Starting from scratch

It
is possible to create your own e-learning programmes. But, like any DIY
project, just make sure you have access to the right tools and expertise. By
Sue Weekes

The
term do-it-yourself (DIY) conjures up a mixed bag of images, mainly those of
sloping shelves and badly-hung wallpaper.

So
it’s little wonder the phrase ‘do it yourself e-learning’ is enough to strike
fear into the heart of the training establishment.

But
there’s DIY, and there’s DIY, and with a little help and the right training,
your e-learning programmes could have more in common with a Home Front-style
living-room makeover than a bodged paint job.

The
learning community is right to be concerned, however, and we would all do well
to remember the lessons of the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-1980s.
The typesetting industry virtually disappeared overnight and those with no
design or publishing skills were empowered by technology to produce everything
from a corporate newsletter to a full-blown magazine.

There
was no accounting for many of the abominations that rolled off colour presses:
multi-typefaced and multi-coloured efforts that should never have seen the
light of day. Soon people realised though that if they wanted to produce
effective pieces of print, they needed training to use the tools properly or to
seek external help from those who had the level of expertise to set them on the
right path.

Choosing
the DIY path

Now
that we are all more used to working with technology, it is unlikely the
training sector will make the same mistakes. But with increasing pressure on
budgets, it is easy to see why the DIY route could be seen as a welcome
cost-cutter rather than a considered part of any training strategy.

"You
need to be very clear about why you want to go down the DIY route," says
David Dawes, e-learning development manager at the NHS, whose in-house team has
produced 30 hours of online learning as part of the National Nursing Leadership
Project.

"Find
and talk to someone who has already done it so you know exactly what you are
getting into."

First,
it is important to spell out what we mean by DIY e-learning. The general
dissatisfaction with the standard or appropriateness of some content (see News,
page 13) has meant that many training departments want to exercise more control
over their e-learning programmes.

Added
to this, there are a number of software products which allow training
professionals or training support staff to create their own e-learning courses
without the need for any specific technical or programming knowledge (they are
often categorised as ‘authorware’, as authoring is the term used to describe
the creation of e-learning content). The combination of these two factors has
launched a DIY e-learning movement and, although it is still in its early days,
it is gathering momentum.

"We’ve
developed our products because more and more corporate clients are keen to take
control and are looking for a degree of internal autonomy when it comes to
learning," says Russell Grocott, managing director of Canvas Learning, a
UK-based learning technology provider with a background in bespoke development,
which recently launched its Canvas Learning Author and Canvas Learning Player
products.

Clare
Rees, European marketing director for Macromedia, which has a suite of
authoring tools, such as Authorware as well as Flash MX, the ubiquitous web
animation software, also notes the beginnings of a shift in the type of people
who are using its products. "We are starting to see subject matter experts
use our tools to develop e-learning in-house rather than just developer
companies and I’m sure their use will migrate to others too as time goes
on," she says.

Taking
a dual approach to DIY

Currently,
some of the best examples of DIY e-learning can be seen at organisations that
have employed the services of an e-learning consultancy to get them started,
and which have also been provided with training and tools to modify, customise
or indeed create their own programmes subsequently.

Our
User Focus is a good example of this, with the Crown Prosecution Service using
IQdos’ LaunchPad tool to build its own content to train 4,000 lawyers and
caseworkers.

"Our
LaunchPad starter kit allows organisations to create bespoke content and tells
them how to do it. But we get them started and then hand over to them,"
explains Sue Harley, managing director of IQdos. "We also stay on hand for
support afterwards for a time."

Most
e-learning consultancies recognise that their future may lie in forming a
similar partnership with clients. "This is a very interesting area for
us," says Steve Dineen, CEO and founder of fuel, which has developed a
web-based graphical editing tool to enable its clients can localise content for
different countries.

"We
understand that many of our customers will take a dual approach to developing
content – DIY and using a preferred supplier. We see it as part of our
responsibility to help evolve the internal team’s capabilities by sharing our
experience, knowledge and development tools so that     e-learning has a greater chance of success within that
organisation," says Dineen.

So,
in such cases, who is trying the DIY?

Who’s
taking part?

For
the major blue-chips that have sizeable training departments which are
producing course material anyway, it will naturally fall to them, but, in some
cases, administrative staff can also take on such duties after training. IQdos
reckons it can train people in half a day to use LaunchPad, which it claims is
no more difficult than using PowerPoint.

Kolleen
Wallace is manager of staff training and development at the Prince’s Trust and
is embarking on a pilot programme using LaunchPad to create an online induction
course. "We’re not technical at all," she says. "And there are
only two of us in the training department for 750 staff. We’ve done a day’s
training and then IQdos will hold our hand through the process.

"LaunchPad
is like a shell and we’re uploading information into it. It is very easy to
use. At the moment it only has text but we want to get the course up there and
get some feedback and then we can start to pretty it up a bit," says
Wallace, who explains that normally Prince’s Trust staff would have to attend a
classroom induction course, which for some meant travelling in from the
regions.

"Having
it online means that new staff can even do the induction course before they
join the company," adds Wallace.

At
office automation equipment organisation, the NRG Group of Companies, the task
falls to e-learning administrators, trainers and sometimes even product
marketing people to modify the content. NRG has to cope with 14 different
native tongues and uses a software tool developed by fuel that allows it to
localise its programmes.

"Fuel
creates the course for us and uploads it to our portal, and then we send out
packages to our operations around the world which enables them to translate the
programmes online in real-time," says NRG e-learning development executive
Phil Howe. "Because it’s real-time, the programmes can be accessed as soon
as the localisation (which can comprise cultural customisation as well as just
translation) is done."

While
the market will continue to see more e-learning authoring products coming on to
the market, the hand-in-hand with supplier paradigm is certainly the safest bet
for DIY e-learning at the moment – unless the training department is blessed
with the range of disciplines needed to produce all-singing, all-dancing online
e-training programmes. Fuel’s Dineen says it has taken them several years to
put together what they see as just the right skillset for e-learning creation
and production, which ranges from educational psychologists to interface
designers.

"If
what you’re doing is just uploading pure information, say for reference, then
DIY is fine, but once you get into audio, video, interface design while
preserving the educational effectiveness of the learning, you’re not going to
be able to do it yourself with an off-the-shelf package unless you have all the
disciplines in place," he says.

There
is also the issue of standards – ensuring that any products you buy adhere to
the various global e-learning standards that are being put in place, such as
Scorm, which set out to ensure that all the various learning tools, software and
systems work together. The last thing you want, for instance, is to produce 20
hours of programming that won’t run on the learning management system used by
your Australian operation. So it’s vital to quiz any provider on the
compatibility and interoperability of any authoring tools that you buy.

DIY
successes

While
the path to DIY e-learning may still be fraught with some difficulties, there
are already success stories out there.

The
NHS’ team of five believes it has managed to develop and acquire much of the
necessary expertise to cover a range of e-learning disciplines and claims to be
able to create a three-hour online course in nine working days. But this comes
after a thorough assessment of the market, a lot of hard work and research, a
tightly-controlled pilot and ongoing support from e-learning provider
SkillSoft, which has also provided them with its Customisation Toolkit.

This
allows David Dawes’ team to take ready-made content and customise it – with
video, audio, text or graphics – after just two days’ training.

"We
use the analogy of a book when explaining our approach," explains Dawes.
"Ideally, you’d write your own book but if you can’t, you buy one and edit
it. In doing so we’ve found this brilliant middle ground to produce our own
e-learning."

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