Friday, 23 March 2012

e-Learning on a shoe-string budget

I was at an NZATD event today show-casing e-learning across New Zealand produced internally by teams and a couple of things struck me; firstly that there are two type of organisation that produce their e-learning internally, one where there's a team and a budget and one where there isn't. In fact I could go so far as to say for most organisations (particularly non-government and retail types) the graphic designer, e-learning specialist, script writer, video director, animator are less than one degree of separation apart! Reminds me of certain remote places where a man, his wife, their kids, their cousins, their grandparents, their siblings and auntie and uncle is just four people.. not mentioning anywhere in particular here; I still have to travel you know!
There's something of enormous respect for the one-person e-learning pro because they are able to do what teams do with big budgets and lots of time; not least of course because I've been one of these unappreciated and unsupported soles before in my career, but also because they are the heartbeat of what e-learning is for most 'real' industry. So the common factor of the one-man show is the lack of resources. When you have an extremely limited budget (and in some cases that's an exaggeration) how do you pick your learning technology? Answer: about as carefully as you can!

Firstly you need a little help from your friends in the IT department. If they're not your friends then go and make friends because the most important thing you'll need is a computer that you actually have some control over. If they won't let you, do what most of us do and bring in your home laptop and hide it under the desk when you're out and about doing the other jobs you have to do. This is necessary because not everything you do is likely to be 'cloud' based. In layman's terms if they call it a cloud-based system it's just like working on a thin client in that the program is not at your local level - it's held somewhere on the net. This can be really good or really bad, depending on your internet connection quality. If you have poor internet you don't want to be developing in a cloud if there's a programme you can put on your computer and run without worrying. Again your new best buds in IT may need to 'unblock' the websites you need to make up your training.

Freeware/Shareware/Open Source and Commercial; which is best? Answer to this one is simple, it depends on what you can afford! Anyone (please.. anyone..) who follows my rambling blogs will know that I'm a huge fan of the Open Source world; reason being this is about community and sharing not just about greed and money. Freeware can be buggy and leave you unsatisfied and shareware often limits your capability unless you pay for a service you're not sure of. Commercial products are highly variable depending upon their cost; but if you do have a budget then try a commercial product with a trial period - see if you like it first. If I was paying for a tool to develop e-learning I'd probably start with Articulate. It's not a silver bullet for e-learning development but it does give you the tools you'll need. I'd look at Captivate too (especially if I was doing lots of screen capture and simulation) and cast my eyes in the direction of Lectora if I felt motivated and knew I'd have more time to play (and bigger pockets).

What about using your LMS? Nowadays it's hard to imagine a quality LMS without built-in developer tools and some of them are quite neat. Being an Open Source fan I think the Moodle and Totara development tools are entirely underrated and I've seen some really good e-learning pieces put together using those tools. If you've got a corporate LMS and it has tools then look at them but beware of the output options and how usable they are. Totara/Moodle are really easy and quick to put together courseware and time is always a pressure point it seems.
Say that again.. you don't have an LMS (drop me a line)! Okay, rewind you need to have some tough conversations with the boss, but if you're using a sharepoint or shared-drive to at least get something across then you will have to look at some tool to put your e-learning in; I've seen some quite effective e-learning put together in PowerPoint - so if your organisation is an MS one you probably already have that. Added to that you can trial Articulate and take that PPT and turn it into something resembling e-learning very quickly (caveat here about e-learning and good e-learning; not necessarily the same thing). Or something with an html editor (Moodle's is really good for simple stuff).
The next tip is about using those 'free' resources that are on the web - like colour picking tools (ColorPicker) or screen capture (Wink) or video (4Free Video Converter). Be careful and read what other people say before you launch yourself into freeware and watch out for the adverts and watermarks that you really wont want on your final production. You can always try Open Source (again he says) and try SourceForge to find what you're looking for!

The last thing is to remember that creativity is the name of the game; look at what others have achieved with their big budgets and you'll be amazed how you can replicate the look with some simple tools and smart ways of working. If you want to find out more about tools or how to be creative without much in the way of budget drop me a line: @NigelKineo on Twitter or reply to this post :)

PS If you do have a big budget call me too ;)