per hour depending on the complexity of the content involved, development costs are often very high.  The desire to continuously create new online courseware has therefore meant that these costs are becoming too prohibitive for organisations to bear, so rapid e-learning tools mean that instructional content can be developed internally at far reduced costs.
  • Speed: Traditional online course development involves an instructional designer (ID) extracting the relevant content from a subject matter expert (SME) and designing the course, which is then built by a development team of programmers or other specialists like Flash designers. The content is checked by the SME and is eventually signed off.  The normal timeline for this development process is measured in months or at best weeks.  Using rapid e-learning tools, internally, the timelines can be reduced to days, if not hours, as just one person carries out all the activities.
  • Ease of use: The development of online courseware has hitherto involved the use of specialist, complex and sophisticated authoring tools, which take time to learn and experience to master.  However, the new rapid development tools are much more intuitive to use and sometimes offer a collaborative authoring environment to enable a group of individuals to co-create a course.  This means they can be used to develop online courseware very easily.

For all the reasons above, rapid e-learning tools are becoming very popular both in large corporations as well as small businesses.  For large corporations, whilst the development of sophisticated, high profile online courses is often still outsourced to external developers, the trend is moving towards the use of rapid e-learning tools internally to create online courses for less complex training problems.   For small businesses the availability of these tools means they can now develop bespoke online courses, which was once outside their financial reach.

So rapid e-learning tools sound like the answer to every training manager’s prayers, but are they?  Here are some of the issues you need to consider.

Although rapid e-learning tools offer an easy-to-use tool, users will still need instructional design skills if what they are to produce is to be instructionally sound. This is a similar situation to the one faced a number of years ago, when desktop publishing (DTP) tools became very fashionable.  Although DTP tools were easy to use, they did not guarantee that the result was going to be a perfectly designed document; on the contrary the result was sometimes a visual disaster because the amateur DTP user had no design skills.

This then leads to a question; are these rapid e-learning tools too easy-to-use, so that what is produced falls far short of accepted training standards?  And, further, to ensure that the learning content is of high quality, does this mean you will need to train all your SMEs in the principles of instructional design?  If that doesn’t sound like a viable option to you, then perhaps you only want your in-house IDs to use these tools, in which case you will be returning to the old development model of them having to interact with SMEs, and development time will not be as rapid after all.

Consider, too, the criticism that is often levelled against these new rapid development tools, that they are in fact no more than PowerPoint tools with some added educational functionality, (like testing and scoring), and because of licence restrictions, only certain individuals will be able to create and maintain the content.  If the aim is to empower all users in your organisation to generate and share content – which after all is the current trend of  E-Learning 2.0  – then it
should be recognised that there are other tools that will enable this, like blogs, wikis and even commonplace tools like Word and PowerPoint itself.

For sure, these tools are not intended to create instructional content, but it is important to remember that not every training problem needs a formal, instructional training solution.  In fact, as it is now accepted that most learning in an organisation is informal, then some, if not most, of an organisation’s learning problems might be better solved by the production of informational-type materials (like job aids, product briefings, company podcasts, project blogs or system demos) or even by bringing people together to share their knowledge and experiences or to support one another in some way using standard communication tools.  All of these types of solution can be achieved very quickly, very easily and very cost-effectively, and what is more do not require instructional design skills to set up.  So they are, in essence,  just as significant as a form of rapid learning development.

To summarise then, although it is clear that rapid e-learning tools have an important part to play in helping an organisation create formal online courseware, ideally they should only be used by those with instructional design skills. Other tools should not be overlooked that might be more appropriate for creating rapid solutions that support the informal learning needs of an organisation.