One of e-learning’s major selling points is that it offers cost savings as there are no venue or instructor costs and no travel or accommodation expenses.
It is curious then that some view e-learning as a high-cost option. This is largely due to many thinking of it as a major enterprise-wide learning package adopted by bigger organisations.
“The early days of e-learning coincided with the dotcom boom and large companies spent very large sums of money on e-learning programmes and management systems,” says Alun Har-vey, managing director of e-learning provider Open Mind Learning. “Most organisations, whether in the private or public sector, don’t have that kind of money and expect better value from their training budget.”
E-learning doesn’t have to mean buying a costly learning management system (LMS) and investing in libraries of content, nor does it mean commissioning expensive bespoke training programmes. Increasingly, organisations are taking a more do-it-yourself approach, which enables them not only to keep a tight grip on their budget but also to focus on specific training needs.
However, this change is not confined to small companies. Software company Mohive’s authoring software, Toolbox, is typically used by organisations with several thousand employees, says its chief executive Lars Unneberg. One client, a major Scandinavian insurance company, has created more than 100 e-learning courses in a year, in-house, despite having no e-learning specialists on the staff.
“To control costs, customers have started to build an e-learning software infrastructure internally and are implementing it directly into their training mix,” says Unneberg. “Business units can create the content they require, no matter how big or small the audience.”
Beware false economies
The apparent cost benefit of the DIY approach is attractive when you first do your figures. Good authoring packages can be bought for less than 500 (they go up to several thousand) and it’s easy to assume that this will be your biggest outlay. But there is one consideration which should come first when budgeting for doing it yourself: factoring in the costs of your own time and resources for creating the learning.
“The biggest expense is not the software or training but your resource time,” says Neil Lasher, managing director of Trainer1, which supplies authoring tools such as Lectora. “It isn’t low budget if you end up spending hundreds of hours of your own time on creating your organisation’s learning programmes.
“We’ve had companies ask for the tools to do it themselves but they have then come back to us to produce the learning programme because they just haven’t got the time.”
Enlist help early on
If you do decide to go it alone, keep your links with the supplier company and accept any training offered when you purchase the tools.
Productivity4Youprovides one-day courses in its ViewletBuilder authoring package, but its marketing director, Michelle Medhat, advises using an
e-learning supplier to develop the first few modules to achieve some ‘quick wins’ while in-house staff get up to speed.
“It also provides a platform for the in-house authors to learn more about instructional design and learning styles, which can be particularly effective when the in-house authors start developing more complex interactive content,” she says.
The best advice is to accept that you won’t become an e-learning specialist overnight. If you don’t have as much time as you’d like to invest in training, choose a product with a less steep learning curve.
Laurence Wilson, a corporate trainer and e-learning specialist, says: “Tools that are easy for a trainer to use, such as Microsoft Office, are now as sturdy and professional as those used by [e-learning] suppliers.”
“Many trainers I’ve met recently are still reluctant to try, worrying that the results of their first e-learning attempts won’t be good enough,” he says. “If they use mid-range tools such as ReadyGo! and MindManager, the learning curve is short and excellent results come quickly. If they choose top-end tools, such as those from Macromedia, there’s lots to learn and practise before they can produce a reasonable programme. But if they invest the time, the results can be startlingly good.”
Different developers use different approaches to authoring so assess which best suits your needs.
Productivity4You’s ViewletBuilder takes a simulation approach and is particularly well suited to creating learning programmes that teach employees how to use new software applications.
Other packages, such as Outstart’s Trainer, use a template approach, which provides users with a starting point for their e-learning programmes. Other features that trainers want from such packages include templates for interactive quizzes and assessment tools.
Who will produce the learning?
Typically, in-house training managers work alongside training experts to create the programmes.
The online environment can prove vital in such collaboration, and Wilson recommends creating an online workspace to engage all stakeholders including board-level members, IT support, line managers, as well as the trainers and experts. “This helps keep everyone in the loop and provides an opportunity for serious questions to be asked and for solutions to be developed,” he says. “Really good e-learning programmes need positive collaboration from all parties.”
Productivity4You’s Medhat has seen increased involvement in such projects from finance, project management, marketing and communications. Trainer1’s Lasher says that new technology has empowered “every manager” to become an e-learning author.
Stay in control
Training managers must ensure they are pivotal to the creation of learning even if they aren’t hands-on. Any abdication of responsibility on their part could have a damaging effect on overall control over training within the organisation.
While the technologies showcased and the advice given here certainly make effective e-learning possible on a limited budget, it is perhaps missing the point to confine the discussion purely to costs. The real value in these do-it-yourself tools is in how they enable you to create and capture learning that is directly linked to the needs of the business.
Organisation: First Engineering (part of Babcock International Group)
Aim: To train more than 1,000 people across 50 offices and depots in how to use the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
How it was done: The company stayed within a 100,000 external training costs budget and spent its money on Productivity4You
e-learning software, hardware and some early external e-learning module development work.
While easy to use, the software did present a learning challenge, says finance director Roger Mills. “This meant we had a very slow start, but once we were up the learning curve, the results were everything that we had expected.
“It is important to appreciate that the software is only a tool. One of the most important aspects of our success was the training and support from Productivity4You on the theory and practice of what makes a module an effective training tool.”
E-learning on a budget: 5 tips
- Budget sensibly. Remember that the biggest expense is likely to be your own time and resources, not the software. It won’t be low-budget if you end up spending 100s of hours of your own valuable time building one e-learning programme.
- Accept that there will be a learning curve and build in time for training in the software so that you can make the most of its full set of features. Also seek training in instructional design and learning styles.
- Maintain good links with your software provider – you never know when you may need them. Consider bringing in an e-learning specialist at the beginning to achieve some quick wins while in-house staff get up to speed with the software.
- Collaborate with others when creating the programme. Use the online environment to make the most of
existing expertise within the company. Get feedback from senior-level managers whose buy-in you’ll need
for future projects.
- Be realistic. Many companies report that they under-budget on time and resources when they first embark on the DIY approach.
Organisation: Wiltshire County Council
Aim: To roll out online compliance training on the Freedom of Information Act to around 2,500 county council workers with a budget of less than 3,000.
How it was done: Using the e-learning authoring tool OutStart Trainer, the council created an online course that covers the basics of the Act, plus a short quiz to test knowledge and understanding.
More than 1,200 council workers have completed the course so far. Feedback has been mixed. Some people liked the online format while others wanted printed copies of the course.
It is being provided to outreach workers on CD-Rom.
“The software was easy to use although there were some minor difficulties,” says Wiltshire County Council spokesman Matthew Woolford.
“These seemed to stem from software incompatibilities. In hindsight we would have spent more time testing it on a variety of systems.”